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Don't Be TOO Timely
Why "ripped from the headlines" isn't the best pitch strategy for scholarly books
Hi Manuscript Workers,
A question that comes up frequently among authors I’m working with on book proposals or book manuscripts is whether they need to address the Big Current Event that’s directly relevant to their research topic. For a lot of my authors over the past year, that event has been Covid-19. For some authors it’s an event like the January 6th race riot at the US Capitol. When I was working on my first book, about the political lifestyle practices of anticapitalist anarchist activists, it was the Occupy movement (which happened a couple years after I completed fieldwork and a year before I was to submit my final book manuscript for publication).
The short answer to this question of whether you need to address current events in your scholarly book manuscript or book proposal is, no, you don’t. In fact, in many instances, you probably shouldn’t try to be too timely at all. Here are some reasons why:
Scholarly books are meant to stand the test of time
Readers don’t buy scholarly books in order to learn about current events, and scholarly publishers are well aware of this. (Readers mostly don’t buy trade books to learn about current events either, as discussed on this episode of Print Run.) People read Twitter and blogs and newspapers when they want to catch up with the news. Your book serves a different purpose for readers, which is to provide lasting frameworks that readers can use for decades in the future. If your frameworks are strong enough and explained well enough in your book, readers will be able to make the connections on their own between your book and whatever comes up later in the headlines. Focus on the frameworks and on showing how to apply them to the cases from your research that you find most illuminating, and trust that readers can do the rest.
Editors are sick of hearing about it
After the 2016 US Presidential election, the rise of D****** T**** was on everyone’s mind, so it made sense that authors thought they should make a case for why their book projects were relevant to that. But because lots and lots of people had the same thought, editors got tired of seeing proposals that claimed to explain the election or its attendant cultural trends. Yes, there was a market for books on that specific topic, but there was an even bigger market for books not about that topic. This will be true of any newsworthy event you can think of. So there’s no need to try to compete in a particular space if the event isn’t completely central to your book. And there’s definitely no need to try to draw connections that aren’t really there or are tenuous at best. Your book’s hook doesn’t need to be timely to be interesting, especially for a scholarly publisher who is definitely used to playing the long game.
Up-to-the minute events will paradoxically make your book feel dated by the time it comes out
If you were to submit your scholarly book manuscript for publication today, the soonest it would likely come out is a year from now. Maybe longer. If you’re submitting a proposal, it’s going to be longer than that, because you’re going to have to get through peer review and a bunch of other stages before your manuscript even goes into production. So even if you were to somehow have a perfect perspective on something that happened one day ago, it’s probably going to feel very old to readers when they encounter your book, even if they bought it on publication day. Ideally people will be be reading your book for years (maybe decades?), so why put stuff in there that is basically guaranteed to be out of date by then?
You probably won’t be able to do justice to the event from an analytical perspective, especially if it’s still unfolding
I said this last year to a client whose conclusion chapter applied her book’s framework to the Covid-19 pandemic. The topic of her book was actually perfectly suited to talking about Covid-19, so it wasn’t a matter of it feeling like she was awkwardly shoehorning in a recent event. My concern was more that, because we’re still in the middle of this event, it would be hard to provide definitive takeaways about it for her readers. Even she, an expert, wouldn’t be able to say with certainty what the pandemic would look like or will have looked like in twelve to eighteen months (which is about when she could expect her book to be published). So whatever she might end up saying wouldn’t be able to address the full picture of the event and would surely raise unanticipated (indeed, unanticipatable) objections from readers. Because her book wasn’t strictly about Covid, I told her she was off the hook from having to talk about it.
You have to stop somewhere
Practically, your book has to get written and finished and published. You are not a hamster on a perpetual wheel. If you feel like one, trying to keep up with every new thing that happens related to your research topic, I hereby give you permission to get off the wheel. Finish your book and go have a snack. Let someone else take up the task of writing what comes next.
You could be saving some material for your next book
If you find yourself eager to write about new events because they excite you (this is different from feeling like you have to, which I hope you no longer do by this point in the post) this is a sign that you’ve got another book in you. Finish the one you’re writing now and file away all the new headlines and material in your Book 2 folder. By the time you’re ready to pitch and publish that book, everyone will have gained some historical perspective on the event and your analysis will be that much stronger.
Or you could use the current event as the basis for a timely op-ed that will build your author platform
Instead of trying to work the event into your book or book proposal, go ahead and try to publish something brief about it as soon as possible. You’ll be able to get your analytical framework out there and maybe even get some helpful feedback on how it lands with audiences. You might even go viral. Public exposure (even if your piece doesn’t become an internet sensation) will build your authority on your topic among potential readers. That authority looks good to publishers at the proposal stage and and it will eventually help you promote your book when the time comes. Even if you aren’t able to publish your take on a current event, you can use the event as a super timely example in talks, interviews, and other places where you don’t necessarily want to dig too deeply into your book’s material but do want to give audiences a taste of how you approach it. You’ll reinforce the impression that your frameworks are timeless and adaptable, which will make your book even more appealing to readers.
Is it ok to passingly mention a newsworthy event in your book proposal if the way you mention it demonstrates your project’s capacity to help readers understand things that are happening in the world around them? Yes, that’s fine. Just don’t make it the main hook on which the whole appeal of your book hangs.
I hope this post made you feel better about getting a handle on your research and writing, if it feels like you’re trying to study a moving target. It’s 100% ok to say “no more” and send the Google news alert straight to an archived folder. Send that proposal out and finish this book already!
If you’d like some eyes on your book proposal to catch stuff like this and help you reframe it for maximum publisher appeal, you’re welcome to join the Manuscript Works Book Proposal Accelerator, which will run from June 4th to July 22nd, 2021. Enrollment will open at 9am PDT on May 1st at courses.manuscriptworks.com, so mark your calendar to sign up if you want to grab a spot. Want to know more about the Accelerator? Check out this post and this one. Hope to see you in June!
For those of you who won’t be quite ready to write your proposal by June, The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors comes out July 13th from Princeton University Press, and will guide you step by step in crafting a compelling book proposal. It also has lots of little tips like the ones in this newsletter, plus sample proposals, checklists, and other fun (“fun”) stuff. It’s already available for preorder if you want to make sure you get your copy as soon as they’re shipping.