Fighting Visibility

Insight from an author on finding a press and getting from dissertation to contract to published book

Hi Manuscript Workers,

I’m trying something new in today’s newsletter, so let’s see how it goes. I do a lot of talking here about how to approach the scholarly book publishing process as a prospective author, but I have talked a bit less about what it looks like on the other side, after you’ve been through the publication process. Therefore, I thought it might be fun to hear from Dr. Jennifer McClearen, author of Fighting Visibility: Sports Media and Female Athletes in the UFC, which comes out from the University of Illinois Press later this month in their Studies in Sports Media series.

Jennifer and I have a longstanding professional relationship: we worked together on her book proposal and sample chapter way back in 2017 and then again on her manuscript in 2019 after it was under contract. She generously permitted me to use her prospectus as an example in my own forthcoming book about book proposals, which I’m excited about because hers is an excellent model for others to learn from. I wanted to catch up with her to see what her thoughts are as she nears her publication day and gets ready to share her work with the world at last. (I’ve edited the conversation for clarity and conciseness.)

LPS: Can you start by telling me what your book’s about, who it’s for, and what you really hope readers will connect with in it?

JM: Broadly, the book looks at the incorporation of female fighters into the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is the world's largest mixed martial arts promotion. For the first twenty years of the promotion’s existence, the UFC said “never, never, never, we're never going to include female athletes on our rosters.” Then Ronda Rousey came along, and suddenly the UFC realized a couple of things: they realized that female athletes were actually really entertaining fighters and they realized that they could profit on female fighters because there was an audience for them. While in a lot of ways we might look at that and say, “wow, the UFC is doing a lot of really amazing things by increasing the visibility of women in combat sports by a huge margin,” the heart of the book really goes beyond even the UFC to think about what representation actually gets us in culture.

Fighting Visibility urges those of us who are already invested in women's sports—scholars, activists, fans, journalists—to critically examine the cultural beliefs that representation matters (“if she can see it, she can be it”) when we think about women's sports. Because what we often claim as representational victories for female athletes actually are co-opted by corporate interests that further disenfranchise female athletes. The UFC capitalizes on the fact that they have diverse female athletes on their rosters while exploiting the labor of those same athlete workers. Some of the most disenfranchised are women of color, lesbians, and gender non-conforming women. So at the end of the day, I think I want to burst the mirage in progressive sports discourse that representation mattering is unilaterally beneficial to female athletes. And I think that it [representation] actually can be the very thing that's used to exploit them.

In terms of audiences, I think that there is a bit broader audience that I’m speaking to that I've mentioned in terms of scholars, activists, fans, people who are in more progressive circles thinking about these issues. But in terms of academic audiences, I ground myself in feminist media studies, sports media, media industries, and then also those who are interested in dismantling neoliberal labor practices.

LPS: I love how you set it up as those four audiences of scholars, activists, fans, and journalists, because there really is something for everyone. The way you explain it and the cases that you use are really relatable.

JM: It took me a while to get to the point where I realized that I wasn’t speaking to the trolls on the internet that like to bash female athletes — that I wasn’t trying to convert anybody to the idea that women’s sports was a good thing. Rather, I was trying to speak to the people who are already invested. Scholars and fans of women's sports tend to be in more progressive circles of society --that was my audience. I'm not addressing people who would need to be educated on the fact that women deserve to be in sports in the first place.

LPS: Right, which is smart because those people aren't picking up this book anyway.

JM: They wouldn't like it if they did!

LPS: You're publishing with University of Illinois Press. Did you look at multiple presses? How did you decide?

JM: I met [series editors] Vicky Johnson and Travis Vogan early on, while I was still in the dissertation phase. They had just signed on to do the Studies in Sports Media series with Illinois. I did conference presentation on one of my dissertation chapters and I talked to Vicky afterwards. She walked me over to the Illinois Press booth at SCMS [Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference] and introduced me to [acquisitions editor] Daniel Nasset.

The three of them just got it. From the beginning, this series was such a good fit and it was so clear every time I spoke with them that they were excited about the project. They were asking the right kinds of questions--questions that were leading me in the direction that I wanted to go, rather than trying to lead me in any other directions. I did shop around a little bit in terms of speaking, initially, with other acquisitions editors. There are some great book series out there and a lot of great publishers, but I felt like my team at Illinois just got it.

The University of Illinois Press produces a lot of good sports scholarship in general. They also have a rigorous catalog of feminist media studies, so it just seemed like such a logical fit and I've been so happy with them. I wouldn't want to have placed the book anywhere else.

I think that would be the advice that I would give to anyone starting out in this process: Who gets your project and who asks you questions? They may ask you questions that take you in new productive directions or they also may ask you questions that take you on the path that you originally wanted to pursue. You don't want to place your book somewhere that wants to make it something you don't want to write.

LPS: I think that's really good advice. I haven't heard it put like that, like “who is asking the right questions about your work?,” but really I love that.

JM: The same thing happened in peer review too in terms of who my press sent the book out to for review. They also got the project and asked the right questions and pushed me in the right directions. One of my responses to my reviewers said, "wow, you just pushed me in the direction that I wanted to go, but hadn't quite figured out yet!" That was really helpful as well.

LPS: Did you have any say in the reviewers, or did you get to say “I want feminist media scholars” or “I want sports scholars”? I’ve seen it come up, especially for interdisciplinary scholars, who might want to share with editors what kinds of scholars seem to “get” their work the best.

JM: I didn't think to ask. They found folks at the intersections, so I knew they picked the right people. I'm glad you asked that question because maybe in the future, I might be more directive with who I want to review my next book.

LPS: This book started as your dissertation. Can you talk a little about that process of transformation?

JM: One of the key things I did was hire a developmental editor! When I wrote the dissertation, I had a lot of loosely formed ideas that I strung together to make a project about women in the UFC. But I didn't have an argumentative through line and I didn't really know which of those threads I could turn into the book. What I did for the book, I’ve realized, is fundamentally take all the research that I had done and completely rewrite the whole thing [from the diss]. There might be a few passages here and there that I kept [in the book manuscript], but fundamentally it was just the research that I kept. I then reframed all of it to have an argumentative through line and a clear audience, a clear articulation of what the interventions were and who I was speaking to.

When I was writing the dissertation I think I was just trying to figure out how to write something of that length, to just get it out there and get it done. As I wrote, I was figuring out what the genre of a dissertation actually was. Then I had to learn what the genre of a book was, and those are two fundamentally different things, but I didn't really know what that looked like either.

I don’t remember exactly how I came to be familiar with Manuscript Works or with you, but I think it might have been on Twitter. I didn’t know the thing called a developmental editor existed. And I remember reading about it the first time and thinking, “this is brilliant because I don't really know what a book looks like. I need someone who can help guide me and say ‘this is where you might be able to go in a few different directions to figure out what the heart of the book actually is. Or what it’s not yet but what it could be.’”

I worked with you on the proposal, and that was extremely helpful because I was on the job market at the time and the press pushed to get the peer review done quickly. Had I not had such a robust proposal that you worked with me on, I don't know if that would have been possible, so that was really influential at that stage.

LPS: Do you think it—this is speculation—but do you think having the contract made a difference for your job?

JM: It absolutely did. Actually, I was reading a Twitter thread that you wrote the other day and I meant to comment on it. It was about this idea of whether or not you want an advanced contract. I’m in a book department, so for annual reviews, if you have a book contract, that is a mark of “exceeds expectations." Having a book contract in hand basically gives you points in terms of merit review and eventual tenure review, because they count it as substantial research progress. I was a lecturer at the time, but when I came to them and said, I have a book contract, they suddenly got really interested in keeping me. Eventually it worked out that I was offered a tenure track job here, and part of it was because I was demonstrating that I could get a book contract while I was on a 3/3 lecture load. It showed I was doing well in terms of research, and it really did help. They explicitly told me that things were put in motion because of that. Not every institution is like that, and of course different fields place different emphasis on books and sometimes it doesn't count at all until the book is out.

LPS: Do you have any other thoughts about working with a developmental editor that it might help other prospective authors to hear?

JM: Nobody else reads your work in such depth. Reviewers will tell you “you're not quite doing XYZ,” but what you as my developmental editor said “you're not quite doing XYZ, and these are the things that you need to figure out in order to be able to do that.” You might be able to get peers to read your manuscript and offer feedback, but no one other than a developmental editor would read your manuscript in as much depth.

What you [as an editor] really focused on was making sure that I had that argumentative through line that carried through the whole book, and that made sense across such a large chains of material. [You helped identify] different cases, different ideas, and different concepts that became supplementary to the main argument. Having that level of detail and that level of expertise on the manuscript while I was trying to get it ready to send out for review was extremely important for me. I don't think I would have written the book as fast as I did had I not had that help at that stage. Having the assistance of a developmental editor really did help me think through a lot of ideas and make breakthroughs sooner. Once I got to the review process I didn't have huge revisions. I had to sort of tease out different things here and there, and add citations, explain certain things, but I didn't have to do a major overhaul of the book.

LPS: Is there anything else about the process of publishing a book that you would want other authors to know?

JM: I think the whole process is pretty daunting. Especially if you're a junior scholar, you've just done something you've never done before by writing a dissertation. And you turn around and go straight into another task you’ve never done before. There are a lot of unknowns and a lot of the process that isn't transparent. So, having mentors and allies to help you through that process and to tell you what to expect is really important.

When you’re writing a dissertation, you have a dissertation advisor, you have a committee, so you can go to those people for help. Suddenly you're writing a book on your own, and you don't have those set of people that are pre-determined to be able to help you with the process. You have to develop a network of people who can help you with the process. That might be something like hiring a developmental editor; that might be something like having mentors in your department who have done it before or mentors who you know from other networks, even if not your department. I think it's been really important to create my own network of mentors and colleagues who can guide me because it’s not a transparent process.

LPS: I think that's really great advice, and hopefully people are able to assemble those kinds of people who wish them well and—

JM: —and want to be supportive. I know it's such a luxury because there's so many people who’ve had a hard time finding that. Wherever you're situated in the academy, it can be a really ruthless place, so I’ve been really fortunate that in my PhD institution and my current department, I’ve found a lot of support. On top of that, I am privileged in that even as a lecturer, I had a research budget that allowed me to pay for developmental editing. I know that is something that not everybody has, especially precarious laborers. This is why I’m glad that Manuscript Works has the Book Proposal Accelerator. That's a way for people to get this information and have a group of people to work with. Your book will also be really helpful to people who might not be able to afford to work with a developmental editor but at least they can get advice on the book proposal.

LPS: Thanks for giving me the the sales pitch! Where can people learn more about Fighting Visibility? I know you’re planning some virtual events to promote the book.

JM: The book officially launches during SCMS. On March 18th, I’ll be in conversation with Julie Kedzie who is a retired UFC fighter and just finished her MFA from the University of Iowa. She’s writing a memoir of her experiences as a fighter and she’s just so rad. She’s such a renaissance woman and she really understands the politics of my book. She's just cool. I think it’s going to be a fun conversation. [Register to attend this virtual event.]

The book coming out is exciting and nerve-wracking because I’m really interested to see how it’s received by the different circles. I wasn’t really aiming at the MMA [mixed martial arts] community, but I know they’re going to read it. I think it’s going to have a really mixed reception there because there’s the full gamut of people in that community. There’s definitely more progressive folks who will get the book, and there are people that I imagine I will get hate mail from, so I’m interested to see how much traction it gets in that community.

LPS: Has your press prepared you for that at all? Do they have any resources? That’s something I think presses need to start thinking about, as a matter of “diversity and inclusion,” to support the people who are the most likely targets of those kinds of reactions.

JM: I do have a network of people I’m going to reach out to if it starts happening. I know a lot of sports journalists and women in MMA media. If online backlash starts happening, I can seek resources there. I’m waiting to see what happens on that front, if anything. I don’t know if they’re actually going to read it. I hope they do if it means they buy a copy!

LPS: I hope you don’t get too much of that, but I do hope the book is very visible. And actually, in light of your book’s argument about visibility, I hope the book is not just visible but also has an impact!

Fighting Visibility: Sports Media and Female Athletes in the UFC is now available in paperback from the University of Illinois Press, and has already received some rave reviews. In my opinion, it has important things to say not just about sports media but about media labor in general in the age of gig work and social media influencers. I hope you’ll check it out!