Well, we’re wrapping up our sixth week of pandemic life here in New York and things are feeling pretty heavy. It can be hard to know whether it’s even worth it to keep working on a scholarly project when everything else seems to be falling apart. In light of that feeling, which I imagine many readers of this newsletter might be grappling with, I have some questions you may find helpful for determining whether to keep going on that book you’re working on, at least for the moment. I find these questions applicable even outside the major-world-crisis context (because honestly academia has been in crisis mode for the past decade-plus), but they may be particularly pertinent to you right now.
Is authoring a book one of your bucket-list life-long goals?
If so, then I think you should keep going. If seeing your name on the cover of a published book is something you’ve been dreaming about for years, the sense of accomplishment (and bragging rights) you’ll gain from actually doing it will probably end up being worth it. Your current project might not be the one that finally gets you the book deal, but you might as well try to see it through as far as you can take it. Scholarly publishers are still acquiring and publishing books, so you still have a chance.
Do you have a message you think readers will appreciate and benefit from?
In this case, finishing your book and publishing it could actually function as a public good and you should definitely keep going. (If you’re able to articulate exactly how readers will benefit from engaging with your book, please go write that down and put it in your book proposal, because it’s gonna help you sell the book to a publisher when the time comes.)
Are you going to be really irritated if someone else (maybe even a specific someone you know) publishes a book on your topic and you don’t?
I call this the “petty calculus” and it’s maybe not the most emotionally healthy reason to produce scholarship but I’ve found it to be an effective motivator on several occasions. Keep at it.
Are you counting on your book to bring you professional security?
I’m gonna say this is not a great reason to keep working on your book. Not because professional security isn’t important but because I’m just not sure that a book will actually guarantee it for you, especially now. Also, if you can sincerely say that the only reason you’re writing your book is because it’s a requirement for tenure, then I’m going to gently suggest that you might want to think about what you really want out of life and whether you’re on the path that is likely to make you the most happy and fulfilled. Do this with a therapist if you can!
Are you hoping your book will bring you financial stability?
It won’t! Not trying to be a downer here, but even “successful” trade authors struggle to live off the income they get from writing books. Unless you’re publishing a widely adopted textbook, you’re probably not going to make more than a few thousand dollars (tops) from your scholarly book. Can you parlay a respected book into regular speaking engagements and other remunerative opportunities? Yes, but it’s a hustle, and the work of writing the book will be the very beginning of that, so you’ve got to want that life.
Do you feel like your imposter syndrome and feelings of intellectual insecurity will finally go away when you publish your book?
They won’t! Publishing a book will, in fact, probably bring all those feelings to the fore, and then, guess what, it won’t fix any of them, because they’re not based in empirical reality anyway. And then someone will write a critical review of the book and you’ll feel even worse than before. You definitely shouldn’t let feelings of insecurity keep you from trying to publish your book, but just know that those feelings won’t magically go away the second you sign a contract or even hold the printed book in your hands. Again, therapy can help.
Are you afraid others (e.g. your dissertation committee, acquisitions editors who’ve shown interest in your project) will be disappointed in you if you don’t write this book?
It’s nice when people believe in your project and your ability to produce a great book. But if the process of producing it makes you miserable—and you’re just keeping at it because you think someone else expects you to—it might be time to throw in the towel, or at least take a long break. Those other people don’t have to live your life, and you really don’t owe anyone something as huge as a book. (Unless you signed a contract already. Then you kinda, legally, do owe someone a book. Still, if finishing it really is detrimental to your mental health, or if it’s physically impossible for you to complete your book under quarantine, you may want to have a frank talk with your editor about the best way to move forward under the circumstances.)
Do you genuinely enjoy the process of researching and writing your book? Does it give you something constructive to do with yourself when you’d otherwise be spiraling?
Then yes, keep working on it. Here’s a personal story: I started a new book project right after I decided to give up on seeking a permanent academic job (circa 2014). My first book had come out a few months earlier and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself at that point. It was a difficult time for me emotionally, but I felt that if I could write and publish this new book I could at least parlay the time I’d spent in academia toward something valuable, despite being unemployed. I was seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist at the time and he gave me a piece of advice I’ll never forget: he said that even if I didn’t ever finish and publish that book project, it would be ok, because it was something that helped me get through that time in my life. Ultimately I didn’t finish or publish that project, but researching it really did give me a reason to get out of bed for a few months and that was valuable in itself. And what my therapist said helped me not to feel like I had “failed” on that project when I decided not to see it through. The project did what it needed to do for me and that was enough. If your current book project does nothing for you other than give you a reason to get up each day for the next few months, it will be enough.
If you’ve got a book project you want to keep working on for at least the next seven weeks—and you haven’t written and submitted your proposal for it yet—you may want to consider joining my Book Proposal Accelerator, which starts this Friday (May 1st) and runs until June 18th. It’s a structured (though flexible and asynchronous) online program that walks scholars through every step of crafting and pitching a book proposal for academic publishers. You’ll get a packet of materials to download and work through at your own pace, plus access to an online forum where you can ask questions and post your work for feedback, and a series of six (totally optional) live Q&A sessions with me and acquisitions editors from top university presses (the sessions will be Fridays at noon Eastern if you want to join).
This is the last session of the Accelerator I’ll be offering for the foreseeable future, so you’re welcome to join even if you’re not fully ready to submit your proposal this summer. You can follow along as much as you like and save the rest of the materials for when you’re ready. If you’re not quite sure whether the Accelerator is a fit for you right now, please feel free to get in touch and ask. I’ll be happy to suggest alternatives that would be better for you if your situation doesn’t seem like the right match for the program.
I hope you’re being kind to yourself, wherever you are and whatever you’re working on (or not working on) right now. XO.