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Publishing a "short book"
Pros and cons from a Manuscript Works author
Happy September, Manuscript Workers!
Have you ever had an idea for a research-based writing project that felt too long to be a journal article, but not quite long enough to warrant an entire book? It might be worth looking into one of the many scholarly book series devoted to shorter books, with lengths ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 words. These books are shorter than the typical scholarly monograph, which tends to fall in the 70,000 to 120,000 word range, and they are often on timely topics or are meant to serve as quick reference guides.
Here are some examples of scholarly press series for shorter books:
The British Film Institute’s Film Classics and related series (published through Bloomsbury)
Cambridge University Press’s Elements (in dozens of subject areas)
(Thank you to everyone who helped me crowdsource this (non-exhaustive) list. If you have another short books series to recommend, please share the link as a comment on this post.)
In today’s newsletter, I’m sharing a conversation I had with Julia Leyda, a past participant in my Book Proposal Accelerator program, whose book Anthroposcreens: Mediating the Climate Unconscious was recently published by Cambridge University Press in their Environmental Humanities Elements series. I thought readers of this newsletter might like to hear about Julia’s experience publishing a shorter book, so I chatted with her recently about the pros and cons of having a book in one of these series.
It’s important to know that different presses may operate their series differently, so Julia’s experience isn’t necessarily universal. However, I do think her insights are helpful for surfacing some of the issues an author should consider when deciding whether to publish with a particular series, so if you think a short book might be in your future, please read on!
Before we get to the conversation, here’s a quick summary of Anthroposcreens, from the Cambridge UP website:
Anthroposcreens frames the 'climate unconscious' as a reading strategy for film and television productions during the Anthropocene. Drawing attention to the affects of climate change and the broader environmental damage of the Anthropocene, this study mobilizes its frame in concert with other tools from cultural and film studies—such as debates over Black representation—to provide readings of the underlying environmental themes in Black American and Norwegian screen texts. These bodies of work provide a useful counterpoint to the dominance of white Anglo-American stories in cli-fi while also ranging beyond the boundaries of the cli-fi genre to show how the climate unconscious lens functions in a broader set of texts. Working across film studies, cultural studies, Black studies, and the environmental humanities, Anthroposcreens establishes a cross-disciplinary reading strategy of the 'climate unconscious' for contemporary film and television productions. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
Our conversation below has been transcribed and edited for clarity.
Laura: Did you always know that this project was going to be a short book? How did you come to that decision?
Julia: I didn't always know. I had a feeling that I had to write a book, and I had a sense of the argument I wanted the book to make. I had some previously published stuff that I thought could feed into it indirectly, in some cases, a paragraph or two here and there, but I didn't really know until I started my sabbatical. I was doing a lot of reading and sketching out ideas and I realized that if I wanted to write a book, I wasn't going to get it done in a two-semester sabbatical. And if I didn't get it done during my sabbatical, then I knew I would never do it. After about a month or two on sabbatical, I realized it had to be a short book or just a bunch of articles if the research was going to get published.
Laura: So the decision to go with a short book was sort of a response to your working conditions.
Julia: Yeah, I had to make my expectations more realistic for the sabbatical. I did feel like I wanted to have something in hand at the end, more or less ready to submit for publication, or something that I could conceivably finish shortly after.
Laura: I think that's going to resonate with so many people. Once you knew you were going to do a shorter book, how did you figure out which presses to look at for that?
Julia: I already knew of a few publishers that were doing shorter books in different fields and different research types. I initially wanted to go with one particular publisher and I queried them about the process. The acquisitions editor for the series was on leave but the person filling in who I was communicating with was super enthusiastic and really into my book idea and really supportive.
We talked about whether I should submit a proposal that he would then take to the press’s editorial board, or whether I should just write the whole manuscript and send it in. Based on his supportive response to the idea, I decided to write the whole manuscript, because I didn’t want to wait around too long for the proposal to be approved. Then, the permanent editor came back from leave and didn’t want the book, so I started looking at other short book series. There was one other series that I thought might be a good fit for me, and that's the one I ended up publishing with. I think the question of whether or not to do a full length book proposal for a short book is really tricky.
Laura: Did you end up needing a proposal for the second press?
Julia: They had a kind of form, which was easy to fill out because I had already worked on a proposal in your Book Proposal Accelerator program. It wasn’t as much information as a full length monograph proposal probably would have required, but it was basically the same types of stuff that you would put into a proposal. The Accelerator was one of the things that helped me realize I didn’t want to write a full length monograph, actually.
Laura: What was your experience in pitching the second press?
Julia: Well, it turned out that the topical series I wanted to publish in was not necessarily looking for unsolicited pitches. I had a colleague who had published with the series, and he said he had a great experience. I sent a query email to the series editors who were listed on the press website, saying that my colleague had suggested I contact them. That’s when they said that normally the series was by invitation only, but they thought my idea sounded really interesting. I guess I unintentionally elbowed my way into the situation. The website didn’t say “by invitation only” or anything like that, so it was sort of mortifying. But it worked out.
Laura: What happened next? Did the series editors give you feedback or did they have the manuscript peer reviewed straight away?
Julia: It was a long process. I told the series editors I had the full manuscript ready to go, but they needed to follow the official process, which required a proposal first. This is when they gave me the proposal form to fill out, which I did. Once that was approved I sent them the manuscript and they gave me revision suggestions. I completed those revisions, and then they sent it to external peer reviewers. Even though it’s a short book and I thought the process would be quicker, it still took two years from the time I pitched the project (with a complete manuscript in hand) to it being published.
Laura: Do you have any tips or advice or any kind of wisdom from going through this process that you would share with other authors who are thinking about publishing a short book?
Julia: I really enjoy the idea of having something short, which translates into somewhat inexpensive in this case. Actually my book is available for free as a downloadable PDF because the series is open access and my university paid the open access fee. I wanted people to assign it in classes, and students can download it for free, even if they don’t want to go through a library.
I think if you want to get your ideas written up relatively quickly, compared to a monograph, I think it's a cool way to go. The publication process may still take a while though.
One thing to keep in mind about short book series — in many of those series, the cover art is standardized, so you don’t get a unique cover design for your book. But having it be an online open access publication means that I got to have the internal images in color in the digital version (though not in the print version). For the stuff I’m writing about, color images are super important. So that’s something to think about if you’re considering a short book that would be available in a digital version.
Laura: Did anything surprise you about the publication process?
Julia: The contract terms I was offered were a little bit surprising in that the publisher only pays an honorarium for the short books. They don’t pay royalties. I found that to be a kind of disincentive in a way, although I was considering open access anyway. I didn't need the money, but somehow it felt kind of invalidating.
Another surprising thing was that the publisher didn’t seem to want me to refer to the book as a book. I had written in the manuscript things like “this book argues…” and they made me change the word “book” to, like, “study” or “project.”
The people I worked with at the press were all fine and these issues weren’t their fault. It’s just that this organization with “university press” in their name still operates like a corporation.
It’s the principle of it that bothers me. In a time when it feels like our work is being devalued from all quarters, you know, like, it's not a book, you don't get paid per copy. I kind of felt like, “why am I doing it?” I was already having this kind of existential crisis during the pandemic and all that, so this just added to it.
Laura: I think that’s very relatable as well. Any last words you want to share?
Julia: Despite some of the downsides, I am excited about this book, because it allowed me to take some arguments that I've been making for many years now, in articles and conference papers, and in my teaching in some extent, as well, and crystallize them into a single thing. In a way it feels narcissistic because I cite a lot of my previous work, but I'm doing that because I'm trying to pull together stuff that I've been bouncing around in my head for years. I know that’s something you can do in a monograph too, but when the monograph proved inaccessible, let's say, I still felt the need to have a place to rework these ideas a bit and do new things with them. If somebody wants to cite this argument, they'll have an easy place to get it, like the canonical citation or something. That feels good.
I hope you found it helpful to hear about Julia’s experience, and I hope you’ll check out her book if the topic is relevant to your interests.
Because publishing experiences can vary so widely, a big part of unpacking the hidden curriculum of scholarly book publishing is simply sharing our stories for others to learn from. I also think of it as a kind of consciousness-raising, in that we can become aware of patterns across individual experiences and take notice of structural factors (such as labor conditions in the academy and the corporatization of scholarly publishing ) that may be impacting what we’re able to do in our publishing careers and the compromises we may decide to make.
I really appreciate Julia’s candor and that of all the authors who share their insights in this newsletter.
It’s the first newsletter of the month, which means that we’re celebrating the publication of a number of books by Manuscript Works clients and readers!
(If you have a book coming out in October 2023 and would like it featured next month, send me an email with your cover jpg, link to the publisher’s webpage, and any discount codes you’d like to share.)
From the Stanford University Press website:
For more than century before World War II, traders, merchants, financiers, and laborers steadily moved between places on the Indian Ocean, trading goods, supplying credit, and seeking work. This all changed with the war and as India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya wrested independence from the British empire. Set against the tumult of the postwar period, Boats in a Storm centers on the legal struggles of migrants to retain their traditional rhythms and patterns of life, illustrating how they experienced citizenship and decolonization. Even as nascent citizenship regimes and divergent political trajectories of decolonization papered over migrations between South and Southeast Asia, migrants continued to recount cross-border histories in encounters with the law. These accounts, often obscured by national and international political developments, unsettle the notion that static national identities and loyalties had emerged, fully formed and unblemished by migrant pasts, in the aftermath of empires.
Drawing on archival materials from India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, London, and Singapore, Kalyani Ramnath narrates how former migrants battled legal requirements to revive prewar circulations of credit, capital, and labor, in a postwar context of rising ethno-nationalisms that accused migrants of stealing jobs and hoarding land. Ultimately, Ramnath shows how decolonization was marked not only by shipwrecked empires and nation-states assembled and ordered from the debris of imperial collapse, but also by these forgotten stories of wartime displacements, their unintended consequences, and long afterlives.
Firuzeh Shokooh Valle’s In Defense of Solidarity and Pleasure: Feminist Technopolitics from the Global South
From the Stanford University Press website:
Including women in the Global South as users, producers, consumers, designers, and developers of technology has become a mantra against inequality, prompting movements to train individuals in information and communication technologies and foster the participation and retention of women in science and technology fields. In this book, Firuzeh Shokooh Valle argues that these efforts have given rise to an idealized, female economic figure that combines technological dexterity and keen entrepreneurial instinct with gendered stereotypes of care and selflessness. Narratives about the "equalizing" potential of digital technologies spotlight these women's capacity to overcome inequality using said technologies, ignoring the barriers and circumstances that create such inequality in the first place as well as the potentially violent role of technology in their lives. In Defense of Solidarity and Pleasure examines how women in the Global South experience and resist the coopting and depoliticizing nature of these scripts. Drawing on fieldwork in Costa Rica and a transnational feminist digital organization, Shokooh Valle explores the ways that feminist activists, using digital technologies as well as a collective politics that prioritize solidarity and pleasure, advance a new feminist technopolitics.
Feng-Mei Heberer’s Asians on Demand: Mediating Race in Video Art and Activism
From the University of Minnesota Press website:
Does media representation advance racial justice?
Surveying a contemporary, cutting-edge archive of video works from the Asian diaspora, Asians on Demand uncovers the ways that diasporic artists challenge the narrow—and damaging—conceptions of Asian identity pervading mainstream media. Rather than accepting the notion that inclusion requires an uncomplicated set of appearances, the works explored in this volume spotlight a staunch resistance to formulating racial identity as an instantly accessible consumer product.
Use code AOD2330 to get 30% off Asians on Demand directly from University of Minnesota Press.
From the University of California Press website:
Celluloid Democracy tells the story of the Korean filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors who reshaped cinema in radically empowering ways through the decades of authoritarian rule that followed Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation. Employing tactics that ranged from representing the dispossessed on the screen to redistributing state-controlled resources through bootlegging, these film workers explored ideas and practices that simultaneously challenged repressive rule and pushed the limits of the cinematic medium. Drawing on archival research, film analysis, and interviews, Hieyoon Kim examines how their work foregrounds a utopian vision of democracy where the ruled represent themselves and access resources free from state suppression. The first book to offer a history of film activism in post-1945 South Korea, Celluloid Democracy shows how Korean film workers during the Cold War reclaimed cinema as an ecology in which democratic discourses and practices could flourish.
From the University of Chicago Press’s website:
In what kinds of spaces do we become most aware of the thoughts in our own heads? In My Dark Room, Julie Park explores places of solitude and enclosure that gave eighteenth-century subjects closer access to their inner worlds: grottos, writing closets, landscape follies, and the camera obscura, that beguiling “dark room” inside which the outside world in all its motion and color is projected. The camera obscura and its dreamlike projections within it served as a paradigm for the everyday spaces, whether in built environments or in imaginative writing, that generated the fleeting states of interiority eighteenth-century subjects were compelled to experience and inhabit.
My Dark Room illuminates the spatial and physical dimensions of inner life in the long eighteenth century by synthesizing material analyses of diverse media, from optical devices and landscape architecture to women’s intimate dress, with close readings of literary texts not traditionally considered together, among them Andrew Marvell’s country house poem Upon Appleton House, Margaret Cavendish’s experimental epistolary work Sociable Letters, Alexander Pope’s heroic verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard, and Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela. Park also analyzes letters and diaries, architectural plans, prints, drawings, paintings, and more, drawing our attention to the lively interactions between spaces and psyches in private environments. Park’s innovative method of “spatial formalism” reveals how physical settings enable psychic interiors to achieve vitality in lives both real and imagined.
Congrats to all these authors on this huge milestone!
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. Next week’s newsletter will be a discussion of edited volumes and what scholars should consider when proposing one to a scholarly publisher. If that sounds like something your mentees or colleagues need to read, please let them know about this newsletter and encourage them to subscribe! See you next Wednesday!