Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Publication Anxiety and the Looming Book Deadline

I've been thinking about literary anxiety lately, especially as it relates to academic books. This isn't old-fashioned writer's block of the "I know I should write but I can't make myself do it" variety. Few of our authors have that. Rather, it is something more common among high achievers: the professor with the contract in hand and who has already done an enormous amount of work on The Book, and perhaps who writes every day, but who just can't seem to finish. Some authors become wrapped up in department service, teaching, and campus politics, while putting off publication of a book that could really advance their careers to the next level and result (if all goes well) in promotion, pay increases, full professor rank, and the biggest "p" of all, power (especially the power to control one's own time, and write more books).

Here are some common reasons I hear for not finishing a contracted book. For the sake of discussion, "not finishing" means any contract that has gone unfulfilled six months or more past its original due date:

(1) REASON: Even though you know you should wrap the book up, you keep postponing, researching more, re-writing, and asking for one extension after another. Meanwhile, teaching has always felt rewarding to you, and you love the extra money, so you sign up to teach summer school again, all sessions. REBUTTAL. Of course you love teaching. Most of us do, which is part of why we chose this life, and the positive reinforcement of successful teaching can feel great when you're down about your unfinished book. But the only way to get to teach all the students you want for as long as you want is to finish your book and secure your job, and that may mean taking the summer off, just this once. That's one of the many fine things this office is for. Come talk to me. We'll figure it out over coffee. No matter what's slowing you down (or shying you away), we can work around it, and we'll offer you accountability and structure. We have accomplished this by matching faculty members up with peer/mentors in other departments (very helpful when you need to check in with someone and show progress), outsourcing some of the editing work (especially endnote checking, copyediting, indexing and other repetitive, quantifiable work best handled by a competent, non-Georgetown professional), and establishing deadlines.

(2) REASON: Your editor left, and the new editor isn't interested in your book. It is way overdue, but nobody seems to care. You've been puttering along for two years without much in the way of feedback or encouragement, and you're thinking of shopping for a new publisher even though your book is 2/3 done. REBUTTAL. This happens all the time in publishing, and the books affected by it are known as orphans. It's a bummer, but you can fix this. After all, most publishers would rather go ahead with acquired books than cut them loose. My suggestion is to visit the new editor in person (authors hardly ever travel to their university presses, but the rewards are great if you do, and editors encourage it) and if s/he is amenable, even go out to lunch. Reach out! The only reason this editor is ignoring you is because there's no sense of ownership at the moment. But if you forge a personal relationship, that can all change. Another trick, especially if travel just isn't an option because of money or time, is to talk with me and we'll invite the editor to Georgetown to talk about book publishing. There is always an audience available for a chat like this, the editors love it, our professors learn a lot about how different presses and editors think, plus you get the chance to befriend your new editor and turn him or her from reluctant shepherd to enthusiastic publishing partner.

(3) REASON: You didn't get that summer fellowship to Japan to work in the archives, and you need that work to finish. REBUTTAL: I looked at your fellowship terms, and they were only offering you $2,000 plus housing. Big whoop. Get on the internet, find a professor at the Japanese university where you were going to study who wants to spend a summer in Washington, and house swap! You'll be amazed how many people will jump at the opportunity for free housing near DC with our Library of Congress and wonderful, specialized archives. Surely in all of Japan (or England, or Denmark, or Australia, or wherever) there is a prof there with a livable space who wants to trade for yours for three months. You don't need to give someone your whole house, just a room of it and preferably a few meals a week, and someone there will surely want to offer the same. Lifelong friendships have grown out of these arrangements, and even if your guest isn't ideal, it's only for a short period of time.

Once housing is taken care of, the $2k they were going to pay for travel seems a bit more manageable. First ask your department for it. I'm serious. All departments don't have zillions to throw around, but they might find some money earmarked for books if you already have your housing set up, and at this point we're only talking about plane fare, and modest living expenses. Even if they only find $300-$500, that's a start. Put it on a credit card if you have to. Then get your butt over there, live on noodles, fresh air and the thrill of research (you did it as a grad student, you can do it again now), and resolve to finish the book in the remaining weeks or few months when you get back.* Yes, yes, I know you have (kids, spouse, elderly parents in need of care, fill-in-the-blank), but we are talking about three months dedicated to your career... three important months that can change everything if you get your book finished, and that will free you up to be a better parent, partner, child, etc. in the future. You can dedicate the next six months to making it up to all the people who love you -- and I'll argue that if they really love you, they'll help you get the time and travel you need for that research.

Georgetown as an institution does care about you and your book, and this office is a visible manifestation of that. So use it. And the next time you find yourself with publication anxiety, remind yourself that the majority of your peers have suffered with it, too. Books get published anyway, and we have many and creative resources for helping that happen.

*What do I mean by finishing a book in weeks or months? That will be the subject of a future post: "Does it really have to take years to finish a book?"

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