Sunday, September 01, 2013

Eight Tips About Publishing Books

This past Friday marked the release of my new book, Mind, Body, World: Foundations Of Cognitive Science, published by Athabasca University Press.  The book, which is described (and – shameless plug – can be ordered) here, is my attempt to introduce cognitive science, and at the same time consider the relationships between three different schools of cognitive science: classical, connectionist, and embodied.  The book is part of Athabasca University Press’ OPEL(Open Paths to Enriched Learning) series.  This series is an attempt to reduce barriers to university access, in particular the cost of course materials.  The book is available for a very reasonable price in both paperback and e-book format, and a free pdf version of the book is also available from the publisher. Enough with the shameless plugs for the book!  I am looking forward to seeing it in its physical form, which I am hoping will be possible next week – because that is when some students might like to buy it to use as a text for my third-year “Foundations of Cognitive Science” course.

With the release of this latest work, I thought that I would celebrate by sharing what I have learned about the process of writing a book, and then getting it published.  Mind, Body, World is my sixth book; three have been published by Wiley-Blackwell, two by Athabasca University Press, and one (a really cool study of the relationship between connectionism and classical conditioning) has appeared as a monograph in Comparative Cognition & Behavior Review.  Hopefully I have learned something about the process with all of this practice!

Tip #1: Write a book because you feel that you need to.  Writing a book is a great deal of work, and you can spend a lot of time working on a manuscript without any immediate reward.  In short, in the ‘publish or perish’ world of academia, book writing can be a dangerous activity.  So, write a book because you have a strong need to create a more in depth manuscript, because you are both interested and committed to the project, and because you want to learn a great deal about the domain that you are going to be writing about.

Tip # 2: Write a complete draft of the book before you do anything else (like contact a prospective publisher.  With one exception, every book manuscript that I have written was in the form of a solid, complete draft before I began shopping it around to publishers.  Acquisition editors have expressed puzzlement over this policy of mind; they are willing to consider offering a book contract on the basis of a prospectus and a couple of draft chapters to be sent to reviewers.  However, I have found that complete drafts are useful for a number of reasons.

One is that publishers can be whimsical.  For instance, I knew before I started my last sabbatical that I was going to write another book – see Tip #1 – and I had a nice chat in my lab with an acquisition editor from a major publisher who was interested in it.  I told them (in violation of this tip) that I would consider sending them a prospectus and the first five chapters when I was happy with them.  Before these chapters were written, there was a change in acquisition editors, and when I was ready to send a part of the manuscript for review, they didn’t even want it!

Another is that the publication process can be fairly lengthy, because it involves one or two stages of manuscript review, creation of a document (and figures) in formats that are used by the publisher, copy editing, proofing, index creation, and the like.  While all of this is going on, you can test your completed book (Tip #2) in your course.  I did so in Fall of 2012, and used student feedback to try to make parts of the new book make more sense.  Students also found lots of copyedit issues that I was able to pass on to the publisher.

Tip #3: Write your prospectus – a brief summary of the book, its goals, its intended audience, with chapter summaries – after a full draft of the book is completed.  It is easier this way, particularly if you buy into Tip #2.  Also, I don’t write well from outlines – having a prospectus in hand does not help me much with the writing process.

Tip #4: Be patient when you shop your manuscript around.  With a complete draft of the book, as well as a prospectus, in hand you are ready to contact a publisher to determine whether they are interested in pursuing your project.  You might be told nearly immediately that they are not interested for a variety of reasons (Tip #4a: Develop a thick skin!).  If they are interested, then they will send the manuscript out for review.  This will take a while, and after this process they still might decide not to offer a contract (Tip #4a).  It can take a long while to find a publisher who is interested in bringing your manuscript to life.

Tip #5: Take reviews to heart.  If you do get a set of reviews back, take them to heart.  They are not personal attacks (usually – not true for my first book!), and by considering them objectively and constructively you can improve your manuscript.  This is particularly true if your manuscript has been rejected.  Indeed, you should not only revise your manuscript, but pass the reviews (and how you used them) on to the next publishers.  The more information a publisher has about your manuscript, the better they are able to make an informed decision about taking your project on.  Publishers are usually interested in, and thank you for, reviews that you received from other publishers that you have contacted.

Tip #6: Do not trust contracts.  Just because you have signed a contract with a publisher does not mean that they will produce your book.  True story: I signed a contract with a major publisher for my first book, and then spent six months revising it on the basis of a lengthy review that they gave me.  They even gave me a sizable advance on the manuscript.  As the revising proceeded, I sent things to them, but did not receive any replies, which puzzled me.  Eventually, they did send me a letter: telling me that the fellow who had signed me had died, that they were not going to publish the book (the contract provided an out for them), and that I needed to repay the advance.  After a year of legal hassles, I paid them back half of the advance in exchange for the rights to the book (which they maintained because of the signed contract) in order to sign a contract with a different publisher.

Tip #7: Do not accept an advance.  See Tip #6.  I have only been offered an advance once, and was foolish enough to accept it.

Tip #8: Be committed and confident.  Finding a publisher can be a challenging and frustrating and time consuming process.  I have been lucky enough to have been able to get all of my book projects ‘shipped as product’.  However, it has not always been easy.  Surviving the period of shopping a manuscript around requires that you feel strongly that the project is good and worthwhile.  This is why Tip #1 is probably the most important one in this list!

Happy writing – and publishing!


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