Ten Publishing Tips for Young Academics.

I’ve been in academic publishing for over seven years. Until recently, I was an editor acquiring in Religion and Philosophy monographs and edited collections at a major, international academic press. Because I kept answering the same questions over and over again and saw so many young scholars make grand faux pas as they entered the academic publishing world, I wrote these ten tips a few years ago and posted them on my academia.edu page. I did this partially to help young scholars, partially so there would be less people making such dumb mistakes… okay, mostly because of dumb mistakes… and everyone kept asking me for advice. Of course, I’m not an expert, I’m just sharing some tips that I think are worth knowing and aren’t commonly shared. So, since I know this is primarily read by young theologians, I’m sharing it here, with a few tweaks.  If you have your own tweaks or recommendations or want to share experiences, feel free to use the comments section below.

Nota Bene: This is a guide for monographs, not journals or edited collections. Also, these tips will not guarantee you a contract or a flourishing publishing career. This is humanities, after all. Oh. One last thing, before you ask any questions… READ THE SYLLABUS!

1) DON’T PANIC. I’m going to give you a lot of information. Yes, it’s unsettling and overwhelming. You’re no longer a student. The game is completely different. You have to think as an author, a reader, a scholar, an editor, and book buyer. You’re not writing for a small committee of knowledgeable peers anymore. This is the big leagues. You can do this. This is what you’ve been working towards for a very long time. Welcome.

2) YOUR NEW BIBLES. Two useful books are From Dissertation to Book, 2nd edition and Getting It Published, 2nd edition by William Germano. Germano is quite experienced in academic publishing and it would be best for these books to be handed out right after the diplomas.

3) PREPARE TO REVISE. Understand that anything you write will have to be significantly revised regardless what anyone says. And be prepared to realize that your dissertation is very rarely your first book. I’m always leery of “ready for publication” because how scholars see the manuscript is not how editors see it. Your colleagues are complimentary, but hubristic. Anything you send for consideration will be blind peer reviewed and the editor will take the review into serious recommendation. Let the reviewer and editorial board make the call.

Nota Bene: if, by chance, you are given the opportunity to offer names of potential reviewers, DO NOT list names involved in your committee, department, or directly involved in your education. It looks like you’re trying to pull a fast one on the editor.

4) WHICH PRESS? Take a close look at your academic bookcase and dissertation bibliography. The presses you cite most are the ones you should probably consider approaching. Go to their websites and download their catalogs. Consider these questions: Are they publishing in your area? Is your work possibly a next direction for their list? Do they do ebooks? Do they publish paperbacks immediately? What’s the price point? Do they have an international reach? Is their list interdisciplinary? Do their books get good reviews in CHOICE and the leading journals? These are things to look for and consider before you sending stuff out so there are no surprises for you down the line.

5) BE PROFESSIONAL. Treat this as a job interview. Professionalism is of utmost importance. This is about building a relationship that can last for years. Write a good cover letter email and keep it short, sweet, and direct. Don’t say “there is nothing like it” or “it’s ready for publication.” Look on their website for downloadable proposal forms. Send what the press wants. Don’t send the whole manuscript. If the editor wants more, the editor will ask for it. Most presses are going wholly electronic, so sending everything as .doc files will probably suffice. Ask the press about multiple submissions. Some houses will only consider a manuscript if they are the only one in the running. DO NOT pit one house against another trying to get the best deal in royalties, format, etc. – especially as a junior scholar. We don’t have time for such haggling and you’ll burn your bridges.

6) EXPERIENCE IS PRICELESS. Why there aren’t regularly-scheduled formal departmental presentations to ABD’s and post-docs on academic publishing, I’ll never understand. I think that the scholarly silence of mentors and advisors on this topic is deafening. Sadly, you’re just going to have to take the initiative. Talk to your peers about their experiences publishing their first book. Attend a conference panel on the publishing process (they’re often sponsored by a major press in the guild). What were the most valuable lessons scholars earned? Learn about the different houses. Ask about the procedures and timelines. Be prepared to wait.

7) THE SECRET OF SERIES. Consider submitting the manuscript for inclusion in a series. It will align you with an established list, raise your profile, and ensure purchase by academic libraries, which is more important than you think. Contact the series editor directly and ask if s/he would be interested in considering the work. With a series editor’s imprimatur, you may get a better chance with an editor at the press. You also may get a better chance with your tenure committee.

8) TIMING. This is so important. If an editor wants something from you, respond as soon and as comprehensively as you can. When you sign a contract, you will agree to a delivery date. Be realistic about when you can get the book in. Think of this way: If a student is late on a final paper, do you give the student an extension beyond when grades are due? Treat yourself as you would your student.

9) YOU ARE NOT A TRADE AUTHOR. You may think your scholarship is for a wider audience than what it actually is. It’s not. Deal with it. When you’re at a party with your significant other’s group of friends and they ask, “What do you do?” and you tell them and their eyes glaze over, you’re not a trade author. Deal with it. Publishing has had to be very pragmatic in the last three years. Be specific about for whom you are writing. Don’t in your proposal the book is written for “people interested in ‘x'” because that’s too vague and unhelpful. People outside academia don’t care about us. Deal with it. Write for the guild first and expand further once you’ve got a book or two under your belt. You’re welcome.

10) CONFERENCES. Spend quality time chatting with editors at the conferences. Look at the exhibitor list on the conference webpage. Contact the house to set up a meeting if you want. DON’T take your manuscript. We don’t have time to read it. We don’t want to carry it on the plane home. Take a three-page prospectus and your CV at the very most. Have a good thirty-minute conversation and you’ll figure out if there may be a good fit. Exchange contact information and follow up afterwards.

BONUS TIP! Think of your academic career as a giant hourglass. When you started as an undergrad, you started with a generalist education, which narrowed and specified through your master degree and, by the time you submitted your dissertation, you could count the number of readers on two hands. You are at the midpoint of the hourglass. NOW, you are writing to a (slightly) broader audience of a few hundred people. The second book will hopefully be more and the third more than that. And so on and so on. Maybe one day, thousands of people will read your work and you’ll be a great luminary… or… something. Until your sand runs out.

Good luck on your first book!

And just to make sure you read the fine print: The views on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer, Oxford University Press.

Circular bookshelf designed by Zhdanova Irina, H/T Frances Quinn

Bad Theodicy and the Summer that Sucks.

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming.

It’s been a bleak summer worldwide. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it sucks.

I’ve found that when significantly bad things happen, I don’t write something. Sometimes, it’s because I have an incomplete blog post (Trust me. There are a lot.) that I could not contain or wrap up. Sometimes, it’s just overwhelming. Sometimes, there is the futile sense of thinking that what I write contributes in no way to the signal, but instead just adds to the noise. But, I’m writing now, because I just can’t not. I’ve just reached that personal threshold.

I don’t like theodicy, the theological consideration of suffering. Let me reframe that. I don’t like reading most theodical suppositions, those awful chimeric results of creating causes for perceived effects. Most theologies won’t admit that theodicy is phenomenological, meaning that the attribution of God to action and event comes from our subjective perception and encounter with the world. But it is we, ourselves, either individually or collectively, who assign action and event to God, depending on our understanding of divine encounter. This means that what action and motive we assign to God is what comes from our comprehension and interpretation of God’s ability and identity. So, it’s not what God does, but what we perceive God to do, whether it’s God or not. So, really, in theodicy, God isn’t the bad guy, here. It’s you and your horrible, finite, all-too-human “explanation” of why bad things happen to good people. And that means that we haven’t moved any further in our understanding of why bad things happen to good people, at all. And yet God is still is part of the conversation.

When we read Ecclesiastes along with Qoheleth, we look for God in particular ways, starting with the foundation that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new under the sun (observations that warm my heart, actually). And from there we see Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. We want there to be meaning, so we create it to give ourselves reassurance. This meaning is created because it is relational. It is because of our encounter with events and our imaginative ability to create meaning from our relation to them because they resonate with our sense of being human.

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Is the world worse now than it was exactly one century before when the first shots of World War I have been fired? What about all the horrors humanity has inhumanely inflicted upon itself that have never been recorded or are so terrible they’ve never been uttered? Has the world increased in suffering? Is my question quantitative or qualitative? Trick question: Suffering knows no human limit. Neither in time nor in space.

What is increased is our awareness and devastatingly so. The internet and its rhizomatic social media have made our connections to the plight of the Yazidi in Iraq and Black youth in the United States almost instantaneous. And we immediately become a part of this encounter with injustice. And we can choose to care if we want or care about something else. Or create something to care about. Whatever. There was a time until recently that we learned about great atrocities post facto or in historical narrative. No longer. And once you see this suffering, you are a part of it. And theodicy or not, we are now held to account for it. We’re stuck. Deal with it. And that adds to our misery.

Because suffering knows no qualitative or quantitative limit in time or space, suffering requires acknowledgment and recognition to function. You do not notice you are breathing until you cannot take in air. Suffering is ubiquitous. It’s just a matter of noticing it, because it is always touching you. You are affected by suffering, you just don’t care until you’re made to because it has surpassed whatever threshold you have to prevent the floodgates of how awful things are. It’s really quite miserable when you think about it. And it’s worse for others, right now, when you think about that, too.

So back to theodicy. Theodicies are what we create for ourselves and our communities when our thresholds are overwhelmed. It’s not that we punt our responsibility. It’s that our encounter with tragedy is beyond comprehension that we assign a relation to ourselves that is beyond comprehension to handle the incomprehensible. (This blog post could get super interesting in a way that I’m not going to examine, but my apophatic theology friends just started to salivate a little, all the same.) This is not saying that God is a fabricated crutch. I’m saying that it is quite human to try to handle things on our own until we can’t. Or won’t. And then we hand it off, because explanations of ultimate origins are harrrrrrrrrrrd!

When the apocryphal verses “God never gives you more than you can handle”, “When God closes a door, He (sic) opens a window”, or “Everything happens for a reason” get trotted out, responsibility and action is being reassigned – and pathetically so. ISIS and ebola are killing children daily. These glib verses evaporate in tragedy’s midst. Just war theory will not save the refugees. Positive thinking won’t heal the terminally hemorrhaging. What to do?

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Just mentioning these words, if you recognize them and their context, evokes tragedy. What to do?

Act justly. Just action restructures theodicy, reframing tragedy’s identity and event such that beneficial change can occur. The challenge is then, what is just? And how does one act justly in one’s immediate context? How can I act justly against Boko Haram? Against the Ferguson police department? Against.. against… against it all? Well, I don’t have a good answer for that. But I know it’s not liking a cause on Facebook. That’s not just futile, it’s pathetic. And a poor excuse for spreading awareness about a cause.

But if we encounter God, then we encounter the commandment and requirement to act justly in reaction to that encounter. It’s that double bind of the duty to love. (It’s fucking annoying, I know.) The problem is, then, how does one subjectively act? Well, good luck with that. Because it’s our responsibility, in light of this framework of divine encounter, of our self to act authentically for the benefit of who has suffered injustice. I told you this summer sucked. So, go love and see what happens in the meaninglessness of it all. That means even if you get the shit beaten out of you.

Gawker: Police Fire Rubber Bullets and Tear Gas on Ferguson, Mo. Protestors

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

Death is exhausting. “Let the dead bury the dead,” recommends Jesus to the man, the man who’s lost his father. I lost my father three years ago. I felt his hand twitch one last time in the earliest hours of August 6. His slow, solitary death, alone with his family in a Fort Worth hospice, is shared with the flashpoint and collective horror of Hiroshima. What does one do with that juxtaposition?

Death is exhausting. I can barely fathom my father’s, let alone the thousands lives that… “Let the dead bury the dead.” How? What does that even mean?

He who has an ear, let him hear…

Grief is like a slow salve rubbed from one’s wet cheeks and eyes into the wrists and arms and heart.

Grief is like a gripped sponge with an unseen core of void and night.

Grief is like your best friend’s loss of hearing.

What is the Kingdom of God like? The Kingdom of God is like… it is like…

“As for you,” then says Jesus, “go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” My father has died. It feels like yesterday. He has just died. It feels like… it is like…

But the Kingdom of God is a simile.

The Kingdom of God is like the blind spot in every gaze.

The Kingdom of God is like an impossible place and event, like a graveyard where the dead bury the dead.

The Kingdom of God is like…

grief relieved.

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The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade

God haunts me. Let me count the ways. There are days that I wish could escape the whole matter. But it is hard to be a writer or thinker without the skulking raven in the room, except this raven not only says “nevermore,” but “evermore,” as well. And the paradox of God haunts me, too. It all haunts me. I cannot be happy. I cannot find relief. It won’t go away, but I tremble at the thought of the absence of God’s presence and absence. Paradox.

“You’re overthinking it,” you say. “Just have faith,” you say. “Throw God down and walk away clean,” you say. You are all Job’s friends to me. Leave me alone. I’m thankful no one tries to ask me about Jesus, anymore. Let me ask them about Jesus.

There are those who consider themselves or get called “seekers.” Seeker churches and such, which are really just bait-and-switch outfits, deceptive evangelicals that wear the devil’s clothes. Or those spiritual nomads who meander through one religion to another, following the glare of the enlightening moon through her four phases. Or the junkies who jitter after god-horse, itching for a new fix of truth or whatever wherever they can get it. They’re ecstatic about it, too. They know a guy. Or know a guy who knows a guy. I know that jakewalk. I’m not a seeker.

I marvel at those who can confess the existence or non-existence of God. I marvel at the agnostic, too. Such faith. I feel like I am on my way to Mount Moriah, asking myself along the way, “What am I doing? Am I really doing this? Why? Why not?” Am I working out my salvation? In fear and trembling? What am I doing? Am I really doing this? Why? Why not?

You know that the Christian is not Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” right? Not like we throw around the word “Christian.” That’s what annoys me about those who read Fear and Trembling and immediately identify with Abraham. The hubris. The chutzpah. “Yes! I am just like Abraham taking that leap of faith in God! I did it when I accepted Christ that dark night of my soul.” No. You’re not like Abraham. No one is like Abraham. That’s the thing. Johannes de Silentio, Søren’s pseudonym here, marvels at Abraham, there is no one like him. You are not like Abraham. You are like you. We may be on our way to Mount Moriah, but a ram has not been provided. All has not been returned to us. Stop kidding yourself. We are knights of infinite resignation – if we are lucky to be knights at all. We read Fear and Trembling and we marvel at Abraham, the shining knight. And in doing so, we forget Kierkegaard begins with taunting Cartesian epistemology and ends in his indictment of hubris against Heraclitus’ student. You probably don’t remember those bookends, do you? You only remember what you want to. You’re not paying attention. Lucky you.

This blog, this project, this bleak theology is not some attempt for a run-around on the System, on organized, popular, or academic Christianity. It’s not a “new” take on God or an attempt at some “better” lens or understanding. It’s not confessional. It’s not atheism. It’s not agnosticism. It’s just a mess, a huge mess.

Nietzsche wrote that God will not be truly dead until we vanquish God’s shadow. His madman in the marketplace, who claims we are God’s murderers, holds a lantern in broad daylight, his Diogenes the Cynic seeking an honest man. But shine the light on God and only the most blind will not see God’s shadow. To quote The Joy Formidable, “the greatest light is the greatest shade.”

Nietzsche is right that we cannot escape God as object or subject. The more we shine the light on the question of God and who God is to us, the more brutal the reality of it all is. Culturally, we are bound. Psychologically, we are bound. The empire of time is Anno Domini, though secularism has whitewashed that into the Common Era. Christ still rules the calendar, helped all the more by Pope Gregory the Great. Our time is not our own, we are subtly reminded.

And even to believe to break out of the Foucaultian chains of history and culture, to still put it to the Kierkegaardian question that the individual is still wholly and utterly and terrifyingly free to make this decision about who Christ is and one’s relation to Christ, it makes the decision all the more anxious because if we think too carefully about it, there is the baggage of belief, the haunting afterward. There is that troubling, niggling, relentless freedom, because now there are the horrors of theodicy, of Christendom, of injustice, of hatred, of so many unspeakable and confounding truths and acts to wrestle with. This is all part of it. It comes with the package. We are not knights of faith. Let’s not kid ourselves with such hubristic and sanctimonious self-deceptions.

These are thoughts that haunt me. Haunt my mind, my heart, my soul. Can perfect love cast out all fear? That makes me anxious, too. Can it?

Like a Derridean spectre, God haunts me. Like a Hegelian Geist, God haunts me. Like the Paraclete, God haunts me. Like a dead parent, God haunts me.  But do I want the haunting to stop? I don’t know. That’s what haunts me, too. What would it be like to be free of all that – except that kind of freedom does not exist. God’s shadow is everywhere. All you have to do is light a candle and see.

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