Monday, November 14, 2011

Getting Published

In the past two years, two very talented racial and ethnic minority colleagues were denied tenure by their universities. Among the reasons given was that they did not have enough publications.

I want to share my experience as a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I especially want to speak to those of you who find yourself in the situation that you have little time to write.

To get published, you need to do 5 things:

1. You must have something to say. Many dissertations have been written, but only a very tiny number get published. Why? Because the dissertations have too many footnotes. When I published my first book, one reviewer said that the book had all the features of a dissertation, namely, lots of notes and short summaries. As all doctoral students want to do, I tried to document everything to impress my professors and to avoid plagiarism. I felt comfortable hiding behind what other scholars had said.

After listening to Pamela Johnson, an editor at Fortress Press, speaking to a group of young scholars and students, I knew why so many dissertations cannot get published. Many dissertations use many chapters to rehearse or explain what other scholars have said about the subject. This is called literature review. It is only in the final chapter that the author brings out his or her own viewpoints. Editors are not interested in a book full of citations of what others have said. They are interested in what you, as the author, have to say on the subject. Pam asked the audience to imagine what their book would look like if they start from the final chapter.

2. Learn the craft of publishing. Two university presses turned down my dissertation before it got published. I wish William P. Germano’s From Dissertation to Book had been available at that time. Unfortunately the book came out much later. In that book, Bill Germano guides the reader through the process of publishing your first book: from revising your dissertation, reading with an editor’s eyes, to making your prose speak.

Many of us think that if we have some good ideas, we will be able to get them published. Not so. We spent many years honing the skills of writing academic papers. Turning a paper into a published article for a journal is a learning process. Learning to publish a book is a learning process. Over the years, I have read many books on writing. I enjoyed Stephen King’s book On Writing and Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark. After I asked a professional editor to edit my work, I was surprised that she could spot so many mistakes, while I couldn’t. So I read the book How to Edit Your Own Writing. After the page proofs came back, I needed to know how to mark the corrections. I found out The Chicago Manual has a few chapters in the beginning that I had overlooked. They talk about manuscript editing and proofs. As you can see, I needed to learn each step along the way. When I became an editor, I had to learn many new things. After I submitted the manuscript for my most recent edited volume, Hope Abundant, the editor at Orbis Books was very pleased that the manuscript was in such great shape. I had published with the same editor 16 years ago. I told her that I have learned much about publishing in the intervening years.

3. Make your proposal stand out. Many trade presses have changed their editors in the last couple of years and publishing houses have slashed their programs. I spoke to one publisher recently. His press used to publish 75 books a year, but the number was cut to half last year. When I asked why, he said people are not buying books in this economy. Even university presses, which are non-profits, are watching closely the bottom line.

A book sells because of the author and the contents. If you are not yet a well-known author, your book must have a great title and attractive contents. Your proposal must convince the editor that the book will have a market. The marketing people will sit down with the editors in the editorial committee to decide whether to accept or reject your proposal. If your book can be adopted as a textbook, you will have a better chance of getting it published. If you wonder how to write a good proposal, I recommend the book Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. The book even contains a sample proposal and a sample chapter. Don’t get discouraged when your proposal is rejected. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s book Women, Native, Other got rejected numerous times. She went on to become an internationally acclaimed cultural critic and filmmaker.

4. Find time to write. I was very impressed by how many books that Miguel De La Torre, Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Mark Jordan, and Daniel Harrington have produced. So I asked them what are their secrets. I found out that they write almost all the time and everyday, except for the weekends. De La Torre wakes up at 5 a.m. and reads and writes for 6 hours 3 to 4 days a week, with the goal of writing 10 pages per week. I must confess that I do not have that discipline.

For racial and ethnic minority scholars, finding time to write is such a luxury. Many of us do not teach in research universities and have a heavy teaching load. We are put on all the committees and we have communities of accountability outside the school.

But I have become convinced that only those of us who can wean ourselves from the electronic gadgets that constantly connect us with the outside world can write and get published. This may sound old-fashioned. But writing is a very lonely business and takes a lot of concentration. We need a stretch of time so that our ideas can simmer and our thoughts can develop.

We have to learn to protect our brain. In his book Crazy Busy, Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating ADD and has ADD himself, says that our culture is producing people with ADT (attention deficit trait). We can’t focus because there are so many attractions. Our attention span becomes short and we are so overwhelmed that we are about to snap. He said, “Being busy may very well keep you from doing what matters most, or it may lead you to do things you deem unwise.” In a very humorous way, he tells us how to address the problems from brain science and psychiatry and encourage us to find our solutions. He even includes a chapter on “Why women have it harder than men.”

5. Nurture Relationships. Here I mean both professional and personal relationships. If the editor has met you and talked with you, she or he will have a face to associate with when she or he is reading the book proposal. I encourage you to introduce yourself to the editors at the book exhibit and tell them the exciting projects you are working on. Get to know the senior scholars in the field so that when they are editing an anthology, they will think of including your work.

Many books begin with an acknowledgment thanking the spouses, partners, and children for their support. Writing may take you away from attending ball games, watching videos, or doing other fun things with family. But sometimes, these distractions keep you sane. Balancing all the demands is a fine art.

I am the advisor with Joerg Rieger to the Religion in Modern World Series of Rowman and Littlefield and co-editor with Ivan Petrella of the Reclaiming Liberation Theology Series of SCM. Religion in Modern World aims at the general audience and focuses on how modernity is reconciled within each religious tradition. Liberation Theology has been considered dead in some circles. SCM publishes works of liberation theology by a new generation of scholars who expand the problematique of liberation theology. I hope to hear from you.

*Presented at a panel on "Getting Published" at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, San Francisco, November 20, 2011.


  1. This is indeed helpful. Thanks. I also want to help others to understand the nature of academic publication. Most of things you said here has proven for me. I am a witness. If I add one more thing, "Begin with the topic that you are most passionate about. Not just writing words but writing soul-words that deeply penetrate our heart." There is a way out to be more meaningful and successful in academic publication. Scholars communicate by writing in addition to teaching.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, especially since I missed the AAR panel (it conflicted with another panel I was attending)! It's much appreciated, and great advice! Many thanks, and blessings to you on this holiday!