So I got a book contract…

20 08 2012

…which explains why I want to write about publishing academic history from the author’s point of view. Normally, I save my history blogging for the nice folks at the Historical Society, but this is going to be too personal for there. However, I promise what follows will be more than just a victory lap as I think I’ve actually learned a few things during this very long project which I want to share.

Seven publishers rejected my revised dissertation. My evenlual publisher required me to buy ninety-five copies (at $34.95 a pop that’s quite a hit) in order for them to put the book out. This alone was enough for me to get tenure, so it was a good investment. Still, I was deeply ashamed for a long time even after I found out that this has become increasingly common practice in academic publishing.

I started the book I just got a contract for in 2000, while I was waiting for something to come together on the dissertation. [Yes, you read that date right, but to be fair I have published two other books in the interim, including one you can pre-order right now.] This newest one is a history of the American ice and refrigeration industries, tentatively titled Refrigeration Nation: How America Learned to Control the Cold.* The publisher will be the Johns Hopkins University Press. The Johns Hopkins University Press was one of the seven publishers that rejected my revised dissertation. Since the manuscript is done and has survived peer review, I suspect it will come out sometime early next year.

So what changed between then and now?:

1) Topics matter. My dissertation was on labor policy in the American steel industry. It’s an interesting subject, but it is hardly empty historiographic space. In contrast, the last monograph on refrigeration in America came out in 1953. Even then, that book was a business history. I spent years reading old trade journals so that I could learn the details of different refrigeration technologies. As a result, my book should be close to unique. For a technology this historically important, I still find that fact amazing.

2) Learning by doing. While there was merit in my dissertation (particularly the research) I wrote myself into a corner early on and couldn’t get out. What does that mean? I structured the entire book before I finished my research and couldn’t adapt it well when the peer reviews came in. To make matters worse, I kept trying to change that manuscript to meet the demands of the last review anyway. This time, I took lots of time to decide exactly how I wanted to organize the manuscript, and tried to be flexible. I think this is one of those lessons you just have to learn by doing it wrong the first time so that you never forget its importance going forward.

3) I took it on the road. Some people think that conferences are just glorified vacations. Sure, we all sneak out for a few hours at some point during the weekend sometimes to see something historical, but I’ve been giving parts of this manuscript as conference papers since around 2006 and I can’t tell you how much that’s helped. A Hagley conference in 2006 is where I figured out my argumett for the first time. It was at a food studies conference at UC-Davis in 2009 that I realized that I needed to include a global perspective in order to demonstrate the fact that America is particularly refrigeration crazy. That took about three extra years, but it’s a much better book as a result. Most importantly, it was at the Society for the History of Technology meeting three years ago that I got recruited by the JHU Press straight out of my session. All they knew was the subject of the book and the contents of the paper I had just given, but that proved to be enough (See change #1).

4) Arguments matter. The problem with my dissertation was that I wrote it story first, argument afterward. As a result, my argument was overly simplistic. When I started this project, I actually thought describing a dead industry (I started with just ice, but then went forward to the present) would be enough to justify publication. That might be true if the book were just for refrigerating engineers, but it’s not. An argument shouldn’t overwhelm a story, but it needs to be there nonetheless in order to make your expertise interesting to people who wouldn’t care otherwise. It’s sad that I didn’t figure that out while I was still in grad school, but I’m glad I at least figured it out now while I’m still young enough to have a few more books in me.

Speaking of more books, I get to use my sabbatical this semester to start a biography of Harvey Wiley, the guy who was the first head of what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration. I want to use his life as a way to discuss the adulteration of foods of all kinds. This will include meat, bread, sugar, whiskey – even Coca-Cola.

Continuing my uphill climb, my plan this time is to get an agent and a contract with an advance from a trade press. If you happen to have an agent – or even better, if you happen to be an agent – you know how I write if you read this blog regularly. Any interested parties should use my contact info on the right.

PS Regular snarky technoskeptical blogging will resume with my next post.

* Yes, I know the “nation” title formulation is now cliché, but it really fits the argument. Also, it rhymes! How many other historians do you know have books with titles that rhyme?

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8 responses

20 08 2012

Oh, great congratulations, Jonathan!
I hope to share this particular post with my freshmen, too, because although none of them has a book in the works, ## 2 and 4 especially are important to the development of any piece of writing, and especially one that involves research. I have said similar things to students over the years, but you say them well, and in the context of real research for a real book.
Very best wishes.

21 08 2012

I’m not a historian, so don’t put too much weight in my comment: I wondered if your project might have a broader audience if your primary focus was on the adulteration of foods – which sounds really interesting to me at least – with the biography of Harvey Wiley woven in. Just a thought.

21 08 2012
Jonathan Rees

I was thinking along those lines, but I’m also thinking he’ll turn out to be an interesting guy.

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[...] two articles (that I started earlier), one conference paper (that I started from scratch), read my refrigeration manuscript at least three times to find and remove passive voice or other poor sentence constructions and have [...]

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