university press week

Raising Up the Work of First-Time Authors: University Press Week 2020

Logo_UPW2020_lowres (1)It’s University Press Week! This year, the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) has chosen the theme “Raise UP” to emphasize the role that university presses play in elevating authors, subjects, and whole disciplines. Read more about University Press Week and check out the Raise UP gallery and reading list featuring publications published by our peer presses.

We’re excited to be part of the first day of the annual University Press Week blog tour. The theme is “New Voices.” After you read our post, please check out the other posts on the tour, from University of Illinois Press, Georgetown University Press, University of Wisconsin Press, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, University of Toronto Press, University of Missouri Press, Bucknell University Press, University of Manitoba Press, and Amherst College Press.

Here at Duke University Press, we’re particularly proud of the role that we play in helping to bring new voices into scholarly conversations. Below, book acquisitions editors and journal editors discuss the particular joys of working with first-time authors.

Contributors:

  • Elizabeth Ault, Duke University Press Editor, Books
  • Courtney Berger, Duke University Press Executive Editor, Books
  • Sarah Lerner, Managing Editor of Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies
  • Susan Stryker, Editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly and Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona and Visiting Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University
  • Ken Wissoker, Duke University Press Senior Executive Editor, Books

What unique contributions can a first-time author offer to a publishing program [or journal]?

Courtney Berger: First-time authors are often working on the cutting edge of scholarship. They are pushing against the boundaries of fields and conceptual paradigms. As an editor, I look to these scholars to stay attuned to the conversations and debates that are happening in and across fields and to learn about new fields in formation. This is incredibly valuable to me as an editor and to the Press as a whole, since it keeps our list dynamic and helps us tune into new or underserved audiences and emerging areas of knowledge making. As an editor, I am constantly learning, and my first-time authors teach me a lot, not just about their fields of study but also about changes in the academic world, how people are reading and teaching the things we publish, and the needs of scholars and teachers in the current economic and political climate.

Ken Wissoker: I always treat first book authors as the future. They frequently combine perspectives from different professors and theoretical movements they encountered in grad school (and since) and put them together in ways that the people who taught them never would. That’s true about theories and about topics to investigate as well. Also, first time authors often have had the most time for research—whether fieldwork or archival. They are writing up a project that started as a dissertation many years before.  They get guidance in how to shape and focus that research and receive feedback on the earlier versions of their work.  You’d be surprised how many times authors of subsequent books don’t know how to proceed without those advantages!

Susan Stryker: I’m always looking for the fresh hot takes that do more than add a statement to an existing conversation, but rather approach a topic in some truly new way. First-time authors often have a really generative “beginners mind.” 

Sarah Lerner: First-time authors have profound enthusiasm for their subject, and in the case of Camera Obscura, they are also excited about working with the journal’s editors during the manuscript revision process. New authors bring innovative perspectives, theories, and methods to the discipline that can change scholarly conversations about a subject. When they do, they can expand the journal’s reach.

Elizabeth Ault: Among many other things, first-time authors offer publishers a chance to engage some of the freshest perspectives in our field, and the joy, for an editor, of bringing a new voice into print and getting to build a long relationship with someone.

Are there any experiences working with first-time authors that stand out to you?

Elizabeth Ault: I have worked with so many first-time authors, especially as an emerging editor. Learning together with authors is such a gift—I’m so grateful for all the first-time authors who’ve helped me map the landscapes of their fields and the conversations their books are in as I get to teach them about the publishing process. One book I’m really proud to have worked on is The Black Shoals, Tiffany Lethabo King’s first book, published last fall. She just did a wonderful interview with Jenny Davidson at the-rambling.com about what the process of developing her central idea and navigating her archive was like through the multi-year process of developing the manuscript. It’s such a generous reflection on process. 

Courtney Berger: I really enjoy working with first-time authors, although at times the process can be stressful (on both sides!). Sometimes a manuscript goes through several rounds of review before it is ready for publication. An author might struggle to find time to write while they are also getting acclimated to a new job and new responsibilities. They may have a tough time shedding ideas and materials that are interesting but don’t serve the project as a whole. The review and revision process can be arduous, but it’s invaluable when it comes to shaping a book. It’s exciting to see a project develop and come into focus, as an author starts to recognize the critical aims of their work and can see how to enact that in their writing. Those are the best moments for me as an editor—helping an author figure out how to make the book their own and to make their ideas available to readers. 

Ken Wissoker: How quickly a scholar moves from being a first time author, unsure of their authority and whether what they write will be okay, to an expert in their field.  It’s hard for a scholar to anticipate that ahead of time, or to write in a way that takes advantage of how they will be seen. I love when authors feel passionately about their work and their topic, but haven’t fully realized how widely it will be of interest.  Some of my best experiences have been reflecting back to an unsure author how many people would be excited about what they are doing.

Susan Stryker: I once received a submission from a grad student for a special issue I was editing that I really wanted to publish because it was fresh and insightful but also kind of a mess structurally. I offered to work closely with the author to get it the piece in publishable quality before sending it out for peer review. Going that extra mile as a hands-on editor for a first-time author resulted in what has turned into a years-long friendship with a really innovative emerging scholar. I feel like I got back as much or more than I gave.

What advice do you have for first-time authors?

Susan Stryker: Really, really, think about audience/editor/press and the scholarly conversation you want your work to be situated within.

Sarah Lerner: I would encourage first-time authors to ask the journal’s Managing Editor or shepherding editor (if they have one) questions about the publication process. Gaining insight into the stages that a manuscript will move through from submission to publication supports authors as they navigate an unfamiliar process. If an author knows what the next step is, they can address revisions, proofs, and other tasks with more confidence.

Courtney Berger: Don’t be afraid to share your work and solicit feedback. I find that a lot of authors hesitate to do that. They worry that the project isn’t developed enough, and they strive for perfection. Join a writing group; share your work with colleagues and friends; participate in a manuscript workshop; find out what editors think about the project. While there certainly are risks to putting your work out there, especially at an early stage, I think the benefits far outweigh those risks. Criticism can help an author shape their project and find their voice. Soliciting feedback allows you to think of writing as a conversation: you want a response. And the response can help you to reshape, clarify, or reconsider what you want to say. 

Ken Wissoker: Think about what parts of books in your field you love, and what parts you skim past. Ask your cohort. Where do you need the detail and where the big picture? Where the author’s voice and where that of others in the field? Try to write accordingly! Write for the people in grad school behind you who will look up to you, not for the senior people who you are worried will judge you. Take yourself seriously as a theorist (big or small) and write to convince people of your theory, not as if you were turning in a long report to someone. Find your voice. As mentioned above, the time from post-doc to person with book is comparatively short in the time of a career. In a way one has to write in the voice of the person one is just in the process of becoming. Find an editor who gets your work and will imagine it with you. 

Elizabeth Ault: Briefly, I think the most important advice is to understand and embrace the power that you and your ideas have. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or reach out–to colleagues, editors, mentors, etc. But also, be prepared when you do. Have a clear sense of what your project is about, what your argument is, how it’s different from the dissertation, what you imagine your book doing in the world, and who you imagine reading it.

But even if you have all this, it’s important to know that the process can often take a lot longer than anyone hopes! It’s not unusual for me to talk to first-time authors at conferences or over email for several years prior to their formal submission of materials for peer review. During this time, we’re building our relationship  (one of my favorite parts!) and developing the project through discussing ideas, giving feedback on introductions, talking through the structure of the project, suggesting participants for book manuscript workshops, etc. While one round of peer review usually only takes a few months, the full cycle of review and revision and Board Approval—from initial submission till a book appears IN PRINT (!)—almost always takes at least two years, and usually longer (though about a year of that is while the book is in production, being copyedited, designed, proofread, and printed, so the author’s substantive writing work is done). That can sound daunting, but I really think of it as a gift, as Ken has outlined elsewhere when talking about the importance of peer review. This long process is especially important for authors who, like most of the people I work with, are interdisciplinary scholars with ambitions to speak across scholarly conversations. 

Read more of Elizabeth Ault’s advice for first-time book authors in “Asking the Editors” in Inside Higher Ed.

What could publishers do to better support first-time authors?

Courtney Berger: Most presses and editors make efforts to help first-time authors navigate the publishing process by giving talks at conferences and at universities or through one-on-one discussions with new authors. At Duke, we’ve worked hard to connect with and support BIPOC scholars, queer & trans scholars, and scholars from marginalized groups, although there’s room to strengthen those efforts even further across the publishing industry. I also think we could do more outreach to scholars working at HBCUs, smaller universities and colleges, and non-research institutions, who may not have as much access to travel funds for major conferences (where editors tend to meet with authors) or who may not have ready access to publishing workshops and other opportunities to learn about the book publishing process. 

Ken Wissoker: Judge work on its quality, intervention, and potential impact, not the seniority or location of the authors.

Susan Stryker: I think “meet the editors” events do a lot to demystify the process, and help authors get a sense of the wide range of ways that different journals work.

Elizabeth Ault: I think posts like this and other talks/videos/etc/ that my colleagues and I have done are hugely important in demystifying the process. Being upfront about expectations and timelines is important especially with first time authors on the tenure track, since the timing can be so important. Not assuming authors understand the process—either the concrete steps of publishing (including things like selecting images and navigating fair use claims), or the more abstract parts like imagining the audience for your book or thinking about how the chapters should be ordered.

Are there any upcoming projects from first-time authors that you’re particularly excited about?

Courtney Berger: Oh my. So many! A few exciting first books that are about to be released: Evren Savci’s Queer in Translation: Sexual Politics under Neoliberal Islam; Ma Vang’s History on the Run: Secrecy, Fugitivity, and Hmong Refugee Epistemologies; and Hentyle Yapp’s Minor China: Method, Materialisms, and the Aesthetic. All three of these books push against conventional disciplinary boundaries and offer readers new theoretical tools for thinking about the complexities of race, religion, politics, and sexuality. And next fall keep an eye out for Xine Yao’s Disaffected: The Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth Century America and Rana Jaleel’s The Work of Rape, two stunning first books that make us rethink the relationship between gender, sexuality, race, and U.S. imperialism.

Ken Wissoker: Two just out: Alex Blanchette’s beautiful ethnography of a grim subject in Porkopolis—the way every part of a pig’s life cycle is commercialized in a next generation taylorization products one wouldn’t even associate with a pig—while also taking over a town’s life. And Vanessa Diaz’s Manufacturing Celebrity, an ethnography of two groups that keep People and other popular magazines in business. Paparazzi, who are mostly Latinx men working independently to take photos of stars. The magazines depend on the photos, but the men are disposable and easy to vilify as if they were stalkers rather than key to the star system. She also writes about the mostly white women deployed to industry events for gossip, and become likely targets for harassment or abuse.

And one in production: Mercy Romero’s moving and deep memoir of Camden, New Jersey is one I’m really excited by.  The beauty of her writing, combined with the way she gives a picture of race and space in her hometown is totally moving.  A truly exceptional first book!

Elizabeth Ault: I just had a slate of wonderful new first books come out! Please read my recommendations for books to buy to honor the American Anthropological Association conference that, in a parallel universe, is happening right now, to find out more about several of them.