If you are thinking about an academic book project, read on...
I have a coaching client who received tenure a year ago (we've worked together since he was a second year assistant professor trying to finish his dissertation) and now he's at the point in his career when he wants to write his first book.
I’m sending this client excerpts of David Perlmutter’s article "Why Would Anyone Write a Book on That?" published in 2005 in the Chronicle. Perlmutter, an Associate Professor of Mass Communications at Louisiana State, is currently writing a book on Political Blogs (great topic, right?) I thought that his tips might interest some of you:
The confident demeanors of many an academic hide anguish about whether, when, and on what subject to roll the dice of writing a book.
Why should I write the book? That is, would it simply duplicate existing work? Or would it do a better job of covering a topic that others have written about, or look at the topic in a new way?
Will the subject keep your interest until you've finished writing? Seen as part of a long academic career, a book is like a short but intense love affair. Some subjects seem intriguing at first but become boring over time. Write about something that fascinates you and that will continue to lure you to the keyboard.
Do you want to write this book? Don't let a publisher, agent, or reviewers force you to write a book that doesn't appeal to you. A friend of mine recently received a series of reviews of a book proposal, all of which pushed her to revise her plans in ways she didn't find compelling. Convinced that the reviewers wanted her to write their book, not hers, she walked away from the project.
Who will publish the book, and who will read it? A book must fit with other publications at a press, or marketing the title becomes prohibitively expensive. But be realistic in predicting the audience for your book when you contact a potential publisher. Editors laugh when they read a book proposal for a study of Thuringian crafts in the 14th century that the author promises will reach a wide readership.
Are you ready to write this book now? It is difficult for professors to acknowledge that anything is beyond us -- even for the moment. But ours is a business with longevity; therefore, don't start a book before you feel fully confident about writing it. An emeritus professor told me about his current project, "I'm glad I'm writing this book when I'm 80; I wasn't mature enough to write it when I was 60."
Will you be able to finish the book? I have seen colleagues paralyzed by the inability to complete a book manuscript. Although unforeseen disasters like illness are sometimes to blame, more often the problem is that the author is obsessed with perfection, wanting to write not just a book but the book on the topic. While I would never suggest abandoning the quest for quality, no volume can treat any subject to exhaustion. If you don't think you'll be able to finish a book, don't start it.
Do you have time to write a book? A professor's day can easily fill up with class preparation, meetings with students, bureaucratic work, institutional service, and all the minutiae of higher education. Grabbing an hour here and there is not enough for a book. Plan ahead how to put aside for the book days or large sections of days during the semester, or weeks or months during vacations and sabbaticals. If you're writing a book, you will need lots of time to sit and think -- with no interruptions, or even a threat of an interruption.
What about logistical support? Writing a book may involve costs like hiring an assistant, traveling, or paying to use proprietary data or copyrighted material. Make sure you know where the money will come from before you get started.
Does your department head know what you're planning? Few of us enjoy the good fortune of Harvard's John Rawls, who -- as Richard Bradley reports in Harvard Rules (HarperCollins, 2005) -- published almost nothing for two decades but received no pressure or admonitions from his superiors, and then produced A Theory of Justice, "perhaps the most important work of political philosophy published in the last half-century." You should discuss your goals with administrators, giving them a realistic estimate of the time and effort the book will take.
But the decision to write any book begins with honest self-evaluation: Is this the right book for me to write, right now? No one can answer that question but you.
Excellent advice, right? More advice is welcome…