What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

On Book Exhibits and World War II Material Culture (#AHA19)

Megan Jones of The Pingry School offers one more post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on her last day of the conference with a nod to the book exhibit and a panel on visual culture and the end of World War II. (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

The book exhibit is one of the best parts of an academic conference, particularly for someone who does not have the time to keep up with book reviews in academic journals. A scholar browsing the exhibit hall for new titles is like a child perusing a candy store, and the feeling of ecstatic curiosity is probably about the same. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) had a great GIF of the wizard from Disney’s “Fantasia” to represent his analysis of historians in book exhibits. I spent about two hours walking through the hall. Here’s a screenshot of my camera roll showing the books I found particularly appealing:

megan pics

I’m going to (hopefully) be teaching a course on American environmentalism, Atlantic World and modern European revolutions, and Modern World History in the future, so my selection is fairly broad. I even persuaded a few publishing reps to send me free samples. Score.

The best panel I attended on Day 3 was session #173, “Visualizing Victory, Visualizing Defeat: The Material Culture of Occupation in the Wake of World War II.” Two PhD candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave fascinating talks on the afterlives of visual artifacts in the postwar period. Abigail Lewis discussed the various uses and changing meaning of photographs taken by French photographers during the Vichy regime. These images depicted a relatively happy and peaceful France under Nazi occupation, which can be best explained by the fact that only photographers who agreed to abide by Nazi rules could obtain material with which to actually shoot photos. These images were used after the end of WWII to depict occupation in a blockbuster show at the Grand Palais in 1946, and also during a 2008 retrospective.  Jennifer Gramer spoke about German war art and the confiscation of such work by the American Captain Gordon Gilkey with the Roberts Commission, and the choices made to determine which art was deemed potentially capable of inciting violence in the future.

Both Lewis and Gramer discussed how the images and works they studied had different meaning for the French and Germans depending on the time under consideration. Both also questioned how the meaning of images changes depending on the context – should we look at an image divorced from its historical context and deem it “artistic” as in the case of German war art, some of which is objectively beautiful and clearly drawn by a talented artist? Do the images taken by French photographers indicate their complicity with the Vichy regime, or were they subversively collaborating with the idea that their images would serve as a documentary record for posterity? Who gets to determine the meaning of an image? The questions Lewis and Gramer posed, which I am probably doing no justice to, speak to a broader question of who owns history and who has the right to interpret historical artifacts.

Thanks, Megan!

Your Manuscript is 30 Years Late!

kansas Press

The home of University Press of Kansas

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a story about David Congdon, an acquisition editor at the University Press of Kansas who, after arriving at his new job, found a book contract that was thirty years old.  He contacted the author to let him out of the contract and, surprisingly, the writer said he would finish the book.

Here is a taste:

Mr. Congdon’s comically tardy book may seem like an extreme example of editorial generosity, but The Chronicle spoke to several people with lengthy tenures at university presses. They say that anyone who spends enough time in the industry, where a turnaround of several months to a few years for a book is the norm, will very likely encounter a project that is the not only years late, but decades so.

“Oh yes, this is something that comes up with surprising frequency!” wrote Leila Salisbury, director of University Press of Kentucky.

Scholarly presses, which don’t pay the enormous advances one might read about in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, have an interest in producing the best work possible, even if that means some projects far exceed deadlines most would consider timely.


University of Virginia Press Announces New Book Series on American Spirutality


Leigh Eric Schmidt of Washington University and Matthew Hedstrom of the University of Virginia will be the editors.

Here is a taste of the announcement:

The American Spirituality series seeks scholarship that explores dimensions of American religious life that fall into the cracks or beyond the margins of conventional religious thought, practice, and institutions. The category “spirituality,” in its Emersonian and Whitmanesque formulation, fundamentally registers these qualities of nonconformity and open-road individuality, even as it encompasses a variety of more specific religious lineages. We aim to publish books that view the past and present of American spirituality in both tight focus and through wider apertures. Doing so, we believe, will help define a still-emerging field of scholarly study, as well as contribute texture and depth to the wider public conversation about spirituality, a category that has grown in power in recent decades as so many millennials have relinquished previously recognized forms of religious identity. The thrust of the series will be historical, with particular focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it will also invite ethnographically informed work on contemporary expressions of America’s metaphysical preoccupations.

Scholars to date have approached the study of spirituality in America with varying degrees of precision. Most specifically, American spirituality describes a particular lineage within American religious history with deep roots in liberal Protestant and transcendentalist movements of the early nineteenth century. That stream, in turn, flowed outward in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into broadly cosmopolitan forms of post-Protestantism, including universalized forms of Quakerism and religious humanism. Those tributaries often converged with a host of still more far-ranging metaphysical movements, from New Thought to Theosophy, from Vedanta to Zen. Even as it has grown evermore eclectic in expression, the American construction of spirituality nonetheless retains a popular coherence. It is taken to describe the perennial essence of the religious life, typically conceived as individual experience of the divine or the transcendent, and usually understood in contrast to the outer forms of religion. The phrase “spiritual but not religious” captures this common distinction, a distinction with profound resonance in American religious thought—from Emerson to William James, from Whitman to Bill Wilson, the founder of AA.

Studying the multi-form history of spirituality allows scholars to examine in new ways the forces that have shaped religion in modern America—individualism, consumerism, mass culture, psychology, democratic norms, gender, race, immigration, globalization, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. It allows for multidisciplinary consideration of religion’s fundamental reconfiguration over the last three centuries—a reconfiguration prominently marked by exalting “spirituality” and diminishing “organized religion.” Is the redefinition of religion in the solitary, interiorized terms of spirituality indispensable to the politics of secularism? Is spirituality’s amalgamative drive—its ceaseless borrowing across religious traditions—ever separable from the politics of empire and neoliberalism? Are spirituality’s therapeutic regimens salvageable from a culture of narcissism and an economy of unsustainable consumption? The series invites critical histories and ethnographies that explore these multiple entanglements of religion, politics, and culture as they have found expression through the various spiritual movements and quests in which Americans have participated.

The AHA: An Editor’s Perspective


I am sure some of you who attend the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association or some other major academic conference have witnessed a newly minted Ph.D pitching a book idea, based on her or his dissertation, to an editor in the exhibit hall. The editor listens and nods as the post-doc or assistant professor verbally walks through the proposal. This kind of conversation has become a rite of passage for any first-time academic author.

I have done this a few times and have always felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that the editor was bored and really did not want to hear from yet another dissertation writer trying to land a book contract. If the editor’s eyes were flashing around the room looking at the name badges of people coming into the booth I knew I was in trouble.  I knew I was in even more trouble if the editor interrupted me (always politely) multiple times to talk to someone who he or she deemed to be more important. Who wants to try to make a book pitch in such a public setting?  I was always self-conscious of the people milling around in the booth who were no doubt listening to me explain my proposal.

After I published my first book I decided that I would not use the exhibit hall to pitch proposals to editors. (Part of this decision was based on experience. My interaction with editors at the AHA and other conferences played a very, very small role in getting that book into print).  It was too much work.  As an introvert I hate such spontaneous meetings.

Don’t get me wrong, I still meet with publishers at the AHA.  But most of my meetings are scheduled well in advance so that the editors are prepared for the conversation. I try to make sure that these meetings take place away from the booth and preferably outside the exhibit hall.

The book exhibit continues to be my favorite part of any big conference.  When I enter the exhibit hall for the time my heart (and mind) still races. When I am at the AHA I try to make two or three visits.  I usually just browse titles and try to say hello to the editors I have worked with over the years.  I take pictures of the books I want to read or write about. I run into friends, acquaintances, colleagues and blog readers.

I tend to see my discussions with editors about book ideas as something separate from the exhibit itself.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Toff’s recent post at AHA Today about what it is like to be a book editor at the conference.  Toff is vice president and executive editor at Oxford University Press.

Here is a small taste of her post:

As talent scouts, we judge work that has already been done. Editors thus spend some of their time listening to papers and scoping out new talent. The “yield” is fairly low, but it’s a good way to check out potential authors. It tells us not only whether a particular historian has a good argument, but whether s/he is a decent human being. Public behavior is telling! Does s/he get to the point? How does the scholar react to questions and criticism? I also meet with potential authors who have written to me in advance and sent me proposals or sample materials. The conference is a chance for me to hear more about the project, to ask questions about what I’ve read, and often to guide the author in a slightly different direction. I’ll ask about competing titles, about sources, and, as at sessions, I’ll get a feel for the style of the person I’m dealing with.

Unfortunately, time is always short. So when meeting with an editor, authors should get to the point. The proverbial “elevator pitch” is no joke—we need a quick overview of the subject matter, the status of the book, and the archival work you’ve done. If the book has grown out of a dissertation, who was your adviser? That information often orients us intellectually. Think of the meeting as speed dating for scholars and editors—make a good first impression. Many university press editors are also commissioning books, especially for existing series. After consulting with series editors and doing some research, I will have identified potential authors for particular titles and set up meetings to discuss the possibilities. That’s where I wear my snake-charmer hat.

Editors always make time to chat informally with potential authors to see if we can find the perfect new project based both on the scholar’s interests and our needs as publishers. It’s kismet when those two objectives align. For example, I had worked with Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee on a World War I primary source anthology; I hoped to do another book with them. When we met at the AHA’s annual meeting several years ago, they told me that they had many more diaries they’d come across but had not had space to include. The result of that conversation was Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War (2015), a collection of six rare and diverse war journals.

Read the entire post here.

What is An Academic Book?

Check out Tom Cutterham‘s nice post at The Junto on what defines an academic book.  Here is a taste:

Is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring an academic book? Is Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? The list of twenty nominees for “the academic book that has most changed the world,” part of the UK’s Academic Book Week, is a pretty confusing collection. Plato’s Republic is a product of the academy, sure, but is George Orwell’s 1984? In the US, we’re in the middle of University Press Week, which is a much more easily-identifiable category. We should all celebrate the important role of university presses in preserving scholarly endeavour from the rapacious maw of the market. In the face of ever-deeper cuts, they deserve our vigilant support.

But if every university press book is, in some sense at least, an academic book, it doesn’t work the other way around. Some of the books that have influenced me most have been published by trade and independent presses. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, rightly mentioned by one of our commenters on Chris’s post, was published by W.W. Norton and Co. Jill Lepore’s intellectually inspiring biography of Sarah Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. Those are both venerable, high-status imprints that frequently publish scholarship for a wide audience…
Are we to understand that academic books are those read only by academics and their ever-diligent, hardworking, curious students? That’s one possible explanation for such a list, but if it were true, it would be a tragedy. University presses can and frequently do publish work that has a general reader foremost in mind. I’m a big fan of William Hogeland’s Founding Finance, published by the University of Texas Press. Oxford University Press has put out accessible work like Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment (distributed by Random House in the US) and Patrick Griffin’s brilliant America’s Revolution. It also publishes Very Short Introductions such as Richard Bernstein’s on The Founding Fathers. Harvard University Press, meanwhile, has had its share of bestsellers.

Cutterham’s post is on the mark.  So-called “academic books” that make an argument or contain footnotes are published by university presses and trade presses.  The main difference is how the publisher chooses to define the book and ultimately promote it.  “Academic books” tend to be published by the academic side of a university press (if they have one).  They are not usually marketed to brick and mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble.  They are marketed to libraries.  They are usually published with a price-point above forty dollars.  The press does not usually assign a publicist to promote these books.

Non-academic books, or trade books, are marketed to brick and mortar shops.  They usually sell for less than thirty dollars. They are assigned a publicist.  And the author advance (against future royalties) on such books tend to be a lot larger.

You may think that you wrote a trade book, but if you can’t get a trade publisher (or a university press with a trade division) or a literary agent to agree with you, the book will be sold and marketed as an “academic” book.