On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #91

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It has been a horrible writing week–absolutely horrible.  As I have written in previous posts I have been too busy with other personal and professional responsibilities to work on the ABS project, but I will also admit that I have been low on motivation this past week.  Chapter Five is requiring a lot of outside reading and it is really slowing me down. 

The week is over and it was a bust.  But I can’t have many more weeks like this if I want to finish the book.  Here’s hoping I can get it together next week.  Two new developments just might help.

First, I bought a new computer.  My current home computer is about four years old.  I hope the new hardware might give me a jump start.

Second, I have finally landed a publisher for this book.  On Monday I will be signing a contract agreement with Oxford University Press.  The folks at Oxford have met all of my demands for this book.  They have agreed to a low price-point (it will be a trade book) and will be able to have the book out in time for the May 2016 200th anniversary celebration. (Assuming I can deliver by May 1, 2015) Needless to say I am thrilled with this offer!  And now that I have a publisher in place I will try to do a few more posts about the entire process of securing one.  Stay tuned.

History News Service Moves to Indiana University

As some of my readers know, I have occasionally done some writing for the History News Service, a syndicate of historians who bring historical perspectives to current events. Those interested in some of my past op-eds for HNS can find them here.  (Since they are op-eds, most of them are dated).

History News Service was founded by Joyce Appleby and James Banner Jr. in 1996 to bring historical thinking into the public square.  Anyone who has written for HNS knows that Appleby and Banner had very different styles.  Joyce was always very encouraging about my pieces (“this is a wonderful piece, John”).  Banner was also positive about my writing, but when it came to editing and polishing he was often very hard to please.  One time Joyce told me that I was an “excellent op-ed writer” and James followed up later in the day with an e-mail telling me that I had a long way to go before he would call me an excellent op-ed writer (or something similar to that).  I only wrote four op-eds for Joyce and James, but through working with them I learned a great deal about writing in this genre.

The new HNS editor is David Paul Nord, a historian who works in the School of Journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington.  I am a big fan of Nord’s scholarship, especially his Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America, 1790-1860.  If I remember correctly, I also had a chance to work with him very briefly when he was editor of The Journal of American History and I was writing my JAH article, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian’s Rural Enlightenment.”

If time allows, I hope to submit more op-eds to HNS.  I would encourage the historians who read my blog to do the same.

HT: Ralph Luker

Getting Published

Daniel Dekker identifies “10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing.”  They are:

1. The number of books being published in the U.S. has exploded.
2.  Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published.
3.  Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.
4.  A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.
5.  It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.
6.  Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
7.  Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.
8.  No other industry has so many new product introductions.
9.  The digital revolution is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales.
10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.

Dekker then offers some ways of responding to these “awful truths”.  Here is my summation:

1.There is a huge market in “pass-along sales.”  This is basically people buying books and passing them along to someone else.

2.  Do events and speaking engagements

3.  Build a platform for your ideas

4.  Branding.  Develop a reputation for yourself, your book, and your ideas.

5.  Be creative in finding new marketing channels for your book.

6.  Say what everyone else is saying in a new way.

7.  Keep books short.

There is a good discussion going on about this over at Jesus Creed.

Historians TV at the AHA

Once again, Historians TV covered the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  Check out AHA Today for links to some of the featured sessions and interviews.

I especially enjoyed this session on how to be an effective lecturer and this session on what publishers are looking for.  The latter includes interviews with editors at University of New Mexico Press, Harvard University Press, and University of Kansas Press.

The Spiritual Discipline of a Book Release

Here is a short piece by George Guthrie that all authors who are Christians should read.  A taste:

In the life of an author of books there comes such a moment on the brink of a book’s release.  The frantic rush to get words on the page, edits done, design-decisions landed, and final page proofs read (again), is past.  The thing is out of your hands until of course it flies back to your hands as a finished product.
The book arrives in the mail.  Elation.  You like the feel of the book, the dream having become waking reality.  The freebies sent by the publisher are distributed; friends and family celebrate.  They assure you that your book will change the world (but will they really read it?).  And now, now in this moment of the deep breath, you wait.  You wait to see if anyone in the wider world will take up and hold this baby you have birthed and thrown out into the world, vulnerable; will anyone at all be drawn to it with affection?  Will they share that affection with others (say, on Amazon, blessing your baby with 5 stars)?  Surprisingly, in this moment of birth, which should be all joy and hope, the storm clouds of war loom on the horizon.  For it is not the book that is vulnerable; it is you.  The book, solid paper and ink, can last for years on dusty shelves in obscure used bookstores.  You are flesh and blood and raw emotion…

So the Christian author is confronted with a spiritual challenge in this war, a clarion call to come over the ravine and face Goliath; for in the quiet of this moment before the plunge or plummet, a still small voice reminds you that this work cannot be summed up with numbers but rather has to do with individuals and ministry and integrity, has to do with gifts given and gifts opened with joy, and a different set of measurements altogether.  Hopefully, you followed the Lord into the pages of this book, and the Lord is with you here in this moment of crossing the ravine, in the gibbering insecurity you feel. The angst of rising and falling rank on Amazon, of the number of twitter followers and blog posts read, must be crucified with Christ, must be resurrected in a clear-eyed, authentic living, day by day, moment by moment focused on the advancement of the Kingdom that lasts.

Building a Publishing Platform

Dan Reid of InterVarsity Press has some informative thoughts about how authors and potential authors can establish a “publishing platform” for their books.  Here is a taste:

Marketers in publishing houses today habitually ask, “What’s the author’s platform?” What’s the place on which they stand and can be seen above the crowd—what’s their name recognition, their associated institutions, their networks of influential people? Who are the tribes listening to them? Who are the opinion shapers who will endorse and promote their book? 

In the comments section of the post a reader asks, “Dan, so what I hear you saying is this–author’s go forth and promote yourselves!  Is this correct?”


I like Reid’s answer: “…I hesitate to say ‘promote yourselves’ (something I personally recoil from), if you know what I mean.  But I would say ‘promote your ideas,’ in the sense that you thought them worth writing about, so they should be worth promoting in the marketplace of ideas.”

What Do You Need to Publish for Tenure?

Do several articles in peer-review journals fit the bill? Or do you need to have published a book? According to this study by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California-Berkeley, it all depends on your discipline.

Most research universities still require historians seeking tenure to require a book. Here are some of the history-specific findings:

  • Peer-reviewed articles, chapters in edited collections, edited collections, and documentary editions do not replace the monograph in tenure decisions.
  • Electronic books or e-books are gaining ground, but they have not reached the level of prestige associated with a hard copy book published by a prestigious university press.
  • Historians are still skeptical of non-peer-reviewed writing and articles that appear on websites such as History News Network.
  • Writing for public audiences is encouraged, but too much of it can work against a scholar coming up for tenure.
  • Most research universities require a book for tenure and a second or third book for promotion to full professor.
  • The success of a book and its contribution to the field is judged by reviews in major journals.
  • The “most competitive” departments are now requiring two books and “three to five articles in top journals” for tenure.
  • The “two books for tenure” requirement seems to be “trickling down” to less prestigious colleges and universities
  • History graduate students are much more “professionalized” than they were a generation ago.
  • Pre-tenure scholars are encouraged not to distract themselves with college service or teaching.
  • Disciplinary politics always play a role in tenure decisions.
  • Commercial presses are less impressive than university presses for first books written by faculty at prestigious universities

This is an amazingly thorough and valuable report. I would make chapter 6, the chapter dealing with the discipline of history, required reading in any graduate program in the field.

There is a clear elitism to this report. It assumes that the tenure process at Research One universities is representative of the tenure process for academic historians everywhere. Most historians teaching in American colleges and universities do not have these kinds of requirements placed upon them. The fact that a scholar does not need two books for tenure does not mean that he or she is somehow less of an historian than those at the big research institutions. Yet this seems precisely how a “historian” is defined in this report.

Read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

What If You Write a Book That Nobody Reads?

I am very thankful that people are reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home, especially because books published by university presses, especially first books published by university presses, are not often read. I was reminded of this after reading Peter Dorchester’s (a pen name) somewhat depressing essay, “My Book, My Dreams.

Dorchester is a literary critic who published his dissertation with a university press. Unfortunately, the press priced his book so high that only libraries bought copies. The subject matter was so specialized that the press could not sell enough copies to justify a paperback edition. Dorchester wondered for a long time if anyone was actually going to read his book. In fact, one of his own graduate students was not aware of his book despite the fact that it was pertinent to her dissertation research.

Yet, Dorchester claims that he has not been a “total failure.” His book helped him get tenure and it is now occasionally cited in footnotes of other books. His name is out there and he is happy about that.

Anyone on the tenure-track needs to read Dorchester’s honest and insightful essay–even if it serves as a lesson for what NOT to do when you are trying to get published.

How to Get Your First History Book Published With Oxford

Is anyone out there shopping a first book manuscript? Perhaps you are working the book exhibit at the AHA this weekend.

If so, then check out Randall Stephens’s interview with Susan Ferber, an executive editor in history at Oxford University Press. Ferber talks about how to write a proposal, multiple submissions, turning a dissertation into a book, the rise of American religious history, and forthcoming titles from OUP.

Here are some highlights:

On writing a proposal: Get your argument up front . And no typos!

Multiple submissions?: Go for it.

On turning a dissertation into a book: Make sure the chapters are connected into a compelling narrative.

On the rise of American religious history: Ferber is looking for books on religion that intersect with larger themes.

On forthcoming titles: Get ready for Linford Fisher‘s forthcoming work on religion and Indians in early America.