How to Write a Book in 674 Easy Steps (Part One)

by Kevin Jon Heller

So, I finished my book on the Nuremberg Military Tribunals last Friday.

Okay, that’s a lie.  Or at least an exaggeration.  I still have about 2,500 footnotes to fix (literally).  And a few thousand precious, perfectly crafted words to cut.  But I have a very polished first draft of the text.  I even printed it out to see how big it would look.  (Answer: big.)

I now find myself somewhat mired in PBD — post-book depression.  The only thing more difficult than writing a book is not writing one.  I have a number of projects stacked up, but I still feel rather lost when I wake up in the morning and don’t have another chapter, another section, another paragraph of the book to think about.  I can already tell that I’ll start writing a second book sooner rather than later.

While I have the time, I thought I might write a series of posts reflecting on how I wrote my first book — and discussing how young scholars can write their first one.  My advice will probably not be particularly helpful for our non-American academic readers, most of whom will have written doctoral dissertations.  But I know how lost I was when I set out to write the book, never having written anything longer than two 30,000 word law-review articles.  (My book is about 165,000 words.)  So I hope our American readers will get something out of my reflections.  (And needless to say, I encourage readers to chime in with their thoughts, as well.)

Should I Write a Book?

That, of course, is the threshold question.  I started thinking about my book my second year of teaching, while I was still at the University of Georgia, and began to work seriously on it my third year, when I was at Auckland.  I was confident that I had a great project — more on that in the next section — but I was not sure whether I should try writing a book so early in my career.  (I’m now in my sixth year of teaching.)  I asked a number of colleagues, at Georgia and elsewhere, and was consistently “encouraged” not to write a book until I had tenure.  (The opposite of the humanities and social sciences, where a book is basically a prerequisite for tenure.)  My colleagues all thought that disappearing from publishing for two or three years that early in my career, while I wrote the book, was a bad idea.

I think for many young scholars, that’s good advice.  It takes a long time to write a book, and it’s almost impossible to publish other work while you’re doing so.  (Unless you are Eric Posner or Adrian Vermuele, of course, and you can write two different articles at the same time, one with your left hand and one with your right.)  So you will indeed disappear for a while, which can be a problem when you are trying to get yourself noticed in your field.

That said, the advice did not completely apply to me.  First, I had already decided to leave Georgia for Auckland when I made the decision to write the book.  Books are much more common in legal academia outside the U.S., where PhDs are the norm, so I was reasonably certain that taking the time to write one would not be viewed as a negative by Auckland, even if it meant not publishing much for two years.  Second, I was in a somewhat different position than many third-year academics: I was blogging here at Opinio Juris. I was confident that, as long as I could continue blogging regularly, disappearing from “formal” publishing for a while would be less problematic than if I wasn’t blogging.  I think I was right.  At least I like to think I was.

What Should I Write a Book About?

Another important question — one for which I have little advice, other than to say that it’s important to pick a topic that will hold your interest for a really, really long time.  My love of World War II history sustained me through the dog days in the middle of the book, when I felt that the writing process would never end.  I can’t imagine trying to write a book about something I didn’t find fascinating, no matter how important I thought the book would be.

That said, it’s also important to pick a topic that will add something to the literature.  I know exactly where the idea for my book came from — my desire to read a book like the one I just wrote.  I became interested in the NMTs through the crime of aggression, and I remember scouring the web looking for a book that discussed the jurisprudence of the twelve trials as a whole.  I was shocked that one had never been written — that scholars had invariably focused on individual trials (particularly Farben and the Medical case).  So I decided to write the book myself.

How Do I Get a Book Contract?

Okay, you’ve decided to write a book.  And you have a fantastic idea for one.  What then?  How does a young scholar get a book contract?

Here American academics are at a significant disadvantage.  I think a very high percentage of non-American academics  publish their dissertations as their first books.  They may significantly rewrite their dissertation, but having 80-100,000 words on a single topic is obviously a huge head start.  More important, if you write a fantastic dissertation, publishers are likely to give you a contract before you rewrite it.

Young American academics, then, have to find a publisher who is willing to take a chance on them.  In my own case, blogging at Opinio Juris once again proved invaluable.  The blog had begun to develop a relationship with Oxford University Press, so I emailed John Louth, the Editor-in-Chief at OUP UK (who might have been a Senior Editor at the time; memory fails), and asked if he would meet me for coffee the next time I was passing through London.  We met a couple of months later, and I used the surprising absence of a book on the 12 NMT trials to pitch him the idea of OUP giving me a contract to write one.  John encouraged me to put together a proposal that he could send out for review.  That was obviously far short of any kind of commitment, but it gave me the confidence to put aside other things for a month while I worked on the proposal.

I was, of course, very fortunate to have an “in” with OUP.  Most young scholars would not have the same kind of direct access to a senior editor at a leading press.  But I don’t think that is an insuperable obstacle.  My sense — admittedly anecdotal — is that editors genuinely enjoy working with new authors on their first book and are always looking for promising young academics.  That certainly seems to be the case with John, and I can’t imagine it’s different at other presses.

The more difficult issue, then, is access.  Here I think young academics should do what we do in many different areas of our careers: rely on more senior friends and colleagues.  Find out which scholars who have supported you for hiring, promotion, and the like have published books.  Unless you’re a total wallflower, you should have supporters who have connections at a few different presses.  Rank the presses in the order you’d like to approach them.  (I think it would be very bad form to submit a book proposal to multiple presses at once.)  And then ask the most appropriate supporter if she would be willing to contact her editor on your behalf.

You will, of course, need a book proposal to send to the editor.  And your supporter will most likely want to see one before she puts her own reputation on the line for you.  My next post, therefore, will address how to write a good proposal — something that takes a considerable amount of time and effort.

9 Responses

  1. Thanks, Kevin. I think your idea to write a series of little pieces on the process of publishing a book is fantastic and really rather useful. Good job.

  2. Thanks, Tom.  I was — am? — worried it will be seen as completely self-aggrandizing…

  3. I don’t think it’s self-aggrandising at all, but I do think it will be of particular use to people in the US system where you are not essentially required to have a PhD. I would add–between decide to write a book and get a book contract–a very important stage of research design and shaping of the research question. I know you’re going to deal with book proposal in the next post, but I do think it needs a little elaboration at this point because people shouldn’t be at all daunted by it. It needs to be well considered and crafted, but it’s not an unreasonably difficult task. Designing your research question and methodology will usually be the key to writing a good book proposal, just as it is the key to writing a good PhD proposal or even a good article outline. Of course, the type of book you’re writing will have a lot to say about how you design it. If you are writing a ‘teaching book’ then you have a certain degree of ‘coverage’ forced upon you, although you can decide to take a particular ‘angle’ or theme that frames that material, which can distinguish your book from others. However, if you’re writing a monograph–as most academics will do at some point and certainly as it expected at some point from an academic in the UK and Ireland–then a good clear research question, argument and structure within your book proposal is generally considered invaluable.
    I actually don’t think ‘access’ is any barrier to getting the contract; if you have a strong and original proposal then you should get a book contract. In my view people shy away from approaching the ‘big’ publishers because they think that they wouldn’t even look at a proposal from someone whose name they don’t recognise: nothing could be further from the truth from what I can see (I am currently working with CUP but I have no reason to believe any other publisher is different). The two main publishers of monographs in law–OUP and CUP–will both send book proposals for review to at least two reviewers. Those reviewers will not know who the proposer is. Once you are grown up and famous perhaps you don’t get sent for review anymore, I don’t know, but for early career academics like you and me the blind review process is key: we get book contracts because we have good ideas, not because of who we are. This, of course, is the virtue of the peer review process: equality of opportunity as well as producing (generally) very high quality work. Therefore the proposal design should be given plenty of time and plenty of thought.
    Of course knowing someone ‘inside’ the publishing house is useful, especially to find out what the process within the publisher is and to have someone to touch base with, but I don’t think it makes any difference to whether you get the contract or not. Furthermore there is absolutely no barrier to anyone having that contact: at every major conference there will be book stands from the major publishers and standing behind them will be commissioning editors. Talk to them, get to know them, give them your card, follow up with a ‘nice to meet you’ email, and ask them any questions about process you want when you are designing your book proposal. I know your next post will be on the proposal, but I just wanted at this stage to say that in my view you can rely on yourself and your proposal–and don’t need to get too hung up on ‘champions’ if you can’t identify one–provided you have a good and well crafted idea. (I’d also say if you haven’t done a PhD there is a lot to be said for reading Patrick Dunleavy’s excellent ‘Authoring a PhD’ Chapters 1-3 when preparing your proposal; it is nothing short of a bible for research design, PhD or otherwise).

  4. Definitely looking forward to your book, CCL10 stories should be amazing. When do you think it will be out in a print?

  5. Thanks to all for the comments.  🙂 — it should be out by the end of May.

  6. Only one quibble with this interesting post “young academics”.  As someone who entered academia at 44,  I would suggest “academics early in their careers’ or something like that.  Wouldn’t want to have publishers inadvertently be thought to do age discrimination.

  7. I’ll second Ben’s comment – having entered academia at 50, the phrase “young” no longer applies (although “juvenile” might).

    From my perspective, the issue in your second section “What Should I Write a Book About” is a significant one – probably MORE so for us novices than the more accomplished among you.  So  much already being written and published – how to determine that one’s idea will do anything other than add additional sediment to the intellectual deltas?

  8. Congrats, Kevin!

    I hope you have some time now to reply your e-mails. 🙂

  9. Kevin, congratulations!

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