Getting started on an academic book: five questions to ask

The Source
By: Lucy Frisch, Tue Mar 5 2019
Lucy Frisch

Author: Lucy Frisch

Academic Book Week (#AcBookWeek) is a week-long celebration of the diversity, variety and influence of academic books throughout history run by the Booksellers Association, returning for a fourth year from 4-9 March 2019. This week on The Source, we are recognizing the important role of academic books, including how they engage critical audiences such as the media and policy-makers, as well as reflecting on their evolution and what the future might hold for this research format.

This article was originally posted on the Nature Jobs blog.

Turning your academic book ‘idea’ into a solid concept can be done,
says Jessica Eise

Publishing an academic book is an accomplishment to which many aspire. A book is, essentially, your work, thoughts and research agglomerated in one neat, tidy package of bound paper. It’s rewarding both personally and professionally. Not only are you sharing your ideas and contributions to the broader world, but you can actually hold in your hands the fruit of your labor.

Yet the process from “vague idea” to publishing contract is truly a process. In 2016, my first academic book was published. It took about two years to go from idea to print. During that process, and the recent signing of a second contract for another book, I learned a great deal about publishing that I didn’t know before — and garnered a deep appreciation for the development a book undergoes before you even start thinking about contracts.

The hardest part for me was going from ‘idea’ to a solid concept that can be crafted into a killer proposal. Here are five critical questions that helped get me there:

What does your book add to the existing literature?

This needs to be crystal clear, and it won’t be until you can summarize it succinctly in just a couple of sentences. Don’t panic if it’s not readily obvious. Take some time to explore the literature, search for holes, identify trends and be willing to adapt your idea. Remember, don’t write what you want to write, write what needs to be written.

I was able to identify the space my book would fill in the literature when I was looking for resources for my graduate class. I knew what I wanted them to read — a book that provided a timely, overarching picture of agricultural communication today — but that just didn’t exist. I needed it, so I wrote it.

Why are you the right person to write this book?

That doesn’t mean just sticking to your subject area — there are further things to consider. First, can you conduct the type of research you need to complete a book on this subject? For example, if you need a lot of firsthand interviews, are you disciplined enough to hunt them down and are you sure they’ll speak to you?

Additionally, if you’re already juggling a busy schedule, you may not even have the time to get what you need. How willing are you to actually write? A book is all about writing. If you’re not into that, then you may not be the right person. It’s not all over just yet, though! You could seek out a coauthor who does like writing, and strike up a prearranged agreement (emphasis on ‘pre’) on splitting up the workload.

My book was heavily dependent on interviews and citations of existing research. This was right up my alley. With a background in journalism, first person interviews weren’t a problem, and neither was digging into existing research and citing heavily.

Who are you writing for?

We want to write for everyone, because shouldn’t everyone get to learn how cool our field is? Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for an academic book. You need to identify exactly who you want to write for. Graduate students? Undergraduate students? Your immediate colleagues? Stakeholders in your field? Practitioners in your field? Policymakers? There needs to be one crisp, clear audience. Be specific.

This is where I struggled the most with my book. I wanted it to be for everyone, and it ended up being for no one until I narrowed it down. Although there may be value for a broader audience, it should be written with one particular group in mind. Stay focused.

Where will your book be used?

If you don’t know who the book is for, you don’t know how it will be used. This matters. Books can be used in many different ways. They can be primary textbooks in an undergraduate course. They can be supplemental reads in a graduate course. They can be training material for a group of practitioners. And where it’s going will affect how it’s written so you need to decide this early.

Right now, my book is used in both graduate and undergraduate classrooms, as well as by industry professionals. I’m happy with who is reading it, but I suspect the adoption rate would have been cleaner and more direct if the purpose had been better defined from the get-go.

How are you going to get your book out there?

Do you have any way of ensuring that people see and read your book? Chances are your academic publisher isn’t going to do very much marketing for you. Be prepared to facilitate and build awareness of your work. The good news is that if your book truly offers a unique and valuable addition to the existing literature, it’ll do most of the work for you. But it does still take work and time.

When my book came out, I contacted everyone I knew, and got in touch with appropriate media sources. My department submitted it for an award. A journal has agreed to review it. These are perfectly natural ways of getting the word out about a new resource. But they won’t happen if you don’t make them happen, and you need to think about that from Day One. This isn’t something to tag on at the end.

Very, very rarely does the idea for a book appear in one brilliant moment. Nor is it likely that a publisher will come begging with contract in hand on the first, second or even third iteration of a proposal. But writing an academic book is a rewarding and challenging process. There’s no way to go through it without learning as much, if not more, than those who will be reading your work.

Read more academic books content from Nature Careers:

About Jessica Eise

Jessica Eise is an active blogger, author and researcher. Her books include How to Feed the World, The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture and other works. Jessica is currently the principal investigator on a multidisciplinary, international grant-funded project to create a climate change adaptation information network in Colombia. She has a master’s in journalism and international relations from New York University and formerly worked in international media production, new media and communications.

Lucy Frisch

Author: Lucy Frisch

Lucy Frisch is a Senior Marketing Manager leading the Content Marketing Programmes team, based in the New York office. She has a passion for storytelling and works to humanize the research published across Springer Nature with a focus on the researcher experience.

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