The Road to Published: The Making of an Edited Volume (Part I)

book cover small A few people said they’d like to hear about the process of getting my forthcoming edited volume, Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations, McCarthyism and the CIA published. The road has been a long one, almost exactly five years from inception to (planned) publication, so I decided to take a few posts and describe in as much detail as I can recall how I’ve managed this.

This is not intended to be “an expert’s guide to getting published” — in fact, it is presented more as a non-expert’s guide. I’ve had to learn most of this as I went along, and I’m hoping that knowing how I managed to get the project completed might help others like me — first-time academic authors — to navigate the system just a little bit more easily.

The idea occurred to me in early 2003 as I was doing my dissertation research. Since my project deals with anthropology in the 1950s, I had wanted to spend some time discussing the political and institutional context in which anthropology functioned in the early Cold War period. This turned out to be harder than I had thought it would be; as it happens, there’s quite a bit of material about the theoretical shifts that took place in the ’50s but very little about the material forces at work: the expansion of the university system, the blacklisting of anthropologists, the expansion of funding sources, the CIA’s hesitant courtship of anthropologists, and so on. There were a few good articles floating around, but no monographs (David Price’s Threatening Anthropology wouldn’t come out for another year), and even some of the otherwise good recent surveys of anthropological history (Patterson’s Social History of Anthropology in the US and Darnell’s Invisible Genealogies) paid scant attention to the institutional history of this period.

So I decided to organize a panel at the 2003 AAA Annual Meetings, entitled “Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War”. I sent out a call for papers over a couple of lists (ANTHRO-L, the then-fledgling History of Anthropology Committee’s notification list, and I think the Cultural Anthropology Section’s list). I also contacted a couple of people I knew I wanted to be involved directly: David Price and Eric Ross, for instance, and George Stocking, too — as the “dean” of US history of anthropology, I knew I had to get him involved.

The response was promising, and the panel was accepted. Over the summer, I wrote my own contribution, an essay on Sol Tax’s institutional efforts in the 1950s, especially his founding of Current Anthropology, and when November rolled around, I was excited for what I thought would be a pretty interesting discussion.

The response to the panel exceeded even my high expectations. We went on at 8am Saturday morning — not an auspicious time. The turn-out was around 30 or 40 people, though, hangovers be damned! All day Saturday and Sunday, people stopped me in the corridors to compliment the panel, and I heard from other participants that they’d experienced the same thing. Several of the panelists told me that we should look at publishing, either as a special edition of some journal or as a book.

I agreed. The presentations had been fantastic, and the Q&A session had been really interesting too. And I felt that this period of our history deserved some critical anthropological attention — after all, it’s when most of this generations teachers, mentors, and influences came of age, and understanding this history is, I feel, essential to understanding the bases of our own disciplinary thought and practice. Since there was so little already out there on the relationship between the various factors characterizing the Cold War period and the development of anthropology at the time, I saw this as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a whole field of study.

Plus, of course, in the wake of 9/11 we’ve seen history repeating itself, mostly as farce.  ACTA’s and Horowitz’s attempts at exposing and villainizing “un-American” anthropologists, at the same time that the military and the CIA are actively pursuing anthropological involvement in their work via PRISP and now HTS, echo loudly the blacklists of the McCarthy era and the CIA’s and DoD’s support of anthropological research in the ’50s and ’60s.

One of the panelists, Frank Salamone, suggested a few publishers to contact, and David Price suggested I get in touch with Mitch Allen at AltaMira Press, so I put together a prospectus and sent it out.

OK, that’s a lie. First, I had to figure out how to write a prospectus. Or, really, what a prospectus was. Several of the publishers’ websites had information about what they wanted to see, so that was helpful. As it happens, I had picked up William Germano’s Getting It Published at the U of Chicago’s booth at the AAAs; Germano’s book is a pretty good guide to the world of academic publishing and offered some good information on what a prospectus should look like.

Here’s the skinny: a prospectus for an academic publisher isn’t much different from a proposal for any project. Your goal is to say what your project is, why it’s important, and most crucially, why it will sell. Like it or not, academic publishing is a business just as much as mainstream publishing, with the only difference being that sales figures are typically measured in the thousands instead of the tens of thousands. They want to know who will be interested in this book, what classes it might be used in, what professional organizations they might rent mailing lists from to promote the book, and what journals and other media they might advertise in. They want to know what big star you might be able to get to write blurbs for the cover or a preface, and what other big stars they could get to review it.

I learned that lesson the hard way — my first round of proposals was either rejected or ignored by everyone I sent it to. Back to the drawing board; I re-wrote the prospectus and started looking for new publishers to send it to. I learned that Mitch Allen had left AltaMira and started a new company, Left Coast Press. Someone, maybe Frank Salamone, told me about Mellin Press. And there were a couple of others, I forget who now.

The first response wasn’t good, but it wasn’t entirely bad either. Mitch Allen emailed me to say that while he thought the book sounded interesting, edited volumes tend to be too risky for a newly-established press to get involved with. Bummer! But, he went on, I should try Pluto Press, which tends to do a lot of edited books. This, my friends, is a whole lot better than a stick in the eye! So I checked out Pluto Press, made a few changes to the prospectus, and sent it off.

Meanwhile, I got an offer from Mellin Press. Mellin specializes in print-on-demand books especially targeted for sale to libraries: big, richly-printed and bound volumes on thick archival paper meant to last until the fall of civilization (or 100 years, whichever takes longer). The deal they offer is what I gather is a pretty typical one in academic publishing: they own the work lock, stock, and barrel and pay royalties only after a fixed number are sold, in Mellin’s case 500 copies. Since their average sales are only 300 (remember, they market almost exclusively to libraries) royalties seemed unlikely, but that’s the lot we academics choose for ourselves, right?

What bothered me more was the price; Mellin books run around $120-140! I really wanted this book to be bought and used — I can see it as a great addition to a history of anthro class, or a class like the “Anthropology and Power” class I took in grad school — and I wouldn’t wish that kind of cost on any fellow struggling grad students. Or professors, for that matter. At $120, I knew nobody would buy the book, and if nobody bought it, nobody would read it. And if nobody read it, what was the point?

By this point, though, Pluto Press was the only publisher I hadn’t heard back from. I emailed the editor there saying I had an offer on the table and I was waiting to hear back from them before I made a commitment. The editor, Anne Beech, emailed me back saying she was very interested, but she had to present the proposal to her colleagues before they could make a decision.

I nervously agreed to wait — “nervously” because I didn’t want to lose the only offer I had if ended up Pluto rejecting it. Meanwhile, the 2005 AAAs were coming up, which I didn’t go to, but Ms. Beech did. While there, she attended David Price’s panel on anthropology and war (which I’d been invited to present a paper for, but I knew I couldn’t afford to go) and came away totally fired up about the issues David and his colleagues had raised — and about the book.

I like to think that she strolled into the editorial meeting breathing fire and shooting lightning out of her eyes in defense of the proposal; whether or not that’s true, she did get Pluto to commit to the book, and by January I had a contract on the way. The deal was much better — paperback publication (which means much more affordable prices), widespread marketing (which means much more chance that people will find out about the book), more author-friendly copyright terms, copies for all my contributors (Mellin offered my 5 copies, I think — for 7 contributors, plus myself), and, of course, royalties. Maybe I won’t get rich with my book on anthropology and the Cold War, but at least there’s some recognition that this is actually work — hard work! — and my time and labor aren’t completely without value.

With a contract in hand, it was time to get down to the business of actually putting the book together — and that will be the subject of my next post in this series.

5 thoughts on “The Road to Published: The Making of an Edited Volume (Part I)

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, oneman. Very enlightening – especially your comments regarding the kinds of topics you covered in the various proposals you wrote. Might you be willing to share the successful proposal? In my department, successful grant and dissertation proposals were, with the writer’s permission, saved for other students to look over. A lot of us found it very useful to get a sense of the genre we were learning to be skillful in.

  2. Lev, I’ll try to put at least excerpts in my follow-up post — I need to “prep” it for public consumption so any private info — mine and my contributors’ — is removed. Since I’m in the heat of finals season, it will probably not be until next week at the earliest.

    Glad this is helpful stuff.

  3. Oneman —

    A TOC from the book would be great as well, if its available — Amazon and Google Book make it hard to see what’s inside it.

    c o n g r a t u l a t i o n s !

  4. The TOC is available on the “Pluto website”: ; I’d post the link but it’s ungainly long. Interestingly, the editor is listed on the book page as being an associate professor at the New School. Has there been some career advancement you haven’t been sharing with us?

  5. No career advancement, alas. Just a mistake — as it happens, there’s a *lot* of people involved in making a book, and somewhere among them, a miscommunication happened. The New School is my grad school; I’m an adjunct instructor at the school I work at now; it’s possible that the staff, which is based in London, wasn’t familiar with that title and figured it must be the same as associate prof, and someone confused the school I went to with the school I teach at. I’ve asked them to change that, so I assume by the time the book is out, that will happen.

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