Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Postacademic (page 1 of 18)

Writing and Research

Kevin Birmingham’s Truman Capote Award Acceptance Speech, which he won for his book about the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is getting some well-deserved attention for its reflections on the state of the academy, criticism, and the powers that are shaping scholarship (away from projects like his) and destroying careers.

I recognize my own work in this line:

If my book deserves recognition, then we must also recognize that no young scholar with any sense would be foolish enough to write it. Graduate students must tailor their research projects to a fickle job market, and a book like mine simply doesn’t fit…. The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees a trade book is merely a book that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.

I wouldn’t have written a book as intellectually ambitious and revisionist as REST when I was a young journeyman academic, and still wouldn’t have touched it until I had become a full professor and was untouchable (or had decided I DGAF). I always knew how the game was played. And I think my life would have been poorer and less interesting as a result.

Among other things, the experience of working with a trade press has challenged me in ways academic writing did not. Of course, you can rightly argue that I’ve merely traded one set of institutional and market constraints for another; but by virtue of its size and variety, I would argue that the world of trade publishing is one that’s receptive to a wider range of projects than academia. We never escape systems and incentives, but some are stricter than others.

Anyway, read Birmingham’s entire piece. It’s well worth it.

On the experience of shopping a book proposal

Following my piece on agents and why you want one, a brief note on shopping a proposal.

Rejection is inevitable.

You know those stories about how Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 37 publishers before someone finally saw its potential? Before I pitched my first trade press book, it seemed incredible that such books wouldn’t be snapped up; now, I hear those kinds of stories and think, Yeah, that’s how it works.

For each of my books, my agent sent out copies of the proposal to a couple dozen editors. (They go out to a bunch at once; pitching a book is like being on Tinder, and no one should have any expectation that they’re the only one you’ve expressed interest in.) In each case, we had a couple serious expressions of interest, and managed to land excellent deals for both books.

But that came after lots of rejections. The book is too vague. The book is too specific. The book is really a magazine article. The author’s an unknown quantity. The last book didn’t sell well enough. It’s not a good fit. Ariana Huffington’s book covers  the same territory. Gladwell already talked about this on p. 137 of The Tipping Point. Easily a dozen rejections.

Getting rejections sucks. You know it’s not personal, that most editors read the first couple pages and make a gut decision (they hardly have time to do more than that)— but it still feels lousy, and as they pile up, they can press on your confidence. It requires real effort to have faith that you’ve done good work, and that someone at some point will recognize it.

But getting an offer for your book is like getting a marriage proposal. You only need one good one to restore your faith in yourself, and to move forward with your life.

One of the other interesting things is that rejections tend to be kind of offhand, as very few people take the time to explain in any great detail what they think is wrong with your book and how you could make it right, expressions of interest are more detailed and specific. An editor may just have a feeling that a book’s not for them, but they’ll be able to explain exactly why they like a proposal.

However, if you get a couple publishers interested in the book, you move on to the auction phase.

How auctions work.

This will be designed and directed by the agent. As I understand it, based on the level of excitement around your proposal, an agents will decide how many rounds of bidding there will be, what kinds of rights are up for sale, and how long publishers have to make offers and counteroffers. In general publishers don’t know who they’re bidding against (though I’m sure people talk, and for some specialized books you can guess who else is going to be interested in it), or who has submitted the highest offer.

Not everyone will make exactly the same kind of offer. Publishers can offer an advance paid out of three or four installment; they can ask for just domestic rights, or world rights (which they’ll then sell on to other publishers, in order to offset their investment); there’s some wiggle room in electronic rights or audiobooks. I think the domestic versus world rights is the biggest variable. If you think your book has international potential, and if your agent has a good network of foreign agents they work with, you might take a lower offer and keep the international rights, and try to sell them yourself; or you may sell all the rights and take the higher advance.

Even if you get a nice advance, you’ll get it over three or four payments, spread out over the life of your project. For example, a $100K advance— which is really great— will probably pay out over two or three years. You’ll get a chunk upon signing. You’ll get another installment after final revisions are approved. Another check will come upon publication. Sometimes there’s a fourth milestone— turning in the draft, for example. Take six figures, spread them out over a couple years and over several checks, and it gets smaller.

And don’t forget that you have to deduct taxes and commission from that, so $100K is really more like $60K.

Finally, don’t imagine that you sign and the money is transferred instantly into your account; expect a delay of somewhere between a couple weeks and a geological epoch. I don’t think publishers are intentionally slow, but they’re also not high frequency traders or PayPal.

A couple other pieces of wisdom.

First, you’re not going to get a life-changing quantity of money. Life-improving, certainly; but unless you live very frugally, it won’t be enough to let you quit your day job. (Many writers don’t seem to do that until they’ve published three or four books, anyway, and many never do. It’s simply a fact.) However, it’ll help pay off some bills, or kids’ tuition, or a vacation after you’re done. Which is not bad given that you’re doing something that you probably would do anyway.

Second, in the marketplace, the value of your next book is mainly determined by sales of your last book. An editor might see you as having potential, or evolving into an outstanding author with a devoted following. (And that does happen. Alan Furst, for example, wrote four books before Night Soldiers, the novel where he discovered his voice as a World War II espionage writer. He didn’t make the New York Times Bestseller list until his sixth World War II book, Kingdom of Shadows. I’m sure his publisher is glad they held on through Dark Star and The Polish Officer and the other books.) But advances aren’t like salaries: raises are not inevitable. They can go down as well as up, or disappear entirely.

Finally, when you write a book, you think you’re building the Parthenon, a timeless work for the ages. You’re not. You’re making dinner for friends. Odds are your book will generate a flurry of excitement, which is awesome; then after a while, the season will end, and it’ll fade, and next year it’ll be another book’s turn. Don’t be deceived if your book gets lots of attention when it first comes out. Enjoy it, by all means, and do everything you can to keep the book in the public eye. But as the Roman said, all glory is fleeting, and ultimately writing is going to be a great opportunity to acquire new reserves of modesty and humility.

Your book might get a stable readership after that, or it might not. It’s not only the good books that have a long tail. There are tons of really terrific books that go out of print, that never quite find a critical mass of readers, that don’t have the good fortune to get one really excited review in the Times. No one can predict whether your book will be a best-seller, or will stay in print for a long time; there are things you can do to nudge the odds in your favor, but no one controls that process.

Why you, first-time author, need a literary agent

I had a long call today with a friend who’s just finished a book and wanted some advice about literary agents. I’ve gotten this question a couple times, mainly from fellow Ph.D.s who are trying to learn about the trade press world. So here I’ll explain the value of literary agents. In another post, I’ll talk a little about shopping a proposal.

So in an age of digital self-publishing, why even look for an agent?

Agents know the market better than you ever will.

The trade press world is quite different from academia, just as the academic and trade marketplaces are different. In fact, I worked in reference publishing, and that didn’t teach me much about the trade press world. Your agent can serve as a guide through this world.

Not only do they have a high-level view of the market and the development process, a good agent has a lot of very specific, timely local knowledge as well. They know which editors are most likely to be interested in your book; what other projects publishers have going, and whether your book would be well-paired with them; who is well-disposed to first-time authors, or your kind of project. They’ll know (more or less) what kinds of deals similar projects have gotten recently.

Finally, if they’re good they’ll be able to help you apply this local knowledge to your own situation. They’ll have a perspective on how your book will differ if you go with X House rather than Y Inc.; help you weigh the pros and cons of working with (for example) a more business-oriented versus a serious nonfiction press; give you a sense of whether you’d be a better fit in a bigger publisher that’s part of a global conglomerate, or a smaller more independent house.

Agents negotiate better deals than you could yourself.

Unless you’re pitching an account about your life as a trade negotiator, your inside view of car dealerships, or your memoir as a door-to-door salesman, odds are you’re better at writing than negotiating advances, or making deals. I’m terrible at talking about money; heck, I’m even not very good at filing reimbursement forms to get back freaking money I’ve already spent and am completely entitled to. What I am good at is writing (or at least it’s what I like to do). Unless you’re a professional deal-maker, it’s better to leave it to the professionals.

And yes, agents take a percentage (normally 15%) off the top; but 85% of what they’ll get you is probably a LOT bigger than 100% of what you’d be able to negotiate for yourself.

Not only are they more experienced, the fact that they work on commission means that their success is directly related to yours. An agent is like a Ph.D. advisor who only gets paid if you get a tenure-track job. Just sit with that idea for a minute. I’ll wait.

Agents help develop your book proposal.

You can write a proposal on your own: the book proposal, like a sermon or scientific article, has a well-articulated structure that anyone can learn about. But like a sermon or scientific article, you’ll write a better one if you’ve seen lots of examples of the craft, and have a smart reader who can look at drafts and give you advice.

A good proposal explains to overworked editors who seen a million of these things every year why your book is special, so you need it to stand out, to grab the editor’s attention from the very beginning. It’s also a demonstration of your professionalism and your ability to write; it signals your commitment; and it provides some early proof that you can get it together enough to turn your white-hot creativity into actual product. The process of writing a proposal can also serve to clarify your ideas, and force you to think hard about what the book is really about, and what you care about.

So a lot is riding on the proposal, and if you have help, you can get a lot out of the process of crafting it.

For me, the proposal is also valuable because it’s like a contract. I love to play around the structure and try out new ways of organizing books; the outline I provide int he contract puts a brake on all that. It says, I’m going to write this book this way, forces me to do the very best job I can within the confines of that structure, and reduces the amount of energy I spend playing around with alternate ways of organizing the book.

It doesn’t eliminate that work completely. Neither of my books follows the proposed outline exactly, but they’re pretty close.

How do you choose an agent?

It’s a subjective process, and it’s a bit like getting married. You should have a sense of what you need, and can describe some of your reasoning; but your decision will also be based on instinct, and that’s fine.

The most important thing is to feel that you can trust your agent’s judgment, and to be willing to take it and act on it. For example, I have a very simple relationship with my agent: she tells me what she thinks I should do, and I do it. It’s worked so far. I’m sure she’s going to give me the best advice she can, that she’s plugged into the publishing world in a way that I’m not, and that there’s a perfect alignment of her interests and mine (remember, her success is directly connected to mine).

Ask friends who’ve written books who represented them. My sense is that a lot of the business is relationship driven; I got introduced to my agent by a friend who was already her client. This doesn’t guarantee that someone will sign you; it’s just a way to get the process started.

Look at authors you like, and see who represents them. And no, don’t just look at who represents Malcolm Gladwell and JK Rowling. Conversely, look at the authors an agent already represents. If they’re people you’d like to like— and not just in terms of sales or success; if their books are the sort you’d want to write— that’s a good sign. On the other hand, if you write historical novels and they represent doctors who write self-help books, then you might not be great together.

Journeyman + 20

Twenty years ago I published an essay on the psychological and practical aspects of leaving academia. I had recently moved from U.C. Davis to Chicago and a job at Encyclopedia Britannica, after several years of postdocs and teaching and endless job applications. At the time, there weren’t that many people talking publicly about leaving academic jobs; few humanities or social science Ph.D.s making the argument that you could achieve everything you wanted to as a scholar and writer outside academia; and even fewer were making the argument that the nonacademic world can be a better place to do thoughtful work.

My table at LSE archives

I had been out of academia for less than a year when I wrote the piece, and just starting a new career. I posted the occasional update to the original essay (and a couple pieces of advice to young graduate students), but yesterday it struck me that now– two decades later, and while I wait for the galleys of my next book to arrive– would be a good time to revisit the question of what kind of life a humanist or historian can craft outside the tenure track, and in particular to talk to graduate students and young Ph.D.s who are both thinking about leaving academia, but who still want to research and write.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that the world is full of interesting questions.

By this I mean a couple things. First, while I was trained to look for interesting projects in the archives, or the interstices of scholarly literatures, I’ve found that the questions I encounter as a consultant or as writer are just as engaging. (This is something I’ve talked about elsewhere.)

Second, I’ve found lots of opportunities to use the tools you acquire in graduate school, and to ask the same kinds of questions I did in the seminar room.

Document storage at LSE archives

For example, my work as a futurist and technology forecaster turns out to be a version of STS. There are people who do tech forecasting as a kind of exercise in utopian determinism, but I haven’t; instead, my work has emphasized the open-ended, contingent nature of technological change and innovation, and argued that we need to look at a variety of forces to understand how the future (or future of some specific technology) might unfold. In other words, it’s an exercise recognizable to anyone who’s been exposed to an academic STS program. What’s been surprising to me is how often something I’m working on or interested in turns out to have a dimension that can be explored using the STS toolkit. (Of course, experience helps. If you do something for a long time you get good at finding opportunities to do it; if you spend a long time looking for a pattern you’ll get good at spotting it.)

This doesn’t mean you can do exactly the same work you’d do if you were a professor somewhere: specialized projects that require months of access to one-of-a-kind materials would be hard to do if you didn’t live near them, or have long stretches of time off to spend with them. But what I’ve found is that while the kinds of things I write about now often are different from what I would be writing about if I were a professor, they’re just as interesting— and often, my work serves as a kind of fieldwork that gives me access to things I would never see as a student or academic.

For example, I’ve been able to write about the sociology and materiality of strategic consulting, drawing on my experience working with clients like Deloitte, Samsung, and the CIA. None of them would have ever been interested in having me just observe them; and I would never have learned about scenario planning, or learned the craft of planning and managing workshops.

Though sometimes you can ask the same questions you did as a student, even if the products and my own voice are different. My latest book on rest is a perfect example. It’s written for a general audience, has a healthy mix of neuroscience and current business stuff, and will be published by a trade press (thank you Basic Books!). But it asks a set of questions about creativity and work that I first encountered as a freshman, in a course with the great Thomas Parke Hughes, and have been interested in ever since.

I’m not sure whether, as a tenured professor looking for a promotion, I could write this kind of book.

Back among my people

The other point worth making here is that when you move from writing straight-on academic work to writing more popular stuff, you’re not exchanging the freedom of the life of the mind for the narrow strictures of the marketplace; you’re trading one set of structures that define what constitutes an interesting problem, what value different kinds of products (articles vs. monographs vs. Web sites) have, who’s going to read them, etc., for another. No writing exists outside a network of forces that help answer those questions; it’s just that in one context, the answers are provided by anonymous journal referees and promotion committees, and in another the answers are provided by acquisitions editors, marketing people, and agents.

But even when they’re different kinds of work, different audiences, different products, it’s possible for futures and consulting work to offer the same kind of intellectual engagement and flow that I was always seeking as a graduate student and postdoc: it’s possible to enjoy this work in the same ways I enjoyed scholarly work. At the end of the day, I think that’s what matters most. You really can’t predict if a book is going to make a big splash, or get a huge readership, or sink without a trace; all you can do is write the best book you can, and have as good as time writing it as possible.

There are lots of resources available to non-academics for building a scholarly habitus.

One obvious concern that you’ll have is that the unique resources of research universities won’t be available to you if you leave, and therefore holding on for a few years of adjuncting in exchange for continued access to the library– and ultimately the hope that you can publish your way out of the margins of the job market and into a permanent job– makes sense.

Perhaps for super-specialized fields, this is true; but I think that for most of us, it’s possible to reassemble our own scholarly habitus. While I was writing REST, I was struck at how much I had come to rely on four sets of resources, three of which are easily available:

Denver Public Library

The public library. Of course it’s awesome to bury yourself in the stack of Sterling or Weidener or wherever; on our last vacation to London, my wife and I chose a hotel not far from the British Library. But for 70% of what I do, my local public library branch is all I really need. You shouldn’t bend the arc of your life in order to have access to those feschrisfts and proceedings that you might use once in blue moon.

Amazon’s used books. Of course, I love my local used bookstores, and Keplers Books; my wife and I always stop at the used bookstores in Willits when we visit Northern California; and I bought an absurd number of books when I was last in England. But Amazon’s used books service lets me buy huge numbers of weird, otherwise impossible-to-find books, at absurdly low prices. I’m not talking about a cheap copy of Daniel Kahneman’s book; I mean some weird thing from 1961 that no one wants, and which is sitting in a warehouse in Pennsylvania.  When a book costs a penny (plus $3.99 shipping), it becomes trivially easy to decide to buy it and try it.

Google Books. For more specialized stuff Google Books is an erratic resource, but when you do find something useful on it, it feels like sorcery.

Of course, having access to a university library, and in particular to its subscriptions to scholarly online journals, is super-helpful. But don’t think that because you can’t spend all your days in the library, your scholarly life is over. You can build a scholarly habitus anywhere. Like the life of the mind, the space for thinking is a lot more portable and durable than we think.

Many great thinkers have had day jobs.

Most writers, musicians, composers, poets, and painters have jobs that pay the bills. One striking commonality in the biographies of famous authors is how many of them don’t quit their job at the advertising agency, as a schoolteacher, or give up their insurance businesses or law practices, until their third or fourth books. It often takes that long for them to establish a name, become familiar enough with the business to move confidently, and sell enough books to keep the wolf from the door.

Indeed, most academics and scholars have day jobs: they’re teachers, administrators, and advisors. As a result, the amount of time you have for your own work after committee meetings, office hours, lecture prep, grading, etc. can be vanishingly small; the fact that you’re completely responsible for managing that time paradoxically makes it feel worse when you don’t manage to crank out a book every two years, or whatever you imagine you should be able to do.

Why is scientific sexism so intractably resistant to reform? | Aeon Essays

Science writer Margaret Wertheim writes about sexism in science. One of the many lines that lines struck me:

I think about all the young women now being forced out of science by harassment and ongoing inequities, and part of me begins to explode. Jahren ends her New York Times piece by telling us that ‘adorably dorky’ – the best student she’s ever had – is considering leaving the field. Two of the complainants against Marcy have left astronomy. What priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science because men in positions of power are unzippering their libidinal urges?

It hadn’t occurred to me before, but one of the reasons this kind of bad behavior can continue is that that we live in an era when lots of “priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science”– and scholarship of all kinds– for all kinds of reasons. For at least the last generation, thanks to the expansion of undergraduate education and overproduction of Ph.D.s, universities have turned themselves into places where brilliant humans are an infinite, disposable resource, not something to be nurtured and sustained.

Source: Why is scientific sexism so intractably resistant to reform? | Aeon Essays

Copy edits!

Just got these in the mail….

Copy edits!
via flickr

Very exciting, in the way that only a vanishingly small number of grinding, attention-demanding tasks can be.

Quote of the Day: Nassim Taleb

“We practitioners and quants aren’t too fazed by remarks on the part of academics – it would be like prostitutes listening to technical commentary by nuns.” (From his new book Antifragile, rather negatively reviewed in the Guardian)

 

“Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them.”

The one problem with writing a book for users, taking a Buddhist-inflected approach to information technologies that emphasizes how people can take back control of their minds, is that I’m less likely to get onto this kind of gravy train:

Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

That number means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama’s failures at any event you want to have me at.

What’s so worrying about this trend is that Niall Ferguson, once upon a time, was the best. I’m one of the few people who has actually read his history of the Rothschilds, The World’s Banker, all 1,040 pages of the thing, and it is brilliant, a model of archival research. I find it fantastically depressing that the man who could write that book could end up writing a book like Civilization or an article with just as much naked silliness as the Newsweek cover.

I feel very much the same way about Victor Davis Hanson, a man whose military history is really absolutely first-rate, whose The Other Greeks fairly exploded with insight into Greek society and philosophy, but who’s been mailing in sloppy, thoughtless pieces ever since he left the farm for The Farm. Sad.

 

Academic publishing “is pure rentier capitalism”

George Monbiot calls publishers like Elsevier and Springer “the most ruthless capitalists in the Western world”:

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

Open-access publishing, despite its promise, and some excellent resources such as the Public Library of Science and the physics database arxiv.org, has failed to displace the monopolists…. The reason is that the big publishers have rounded up the journals with the highest academic impact factors, in which publication is essential for researchers trying to secure grants and advance their careers. You can start reading open-access journals, but you can’t stop reading the closed ones.

Great Michael Lewis piece on luck

Michael Lewis’ Princeton commencement address is terrific. After the obligatory opening joke (“Members of the Princeton Class of 2012. Give yourself a round of applause. The next time you look around a church and see everyone dressed in black it’ll be awkward to cheer. Enjoy the moment”), he talks about writing Liar’s Poker and the role of luck in making that book possible:

I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn’t disinherit me but instead sighed and said “do it if you must?” Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?

This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

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