Roundtable on How NOT To Write Your Second Book: Timothy Mennel on Publishing

Continuing our roundtable “How NOT To Write Your Second Book,” Timothy Mennel, an executive editor of University of Chicago Press, looks at how the second book differs from the first.

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Tell me if this sounds familiar, either for yourself or for scholars you know: “So my plan is to complete my dissertation by next May. After that, I’ll be on the market. I’ll take whatever job I can, but my focus is going to be on getting a book contract from a university press, speeding through the peer review process, and getting the leverage I need to move to an R1. And then I can start my real work. The second book is where I’ll do what I really want to. And it will be trade. I’m tired of writing just for SHEAR.”

Now, what happens, of course, is that the dissertation takes three years to finish, the job market is worse than anyone could have imagined, the peer-review process is brutal, but the book does finally come out. And no matter what else has happened—that dream of doing what you really want to, which often is framed as writing that second book as a trade book, lives on.

I am not implying that academics should not have plans and dreams. I am saying that the process of developing ideas for trade books and, more important, developing the capacity for writing those books, is not something that exists in a vacuum. It is an intimate product of who you are as a scholar, who you are as a person, and how well you know yourself.

Any first book is an act of will. You must be driven to make all the sacrifices required, from the moment you choose to start graduate school. But a first book is a project—arguably, the project—that our graduate system in the humanities is designed to produce. (How does a monograph make another monograph? Through you.) You have advisors, workshops, writing groups, symposiums, and various other mechanisms that are there to abet your writing of that book.

A second book is different. While you are not without support, that intensive scaffolding is gone. You are a far more capable scholar than you were when you started your first book, but the second book comes not just from your head but from your heart and your personality. As a result, it can be much harder to write—and it’s much harder to see where you might be going wrong. It’s very likely, too, that the first book process has changed you. Both for the better, if you’ve gotten good editorial support, but also in ways that can inhibit your ability to move into other registers. You’ve spent a long time cultivating a set of habits whose limits you are now trying to transcend.

Deciding to write a trade book, for that “general public” (which doesn’t actually exist), raises a host of practical questions about agents, contracts, etc., and it often requires developing a different sense of the hierarchy of publishers. But those are procedural issues. There are larger questions that I think you should ask yourself before taking on a trade project, such as:

What is the scope of this book? Often people’s proposals for second books struggle with scope. Many scholars set out to write something that is essentially a side project of the first book. It draws on similar research or similar archives, and it doesn’t make them stretch. But the opposite problem is common, too; having written a well-regarded monograph on settlement patterns in the Yazoo Valley, 1814–1837, the author now sets out to write a multivocal history of global capitalism.

This is where editors and, in a different way, agents, can play larger roles. Editors and agents who work on trade books (at commercial houses but also at the larger university presses) read manuscripts and proposals of all kinds, every day. We talk in detail, regularly, with sales, marketing, and publicity professionals. We have numbers on how things sell. When you are pitching a trade book, you are pitching a financial proposition; and when you are asking a publisher to make a substantial financial investment in you, more is going to be asked of you in return.

You made sacrifices to write your first book; you will make different sacrifices to write this one. To succeed here, you need to be comfortable with this idea. And so, for example, you need to be able to listen when someone who is likely not a scholar tells you that your voice is too stiff, or you’ve overannotated or overqualified your material, or you’ve buried the most important point, or that at a certain point you need to put narrative and character ahead of historiography. If an editor or an agent tells you, “I don’t know what your point is” or “I’d cut chapters 2, 3, and 6” or “Could you focus more on Mary Todd?” you have to be able to hear the truths in those things, which are: you are clogging your argument with detail; you don’t have a well-shaped story; and your depictions of famous people don’t come to life.

You should also ask yourself: Am I capable of writing this book? That’s a question of raw ability but also of intense honesty. (Authors have told me on occasion that they are inventing a new kind of history; they aren’t, and you almost certainly won’t be either.) You have to continuously remind yourself of all the things that the “general reader” does not know. And you have to be able to create an engaging narrative that enlightens without lecturing. Maybe you have this ability, but maybe you don’t. Maybe you had it once, but it has atrophied or been beaten out of you by the very processes that got you to this point.

I was working with a trade author recently who, while brilliant, didn’t quite have the general reader’s interests in mind at all times. He fought my third (or was it the fourth?) round of edits fiercely—until he took his complaints to his nonscholarly book group, whose members said as one, “Thank god someone finally told you.”

Your editor is not always going to be right, but you have to have the sensibility to listen to him or her, and to the demands of marketing, when they come. That can mean, among much else, things like a different title and a different opening or structure, and it can mean getting comfortable with an extremely boiled-down set of talking points. The proposal you send out often gets compressed by an editors into a one- or two-page statement for others at the press; that in turn becomes the basis for a paragraph or two for most promotional purposes; and by the time a sales representative or publicist is out there pitching your book to a bookstore buyer or to national media, it’s often become one sentence or even less.

Whether you can embrace this kind of approach is less a product of what you know than of who you are. A book is a lot of work, and you don’t want the result to be miserable people, whether readers, your editor, your publicist, your agent, or especially yourself.

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