Interview with Michael McGandy

Michael McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press. He tweets as @michaelmcgandy.

JUNTO: Can you outline the review and production schedule for a first book?

Michael McGandy: If I am talking to a scholar who has just wrapped up his or her dissertation and is prepared to move on to developing the book, I state as a reliable truism that the bound book is four years off. And that presumes all goes well and smoothly! The work of revising the dissertation to make it into a book manuscript is indeterminate and the further work that will need to be done in response to reader reports and then the acquiring editor’s direction is also indeterminate. Those are, as I tend to say, the x-factors. What is pretty well fixed is that external review, in-house processing through Editorial and Faculty Boards, and contracting requires four months. What is also fixed is that producing the book and getting it out into the world on its publication date (the date when it goes live for sale, which is typically four weeks after the bound book is in the warehouse) is 11 months. So, even before a person considers the time needed for new research, revising existing chapters, and adding new material, 15 months are tied up with process. (Now “tied up” is an unkind phrase for key elements of making a book both excellent and saleable! But I know that that is how people scheduling out their early professional calendars tend to think.) When one considers that fact and then all the work that needs to go into developing a manuscript—even as one pays the bills and occasionally takes a break to have some non-scholarly fun—four years go very quickly and often turn out to be barely enough time.

Reflecting on that and taking the opportunity to editorialize, I do think that the well-reviewed first book as the non-negotiable standard for professional success in a tenure-track framework (on the standard six-year schedule) needs to be rethought. Four to six years do fly by, especially when we consider all the other important and engrossing things that usually come with these first years after the PhD (first jobs, new homes in new places, family, etc.). I am not going to name names or institutions, but in this context I think of the positive examples of some recent authors of mine who were tenured without first books and who were given the extra time to work on their book projects. Their research and writing were augmented because the tenure pressure was off and the projects were transformed (for the better) because the authors had six or seven years to make the book excellent. On the whole, I do not think that the schedule for tenure matches very well with the time needed for great scholarship. Filling out the CV sometimes becomes the driving concern and to the detriment of the work itself. Continue reading

Guest Post: Elizabeth Seton and Me: Or, How I Almost Wrote a Book about a Saint Without Mentioning God

Today’s guest post is authored by Catherine O’Donnell. Her book, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint was published this month by Cornell University Press. She is also the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic (UNC Press, 2008) and is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

When I arrived at the archive in Emmitsburg, Maryland, my heart sank. My subject was Elizabeth Seton, woman of the early American republic and saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and the archives to which I’d traveled are held on the grounds of her shrine. In order to be at the archives first thing Monday, I’d arrived on a Sunday and decided to see what was happening nearby. The building adjacent to the archives is a minor basilica, so what was happening was Mass. When a guide asked whether I’d visited the Altar of Relics, I winced. I felt oddly guilty about bring my historian’s purposes and questions into this reverent world. I also knew that biographers pride themselves on not writing hagiographies, and that many academic historians pride themselves on not being biographers at all. I felt I was blaspheming both a faith and a profession. Continue reading