Publishing a scholarly book

How publishing a monograph can take much longer than anticipated. **Updated Jan 2011**

Both the publisher’s site and Amazon confirm that my next monograph, Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician, will appear in March 2011. Like many humanities academics I have bored and mystified those not in this part of the profession with the many years that this book seems to have spent being ‘nearly out’. And as one doesn’t publish that many books in one’s career (this is my second monograph, the fourth book that I’ve authored or edited), I thought I’d write a blogpost giving the biography of the book, from conception to (almost) birth in the hope that it might be illuminating for those about to embark on a scholarly book project of their own. I’m giving a level of detail here that I hope will demystify the process a bit.

Funding the project and writing the book

Early in 2007 and due a term’s leave from my job at Royal Holloway, University of London, I was encouraged by my Head of Department to apply for a grant from the AHRC to fund an additional term’s leave. The conditions of AHRC leave meant that I had to finish a project during the leave period, and so I wrote a grant application for a book on Machaut, a composer I’d been working on for over a decade, thinking I could write an publisher it in short order. The book proposal followed the lines of one I’d originally drawn up in 2001, in response to another University Press asking me–rather informally and, as it turned out, without any real interest in publishing it–for the outline of a Machaut book. The 2007 application was successful and I was duly granted leave for 2007-8 (October to May).

I write fast and was able to get going over the summer, so I completed the 150,000-word draft and sent it to the publisher in February 2008. The rest of the leave period was used to write up various articles (examples here, here, and here) that dealt with particular issues too lengthy to go into the book, but which I wanted to have published in advance of it so I could refer to them; in the event, there was no rush!).

Readers’ reports

Cornell University Press immediately engaged two readers–one from literary studies and one from musicology–and promised that their reports would be in over the summer. At this stage the identities of those readers were not revealed, although they knew who the author of the book manuscript was. The musicology report arrived in August 2008, very positive, suggesting only a few changes and clarifications; but the literary report never arrived. Eventually the literary reviewer stopped replying to email prompts from the publisher, and Cornell was forced to engage another reader in March 2009, over a year after I had originally sent the manuscript.

By this point I still didn’t have a contract, because Cornell, like many publishers, generally issue contracts on the basis of the entire manuscript and readers’ reports. Cornell then commissioned a quick report from a locally available senior academic, which was extremely positive (I received a lovely email from this reader, whose endorsement will be on the back of the book), and which gave them enough evidence to issue a contract during the summer of 2009. The newly appointed second literary reader returned their report in October 2009, which was also positive, but which had several suggestions, including the wish for a glossary of musical terms in the book, for the benefit of literary readers who might have basic modern musical knowledge, but would find this difficult to translate into medieval musical terms without some kind of aid.

Re-writing the book

Although none of the readers thought the book needed major re-writing, quite a lot of work on Machaut had appeared between 2007 and 2009 (notably this and this). As the book is meant to be a sythesis of various discipinary approaches, this work needed to be incorporated, which meant that the book needed considerable re-editing. I’d also run the draft manuscript past a few people in the interim and wanted to incorporate their suggestions as well. Unfortunately, as the last report had come in after the start of term, I was faced with the necessity of re-writing a large book during a full teaching term in the second year of a new job (I moved from Royal Holloway to Oxford in October 2008).

Cornell gave me until May 2010 to complete the book manuscript, but I really wanted to complete it much faster than that because it had already been ‘on my desk’ for such a long time.  Because I have a large number of illustrations in the book, this meant not only re-writing the text, but also applying to a large number of libraries for copies of images and permissions to reproduce them, as well as applying for additional funding (granted by the Music & Letters Trust) to pay for these copies and rights.

By Christmas 2009 I had the text nearly done and most of the images ready, but I’d also given myself a repetitive strain injury from mouse-scrolling. I did the same thing when I finished the final re-write of my first monograph, and in both cases it was the effort of trying to fit the re-write into a period when one is not on research leave. I duly switched my mouse to my left hand, gobbled quantities of ibuprofen, and managed to send the finalized manuscript to Cornell in March 2010.

In press

After that, it was pretty much out of my hands as the process at Cornell moved into gear. I used Cornell for my first monograph, Sung Birds, after I saw–with someone else’s book–the professionalism of their editorial process, and I wasn’t disappointed. My experience with UK presses, even University ones, is that the copy editing is all down to the author. At Cornell, I received a fully marked up set of electronic files, with all sorts of highly intelligent queries, suggestions, corrections, and so on. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for the contents of the finished book is the author’s, but it’s very good to have one’s repetitious writing tics pointed out, obvious errors corrected, and so on. Not something one generally gets in the UK.

The electronic files arrived in July 2010 and the first proofs followed in November. Again, this was in the middle of term, but I’d been forewarned of the schedule–which, unlike the readers’ reports, is controlled at that point by the publisher–so I was able to make some time free for proof-reading. Various problems with the layout of some of the text figures (probably caused by my being insufficiently explicit about the need for my original files to have their layout reproduced exactly) meant that a second round of proofs was required. I expect to find these in my inbox when I re-open my work email after the Christmas break, and I also expect they will be unproblematic. Oxford University’s John Fell Fund is paying for the index to be done by a professional indexer, who is also a musicologist with all the language skills necessary for my book (which contains a lot of Middle French, a bit of Latin, and some German–all with translations). From writing to publishing it represents four years of work, and after it appears in March it will take a further 12-24 months for reviews to accumulate, and many more years–with luck–for people to start reading and citing it, and using it in their teaching. But my active engagement with the book is now at an end.

…Coda: Indexing (Jan 2011)

The second proofs were indeed fairly unproblematic, but the indexing of the book threw up its own problems. In particular, the indexing of Machaut’s works–which the indexer (musicologist and medievalist, Bonnie J. Blackburn) and I decided should be in a separate index–revealed the huge complexities of dealing with Machaut’s output. Having initially decided to have balades, rondeaux, lais, motets, and virelais indexed in separate genre sections by their short reference (B1, M10, V33, L2, etc.), it became clear that we would have to deal with duplication between sections. The song that musicologists know as Sans cuer, dolens (R4) is also known to scholars of medieval lyric as Sans cuer, dolens (Lo148) and to those working on Machaut’s complex narrative with lyric interpolations, Le livre dou voir dit, as Sans cuer, dolens (VD31). At least in those three different cases–indexed under balades as Lo148, R4, and VD31, respectively–the piece has the same incipit text. Sometimes Machaut changed the wording of a lyric when he set it to music: En cuer ma dame une vipere maint (Lo204) is actually the same lyric as Une vipere en cuer ma dame maint (B27).

In a small way, the questions posed by making an index revealed further the book-making skills of Machaut, whose own book–notably Machaut manuscript A, now in the BN in France–exploits the duplication of items to set up connections that create additional layers of meaning. Reviewing and checking the cross references in the index also reaffirmed my respect for Lawrence Earp, whose research guide to Machaut–’the Machaut bible’ (see representative review here)–has great indexes and the most reliable comprehensive cross-referencing of all the items in Machaut’s output (many more than are treated in my book). Without Earp’s book, mine could not have been written.

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5 thoughts on “Publishing a scholarly book

  1. I just bought the book in advance, via amazon.com, and can’t wait to read it!!! They give it a two-month wait until publication.

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