Editor, author, and historian Rand Dotson offers advice to historians looking to be published

Rand Dotson, Senior Editor

Although most of the scholars I work with in my position as a senior acquisitions editor at LSU Press are probably not aware of it, I am an author and historian myself.

In 2007, another university press published my heavily revised doctoral dissertation. The book subsequently sold out in cloth and is now available as a paperback. After adding up all the time (i.e., years) that it took me to research and write the book, I would calculate that thus far I have made about five cents an hour—which is actually a lot more than I expected. No scholar publishes a book for the money. They publish primarily because they have something important and interesting to say. And they also hope for a positive experience with their publisher, favorable reviews by their peers, serious consideration for a prestigious award, and, sometimes, tenure or promotion.

Having experienced academic publishing from both sides has undoubtedly made me a more understanding editor and probably a wiser historian. One thing I have learned as an editor is that historians (me included) tend to be a tad long winded. Manuscripts that should be 300 or 400 pages typically arrive at 700 pages. Some are delivered at over 1,000 pages, literally bursting out of their boxes. There are myriad reasons why manuscripts mushroom as they are being written. Often, when one good example will suffice, the scholar adds ten more. More examples mean a stronger argument, right? Wrong. They simply bore the reader.

When a 600-page manuscript arrives on my desk, no matter what the topic, I immediately tell the author that 200 pages must go. Think of all the trees that would still be with us if historians knew that academic publishers rarely consider manuscripts over 400 pages or about 100,000 words. Instead, scholars spend months going back through their narrative to excise repetition and material not critical to the story. Months, if not years, of work is erased in an agonizing and painful process.

Lengthy notes can be another challenge. Like all historians, I love footnotes. Moreover, I loved making mine a sort of parallel narrative, chock full of obscure bits of information and witty anecdotes that, try as I might, I could find no way to shove into the actual text. Wow, did I ever feel smart! But my advice as an editor is: Do not do this. Keep your notes clean and succinct. If it is not important enough to go into the text, consider if it is worth mentioning at all.

Like almost all the authors I work with, I also had the title of my book changed by the publisher. (In my case, the subtitle became the main title in order to tell readers what the book was about first, instead making them guess.) Did I immediately agree to this change when my publisher proposed it? Yes. Probably because I am also an editor I understood and accepted the reasons for the change. Did I (the historian me) want to change it? No, not at all, no way. I therefore entirely understand the anguish that writers feel when I ask them to alter or even discard the beloved title that they have adoringly recited each night before dreaming about the day it would appear in a stunning font on the handsome cover of their new book. I did this myself; I get it. As an editor, however, I see clearly the wisdom of these changes. Mainly, publishers want to make titles succinct, comprehensible, and easily searchable. While most authors eventually understand that the revised title is far better, it can still be a wrenching process that could be made less so if authors kept in mind that publishers want exactly what the author wants—to get the book into the hands of the widest audience possible. We are on the same team, and what’s more, publishers have sold millions of books. They know what they are doing. That is why when something arrives with a title along the lines of “Oh Sorrow Whilst Thou Not Unbidden My Aching Heart and Mighty Tired Hands: Gender Relations, Patriarchy, Domesticity, Childhood, Household Management, Animal Husbandry, and Plantation Administration on the Southern Louisiana Frontier, 1700–1860,” we modify it. Otherwise, readers would give up on the book before even finishing its title.

Seeing publishing from the perspective of both an editor and historian is not always easy. I sympathize with scholars because I know from my own experience how hard it is to cut, change, rethink, or revise all those words and ideas that took so long to get on paper. But, I also know from an editor’s perspective that this has to happen to make a good book.