Editor gives tips on publishing a book

March 8, 2019

Those unsure how to proceed after writing a dissertation came to a question and answer session with Kate Wahl, publishing director and editor-in-chief of Stanford University Press, who discussed the publishing process from the perspective of an editor.

Wahl began by describing the overall process of publishing a book and some general tips on getting started with the book. She emphasized that it is important to start on the book proposal early, even if it is not going to be shown to anyone. This will help with understanding where the book is going to go.

In regard to making the step between having a dissertation and a book, Wahl advised getting the dissertation done, and then put some distance between it and yourself. “It is not the first draft of your book,” she highlighted.

Another key difference between the dissertation and the actual book, is that a dissertation is written to prove you are competent in a subject, while in a book it is assumed that you are an expert. “You need to reframe this conversation—you are no longer the student, you are the authority on the subject,” Wahl said.

An editor’s first interaction with the book is the book proposal: she advised the audience to bear in mind what has come out already. This serves to show what publishers are interested in, but also indicates what might be over-published.

Wahl advised attendees to start talking to an editor when the author is ready. The main parts of being ready are having a sense of what you want to write, who are you writing for and what are the main argument and story arc. The author needs to make clear who they are writing for and make sure that the style used is appropriate for the target audience. According to Wahl, this is crucial for having a good book proposal.  

Another question Wahl addressed in the discussion was the difference in what is valuable  in dissertations vs. books. For example, using an archive no one has ever used before is valuable in a dissertation, but may not be as valuable for a book. What is valuable in a book largely depends on the audience and what they would appreciate, said Wahl. A book aimed at experts would benefit from using the archive and highlighting that it was not used before, while a book aimed at a more general audience may not.

A large discussion topic was also the issue of using jargon in books, and how to stop the books from being too full of jargon. Wahl said that preference is given to authors whose books are not brought down by too much language that would not be understood by the general public. Working on removing unnecessary jargon from a book depends on authors; some are good at doing it themselves.

For others, editors re-read the books multiple times and tell the authors where to unpack: when the subject is too unclear for someone who is not an expert on the subject. Wahl pointed out that teaching to undergraduate students helps, keeping in mind the questions, where do students struggle and how much jargon do you use while teaching them?

Another tip she gave was reading other works as an editor. “Read someone else’s book and see what you like and what bothers you,” she said. Authors could also have students go through the book and highlight what they do not understand.  

The audience asked Wahl about reviewers: how they are selected, what is most useful from them, and what role do they play in the publishing process. She responded that they look for reviewers who can be constructively critical. Reviewers are used to judge how broadly appealing the book is. Editors try to find readers who can bring a fresh background or review on the topic and have experience with the style of the book.  

Another area of interest to the audience was different formats of publishing, other than books. Wahl responded saying that “things that cannot be flattened into paper books” will be published in new mediums. The Stanford University Press has a lot of new projects in the works, experimenting with new media of publishing.

When asked about a “secret list of areas that you do not see enough writing in,” Wahl responded saying that there is no list, but new areas, or where the field of study is going, is a place to start. If the book does not show something that is substantially new, that might indicate that a topic is over-published. Editors are mainly looking for fresh ideas.

Wahl works at Stanford University Press, where she acquires books in Middle East studies and general interest books for the press’s trade imprint, Redwood Press. She also edits the series Stanford Studies in Comparative Race and Ethnicity. The session was moderated by Naghmeh Sohrabi, Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center and the Charles Goodman Professor of Middle East History at Brandeis. The event was sponsored by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and the Department of History.

Menu Title