One way to be distinct in the current academic job climate is to get published, and get “published well.” As an Early Career Researcher, it takes some strategic thinking to hit home-run in the labour market. Stylish Academic caught up with Charlotte Mathieson, to hear her story about the journey to getting a book published with an esteemed publisher, just a couple of years after her PhD.
Hi Charlotte, please introduce yourself…
I am a Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics. I work on Victorian Literature, and at the moment I am teaching Victorian and Modernist Literature. I’ve just finished a big research project on a book, so I am now starting to research and prepare a postdoc proposal.
This book project, do tell us about it…
The book is called Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation, and it looks at journeys in the Victorian nation. I look at authors such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte, and how they represent mobility of all different kinds – from walking journeys to railway journeys, through to journeys in the British empire. I consider how these journeys are creating a new idea of the nation – the idea of what the nation is and how people are connected to the nation – and trace those journeys across a 20-year period, from the 1840s to 60s. The book is a literary study but also touches on cultural geography, history and mobility theory.
In terms of applying your research to everyday life, how is insight from the 20th century you study relevant today?
What my research shows is that a lot of the issues we face nowadays around transport, and our ideas of “nation”, for example, are still quite relevant. One of the things I am interested in looking at is contemporary discussions about the railways, for example, such as the debates around High Speed Rail (HS2), and how we can use the Victorian idea of the railway to think about how we understand the issues that railways present to us today.
Also, my research connects up with issues around the idea of national identity and belonging: I look at how Britain was thinking about itself as a nation, and first starting to understand itself as a mobile nation. I have a chapter in my book on European journeys, so a lot of the debates today about Europe and Britain’s relationship can be better understood if we look back to the nineteenth century and how the Victorians started to conceptualise their connection to Europe through travel. That is very pertinent today – even more so now with the debates around Britain’s referendum on the EU. I also think about nation in terms of Britain as an empire: what that meant in the Victorian era and what it means today in terms of Britain position in the world, using a postcolonial approach to think about issues around Victorian imperialism. So there are a lot of issues that are still very resonant today, things that started to emerge in the Victorian period and that persist in contemporary Britain.
Tell us about your journey to getting published…
It felt like a very long one, but in retrospect I think maybe it wasn’t as long as it felt at the time. This book is based on my PhD, but I would say that the way I see the difference between the two projects, conceptually, is that my PhD started off being about space, and as I was moving forward on the PhD, it became more about mobility. By the time I got to the end of the PhD, my thinking had changed quite a lot on the topic, and what was in the PhD, I realized, needed to be re-thought from a slightly different perspective, that of mobility, for the book.
The process started with me leaving it for about a year, partly out of necessity because I had a lot of part-time jobs and I didn’t have the time or head-space to think about it properly. But it actually was quite a productive year in terms of just developing my thinking about what I wanted to do with the book. After about a year, I began to get together a book proposal and could see what I wanted the book to be and how it was different to the PhD.
So I put together a book proposal, and I approached Palgrave Macmillan.
Why Palgrave Macmillan?
I chose Palgrave MacMillan partly because they had been recommended to me and one of my supervisors has published with them – it was a good way in, to know the process with them – and because also, it felt like a really good fit for my work. When I looked through my bibliography, the majority of books that I was (and am) using are by Palgrave, and so it felt as though my book really spoke to the work that I’d been drawing on and would fit well within that publishing context.
So I submitted my proposal to Palgrave Macmillan. They came back to me, and they were positive, but said they wanted more than two sample chapters; they actually wanted the full manuscript before they contracted the book. I’ve heard different things on this from others’ experiences. Some publishers like to have the full manuscript with a first-time author, and some will offer you a contract based on two sample chapters. So I then went away to write the full manuscript. I decided that this was a good approach, because it leaves you open as to your options while you’re completing the manuscript (if it’s not under contract), but the difficulty was that, when you don’t have a final deadline, it’s hard to complete: you have to be very strict with yourself in drawing the line and deciding how quickly you are going to write the book.
I started rewriting the book, and that took about two years. It took quite a long time really to get back into the material and draw the ideas together. Everything on my PhD got completely re-written: I don’t think there’s a sentence in my book that is the same as my PhD. It was a very long process – and then the work got re-written over and over again, because it’s hard to know when to stop!
Eventually in December 2014, I finally finished the first manuscript draft. I sent it back to Palgrave Macmillan and asked “are you still interested?” – they said yes and sent it out for review. The review took 6 weeks, pretty much to the day – it was very timely. After 6 weeks I got the readers’ report back and it was very positive. It had some very good suggestions that made me feel that the manuscript had gone through a really rigorous intellectual engagement with the reviewer, but was also very supportive and encouraging of the work.
I was very amenable to making the suggested changes. I then had a month to make the revisions, and to re-write some of the introduction and a few other sections, as well to bring in some new ideas that came to me through reading the reviewer’s report. I then submitted the full manuscript, and by this point I had also signed the contract with Palgrave Macmillan (this happened when I got the reviewer’s report back and started on the revisions).
The book then went into production in March (2015), and it was published in September 2015. So although it seemed to take quite a long time in the beginning when I was working on the first draft, it sped up a lot in the last few months.
The writing process – what did you find the difference to be between writing a PhD thesis and writing a book?
I think one of the key things was audience. I think in my PhD, I felt I was writing something for examination and it was very theoretically dense. I knew when I came to write the book that no one would want to read something in the style of my PhD, it’s not readable – I mean it is readable in an intellectual sense, but it’s not for a wider audience. I felt that it had to be a lot different to make a book that people would want to read.
The way I went about that, from a literary studies point of view, is that I reoriented how I went about the process of thinking through the ideas and concepts that were the basis of each chapter. While my PhD started with the theory and then explored it in context, here I took the novels as a starting point for each chapter and then bridged out into the theory from the novels. Each chapter was based around two novels, and then the theories weave through them. This means that when you read the book, it goes on a journey through lots of novels, and the theoretical argument develops and evolves through those readings. I felt that this was really important for the writing process.
Thinking about the audience was really key. Who is going to read this? What the main point here? What’s the contribution? All this became clearer and clearer as I was going on with the writing. It was enjoyable for me as a writer, and that’s actually key as well. You are not going to enjoy every minute of the writing process, but I think finding the thing that is going to spark your passion as a writer is really important. It helps you relax into the writing and again, connect with the audience.
What about the writing language…academic writing vs. book writing for the wider academic audience – how did you find this?
I tried to make it a lot clearer to read in some respect. I think what I focused on is becoming aware of writing habits that may be off-putting to a reader. So for example, I have a habit for very long sentences: I would happily write a sentence that is about 10-lines long with just a colon in the middle – I know this is awful, but I love doing it! But training myself to become aware of that, and realising that it’s really not friendly to my audience, was clearly very important.
Also using theoretically dense or repetitive language when it’s unnecessary is another habit. I have a particular habit of saying the same thing about three times in a row, just in slightly different ways, so I tried to pare that down into one, to-the-point, sentence. It’s important to be aware of your writing habits and how they can be improved – and that’s something I am still working on. I haven’t read the book since it came out, but if I flip through it, I’m sure there will be sentences I’ll look at and think “I probably could have said that better.”
I think it’s key to think about communicating clearly and not being unnecessarily jargon-istic, and trying to keep that priority in mind. Something that has really helped me with this is blog writing. The process of blogging has (I hope) helped me to speak and write a lot more clearly and to get ideas across in more succinct ways. I’d definitely recommend doing that as a way to help with the writing process.
What did you find most challenging about the process of getting your book published and how you’ve overcome them?
I think the challenge for me was keeping up the motivation. It’s quite challenging to write a whole book when you are in that post-PhD period of having a lot going on, and when you’re still working out your ideas on some things. I think it was important to have that break from the PhD to start with, because that allowed me to intellectually re-think and re-engage with the project.
Another big challenge early on was writing the book proposal: if you’ve never written a book proposal, it’s quite a different style to what you might be used to in writing about your work, and there are things you have to consider that you might not have considered before (e.g. market, selling points, 3 unique features of the book). I got some great advice on this from more senior academics, so I really recommend asking people who have been published before if you can look at their proposals, especially those who are working in similar fields to you, to understand what’s involved and to see how and what you need to communicate in that way.
I was very lucky with my reader and the reader’s report – I thought it was very supportive – but it can be challenging responding to comments and not knowing if you are doing enough to address particular points, or if you’re doing exactly the right thing and it’s fine. And you have to walk that line between responding to the reviewer but allowing it to still be your book at the end of the process. There were a couple of points where, I wouldn’t say I disagreed with the reviewer, but I thought “I didn’t do that because I don’t think my book is about that.” But then, if the reasons for not doing something haven’t been clear to your reader, then it’s also your job as the author to better communicate that intention.
I think a lot of the challenge of the process, especially the re-writing, is about being really comfortable with your ideas and your intellectual abilities. I think this confidence is something I developed as I went along – and is still developing.
For PhDs researchers and ECRs who would like to be published in the near future, what tops tips would you give?
The first tip I would say is talk to people early on – your supervisors, examiners, and get their feedback. Hopefully from the Viva you’ll get some feedback about how the book would be publishable, but it’s good to follow up on that afterwards – you don’t always take everything in during the viva, and it’s good to reflect on what was said, too. Talk to people about your ideas, and think about how the book might work: is it going to build on your thesis or is it going to take a slightly different approach?
It is important that your writing is not an isolated process either: make sure that the book is part of an intellectual conversation, it is responding to academic debates, as they continue to develop. Getting feedback as you’re writing is really important; so is keeping up with the latest research as it develops beyond your PhD. Going to conferences can be really productive in this respect – it’s time away from writing but can leave you feeling intellectually refreshed and engaged with key debates.
In terms of writing a proposal, as I’ve mentioned already, I would get advice from people who have published already: don’t just get together a proposal and send it out to a publisher and not consult anyone on it. Definitely try to see a couple of sample proposals, get a sense of what the publishers are after, and how the proposal writing process works. Also talk to senior colleagues about which publisher to approach. Some publishers might be more prestigious, but they might also take a lot longer to review your book. One decision you might have to make is are you prepared to wait or do you want to get your book published earlier? You will also need to think about who the best fit is: is the top publisher going to be right for your work?
You also need to think about the balance between publishing a book and journal papers. I know some people who have prioritised publishing papers over a book because writing a series of articles might be a quicker process, and give you a more substantial profile, than writing a whole book. This is where you also need to think about the REF – I can’t believe I have gotten this far talking about publishing without saying that word! – You need to think about the REF and how your profile is shaping up in terms of your “REF-ability” and what that means for you as an early career researcher. So, while working on the book’s concept and approach, you also need to be considering how all of this fits into your overall publication profile and career development. It’s no use having a book that will not count for anything towards a REF cycle, so you need to consider the timing of publication and how that will play out for your employability.
I think these are my top tips!
Thank you Charlotte, for your time – it’s been awesome having this chat with you.
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