Post Academic

A publishing how-to: Tips from Stacey Pierson, Ph.D. (Part 1)

Stacey Pierson is Lecturer (which translates to Assistant Professor here in the States) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, specializing in Chinese Ceramics and Museum Studies.  She is also the one-time curator of the prestigious Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, and I imagine she could also probably work as a junior archeologist, ace appraiser, and Chinese translator, if she wanted to!

"Chinese Ceramics book cover" (Courtesy of Stacey Pierson)

But, for our purposes here at Post Academic, it’s her experiences as a published author of two books–Chinese Ceramics: A Design History (V&A, 2009) and Collectors, Collections and Museums: the Field of Chinese Ceramics in Britain, 1560-1960 (Peter Lang, 2007)–and her current post as the Editor of the journal Transactions of the Oriental Ceramics Society that we’re most interested in.  Over the next few days, Dr. Pierson will be sharing her insights on academic publishing from her multiple perspectives as a scholar, writer, and editor.  Today, she tells us about the process of pitching a book proposal, converting a diss manuscript into a book, and writing for multiple audiences–all of which she juggled at the same time.

Post Academic: Can you tell us about the process you went through in publishing your books, from the initial drafting of the manuscript to pitching it to publishers to the production of the book?

Stacey Pierson: My first book was essentially my dissertation, which was already written, so I initially researched academic publishers who include my subject area in their list, Chinese art history. After doing this, and discovering that most have detailed instructions on how to approach them and write a proposal, I sent out an initial proposal to a very prestigious publisher, for the experience mainly.

The interview continues below the fold

Pierson (cont’d): I assumed they wouldn’t accept it, and I was right, but they gave me some very helpful feedback. Using this, I rewrote the proposal and sent it to Peter Lang, a European academic publisher who is very experienced at working with new PhDs on their first publications.  In my previous career, I did publish a lot of art books and articles, many under my institution’s own imprint, as editor and content creator, so I did have a fairly good idea of how the process works, even though the style of writing for the dissertation book was completely different.

"Collectors, Collections and Museums book cover" (Courtesy of Stacey Pierson)

With Peter Lang, I then developed a re-writing schedule which involved expanding the time period covered in my dissertation and therefore additional research. This was necessary because I had to take that dull, scholarly text and make it more readable as every publisher needs to be able to pitch your book to readers in order to generate income–this often is a question that needs to be addressed in the proposal. The re-writing part of the process was what I found most difficult in fact. After 18 months of work, I then submitted it to the publishers and they then accepted it, with recommended changes, about 3 months later. This is unusually quick but in my initial negotiations with them, I insisted on a tight turnaround because I needed the book published in time for our Faculty’s contribution to what is known in the UK as the ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ – the ranking of our research output basically. Finally, I had to work with a copy editor to polish the text and the image captions. As a former curator, I had access to free museum images and I had sourced these while I was preparing the initial manuscript. Today, this is getting much easier for everyone, however, as many museums are providing image libraries online with free academic use.

In total, that book took two years from proposal to publication.

PA: Was the second book easier to work on than the first, after you understood the process better?  Did you have to write for a different audience for the second book, since the publisher (V&A) seems to have more of a public profile?

Pierson: In many ways, the second book [Chinese Ceramics: A Design History (V&A 2009)] was easier in terms of production but conceptually I found it quite difficult as it was designed to be a new survey of my specialist subject, Chinese ceramics, and one using a methodology from a different field, design history rather than art history. The process was also different because I was commissioned to write this book after a throwaway comment to a publisher about the lack of good surveys in this area. I said “yes” without really thinking about it and then very quickly had to create a summary of the book’s proposed theme and an outline of the proposed chapters and content for a museum publications board to consider. The publisher was V&A Publications and is a separate company within the Victoria and Albert Museum, so the content of the book had to be approved additionally by the curatorial department responsible for that subject area. This outline took me a long time to create because I wanted to present a new approach to the subject that also reflected the aims of the museum, which is the national museum of decorative arts in England and, of course, its collections. Thus my potential readership was a challenging combination of not only specialists in the field, but also general readers and supporters of the museum.

After I conquered this hurdle however, I had the pleasure of constant contact with a professional editor and a publisher with a large staff and significant funding sources, so I also got an advance for writing the book, almost unheard of in traditional academic publishing. This meant that I had greater resources than usual and I was able to order new photography and images from other sources which charge a fee, a great luxury in art history writing. Finally, I also got to work with very experienced designers, which for the most part was exciting, though there were some differences of opinion when it came to highlighting certain objects that I considered less important but the designer thought were visually more exciting. In this, I generally backed down as this book was created to promote the museum’s collection as well as contribute new knowledge in the field.

I’m now quite spoiled by this experience and feeling a bit dejected during my current book project as a result. This is for a traditional academic publisher so the process consists of a proposal, then submitting a completed manuscript (if the proposal is accepted), then waiting for anonymous reviews, then a final publishing contract, then production. I’m only at the second stage for this one, so I still do not know if it will ultimately be published.

PA: What are the hardest parts of writing a book?

Pierson: It depends on the type of book and the intended readership, but generally I find the initial concept and outline quite difficult to create because there are so many variables to consider – what’s best for my career, what will sell to a publisher, and what will in fact be readable. The research and writing are fairly straightforward, once the methodology is worked out as well as the tone and style of the writing. After this, I generally find myself becoming paranoid about the book halfway through the writing process, to the extent that I end up telling myself it is not going to work and the reviewers will hate it. I can see this as a pattern so I can usually get beyond it, but it is my version of writer’s block, I guess. One final thing I find quite difficult is something that few people realize often has to be done by authors – writing the jacket copy and promotional text. Fortunately, I did have experience with this when I was in charge of museum publications in my former position, but it is still a strange thing to do.

Check out part 2 of our interview, HERE

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  1. […] A publishing how-to: Tips from Stacey Pierson, Ph.D. (Part 1) « Post Academic PA : Was the second book easier to work on than the first, after you understood the process better? Did you have to write for a different audience for the second book, since the publisher (V&A) seems to have more of a public profile? […]

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