How Academics Measure the Value of Their Books

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

On our third and penultimate date, hiking up a steep trail, a tall and fit man who had earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and made a living telling mining companies how to clean up their water said he wanted to know more about publishing. As a published author and former book editor, I’m used to these kinds of questions.

Thing is, he wasn’t interested in what it takes to write a book — how much research you must put in before you know what the book will be about, or the mental calisthenics required to get yourself to commit to the page. He didn’t want to know about process — didn’t care that some people get books done by waking up at 4 a.m. and others wait until their kids are in bed to write. He didn’t ask how you know when a manuscript is finished, or if it’s good enough. And he was only mildly interested in how to go about getting an agent and finding a publisher.

No, it finally became clear what he wanted to know: What were the sales figures for my books? How much money did I make for each? What was the biggest advance I’d received?

I told him about the notes I’d received from teens who read the young-adult novel I wrote and said they could see themselves in its pages. I described the letters I get from high-school students who said my most recent book helped them write their college admissions essay. When you open yourself up to readers, I explained, they often respond in kind, writing to tell you their stories, to share their struggles. It’s humbling.

Yeah, yeah, he said. Then he asked if the total I made from my books was more than my full professor’s salary.

It’s not that I mind talking about money, but honestly, I rarely think in those ways and don’t always open my royalty statements — some of which, in truth, have negative balances. Our hike went downhill from there.

It wasn’t the only reason we were incompatible, but it was a leading indicator. We were using different metrics to assign value. For me, a few heartfelt emails can mean more than a new car. (Though, of course, a new car is always nice.) Plus, I have a day job that supports my writing. I got lucky when I landed on the tenure track, and I try never to forget that.

My point — if it’s not already clear: Success looks different to every writer. And for me and many other academics, it’s not about the numbers or the money.

Many who work in the production-of-knowledge business silently hope their books will add to — or shift the direction of — a discipline. They aspire to contribute big, important ideas that will have an impact on fellow scholars. But the problem many overachievers face is the feeling of never quite hitting it. What I know from hanging out with heavily-laureled academics is that no matter how brilliant the ideas, how paradigm-shifting the work, there’s no resting on past achievements. For many academics, success can feel ever elusive, regardless of how many glittering prizes are bestowed, how many citations are accrued.

The squishiness of meaningful, quantifiable measures is why, if you’re like most academics, you might want to figure out what will cause you to pump your fist in victory when you’re working on a book project.

Your definition of success might be finishing a manuscript that took far longer than planned. The idea of never having to think about the topic again can be cause for celebration, though of course if you do a good job, you are likely to be asked to talk about the book long after it’s been published. (Ian McEwan: "When you publish a book, you become an employee of your former self.")

For others, success is receiving peer reviews that understand exactly what you were trying to do, especially if your dissertation committee didn’t. Or it might be signing a contract that affords you more time to revise your book — the knowledge that it will eventually be published can free you up as a writer in ways that lead to a better finished product.

Getting a big fat check for an advance against royalties can feel like success, but most academics can’t count on that.

They can, however, rely on a surfeit of good feeling — or at least, relief — when they list the project on their job applications (in hopes that it will lead to a tenure-track position) or on their tenure materials (in hopes that it will lead to a promotion). Being able to add the title to those documents or to a bio blurb can feel like taking a victory lap. It’s great to say "Author of the forthcoming," but it’s even better to remove the qualifier.

For some academics, success means having a prestigious colophon on the spine of your book. I’d rather have sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of my publishers than with my alma maters.

Success might look like giving a copy to the partner who saw too little of you during the writing: See, honey, I wasn’t just playing Words with Friends! Or to the teacher who believed in you, or to the one who never thought you’d amount to anything. It might be snagging a review in The New York Times, even if it’s critical. It might be seeing your work cited in the most important journal in your field, or mentioned by a scholar you idolized in graduate school.

While all authors eagerly await the first actual copy, the sad truth is that not much happens on the date of publication. You don’t look or feel different, and the world almost always has more important news. And then, for most of us, not much changes even after a book’s been out for a while.

During my years as a book editor, I often had to clean up the shattered expectations of authors who hoped for more than what they got. They wanted bigger ads (which do nothing to sell books), more reviews, more sales, more attention, more, more, more. If their book wasn’t sent to all the right conferences, it was, to them, the result of a conspiracy, not an editorial assistant’s oversight.

For most of us who put so much of our time, energy, and passion into our work, nothing will ever feel like enough. We want — need — the toil to pay off in ways that seem commensurate with what we put in. And that is, of course, impossible.

What happens when the manuscript leaves your desk is up to the universe. Readers will critique you for things that have nothing to do with anything you’ve actually written. Your editor might ignore you. You might hate the jacket. You will find typos in pages you’ve proofread zillions of times.

Ultimately, all you can do is write the best book you can write at that time. It may never be as good as you want it to be — or it could turn out better than you ever expected.

A few lucky academics can get, well, lucky. Their books will win prizes and lead to named-chair professorships. They’ll interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross. You might be tempted to hate those people, especially if you know them and feel competitive with them. But if you talk to them for more than five minutes, you’re also likely to dip into their wells of disappointment, too.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

"Getting it out there in the world" is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

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