Marshall Brown on academic publishing

On Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Graduate Research Cluster hosted a panel on academic publishing. Marshall Brown, one of our panelists, who has decades of experience on the editing side of publishing as well as extensive publications of his own, was kind enough to write up his responses to the questions. Here they are:

• Knowing that the publishing process comes with a certain amount of rejection, how do you manage your expectations for your article submissions? Do you have a process for handling being rejected—or receiving a particularly nasty reader’s report?

——————-Journal readers do it as volunteer work, pressed for time, not always with the right kind of expertise, and as fallible as the rest of us.  A bad report can sometimes be hostile, but mostly it’s just bad luck or inexperience on the reader’s or editor’s part.  If the comments don’t make sense or there aren’t any comments, thank the editor (if you can bear it), and send it elsewhere.  If it happens three times, take a deep breath, do more reading, and rethink it.  I had an essay rejected three times two years ago and followed my own advice. 

The editor is a person.  So is/are the reader/s.  If you have been misunderstood, occasionally you can explain that to the editor and ask for a second chance.  Or (if it seems compatible with the report) ask if the editor would be willing to consider a rewrite, explaining how you would do it.  That has sometimes worked at MLQ.

What is the etiquette for getting feedback, especially from one’s professors, on drafts of articles?

——————–No problem from the journal’s perspective.  And, as Jesse said at the event, your faculty mentors are among your friends.  Of course we ask our friends for input all the time.  Others above us have done it for us, many times, and we return the favor down (as well as sideways and up).  I had 22 letters in my tenure file; I have never forgotten that.

• I submitted an article. How long should I wait before I send a follow-up email?

——————-I suggest 2 months, unless the journal website says something different.  “Could you let me know the status of my submission?”  Sending an inquiry is not pestering.  Sometimes it helps.  Claire said 3 months.  It might depend partly on your schedule.  Journals and presses can be infernally slow.  The worst case I heard about was a colleague in my first job who had an essay turned down after 18 months.  The journal was Notes and Queries.  The essay was a 2-page note.

• They told me to revise and resubmit my article. What next?

——————–Revise and resubmit, like they say.  You have a 50% chance of acceptance.  Do read the editor’s message carefully.  Sometimes what sounds like a rejection is actually meant to be R&R.  The R&R form wording from PMLA used to begin something like this: “I am sorry to inform you that your essay has not been accepted.”  If you aren’t sure how to interpret the response, write and ask.  Do this promptly, while everything is fresh in the editor’s or reader’s mind.  You may need to use your judgment in interpreting reports.  One ubiquitous vice of reports is “a bit.”  (Jesse has been guilty of this one, but never again, once he has been publicly shamed.)  Readers don’t want to be too harsh, so they may write, “the essay is a bit too long,” when they really mean it should be cut by a third.

When you resubmit, include a detailed accounting of your revisions, including explanations where you differed from the reports, as is always your right.  Indeed, I always think it looks better if you aren’t merely subservient.  

• What are some risks/scams that graduate students should watch out for?

———————The risk that I’ve seen students fall prey to is committing an essay to an uncertain book publication idea.  The book has to be assembled, pitched to one press after another, waiting for reports at several stages.  It can take years.  These can be excellent opportunities if they are already slated for publication or if you have sufficient confidence that the collection editor will get it done, but they can also be traps for the unwary.

• How do you use conferences to support your writing and publishing process?

——————–I use them especially for initial stages of developing an idea.  I always practice delivering them out loud at home several times.  Listening to myself read is very illuminating about the flow. As I practice reading, I often find myself filling in gaps extempore.  This are places to expand as you write.  Sometimes at the session there are helpful questions, sometimes good contacts.

• Do you pay much attention to what’s trendy in academic work or do you think that’s not worth considering given potential long timelines for publishing articles?

———————You care about acceptance, not about publication.  Once it’s accepted, it goes on your CV, no matter how long the publication delay, over which you have no control.  As for trendiness; often trends are led by smart, original minds finding new opportunities.  Don’t shy away from them.  Still, over the decades, I have always felt that you’re usually best off doing what interests you the most.  I make an exception are areas that are truly on the wane.  A field where there is no demand is unpromising.  My experience does include some bad times and some difficult situations; the golden age of the humanities was over by horizon.  But the times are worse now.

• How do I choose a journal?

——————1) See if you can get any advice about whether it’s well run.  Some journals (PMLA!) can be very slow.  2) Then, choose a journal that publishes essays like yours.  If it has published essays that you cite, that’s generally a good sign.  3) If your topic is specialized, you stand a somewhat better chance of a well-informed reading from a specialized journal, such as one devoted to your author.  4) I think a CV looks more impressive if it starts with a good enough placement and moves up the line.

• When (in my education/career) should I start trying to get articles published?

——————The right kind of publication opens some doors; it can even close others.  Community colleges are not looking for publishing scholars.  If you wind up never publishing, that doesn’t make you a worse person (and vice versa), just different.  But the process is slow; if you want credentials on your CV, you need to start at least a year before you want acceptance to show up, and preferably two years.

• How much revision/polishing should I do on an article before I submit it?

——————1) As much as you can, without losing time.  If it’s going to sit for an extended period, then better on their desktop than on yours.  Do take the time to proofread very carefully and to recheck quotes.  It’ll make no difference with 90% of readers, but it will hurt you sometimes, so it’s a small amount of time well spent.  2) Do make sure that a dissertation chapter has been cut to size, has an introduction that makes it free-standing, and doesn’t refer to itself as a chapter.  If the opening sentence reads as if it’s the next step in a continuing discussion, it may get much less serious attention.  3) I have repeatedly had to spend two months doing additional primary and secondary reading after I thought an essay was ready (and following three rejections), to spruce up the framing and the annotations.  A slogan that I find often valid is that an excellent seminar paper or dissertation chapter shows you to be an expert on its topic, whereas a strong essay presents you as an expert in the field.  For instance, show that you have read widely in your author’s output, not just the work you are focusing on.  4) Do check the journal’s website for their specs, observe them, and if you’re in any way out of compliance, note that in your cover message and promise to work on it on the rebound.  Currently, I have an essay in hand that’s longer than the journal I’m thinking of asks for.  But I looked at what they’ve published, and it’s often longer than their spec, so I’ll mention that in the cover message.  5) My generic advice at MLQ is a 9,000 word limit.  If the essay is a reading of one or two texts, then really 7,500 is usually better.  6) A GOOD TITLE IS A BIG HELP.  It’s a selling point, draws readers, and can help you develop your ideas.  My essays have often begun with their titles.  You can look through the titles on my CV.  There are good ones and bad ones.  You’ll see the difference.  My worst title was The Gothic Text.  That book isn’t really unified, and I couldn’t come up with a better title.  No one reads that book.  7) I have writing advice posted at faculty.washington.edu/mbrown/writing.pdf.  It’s just one guy’s feelings, not gospel.  But it’s free, and you are welcome to poach from it.

• How does one go about writing and publishing book reviews? Do they have to be solicited?

——————–I consider unsolicited requests to review books.  I doubt that I’m alone in that.  If the book looks appropriate for the journal, I ask to see a writing sample.  I have sometimes commissioned reviews on that basis.  I like to find reasons to give early-career scholars opportunities.  I trust that most editors feel that way.  We have all been starters and know something of what it’s like.

Please don’t use “a bit,” or any comparable expression, in your review.  That’s a personal plea, not professional advice.

• Any other words of wisdom?

——————–“There is no system.  There are only people.”  See my responses to the first question and to the last before this one.