Recently, a Brighter Green–sponsored discussion was held with Lantern Books author Alex Lockwood on WeChat, the popular messaging app used in China. People were able to ask him about his recent book, The Pig in Thin Air and about veganism, animal rights, and activism. Below is the edited transcript of this discussion.
At Lantern we receive many requests to publish masters’ theses and the occasional doctoral dissertation—or, more accurately, requests from newly minted M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s for us to read the document and make recommendations pending a decision on whether to publish or not. As you can see, the burden of work is almost wholly the publisher’s. We’re expected to put in the hours reading and make suggestions without any remuneration, and, frankly, we’re busy enough without offering free editorial advice which, as often as not, is not taken because the author doesn’t want to do the work: he or she wants the editor to do it for him or her! Nonetheless, assuming the best will in the world from an author, here are three pieces of consecutive advice for any academic seeking to publish a work, at any press let alone Lantern.
Figure Out the Purpose of Publishing Your Thesis
Lantern has published a number of books that are regularly used in university and high school courses. However, we are not an academic publishing company: we do not employ representatives to visit colleges to encourage scholars to use our books; we do not attend academic conferences to display our titles; we do not advertise in scholarly media; we do not seek reviews in academic journals. If your aim is to bring your work to scholars in your field then you need to find an academic press—one that publishes in that field.
Furthermore, if you’re using your thesis to further your academic career, you may not want a general trade publisher to publish it, since (sad to say) that might be taken as a sign that the work lacks academic rigor. Therefore, it may be strategic to publish with a university press or an academic publisher, such as Greenwood or Mellen, to burnish your academic reputation or simply get your thesis bound between two covers and given an ISBN and made available through the academic lending-library network.
Now for a little uncomfortable truth-telling. Is your quest for publication because you feel you put a lot of work into your thesis and you’d like it to be printed as a memento and/or so you can move on with your life? If either or both of these are the case, then go to Amazon or any vanity press and print a couple of copies on demand: one for your mother and one for the bookshelf at home. If you really couldn’t be bothered about the subject to work on your book or promote it, why should the publisher?
Of course, it’s conceivable that you genuinely want to make your work accessible and you believe that academic publishers make their books too expensive for the general readership, which is why you’re looking at a general trade publisher. In that case, you need to . . .
Mind Your Language!
In order to complete your thesis, you’ve had to jump through a lot of rhetorical hoops: you’ve had to describe what your argument is and then rehearse it deliberatively and thoroughly—showing that you know your area of expertise. You’ve had to fill your text with academese and other technical jargon that illustrates your command of your discipline’s argot. You’ve had to provide extensive footnotes or endnotes, supplementary material, and appendices and charts and diagrams to dazzle the examiners. All of these are necessary for you to gain your accreditation, but may not be desirable in a book for the general public. The ordinary reader won’t be interested in what might be called “methodological throat-clearing” (all of the prefatory material that defines the scope of a thesis) and will certainly not want a lot of inside-baseball guff that academics love.
So, if you’re committed to a general trade publisher, you’ll need to strip that material out of your thesis. You have to simplify, clarify, and unpack the ideas that you’ve labored over for the last year or two to make as dense and concise as possible. Now, if you don’t want to do that because you’re feeling inadequate to the task then you should hire a freelance editor—because your would-be publisher is not going to do it for you. Period.
Lock Your Thesis Away
There is another option. Lock your thesis in a drawer and start again. You know your material (after all, you wrote a thesis about it), and now you need to expatiate on why you were drawn to it and why it was important. Tell the reader who you are, why the subject fascinated you, and what we need to understand about it. Give us stories, characters, and arguments and lay them out simply and straightforwardly. You can always go back to your thesis for essential data, but that’s after you’ve bypassed all the academic folderol in favor of an explication of its ideas. It’s a good bet that, if you do that, you’ll be surprised at the voice that emerges and the further thoughts and observations that arise—ones that were suppressed or edited out of the original thesis.
It’s at that point—after the honing and editing and rewriting that you would normally do for any work of prose, right?—that you should approach a general trade publisher like Lantern. What’s more, it’s a fair bet your work will be in a much better condition than it was at the outset of your venture.
Readers of this blog will know about Lantern’s author Jens Soering, currently serving life imprisonment in Virginia following his conviction for two murders in the mid-1980s. In 2015, Jens was the subject of a piece in The New Yorker by Nathan Heller and two blogs by me, Martin Rowe, in which I examined his very difficult situation. I talked about how important it was to me that Jens’ powerful insights into life in prison, his newly kindled Christian faith, and the prison-industrial complex were not dismissed because of any prurient obsession we readers might have about whether he was guilty or innocent. I suggested that we needed to get beyond the notion that innocence equaled authority or, conversely, that guilt meant you had nothing valuable to offer society. I affirmed that I published Jens because I thought he had important things to say.
I also indicated that publicity was a double-edged sword for Jens and for Lantern. I hoped that the attention brought to his situation by The New Yorker would encourage people to read his books and lead to his repatriation to his native Germany (Jens’ request), given that he had served more than enough time and posed absolutely no threat to the people of Virginia or the United States. But I also feared that the publicity might reactivate in the public’s consciousness Jens’ original trial and conviction and that, in turn, might encourage politicians in the Commonwealth of Virginia to burnish their “tough on crime” credentials by denying Jens’ request for repatriation to his native Germany. Sure enough, Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia turned down the request, partly, according to Jens, because of the original New Yorker piece, which Jens considers to have been poorly researched and misleading.
The New Yorker article—really two articles, since Heller wrote a follow-up in which he stated that Jens was “possibly innocent”—has helped to propel interest in Jens’ story, especially in Germany where his case is a cause célèbre and where the penal system is much less cruel and unusual. (Indeed, as Jens presciently noted in An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse, which we published over a decade ago, the U.S. system is so counterproductive that it cannot be sustained.) In June, The Promise (a docudrama that questions Jens’ conviction) premieres at the Munich Film Festival, and will then go on general release. Efforts are underway for distribution in the United States. And last month, Sandy Hausman, an award-winning journalist with WVTF public radio in Virginia, who has long taken an interest in Jens’ case, produced a further three-part series re-examining it. You can find these here:
- Part 1: http://wvtf.org/post/promise-why-did-soering-confess
- Part 2: http://wvtf.org/post/proving-false-confession-soering-insists-hes-innocent
- Part 3: http://wvtf.org/post/jens-soering-prisoner-politics
One can only hope that The Promise and radio pieces such as Sandy Hausman’s will encourage the U.S. to release Jens—with as little fanfare as possible—back to Germany.