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The Secrets of a Published Author

So, you have a manuscript (or plan to write one) and you think it is going to be a bestseller. Or, you fear it will be a dud. Well, if my experience holds, you will be unable to tell. I did not get the prediction right for any of the 30 books I wrote, nor did the editors, nor the publishers.

In the early Sixties, I believe it was in 1962, I attended the annual national conference of my profession. Alex Inkeles, a major scholar, invited me to join a private dinner during the meeting. Around the table were 11 distinguished professors of sociology and me. Alex explained that he had an idea. Instead of the heavy textbook volumes used in introductory classes, a major source of revenue for the publishers and the authors, he suggested that each of us write one chapter of such a book. Prentice Hall would first publish them as thin volumes and then combine them into a textbook. In this way, each book would have two plays: first to be used by whatever specialty the chapter was about (I was asked to cover sociology of organizations) and then, second, to serve as part of a textbook.

I was dead set against writing a textbook or any part of one. Like many others, I consider such books to be without academic merit and their authors to be money hungry. However, I was the last to be asked — after all the other 11 agreed. So, I consented — but did not do the work. After all the others handed in their manuscripts, the pressure on me to come through became too strong; I threw something together and sent it in. It took me about six weeks.

The resulting book, Modern Organizations, which I hated and still consider somewhat of an embarrassment, was a runaway success. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies in English. It was translated into at least half a dozen languages, including Indonesian and Korean. It helped me send my five sons to college. Meanwhile, the book that I had considered to be by far my best, the one that provides an analysis of how to transform a society, the one I loved so much that I suggested that all I wanted on my tombstone was “The author of The Active Society,” did very poorly in English. (It did a bit better when one of my students translated it into German.) The same mismatch occured following the publication of The Spirit of Community, a book over which I worried, but which did well, while The New Golden Rule, which I think is much more profound, could not have fared much more poorly.

In short, if you write a book, do not expect to be able to foretell its fortunes.

Editing: Do not hold your breath

Maybe you heard, read, or saw a movie about an author bringing a manuscript to an editor and the editor suggesting major revisions, then working with the author on improving the arc of the book, or even conducting considerable line-by-line editing. I am sure that this happens, but, in my experience, as the decades passed by, the editors did ever less (and they did not do much to begin with). More importantly, very often I could not live with the editors’ suggestions and had to find ways to finesse what they were asking for, lest they refuse to publish the book.

One example follows. It concerns the title of my last book. When I mentioned to my liberal wife that my next book would be dedicated to the defense of patriotism, as an antidote to growing divisiveness, she warned me that my colleagues would consider it a defense of right-wing extremism. I was thus careful to include, on the book’s front page, a quote attributed to Charles de Gaulle: “Patriotism is when love of your country comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” I argue in the book that people find identity and meaning in their national communities. Indeed, millions are willing to sacrifice their lives for their nation, which they’re not willing to do for the EU or the UN. True, such loyalty can be abused when it deteriorates into hatred against outsiders. However, we shouldn’t let the abusers of patriotism monopolize a strong and essential impulse — love of one’s community. After I sent my manuscript to the University of Virginia Press, an editor told me that he loved it, but that the proposed title, “In Defense of Patriotism,” troubled him. “It will be considered a right-wing book,” he warned. It took weeks of back and forth, until we settled on Reclaiming Patriotism.[1]

Reviews

When my first book was printed, I was looking forward to reviews. I assumed that this is the main way people find out that a book is out; that reviews serve as a source of feedback, telling authors which considerations they overlooked and which they got right; and, after years of struggling with writing the book, I was craving some kudos.

Well, if you have similar expectations, you might wish to note that the US publishes over 400,000 new titles each year. Each week, the New York Times Book Review section reviews a dozen or so books, if you take into account the short reviews. The Washington Post canceled its book review section and now salts its few book reviews in one section or another. The Wall Street Journal publishes a few reviews each week. The New York Review of Books often uses books as a take off for essays on important subjects. So, you do the math and see the probability that your book will be reviewed in one of the major publications. Most of my books were not reviewed by the major media.

As a rule, academic books are not reviewed by the popular media, but most academic disciplines have review journals of their own. These, too, review only a fraction of the books published. Thus, Contemporary Sociology, the official review publication of the American Sociological Association, did not review most of my books, despite the fact that I served as the president of the Association and am one of the most often footnoted sociologists. In 2011, David Sciulli noted that my works were the ninth most cited of any sociologist born since 1900, according to the Social Science Citation Index.[2] Richard Posner lists me as one of the top 100 public intellectuals between 1995 and 2000, as measured by scholarly citations.[3]

The first academic book I published was A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations. It took a year from the day I handed in the manuscript until the book hit the bookstores, in 1961, and it took another year until reviews were published. Oddly, nearly sixty years later, it took about as long to publish Reclaiming Patriotism and to read reviews of this slim volume. If you want to be an author, you better buy a boatload of patience.

Good reviews — gold — do not necessarily ensure that your book will be read. In 2017, I hit the jackpot. My book, Avoiding War with China, was reviewed by the New Yorker, which reviews very few books and is a very highly regarded publication.[4] Moreover, the reviewer covered four books on the same subject, and — how should I put it — the comparison did not embarrass me. In the period following the publication of the review, there was no noticeable increase in the readership of the book. The Spirit of Community received rather middling reviews, and a much larger audience. Law and Society in a Populist Age received a review that could only have been kinder if my mother had written it, and the book still found next to no readers. Happiness is the Wrong Metric was little reviewed but was downloaded an amazing number of times.[5]

In short, do not expect reviews and, if you get them, do not expect them to do miracles.

Popular books?

If you want to write books that will reach a wide audience, either to make money or because you feel strongly about some cause, you better not plan on an academic carrier. Many of your colleagues will consider writing such books to be worse than being a sex worker. Academics are supposed to specialize and use technical vocabulary, also known as jargon. You may ask, “How about this and that academic, who is very widely read, like say Robert Putnam, who is a professor at Harvard?” But ask his colleagues privately. Anyhow, though I had tenure at Columbia University and taught at Harvard and Berkeley, I sure did not escape the backlash. I tried to defend myself by following every popular book with an academic one (for example, Winning without War, a book meant for the masses, was followed by Political Unification, an academic tome). I tried to write some crossover books, which were supposed to speak to both academics and my fellow citizens. The Limits of Privacy was one attempt at this. However, these efforts did not work very well. Wider audiences found them too dense and many of my colleagues found them, well, too popular.

Keep the rights

The contracts that authors sign with publishers have a lot of legalese, but I believe that most authors (myself included) do not ask lawyers to review the documents. I assumed that they were standard documents that authors signed, after they had already agreed on the kind of advance they would receive (typically none) and what royalties they would gain. However, there is one matter that authors should pay attention to, and that is who has the rights to the book once it is published. Some publishers are quite content to let the author keep the copyright, others not so much.

The rights question came up whenever I was approached by colleagues in other countries (especially Japan and China) who wanted to translate one of my books and find a publisher for it, which delighted me to no end, because I was keen to get the word out. Publishers, though, were looking for a fee, sometimes a hefty one, before they were willing to let the book be translated. It was much easier when I kept the rights. The same held true when authors of textbooks wanted to include some segments of my books in theirs. And this was the case when publishers stopped stocking the books and I wanted to let them be issued online. If you can, keep the copyright to your books.

At the end of the day

I write these lines as I am about to celebrate my 92nd birthday, feeling strongly that I am done writing books. I may sound as if I am kvetching [I think I may have led you astray when I mentioned kvelling, because I think kvelling refers to expressing pride, not complaining.] some, but I am actually quite content. I had a chance to say what I believed needed to be said. Even in all of my academic books, there is a moral and social message, although it is sometimes expressed in the ways that academics discourse with each other and a bit between the lines.

One of my research assistants, Kevin Hudson, was an aspiring filmmaker. He asked me if I could make a tape to summarize some of what I was trying to express. In a ten-minute video, The Making of a Peacenik, he put it much better than I did in a handful of books. Go figure.

I can be reached at etzioni@gwu.edu.

[1] A pdf of the book is available, without charge, at https://606c3aae-c155-42c4-8bca-a7e28b237aee.filesusr.com/ugd/a03a76_9762bf3ef02d42f28aa8c9e6362bbc21.pdf.

[2] David Sciulli, Etzioni’s Critical Functionalism: Communitarian Origins and Principles, International Studies in Sociology and Social Anthropology (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011), vii, Proquest Ebook Central.

[3] Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline: With a New Preface and Epilogue (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, 2003), 212–213, Proquest Ebook Central.

[4] Ian Buruma, “Are China and the United States Headed for War?” New Yorker, June 12, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/19/are-china-and-the-united-states-headed-for-war

[5] Download the book without charge at https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-319-69623-2_1.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at the George Washington University.

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