Friday, April 24, 2009

Responding to the Reviewers (a bleg)

(note: extremely fiddly technical post follows. Non-academic readers may want to just look at the unrelated photo and move on.)

So this week I enter a new stage in the first book process: responding to the readers.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I got two very positive reviewers' reports on my book manuscript. Now it's my job to write up a response and a plan for revisions that Fabulous Editor can take to the board -- the last step before an actual contract is issued. In some ways, my job is simple, because both readers recommended publication. But this doesn't mean that they were without criticism. Most of these are easy to handle: there are a couple of dozen simple errors that need to be corrected, a suggestion for changing my subtitle to make it more accurate, and a request that I expand my conclusions, both for the individual chapters and the MS as a whole. All of these are things I can easily agree with.

But there's one issue that I could use some help on: the readers disagree with each other as to the utility of my first chapter, which sets up what I see as the essential context for my argument. One calls it "learned and extremely useful"; the other finds it overburdened with detail and wants to see it restructured to focus on a different issue completely.

If this were just an issue of "reader wants me to have written a completely different book," I'd know how to respond. But it's actually more complex than that. My book attempts to bring together three fields of inquiry -- let's call them group A in region Q with broader phenomenon Z -- to make some new conclusions. The major conclusions of the book as a whole are about the status of group A in region Q, with potentially broader implications about group A in general. But I'm trained in phenomenon Z, which is an area that my audience (people interested in the history of group A or region Q) probably know very little about. So my background section is 80% explaining phenomenon Z: first in general, then in region Q, and then as it relates to group A.

And my reader's objection boils down to something relatively reasonable: "What's all this technical stuff about phenomenon Z? The book is about group A: that's what your background chapter should be about."

I'm ready to admit that people whose primary interest is group A might find my discussion of phenomenon Z overly technical, and maybe even boring (it is a rather dry field). But I think that historians of group A simply haven't paid enough attention to phenomenon Z. This is, in fact, my contribution. It plays to my area of expertise, which is one that few people have. I'm proud of what I've done here, and I'm clinging to that one verdict of "learned and extremely useful" like a life preserver.

Let's add another problem: the plea to restructure chapter one was really this reader's only major criticism, and I don't want to ignore it. Fabulous Editor worked hard to get good people to review this MS, so I can't just write it off.

And a final wrinkle, in the interest of complete honesty: I'm feeling lazy and recalcitrant. I worked hard on this chapter, and I don't want to trash it and start from scratch.

So, if you've read this far, you already deserve my thanks. But to the experienced publishers out there: What would you do?


clio's disciple said...

Hm. That's a tough one.
OK, as you know, I'm not actually an experienced publisher, so I do hope someone else weighs in here. I do think the background on Z is important to understanding the rest of the book. I think that the examples and arguments from the later chapters would be harder to understand without a good grounding in Z. But--is there a way to reframe it just a bit--give some more background on A, explain why it's important to understand Z, maybe even move the Z material to its own chapter, which would become the new chapter 2?
Email me if you want to talk over specifics.

Susan said...

I would have a conversation with fabulous editor in preparation for framing your response. And then I would try to get away with something like what Clio's Disciple suggests -- a little reorganization, more signposts etc.?

Then, when you write your response you can say "I appreciate the concerns that reader B expressed about chapter 1. While I have left intact most of hte material on Z, I have tried to reframe the chapter in ways that highlights the significance of this material in relation to A."

I think it's always important to respond -- even if it is just to clarify things, provide more signposts or whatever.

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
squadratomagico said...

First, congratulations on getting such great readers' reports. Sounds like your revisions will be pretty easy to handle.

As for Phenom Z: Three thoughts occur to me here...

1. The problem might be solve-able with as simple a fix as a paragraph explaining why the background is important. The reader who said that the book is about group A, so why all this stuff about Z is indicating that s/he doesn't understand what purpose the Z discussion is serving. Perhaps you simply can clarify the intent and importance of the discussion.

2. If it would be possible to make the discussion somewhat less technical, without sacrificing important information, that might be a good idea. First impressions are important: if this is the first chapter, and the discussion is indeed quite technical... well, you may lose some readers who browse through the first chapter and then don't read further. Sometimes it's hard to resist engaging with minutiae, and if that is what you're doing (and perhaps you aren't -- just raising the possibility), then maybe you could streamline a bit.

3. However lastly, and most importantly, this book will be published under your name. The reviews, the kudos, and the criticisms, will be yours alone to bear. Make the decision that reflects your best vision of the book -- don't compromise if you, as a scholar, feel that you want this discussion in the book as it stands.

When I got my reports, they were much like yours: change this and that, and then one reader said, "I don't like all this theory in that chapter." I took nearly all their advice except on that one count, because it was / is my book, and that's part of what I wanted to say. I'm glad I stood by my preference.

Also, if they both are recommending publication, then you have little to worry about in standing behind your own vision for the book.

Best of luck!

Oh, and I love the new photo theme!

Anonymous said...

Congrats on getting this far! It is very exciting! I have some suggestions on handling the readers: they aren't in your head, and so can only go by what is on the paper, what is in their own heads, and what they want out of a book on your topic. My guess is the reader who liked the first chapter is more of a specialist in your area, but the other reader not so much. You want those readers to love the book too. So somewhere they didn't quite buy your argument about how CRUCIAL it was, so you need to keep reminding and explaining this point. You might also see what sort of technical material you can put in notes. Then it is there for those who are interested. Also as a thought experiment, try and read the first chapter like someone in a different but interested field, what would the chapter look like if you did follow the reader who did not like your first chapter? Could your make it a platform for convincing readers at large how important and interesting your own area of expertise is? It is easy to simply ignore one reader as wrong, but try and see if from their point of view, they liked the mss and want to like the first chapter.

Dr. S said...

I like all of these suggestions--mine would have sounded a lot like Susan's. Talk to the fabulous editor, because s/he will have had experience with similar situations and might have wording suggestions. At this point, that person is your ally, so you want her/him to know why the chapter matters to you before s/he goes to the board meeting to defend your book. Also, if you're open and willing to communicate about this question, then your editor will know (and be able to tell others) that you're a good author to work with so far, in case that matters. In other words, use this as a further opportunity to build a bridge to and relationship with Fabulous Editor. And things like a paragraph to explain why phenom Z is crucial and needs to be detailed at such length might well get the job done. You could even draft said paragraph as part of your formal response to the reviewers' comments! If you're thinking of your first chapter as offering your readers some of the training that you have received in phenom Z, then I can understand your reluctance to marginalize it all over again.

historiann said...

What Susan, Squadrato, and Dr. S. said--your editor can and should provide some guidance. But, it strikes me that if your goal is to bring A, Z, and Q into dialogue with each other, you need to re-write parts of ch. 1 to explain that better. If indeed you "think that historians of group A simply haven't paid enough attention to phenomenon Z," you need to try to do a better job of explaining to historians of A why they need to pay attention to Z. Your first reader isn't a dim bulb and ze appreciates your contributions--perhaps ze is a proxy for a subset of A historians who might be persuadeable if you explained yourself more clearly and explicitly. This is a very solveable problem.

(I say this as someone whose book was all about bringing together the insights of G history and N studies together, so I can relate to your task. I found it easiest to drop any attempts at subtlety and just state outright that that's what I was up to.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This is all very good advice -- thank you! I'm going to use some of your suggested phrasing, then get in contact with FabEd early next week.