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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Book writing

Paul's exceptionally thoughtful post deserves to be followed by more than this, which is a mere parenthetical in comparison, but a few comments on books as a substitute for law review articles (a subject which others have touched on in comments here and to Rosa's initial post). First, there are a number of kinds of books: serious trade press, less-serious trade press (which could include fiction), crossover academic, narrow academic. I won't comment on the less-serious trade press books, except to note, in reference to Ethan's post, that these would be the books colleagues would be least likely to view favorably, since they perform the least amount of service to the institution, students, and the legal profession.

Serious trade press books are not easy to place, at least without an agent, and not easy to write -- especially given the stylistic and thematic demands of trade presses. They also trade immediate currency -- more likely to be reviewed in the mainstream press, more likely to have shorter versions placed in venues like op-ed pages or the NYTimes Magazine -- for long-term availability, since, at least for now, trade presses are far more likely to allow a book to go out of print more quickly than a university press. (Presumably you can buy the rights back from the publisher or deal with the issue contractually, but it's a fundamentally different business model.) Presumably, too, if you publish a book with a trade press and it fails to make back your advance, then the likelihood of getting a second contract will be significantly dimished. Finally, the process also performs the same normalizing function as with law reviews: publishers (and agents) strongly favor certain kinds of works and have very rigorous visions of what a manuscript should look like that might not match the author's.

The state of the academic publishing industry is in flux at present, exacerbating the distinction I've made between crossover and narrow academic books.  University presses are under significant financial pressure, most prominently by university administrations which want them to be more self-supporting, and by university libraries that face their own fiscal constraints (in part because of fast-rising medical and scientific journal costs) and as a result are less willing to simply buy the new catalog of University of Whatever Press.  It's more difficult now, for example, to publish a humanities dissertation than it once was, and there are fewer venues for publishing narrow academic scholarship in the tradition of the university press monograph. University presses are increasingly interested in books that will either crossover between disciplines or can appeal to non-academic buyers.  A narrowly academic book, and many potential crossover books, get almost no publicity budget, no or little advertising, and no subsidized book tours.  If you sell 3000 copies of a book over the course of a few years, that's a real accomplishment; I think it's correct to say that few sell 1000.  In short, university presses are incorporating aspects of the trade press business model, but remain small-potatoes in comparison.  And, given increased commercial pressures, they too serve a normalizing function, demonstrating preferences for certain types of topics and certain types of writing.

Now, I realize that Rosa's original post used book-writing as one of the alternatives to law review articles, but significantly, it was the one option that at least suggests a significant scholarly endeavor that results in a non-ephemeral work-product.  There are certainly advantages of book-writing to law-review writing. But it strikes me that for academics, it's simply another, additional venue and type of writing for particular intellectual projects.  It's an option, not a panacea, and one that I think -- as with law reviews -- sounds better in the abstract than it does in reality.

Posted by Mark Fenster on January 18, 2006 at 07:19 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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» Whither Law Reviews? from madisonian.net
Rosa Brooks recently kicked up some fine discussion at LawCulture (with this post) about writing for law reviews, contrasting it with writing for other types of publishing outlet. Her post sparked reactions at PrawfsBlawg (from Ethan Leib, Paul Horwi... [Read More]

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