What are the odds that you can pull together your previously published

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, Chronicle Careers, November 18, 2008

Recycling has become a habit. Who can imagine throwing out a newspaper or a can of soda? How many of us keep refilling the same skanky bottle for water? Some people do more, some less, but the impulse to reuse and not waste has become ingrained. So why should we behave any differently when it comes to the aluminum cans of our intellectual labor?

As academics, we spend hours producing a piece of work, and it gets published — as a journal article, a book chapter, a book even. Although it may still be available, it goes onto a shelf (or remains in a box in a warehouse), and there it stays. But we know we’ve done the work, and the impulse is to recycle it.

Perhaps that explains why one of the most common questions I get from academics who know that I spent a dozen years in scholarly publishing is: How do I get a collection of essays published? How can I recycle all of those disparate essays, conference papers, and chapters into a book?

My short, flip answer is: You can’t. The real answer is more complicated.

Publishers put out different kinds of collections. There’s the multiauthor edited volume of original essays on a particular topic. Sometimes it is hatched out of a conference.

From a publishing perspective, that sort of collection can be an appealing prospect. Such books fill a need — often they bring together important scholars in ways that can help to define or redirect a field or discipline. They can be useful in teaching. For the individual authors, appearing in such books can be a way of recycling a conference paper or of piping in on an interesting discussion. How much those contributions to a collection “count” in terms of tenure and promotion — are they equivalent to, or better than, peer-reviewed articles in journals? — isn’t entirely clear, and probably depends on how your department and institution values and defines research.

For editors, however, those volumes can be a nightmare — soliciting essays, tracking down delinquent authors, and giving substantive feedback on pieces. And, again, it’s not clear how much of that work counts.

Then there are anthologies — greatest-hits collections of previously published work by a variety of authors. Something you’ve forgotten about gets dusted off and trotted out, usually in good company. The burden here, which often falls on the publisher, is clearing permissions. That is also the great part for authors. Sometimes you can get paid for work you’ve already done. What could be better?

Well, there is one kind of collection that’s better, and it’s one I am most often asked about publishing: a collection that consists entirely of your own previously published (or unpublished and taken out of a cobwebby drawer) work.

Last summer, an essay in The Chronicle Review by Alan Contreras, “On Shelving Christopher Hitchens,” recounted the author’s experience of rejection: “A university press turned down a collection of my writings on academe because the focus was not narrow enough. The editor encouraged me instead to write a book on a single topic in higher education.”

Editors, generally tactful creatures, aren’t always completely forthcoming with potential authors. I think the real message here was not that Contreras’s topic was too broad. It was, Don’t try to recycle a bunch of old and miscellaneous stuff, even if it’s really good. Write something new and focused enough to have a market.

The books that Contreras didn’t know where to shelve were by people who had written broadly, in different genres, and on different topics. The examples he cited were Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Hunter S. Thompson, Gore Vidal, Camille Paglia, Wendell Berry, and Loren C. Eiseley.

“University presses,” he concluded, “have published some eclectic writers, but they are few and far between. It sometimes seems that writers must be long dead before their work of breadth is recognized as having sufficient reader interest.”

While some readers may harbor murderous anger toward Christopher Hitchens and Camille Paglia, both brazen writers are still alive and publishing. Joan Didion’s collections are going strong, as are David Sedaris’s. Chuck Klosterman’s essays have a cultish following.

So what’s the difference? Why aren’t university-press editors knocking on the doors of academics to get their old journal articles into print in one place? Why are so many people failing to get collections of their wide-ranging work published?

For one thing, the polymaths that Contreras mentions are not, for the most part, academics. They are people who write — often beautifully — for national, general-interest publications. They have big, built-in readerships.

When I asked a trade editor about collections, she said, “I guess you have to think you have quite a fan club to make those kinds of books work.” Plenty of presses are still publishing collections of essays. Those books have to reach beyond a small and specific readership. They have to have an easily identifiable market.

As the author of a collection, you should have a fan club, or at least people who care what you have to say, even if they don’t agree (think Catharine MacKinnon). You should be someone whose miscellany, when brought together, can make a compelling argument and interesting read (Gordon S. Wood’s collection of book reviews, The Purpose of the Past, provides a historiographic romp through recent decades). You are recognized by people outside of your field (think Stephen Jay Gould, Patricia Nelson Limerick). You are influential as a public intellectual (Cornel West, Noam Chomsky).

Those writers are all fairly well known for academics. Where does that leave the rest of us?

Publishers will sometimes offer a contract for a collection as a way to get a sought-after author on their list. Books aren’t always published because they’re good, but because the authors are. Sometimes it’s worth it to stroke an ego to get the next (real) book.

But for most regular academics, whose journal articles are easily accessible through electronic services like JSTOR, you have to ask yourself the hard question: Is anyone really so crazy about my work that they’re willing to plop down additional money just to have bits and pieces of it pulled together in a tidy package?

If you want to publish a collection of your previously published work — and let’s face it, there is no more appealing prospect for an author — it’s best to think of how it will work as a book. Can you make a sustained argument that can be pointed out in a good introduction? Do the individual pieces work together, focused on a particular topic, or is the collection so broad that it seems desultory? Are the articles and essays written to be accessible to those beyond your narrow subfield? (If not, fix that. Just because something has been published already doesn’t mean you can’t go fiddle with it.)

Can you identify a specific market for the publisher, remembering that there is no such thing as a “general, educated reader”? Can you explain how the book would be a good supplemental text in actual courses that are being taught in actual colleges by actual professors?

Getting a recycled collection of stuff published, like most things having to do with writing and intellectual work, is not easy. If you want to recycle, you can. You just can’t be lazy about it.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane. Her newest book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running, and her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com. For an archive of her previous columns, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/page_proof.