Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Legal Historian's First Book, Part VI: Outside Reviews

Most academic presses send a manuscript to outside readers for peer review at some point. Friends and colleagues had different views on the peer review process. Some saw it primarily as a potential minefield, and advised me to hope for a rubber stamp. Others viewed outside reviews as an opportunity for useful feedback that might not come again, a chance to have two or three scholars read the entire manuscript carefully and critically.

Fortunately, the two anonymous reviews of my manuscript were quite helpful. One was much more critical than the other. Its overall message was that my book had potential, but it wasn't there yet. The critical letter made me realize that I had a thicker skin than I thought; I agreed with most of the reader's critiques and suggestions, and mostly felt grateful to have the input while there was still time to implement it. The fact that the other letter was enthusiastic, and my editor supportive, were no doubt crucial to my accepting the criticism with equanimity.

Most importantly, both reviewers provided very specific and constructive suggestions, helped me to prioritize further revisions and research, and clarified in my own mind the contributions my book could potentially make. The letter I wrote to the press in response to the reviews laid out a helpful roadmap for the second round of (extensive) revisions. Twelve chapters became six, extraneous and redundant material came out. I added context, defined terms, filled in substantive gaps, rewrote large portions of chapters, including one from scratch.

I was fortunate to exercise some control over the timing of the reviews, and chose to do the first round of substantial revisions to my dissertation before the press sent out the manuscript. I'll say more about publication timetables in a future post, but for now, would be interested in hearing about others' experiences on both sides of the peer review process.

1 comment:

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Serena, thanks for this great series of posts! I think the peer review process, though sometimes painful (on both sides!) is one of the most valuable things about publishing a book or a peer-reviewed article. Reviewers usually take their role very seriously. It's a time when you can give another scholar advice about how to turn a manuscript into a well-honed book, and your advice has some bite, since the editor will ask the author to respond to your criticism. Although it's not always the case, reviewers often take as much time and care with these reviews as you might when evaluating a book manuscript for a tenure file. When a book has promise but problems, reviewing for a press can be more satisfying, because you're intervening at a point when the author can make it better.

As an author, even though reviews are sometimes difficult to read, you can anticipate that if one reader had particular concerns about the manuscript, other readers -- perhaps including book reviewers or tenure letter writers -- might have the same reaction. So it is usually wise to find a way to engage criticism, even if you feel that the reader is wrong. Perhaps you need to clarify the manuscript to anticipate that reaction.

If the book began as a dissertation, you've probably already had a lot of vetting along the way. As you move into later books, it can be extremely helpful to get full reads of a manuscript from other scholars. It's hard to get this from anyone other than close friends and mentors, since it is a huge time commitment. But you can sometimes get reads when you're directly engaging another scholar's work, or if you and your potential reader are working in parallel areas, and you both commit to reading each other's work.