Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Legal Historian's First Book, Part XI: The Author's Questionnaire


Authors' questionnaires seek information useful to a publisher in marketing a book. These questionnaires, somewhat intimidating to publishing neophytes like me, ask about the book's unique features, audiences for whom the book is written, comparable books, professional meetings at which the book might be exhibited, prizes for which the book should be submitted, ideas for course adoptions, subject headings for bookstore placement, and a list of publications to which the book might be submitted for review. Cambridge University Press has an example here.

Most daunting to me was the prospect of writing a 250-word description of the book, on which the catalog entry, book jacket copy, and other promotional material, would be based.  My first step was—as usual—to impose on the generosity of friends who had recently published books. They kindly provided indispensable examples and ideas. The greatest challenge of refining this description was the need to step back from the minutiae of a manuscript and think about what is most relevant to a reader who knows nothing about the project. 

Around the same time the Author's Questionnaire arrived in my inbox, it was time to finalize the book's title. Since its inception, the name of my project has been Reasoning from Race. This title was so ingrained that when a friend suggested alternatives toward the end, I balked. Rethinking the title seemed almost as out of the question as changing my own name.

The subtitle, however, was still up for grabs. My dissertation’s subtitle had been the somewhat clunky but serviceable “The Civil Rights Paradigm and American Legal Feminism, 1960-1979.” Though it’s not the catchiest moniker, this subtitle had the virtue of specificity—it identified a key concept and time period.

For purposes of my book proposal, the subtitle morphed into “Legal Feminism in the Civil Rights Era.” After a colleague persuaded me to purge the book of the terms “legal feminist” and “legal feminism,” the subtitle became “Feminism and the Law in the Late Civil Rights Era.” I liked the double meaning of “late,” but grew wary of implicating historiographical debates over the civil rights movement’s periodization in the title. (In the end, “The Late Civil Rights Era” became the title of the book’s final chapter on feminist legal advocacy in the age of Reagan.)

I waited until the last possible moment to finalize the subtitle. “Feminism” had to come first, and law needed to be in there somewhere. I ultimately settled on “Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution” in part because of the double meaning of “revolution”—transformational change, but also coming full circle—and in part because the word conveyed to me a kind of dynamism and excitement.

As a title, “Reasoning from Race” has a downside. It’s what appears on the book’s spine, so to the casual bookstore browser, it won’t be evident that the book is about feminism. Some readers find it bewildering—"What on earth is 'reasoning from race'? is not an uncommon reaction. Hopefully, more will be intrigued than perplexed. 

Advice about authors' questionnaires, titles, and academic book marketing generally would be most welcome. Are there particular challenges legal historians face in this regard?

1 comment:

grad student said...

I just want to thank you for this excellent series of posts. As a grad student, it's really helpful to see how someone transformed a dissertation into a book as well as to hear about the elements of publishing that we don't necessarily know about it until it's our turn. And it's gratifying to see a title that remained consistent since I mostly know of people who have radically altered theirs and yet I'm somewhat tied to mine (whether a publisher feels the same remains to be seen)!