Saturday, April 6, 2019

A Better Book: The ASLH Book Series

              Perhaps the most important decisions of my transition from dissertation to book was mine to publish with the American Society of Legal History’s book series at Cambridge University Press and theirs to have me.  In a word, the reason was: editing.  In a person, it was: Sally Gordon.  More specifically, I gained a mentor, a booster, a reader, a quarterback, and a promoter.
              From the outset, Sally shared and shaped my vision for the project. I first reached out to her about the book on the suggestion and introduction of my mentor Dan Ernst, himself a former editor of the series.  To my amazement, she read my entire dissertation with her discerning and constructive eye. She saw the same promise in the dissertation that I did. It already had characters, a narrative, and evidence that constitutional change sometimes occurred outside of courts. The promising strands it had left dangling included the place of Reconstruction in U.S. empire, mechanics and details of who drove what legal change how, the relationship between Puerto Ricans and both American Indians and mainland women and minorities, and the shadow that U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines cast over everything.
              An unexpected (but not surprising) benefit of publishing with the ASLH series is that it brings instant credibility with society members. At the annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History, Sally also introduced me as an up-and-coming scholar with plans to publish in the series.  Anyone who’s seen Sally in action knows that means meeting a lot of society members. I’ve always felt welcome at the annual meetings, but since then the meetings have been a sea of friendly faces.
               Joining the series also meant receiving a level of editing and mentorship that I associate with literary presses of yore, not the tight margins of modern academic publishing.  Almost Citizens was my first book, so I had no experiences identifying – much less making – many of the decisions that book writing  requires. Fortunately, as I wrote (and rewrote), Sally read (and re-read)–the book proposal, an annotated table of contents, individual chapters, and finally the full manuscript.  Every major element of the book bears her mark. Through emails, phone calls, and coffees, she pressed me to specify and “surface” my biggest claims and to open my geographic and temporal lenses wide enough to bring those claims fully into focus. We discussed what books I liked, how they were structured, what writerly voice the authors had employed, who read those volumes, and who might read mine.
Equally important, Sally was an enduring source of encouragement. She kept me optimistic and energized throughout the long and lonely endeavor that is book writing. Our conversations spanned years. During each she reminded me what I had accomplished, then identified the further progress now within reach.
As my draft chapters accumulated, Reuel Schiller joined Sally as a co-editor of the series, to its and my good fortune. Sally and Reuel were a crack pair of text massagers and arrangers. They also knew how to leverage their insights. When they saw room for improvement but lacked the time to provide detailed feedback (the series had other authors; they had day jobs–and lives), they recommended that I use development editors (a subject of an upcoming post).
Working with the series also meant that I had experienced editors in my corner as I navigated the unfamiliar, far-from-intuitive publishing process.  When I negotiated my contract, Sally knew which details mattered: commit to a number of images and ask for preapproval; ensure that the series can choose the copy editor and indexer; choose a publication deadline that can slip a month or two without endangering your tenure case.  Someone had to pay for editing, indexing, and the like. The series helped me ask my home institution for the funds by providing me evidence that peer institutions were already providing such funds to their junior faculty. When I became concerned with one or another of the press’s decisions, Sally and Reuel helped me sort out which items were worth raising in what ways. They were always willing to speak on my behalf to Cambridge, with whom they maintained a strong and cooperative relationship.
Mostly, the series steered me away from pitfalls. I never had to contemplate the disadvantages of a machine-made index because my contract let me hire the wonderful Derek Gottlieb. Where some authors tell horror stories of overseas copy editors who insert more typos than they correct, the series snagged for me the excellent Julie Hagen.
              With my book now out under the series imprint, I can add that I am happy being judged by the company I keep. Cambridge University Press’s august imprimatur makes it more likely that readers will pick up the book. The American Society for Legal History is my foremost academic home. It has also published many of the legal historians that I most admire, including the first books of several of the best up-and-coming scholars in the field.

--Sam Erman