Letting Go

The publisher emailed me last week to ask whether it isn’t time to just give up and admit the book is never going to get written. It’s not that I have done no work. I’ve done tons of work multiple times for nearly 10 years. I’ve generated hundreds of pages of text, hundreds of regression analyses, and more than 10,000 graphs. Four years ago I dug down, worked hard, and sent off a partial MS saying “I don’t know if this is a book. If it isn’t, just tell me so and I’ll let it go.” I was encouraged to go on but asked a question that led me to another round of analysis and a whole new set of findings and a totally different understanding of the main story. Two years ago there was another crisis: the publisher said  it has to be finished by September or we’ll pull the plug. I dug down, did another revision of another partial MS and sent it off, again saying, I don’t know if this is a book. Maybe we should just give up. Nearly a year ago we had a “book meeting.” The basic response was: This isn’t a book. There is too much information, we don’t want all those details.  It was pretty frustrating to hear that four years after I’d said that. I said I’d think about whether I could reshape things to pull the main narrative out. There is a narrative in there, but it is  hard to see how it hangs together into a single simple story. And I’ve done this so many times, I just don’t think I can do it again. I’m tired of it.

I think it’s time to pull the plug, to salvage the fragments of what I’ve done and put them out in other ways. But it is hard to do. It is hard to decide that I’ve wasted so much of my time for the past 10 years working on a project that will never see the light of day. I can’t make myself send the email. I have to sit with this for a while.

Lessons learned.

For the publisher: don’t give a contract for a book to someone who has never written a book unless there is already a set of articles to build on or a good draft manuscript and outline.  I’ve got (or used to have) a good track record as an article writer, but I have no track record as a book writer. My one book is a collection of articles and that was delivered five years late. Books and articles are different kinds of products and being good at writing one of them does not make you good at writing the other.

For the writer: don’t accept a contract for a book unless you know you can deliver it. It’s been clear for at least 8 years that I had no clear conception of what “the book” would be, and trying to write a book without a clear conception of the product is a recipe for disaster.

And another lesson. Academic work has to be shared and communicated to be meaningful.


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

2 thoughts on “Letting Go”

  1. It is amazing and inspiring to see the struggles of someone who has done so much good, published, influential work. You do a kindness to the rest of us to let us see them. I am sorry that you’ve had to go through this, but I hope it is a little comforting for you to know that this story will help me and others put our own writing/research struggles into perspective. Next time I worry over my progress on Project X, I will not allow it to be a wall, but only a bump in the road.

  2. Thanks, Tina. I didn’t realizing anybody was still reading this blog. But maybe I should have the courage to cross-post to scatterplot because I agree that being open about struggles like this is helpful to others. I’m thinking about dropping the pseudonym and putting my academic work in this blog, including the stuff from the prison project that isn’t a book and isn’t an article. But it is kind of hard to drop the pseudonym on a post like this one.

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