Today and tomorrow, I will discuss book writing. Today’s post will be about the basic mindset behind book writing. Most academics are trained to write articles. In some fields, an article might be a few pages long, or a few dozen pages. Books are longer and more ambitious in scope. Their length and sustained argument is a challenge and many academic are not able to complete such a book due to training or temperament.
So here, I want to outline some key differences and help you get in the mindset about writing a book:
- Books are not about narrow nitty gritty arguments. They are sustained arguments in a (mostly) verbal format. You should only write a book when each part of your argument involves a journal article length explanation. Otherwise, think about cutting down to journal size.
- Books are good for very verbal areas (historical work); arguments that collect a lot of different data and thus can’t fit in a 35 page paper; and big ideas that might reach a broad public.
- Books often have wider audiences, even technical books. A well written book can be discussed in academic journals, learned journals (e.g., Foreign Affairs), and mass media (e.g., the NY Times). Even a technical book might reach out, in that other specialists will want to consult “the book” on a topic that goes into gory detail. So when you write a book, be prepared to explain what bigger audience you might be shooting for.
- Books need to justify their existence. It costs about $20k for a single print book. These costs will only be recouped if you sell about 1,000 copies at $20 a pop. Only offer an idea that will (a) be bought by libraries and (b) have some justification to a larger public or cross-disciplinary academic audience.
- Bill Germano’s book writing guide gets it right – you only have 20 pages to really justify the book. If an editor doesn’t get it after about 10 minutes, it won’t get published.
Tomorrow, the book publication process.
Africanists like to toss around the words “failed state.” But what they falsely assume is that there is only one option – building a stronger state. What would happen if the state just withered and people just let it go? Are people better off by just ditching the weak state? A 2006 article in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization by Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford, and Alex Nowratseh asks exactly this question. They ask, what happened in Somalia after their state collapsed 1991?
Somalia is a nation that was hammered by war, famine, dictators, and an out of control socialist state. In the 1991, the state collapsed and people reverted to tribal forms of governance based on Islamic courts and kinship (the Xeer system). In 2005, Powell et al. collected basic data on longevity, health, roads, money, and law. Then they asked, how does Somalia compare with other African states?
The answer is surprising. On many measures, Somalia post-1991 actually does well compared to 42 other sub-Saharan states. On at least five measures (including life expectancy and mortality), Somalia is in the top half (p. 662). On a few important measures (such as water access and immunization), they are near the bottom. Even then, they often improved in absolute terms, though not in relative terms. When you compared Somalia with neighbors that had been at war, they report improvements in most measures while other warring states saw declines. Somalia has also seen an expansion of its pastoral economy, a functional currency, and the best mobile phone system in the region. The major setback for Somalia is a depressing performance with regard to infant mortality, which probably relates to poor immunization rates. Still, statelessness did not lead to chaos. Rather, Somalia continued to resemble other African societies on most measures.
This is not an argument for selling off the White House, but it does make an extremely important comparative institutional point. High quality Western systems of governance are simply not on the table. There is no way these impoverished societies can create the level of wealth needed for Western style states in the short term. It is also the case that the options are horrible – dictatorships or Marxist states. If those are your choices, it might be plausible to evolve into a decentralized legal system.
For about five years now, I have been working on and off on a social theory book. The purpose is to explain to a wide audience what it is that sociologists do. A number of readers have read drafts of the book and provided valuable feedback. The book has a new editor who has very strongly suggested a new title of the book. The old title was “All of Sociology in Four E-Z Steps!!!” But what should the new title be?
Here is my first stab: Theory for the Working Sociologist – How to Understand Contemporary Sociology. Can you do better? You probably can. Use the comments section. In a week or so, I’ll put up a poll with 4 or 5 of the best responses. Then, the winner of the poll will get a prize (even if the press opts for a different title):
- $20 cash, or
- A free copy of From Black Power or Party in the Street, or
- Free Grad Skool Rulz for 10 of your friends.
All serious participants in the contest will have their names in the acknowledgements and the winner will be listed first.
As some of our dear orgtheory readers know, I am always on the look-out for interesting articles about how organizations use collectivist or participatory-democratic practices. One recent publication I would like to highlight involves a collectivist group fueled by a common love of cola, coffee, and beer.
Fans of a caffeinated soft drink, frustrated by Afri-Cola new owner’s refusal to change the recipe back to the original*, become the new owners and producers of the drink. Not only did they band together to revive the original product using what they considered to be more ethical market standards, they organized using the practice of decision-making by consensus.**
Participatory-democracy invariably elicits conflicts that might be avoided or suppressed under more hierarchical organizations. Members have to learn how to manage contention if they wish to stay cohesive. Premium Cola‘s members had to learn how to do this via a discussion email list.
Husemann, Ladstaetter, and Luedicke’s (2015) “Conflict Culture and Conflict Management in Consumption Communities” examines the types of conflicts and actions taken to address these conflicts within Premium Cola. The authors note the generative qualities of routinized conflict, including the reaffirmation of commitment to a collective mission:
When analyzing the Premium community’s conflicts, we found that the community’s conflict culture involved a limited set of routinized and recurring conflict behaviors. Members use behaviors such as inviting conflict, showing respect for otherness, or releasing aggressions to argue different topics, but use them in similar ways. Many of these behaviors are known from normative conflict sociology as conflict cultivation practices, i.e. routinized behaviors that conflict parties use to perform conflicts in civilized and productive, rather than destructive, ways. Through inventing, selecting, abandoning, enacting, or improving such routinized conflict behaviors, Premium community members are able to produce value rather than destroy value through uncontrolled or abusive conduct.
In contrast, transgressive conflict, in which participants break multiple norms, can lead to abusive interactions. These lead to more active interventions, including the eventual expulsion of a member over his repeated sexist comments about the hiring of a female intern and insults of other members. While the exchanges threatened corrosion, the subsequent actions taken reaffirm Premium Cola’s identity and commitment to community.
* The original recipe had less sugar and more caffeine than the newer recipe.
**More about the fascinating history and ethos of Premium Cola is available here, where the Ladstaetter and Luedicke describe Premium Cola as follows:
…the Premium Cola community can be seen as a group of “productive activists,” e.g.,
prodactivists, that combines the roles of producers, consumers, and social activists to promote change in the capitalist market system by demonstrating how market exchange can be both successful and ethical.
Two years ago, President Obama announced a plan to create government ratings for colleges—in his words, “on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”
The Department of Education was charged with developing such ratings, but they were quickly mired in controversy. What outcomes should be measured? Initial reports suggested that completion rates and graduates’ earnings would be key. But critics pointed to a variety of problems—ranging from the different missions of different types of colleges, to the difficulties of measuring incomes along a variety of career paths (how do you count the person pursuing a PhD five years after graduation?), to the reductionism of valuing college only by graduates’ incomes.
Well, as of yesterday, it looks like the ratings plan is being dropped. Or rather, it’s become a “college-rating system minus the ratings”, as the Chronicle put it. The new plan is to produce a “consumer-facing tool” where students can compare colleges on a variety of criteria, which will likely include data on net price, completion rates, earning outcomes, and percent Pell Grant recipients, among other metrics. In other words, it will look more like U-Multirank, a big European initiative that was similarly a response to the political difficulty of producing a single official ranking of universities.
A lot of political forces aligned to kill this plan, including Republicans (on grounds of federal mission creep), the for-profit college lobby, and most colleges and universities, which don’t want to see more centralized control.
But I’d like to point to another difficulty it struggled with—one that has been around for a really long time, and that shows up in a lot of different contexts: the criterion problem.