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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Now That's Why I Read for Presses

As I mentioned in my post about the blog redesign, I've had a manuscript to read for a press and a reader's report to write for a couple weeks now, and I finally got to it this weekend. (My goal is to always get these done within a month, having known the horrors of waiting longer.) I've done this about five times now, and there's always a bit of dread when I agree to it. On the one hand, it's an important bit of collegial service, it never hurts to keep the press editors on your good side, and when the manuscript is good, it's an easy way to keep up with new work in your field and get paid (minimally) to do so. On the other hand, what if the manuscript is not good? And what if that not-good manuscript is a first book? Then you have the terrible dilemma of how to respond, with someone's tenure case potentially in your hands. It reminds me of that moment in The Big Lebowski:
BRANDT: Her life is in your hands.

DUDE: Oh, man, don't say that ...

BRANDT: Mr. Lebowski asked me to repeat that: Her life is in your hands.

DUDE: Shit.

BRANDT: Her life is in your hands, Dude.

Fortunately, this manuscript was wonderful (and is not a first book). I suspected it would be since it's by a respected scholar whose work I am pretty familiar with and have always loved. And I was right; the book is important, forceful, new, and (thank Jebus) clearly written. In a case like this, it really is fun to read for presses--I now get to enjoy two pleasures, one narcissistic and one other-directed: first, narcissistically, I'm in possession of secret knowledge and can say to people in my field, "oh, you really should read AB's book on that when it comes out ..."; and second, other-directedly, I get to be the (indirect, anonymous) bearer of good news to a colleague. Getting the readers' reports for my book was certainly a highlight of my academic career--#1) job offer; #2) book contract; #3) first publication; #4) diss defense--and it's fun to be on the other end. Of course, since this is a senior scholar, I doubt she'll experience the same mixture of 20% joy and 80% relief that I did.

The only problem with an excellent manuscript is that it's actually much harder to write the report than it is with a problematic one. You can only say "it's great" so many different ways before you start to sound a bit strange. And I hate it when people seem to feel that they absolutely must say something negative in a review simply to justify their critical acumen or to fill up space. But I feel an obligation to treat the manuscript in detail, rather than just writing a single paragraph that says "publish it." Fortunately, I had four or five suggestions that I think actually do matter while in no way detracting from the positive response; and also fortunately, the book is in a subfield I know very well and so can explain why it's great in some detail and in the context of other work and of the history of the subfield, whereas with a manuscript that's more tangential to my own work, it would be more of a struggle.

With these things, you usually get paid either $X or $2X worth of books, and the last time I read for this press I took the latter option, maximizing the bang for the buck. But since I'm moving house this summer, I think I'll save myself some trouble and just take the money. It's a nice academic guilty pleasure, forgoing books for cold hard cash.

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