Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

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The Professor Is In: Should I Publish With a ‘Low-Rent’ Press?

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Image: WPA posters, circa 1938

A friend suggested I try to get my M.A. thesis published in a quasi-academic press. He recommended one, and there was some back-and-forth emailing between me and the editors of said press. It's not a mind-blowing opportunity – i.e., it's not U of Chicago or Toronto or Oxford U Press, etc. But then again, this is only a master’s thesis. So if I have any opportunity to make it into a book, maybe I should just go for it. I Googled the press and didn’t turned up any red flags or posts from people saying "avoid!" or "scam!" But what do I know?

Ask your profs, you might suggest. I did. One said, "Stay away from it. Wait until you can publish with a real press." (I assume that means a university press.) Another said, "You should try to publish the thesis as chapters, in journals, not as a whole book." But yet another said, "Why not? This looks great!" So, as usual, I am left to sift through the mixed messages.

I am not interested in becoming a full professor at a major university -- I will be happy to land a college-level job so I'm not exactly the "tenure track" type. I will have succeeded, in my own estimation, if I land a job teaching English and creative writing at a modest but reputable postsecondary institution.

This makes me wonder, for my own non-tenure-track purposes, if simply “getting published” is a worthwhile endeavor? Especially considering that many master’s projects never are.

There are so many issues with this query that it’s hard to know where to start.

First, there is this: “I am not interested in becoming a full professor at a major university -- I will be happy to land a college-level job so I'm not exactly the ‘tenure track" type.”

What?

If you wish to have a college-level teaching job, then you can be either on the tenure track or an adjunct. There are no magical, special, relaxing alternatives. You seem to believe that there is some low-pressure, low-stress alternative to being tenure track, where you can slide by publishing second-class stuff, yet still … what? Have job security? Get paid a living wage? The idea that there is some middle ground is delusion. It’s a common delusion, as I’ve heard many grad students express similar sentiments, but a delusion nonetheless.This does not happen. If you don’t make a case for yourself for the tenure track, you are signing up for exploitation. If you want the wage and job security of the tenure track, you require a record that is competitive for the tenure track.

Now, turning to the issue of the master’s thesis. Just because something is a master’s thesis does not, in and of itself, dictate that it should be published in a low-rent venue. Your thesis may be publishable in a major venue. The only way to know that is to try. If you pre-emptively lowball yourself, you will never know where that work could have been published. All you’ll have is a book from a no-name press (unfortunately, I cannot share the name of the press from the original email in this response) that will do little to support your case for the “college-level job” that you claim to want. As a journal editor (@jonotter) said on Twitter recently, “if your paper isn’t rejected at least once, you’ve started too low on the food chain.”

Third, there is the advice of your advisers. First, let me applaud you for seeking the advice of several, and acknowledge how frustrating it must be to go to all that trouble and get such inconsistent responses. Two of your advisers are potentially correct: the one who said, “Wait until you can publish with a real press,” and the one who said, "you should try to publish the thesis as chapters, in journals, not as a whole book." Without seeing your master’s thesis I can’t opine on whether it’s better published as a book or as journal articles, but if it is publishable as a book, and if you do want that “college-level job,” you damn well better publish it with, in your adviser’s words, a “real press” (which is, indeed, a university press or something in that ballpark). It is possible that your thesis doesn’t hang together perfectly as a book and would work better as a series of articles. In that case, those articles should go to the highest-ranking journals you can manage.

The adviser who said, "Why not? This looks great!," is what I call a “nice adviser,” and nice advisers have been the destruction of far too many careers.

So the upshot is, don’t publish with this random putatively academic press. This is an example of the kind of thinking that I call “getting your career at Costco.” To get the outcome you desire, you need to, in the words of the Twitter journal editor, start higher on the food chain, assume the risk, and put in the effort to put together a book proposal and send it out for review at a university press (or, alternatively, send out the chapters as journal articles). That’s how you produce something useful for your career.

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