Professor Andrew Erish, Film Studies Department, Author of Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood
My biggest mistake trying to get published was to go after a publisher that was not necessarily suited to what I was doing. The top academic publisher of film books is University of California press, but they tend to focus on theory-based books, as opposed to straight histories, and it reflects what I think is a problem within film studies in general, in that theory is much more prominent than history.
For the last 25 years, and we’re getting closer to 30 years now, there’s been a tendency to rewrite history to suit your theory, rather than the other way around. Let’s get the history accurate, so if you want to start to theorize, at least you have an accurate foundation to build from to do that. They’ve been doing it the other way because theory has so overwhelmed film studies. Some of the theories that come out and the articles that stem from them are so ridiculous and don’t have any grounding in fact or truth or historical accuracy. I didn’t know that approaching University of California Press. California had my manuscript for a year, and on a Friday they said yes. On the following Monday they said, “no, we changed our mind.” I was really upset about that.
I got back up after about a day and started to pursue other publishers. Within a week or so, there was a cinema studies conference in Los Angeles, and went from publisher to publisher pitching my manuscript. The editor at University of Texas Press was there, heard my pitch, said all the right things in response, asked for a chapter, and I went home and brought my entire manuscript because I lived within walking distance from the place where it was held, and he was kind of impressed by that. When he arrived in Austin a couple of days later he called and said he read a couple of chapters on the plane and he wants to do the book. So it was a good fit in terms of a publisher who wants to do more of a straight film history or biography and prioritizes the accuracy of history over theory. They said to keep it as plain and simple and understandable as you can, and they advocate not letting academic jargon get in the way because so many of the terms used in academia have theoretical connotations that just tend to get in the way of telling accurate history. I became more confident in being able to tell the story.
What students should look for:
There’s an organization called the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and they are the principal film studies organization in America. By joining, you have access to a variety of resources, one being most of the major magazines that are looking for articles. They’ll put out a call for papers: “We’re going to be doing an issue on horror films in the 1930s,” so if a student has written a paper for class on that or they’re interested in that, they have an opportunity to send your paper in to get published. Same thing with conferences.
For students, this kind of thing looks real good on a resume, and it gives you instant credibility if you can get an article published in a major film journal.
Most important things to know to get published:
If you’ve never been published before, you need to have a finished article or manuscript. If they don’t know you, no one will look at a partial. But know your audience, and don’t waste your time. This can be very time consuming and very expensive to send around. Do your homework upfront about who to approach. Look at the length of articles. My manuscript for my book was three times larger than what the finished book ended up being. It was painful to cut as much as I did, but a friend said, “You know, you have enough material for magazine articles to last you the rest of your life.”
Make sure you know your subject better than anyone else. Read everything that’s already been written about your subject to make sure you’re not duplicating someone else. I do a lot of research at the Motion Picture Academy Library, and my friends that work up there have kind of a running joke that every day someone comes in wanting to write an article about Gone With The Wind or Casablanca, and there have already been thousands of articles and books written about those, what can you say that’s really new? There are so many other aspects of film that are so off the radar. If you can find one of those things and get up to speed and become the expert on that, you’ll be in good shape.
The one that I read with any frequency is Film History. The magazine that published my Hitchcock article when I was in college was Journal of Film and Video. The British Film Institute Magazine is Sight and Sound, and they’re really good.
It turns out that if you’re being published by an academic press there’s no money in it. I talked to agents, and there’s not enough in it for them to make money. I just got my first royalty check, and I’m too embarrassed to say how much the check was, and it covered the first six months of the publication. What that check does is it allows me to write off all the thousands and thousands that I spent in researching.
Something you wish you knew:
I think sometimes ignorance is bliss. If you make the commitment to yourself that you’re going to write a book, I certainly wasn’t sharp enough to realize how much work it was. Had I known ahead of time, I might not have done it. It’s an enormous commitment and it takes discipline I didn’t even know I was capable of. If you’re not willing to do your best, then don’t do it. So many people write books that don’t get published, write articles that don’t get published. I think that ones that do end up getting published because people put the effort in to do their very best. You just don’t see a lot of half-hearted attempts. You’ve got to be the best that you can be.
To anyone who’s reading this article: You must be interested in doing something like this, otherwise you wouldn’t be worth reading. So many people who are good don’t have the confidence to try something. You know, if you fall flat on your face, you get up and you do it again. If you find out that it’s not for you, isn’t it better to know that and to move on to something else than to have half finished books and articles all your life and to never really give it your full effort? Not just in the world of film, not just in the field of writing, but in virtually all walks of life so few people dedicate themselves to pursue whatever those ambitions are and are willing to do all the work. You can go through life kind of deluding yourself and never allow your ambitions to come to fruition. There aren’t enough people who do. You need to be a self starter.