Dr. Bernard McGrane, Professor, Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences Department of Sociology
Why do you personally choose to publish?
Well I think it’s important to compose, to create, to write, to produce. In a certain sense we speak in a native tongue, but when we write it’s a foreign language. There is a discipline and a depth and a constraint in relationship to truth that happens in writing. So thats fundamental or primary; the idea of composing.
Then, the next step, publishing, you’ve got to have something to publish. Publishing is something that happens after you compose. And the association with it is to make it available to others. In terms of the reach, who you can reach with your work expands a lot. And its the work itself in some sense; the message rather than you as the writer or author or massager, so the work itself can be of use, be of benefit to other peoples thoughts and development and reflections.
Why do you think it is important or what drives the necessity to publish as a professor?
I got an email about two weeks ago and it was from a student who said ‘this is a little late, this is 37 years after I had you as a professor.’ It was a small college in eastern Pennsylvania ‘and I took a bunch of classes with you, and I still have all the syllabi, and I’ve gone through the entire gamut of all the academic world, and all the ivy league stuff,’ and he says ‘ and I just want to tell you that you were the inspiring thing and the best thing in my whole academic experience.’ And I’m like ‘in all of 37 years, whoa!’ I remember writing back to him “thank you very much,” and it might have stimulated me to, you know, write to one or two of the professors that influenced me.
I’ve been at this for many years so I know that 95% of people that become professors become professors because of a professor. That’s how this craft and art form or whatever it is, gets transmitted, gets handed down. We get inspired by each other. And, I’m just thinking now in terms of publishing; books have changed my life, informed my life. You know I can still remember the day after reading Nietzsche, walking around the campus and everything was different. And so I really appreciate what my ancestors have put into this publishing forum and sent down through the barriers of time. So I think its a good thing to publish.
How would you describe some of your experiences with publishing your works?
I don’t know. The first book I published was my PhD thesis, and I reworked that quite a bit before I sent it out. I find the practicalities of publishing a pain in the ass because you have to do it in certain forms, certain formats. Its like when you hand in a paper, you know, all the guidelines and stuff. I remember the first time with my thesis, it was like sweating blood doing that thing, but I enjoyed it and I thought it was worth doing and I sent it out to publishers. I didn’t get much of a response back; I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I put it aside, then picked it up again a number of years later, cleaned it all up and tried that thing again. At that point the people at Columbia University Press really liked it so they said they’d publish it. I got a sense that one of the things that was going in my first go around was that people did not understand what the hell it was that I had done. I was imitating a lot of Foucault’s work, and his work was just at the very early stages of being recognized to have the impact that it had. Then there’s a process for the publisher because for them your writing is an object. They need it in a certain form and they need you to do certain things with it. And its difficult to do this because they look at it very differently than the author. And theres a new addition of This Book is Not Required(McGrane’s published work) that is going to come out in november and I’ve had it with them. Its not composing anymore its just business. There are legitimate areas in which things need to be updated, you know, this and that, but I don’t think this is one of them. I am just of the view that ‘Here’s the work, what’s this rewrite and re-addition years later?’
So those are that dimension of the publishing aspect. When I did the Un-TV and the 10 Mile-an-Hour Car, I was happy in that experience because my colleague set up the publishing house. She decided that she was going to publish on her own because she liked the whole process about with the press and this other stuff, and she was retired from teaching so she took that on. And she wanted my work, so that was very different from an established, academic publishing house. I was more comfortable.
How is publishing in the field of sociology different than publishing in other fields?
I don’t think it’s all that different. Generally speaking, lets divide it into three realms: fundamentally academic publishing, intellectual publishing, and then popular press. I’m most interested in the intellectual publishing, because the fundamentally academic publishing is all about name recognition and status and stuff like that, or it is extremely, extremely refined and rigorous, and a lot of it is generally journal publication. Certain journals have a very high rate of rejection, so they’re seen as the superior journals. And in a certain sense I understand that Nature or Science or something like that, thats just the name of the game with them. But they’re submitting things in terms of proper formats, and stuff like that is ridiculous. Very few people read them, but there is a lot of academic clout behind them. And I’ve never had much of a relationship with that.
In terms of intellectual publishing, and even popular publishing, its a different game in that you have to really be able to be a good writer and it has to integrate with the publishing house’s business interests. In the best world, you have some people who are really really sharp at sort of recognizing really creative and unusual work. Because anything really unusual and creative and new its invisible until its there. Statistically, the philosophy book that has sold the most copies of any philosophy book in the history of humanity is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Its sold more than any of Kant’s work or any of Nietzsche or Plato’s, I don’t know the paperbacks of Plato’s over the hundreds of years, but I think so. In turn of the number of things that went out. He just composed it, sent it to a publisher, the publisher thought ‘this is crazy’. I think it was like 32 different publishers all saying ‘no’ until he met one of them who said “well, we’ll give it a try.” I grew up in the world when paperbacks were a big deal and Bantam and Harper and Row and all these major new york publishing houses wouldn’t take a lot of academic stuff. You couldn’t use academic jargon with them it had to be extremely well composed, well written, so that it would be amenable to the average intelligent reader. And thats sort of always, thats been somewhat of a guide for me in terms of what I’d like to do.
In general, what should you not do when you’re trying to get published?
I’m not sure. My intuitive thing is don’t come off as too arrogant or too ‘self-appointed messiah’ about anything in your opening letter or your communications to whoever it is that you’d like to publish your work. What you do want to do is to the best of your ability do their work for them in terms of who would be a good audience for this, or what the value of this would be for them and their publishing company or this that or the other thing. You don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to shove it into the wrong venues. A lot of the stuff that I would do wouldn’t make sense if I went to the overly academic journals.
What is the most practical way or approach for an undergraduate student to go about getting published?
Well, talking to professors who have published, picking their brain about whatever suggestion they may have. Probably the most useful advice was just an off the cuff thing that Emanuel Schegloff at UCLA said to me, “Just go to the library and find similar sorts of work. Whatever field you’re in whatever you are doing, find similar sorts of work, and those are the publishing houses that your work is relevant for. What you’re doing would be relevant for them. For many if you just send it to any old publishing house or only the publishing houses that you know, not a lot is going to happen. There has to be a kind of relevance and a connection in that.
What are some brick walls that come up in publishing?
Its the editorial component. Its one thing to get criticized by people who you have some sense of their legitimacy. You’re not thrilled with what they’re saying but you can see the justification for what they’re doing. So you have to go back to the drawing board and do a lot of rewriting, creating stuff that will fit in to what they’re looking for. The drawback, and I’ve seen this particularly with journal publication, is i’ll get three or four reviews and three of them are very supportive and the one guy is just apoplectic about it, saying “this is terrible, don’t publish this, this is garbage” and I have no idea why. Just keep a good emotional balance and don’t take this stuff too personally.
Why should undergraduates publish? What are the benefits or learning experiences that they can get?
Going through the process. Just the discipline of integrating your creative energies into an institutional framework. Because that’s part of the deal here. You know, I have been teaching many decades and I’ve seen some astonishingly gifted minds come through. And all of my heart goes out in a lot of ways because I see a lot of them crash and burn because they can’t integrate to institutional requirements. They’re on their own trajectory, which is astonishing, but its easy to crash and burn. So the earlier on you can take your creativity and your passion and, without throwing water on it, somehow make it amenable for others, somehow be able to channel it into an institutional code, its good discipline. It helps us all be interconnected one way or another. Because your opinion of what you just did is of no more value on someone else’s opinion of what you just did; you just happened to do it, that’s all.
How can undergraduates connect with the publishing companies?
You have to find an agent first . For some of them, for Bantam and Harper and Row you have to know someone. It’s not unlike the film industry, you can’t just go “here’s a good script!!”. That’s part of the publishing process. Its like the journeymen and the craftsmen and the masters; you have to learn all these networks that are already sorta out there. Now this isn’t the case as much because online publishing is blowing publishing out the water here in terms of the old world of print publishing. “Here’s my blog here’s my blog here’s my blog, oh and by the way, 800,000 people are looking at it.” Well then maybe I’ll look at what you’re saying then. And that’s been a really fascinating thing. I mean, you can write what you’re going to write and if people like it they like it. This is shifting a lot of the economic and the business dimensions of publishing, and the ability to recognize quality as opposed to what is popular.