How do you get an interdisciplinary book published?

A work that straddles subject boundaries is an unattractive prospect for publishers, finds Martin Parker

March 17, 2016
Daniel Mitchell illustration (17 March 2016)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

If you walk into a bookshop, you are walking into a classification machine.

A bookshop with no categories – no shelves marked as containing “literature”, or “history” or “management” – would just be a room full of books. It would be impossible to use unless you had a great deal of time on your hands because finding what you wanted to read would be an entirely haphazard matter. So let’s agree that classifications of knowledge matter.

But what happens if you have written a book that tries to blur some of these categories, and you want to get it published? A book, that is to say, that entangles literature, history and management in order to suggest that the ways in which we think about these matters are far too hygienic. Our neat classifications allow all sorts of thoughts to fall into gaps.

In Daniel Defoe and the Bank of England: The Dark Arts of Projectors (published earlier this year by Zero Books), Valerie Hamilton and I tried to do just that. It’s a story about the beginnings of the Bank of England and the origins of the novel, as well as an account of pirates, imperialism and the sort of “suspension of disbelief” that allows us to believe that organisations are real things. But it was hellishly hard to get published.

We sent the proposal to around 60 publishers – academic names such as Sage and Routledge; American and British university presses; smaller left-wing publishers including Pluto and Verso; newer entrants such as Bloomsbury and Anthem. We got nowhere, and the rejection emails flew back into the in-box like homing pigeons. Now it might have been a terrible proposal, but the responses were interesting nonetheless.

For the big academic textbook publishers, the problem was the lack of any relationship to teaching. “Does anyone offer modules on this?” was the question – and the answer was pretty obvious. In effect, the ways in which knowledge is apportioned on a module descriptor or course schedule determine the possibility of something being recognised as a “text”, or as “supplementary reading”. So if your book doesn’t nestle up neatly alongside the curriculum, it won’t be published.

But even for those publishers that were less insistent on texts, we had a problem. Which editor do we send the book to? I work in a school of management, but have a background in sociology, cultural studies and anthropology. Valerie, my co-author, has a PhD (from which the book grew) that began in literature and then moved into management. But it didn’t seem to matter where we sent the proposal, because it was always the wrong place. Editors just didn’t seem to recognise what we were trying to do, and would suggest that it would be better sent to another editor, or a different publisher, because it didn’t quite fit with them. But this game of pass the parcel never stopped, and we kept getting moved on.

The problem, I think, was twofold. First, editors have their “lists”, and the list is defined as something that looks like literature, management, history or whatever. The leakiness of these terms, even if recognised on an intellectual level, is patched up by their institutionalisation in the apparatus of publishing. Editors deal with this, and not that. Subject catalogues include certain works and not others. Series are published that specialise in particular categories of knowledge. And bookshops, of course, place history on the history shelves and management somewhere else.

There isn’t an obvious answer to this problem, but it does reflect some issues that academics and publishers might want to think about. It is common enough to complain that a discipline-focused assessment mechanism such as the UK’s research excellence framework militates against interdisciplinarity, encouraging work that is conservative and located in the dull mainstream of subjects, rather than at the exciting edges. That is probably true, but it is only one aspect of an infrastructure that divides thought up into distinct chunks and, consequently, discourages the sort of dilettantism (or ill-discipline) that tries to join things together.

Despite all the talk of inter-, trans- and post-disciplinarity, the very architecture of universities and the structure of bookshops mean that questions that come in neat categories are more likely to be recognised. It means that the people who write and teach literature are in different buildings from those who teach management, and go to different conferences, publish in different journals and discipline themselves and others in order to ensure that their field is kept clear of trespassers.

Daniel Defoe himself caustically compared scholars’ way of thinking to that of Italian carvers and painters who made their gods and devils and then “fix[ed] them in their proper stations in perspective, just as they do in nitches and glass windows”. By this, of course, he meant that they thoughtlessly churn out the same archetypes time and again, never employing their creativity and challenging the conventions. Not that much has changed in the intervening centuries. Of course, we did get the book published in the end, but I suspect that not many people would keep sending their proposal to publishers in the face of such consistent (if often kindly) rejection. There might be lots more of these bastard books that will never see the light of day.

Martin Parker is professor of organisation and culture at the University of Leicester.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Castaway notions

Reader's comments (3)

Congratulations. I shall buy it; it sounds intriguing.
spot on, brilliant article.
I know from personal experience the difficulty in trying to interest editors in a text that straddles two (supposedly disparate) disciplines: photography and psychology. From editors of photography imprints: "Very interesting, but too much psychology -- try a publisher of psychology texts..." and from editors of psychology imprints: "Very interesting, but too photographic -- try a publisher of photography books..."

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