Social media: an irritant as well as balm for most intellectual property problems?

That chaps my a$$!

Chaps my a$$!

Kathleen L. Sheppard, a historian of archaeology who blogs at Adventures in History in Archaeology, reported on an interesting article she read at the online publication Broadly, a channel at on “The Forgotten Egyptologist and First Wave Feminist Who Invented Wicca,” Margaret Murray, by writer Sarah Waldron.  Sheppard was first excited that the subject of her book–the only book-length biography of Murray published in any language–was also the subject of a mainstream publication!

Sheppard’s heart sank as she realized that “the article is quite good.  But, to be honest, it is good because most of the work was done by me,” and uncredited in any fashion by the writer:

I saw the article, posted by a fellow Egyptologist on facebook.  I read it, excited to learn more about Murray’s work.  Maybe there was something in there that I could learn about her witchcraft studies.  As I read, I realized that I wasn’t learning anything new.  In fact, I was reading my own words, spit back at me, in an online article that was and is being enjoyed by thousands of people.  Some of my own phrases, and most definitely my unique analysis of Murray’s life and career, were there for thousands to see.  Usually, this makes me very happy.  Murray is still little-known outside of a small group of historians and Egyptologists even though she is central to the discipline.  I got to the end of the article and realized there were NO citations.  Not one.  I did a ctrl+F to search for my name, thinking I must have missed where I was mentioned in the article as Murray’s biographer and owner of many of the ideas therein.  Nothing.

Sheppard wasn’t interested in money–she just wanted due acknowledgement for her book and her unique intellectual contribution.  As she explained in the first blog post: Continue reading

“Scent of a Woman’s Ink” updated for a new generation with no good news

womanwritingThe title of this post refers to a 1998 essay by Francine Prose, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink:  Are Women Writers Really Inferior?”  Nearly twenty years later, the results aren’t encouraging for women.  Over at Jezebel, Catherine Nichols writes about sending out queries to agents for the same novel, with the same cover letter and writing sample, under both her real name and in the name of a male alter ego.  The results are even more depressing than you’d imagine (h/t Megan Kate Nelson for the RT that alerted me to this article):

The plan made me feel dishonest and creepy, so it took me a long time to send my novel out under a man’s name. But each time I read a study about unconscious bias, I got a little closer to trying it.

I set up a new e-mail address under a name—let’s say it was George Leyer, though it wasn’t—and left it empty. Weeks went by without word from the agents who had my work. I read another study about how people rate job applicants they believe are female and how much better they like those they believe are male.

Her hit ratio as Catherine was two requests to see the whole manuscript out of fifty queries, so 1:25 positive requests.  As George, her hit ratio was 17:50.  Nichols concludes that he is “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.”

Who was is brilliant new writer, George Leyer, and when can we read his brilliant novel? Continue reading

Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models


Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Book collections: his, mine, and yours? Also, my plans for a home office rethink.

1819INtownsOver at Chancery Hill Books, Tom Bredehoft wrote a few posts this week about collecting books and the ways in which his book collection has shaped his scholarship.  He wonders, “Why aren’t literature professors also book collectors?,” when his research has been immeasurably enriched by his book collecting and bibliographic interests:

Being a book collector has given me a far broader experience of books and their texts than my academic training or my academic pursuits alone could have done. Of course not every book I’ve collected will end up playing a role in the academic arguments I make, but that’s precisely the point: I do not know which books I will use until I use them. But I do know that I will probably not use a book I am not at least somewhat familiar with.

Do some of you collect books?  If so, what role (if any) have they played in the rest of your work or professional life?  I confess that I buy old books, but only if they’re of personal or professional interest.  I’m not into book collecting for the sake of collecting rare or important books, but I like to think that my purchases and careful stewardship of my books may someday be appreciated by antiquarians, bibliophiles, or even historians in the future.

I was particularly interested in Tom’s report on Victorianus Clark’s A Rhyming Geography; Or, a Poetical Description of the United States of America, &c. (Hartford: Peter B. Gleason & Co., 1819,) which looks like a fascinating document.  It recalled in my mind Kariann Yokota’s fascinating discussion of early American maps and geographies, which continued to plagiarize and reflect British referents and sensibilities for decades after the American Revolution.  Clark’s pedagogically innovative Rhyming Geography appears to flow from this vein as well–check out this discussion of Vincennes, Indiana:  Continue reading

Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

Do I feel lucky?

Do I feel lucky?

Howdy, friends!  Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).  For part I of this series, “Crossing Over:  What is my book about?” click here.  When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make.  The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.

After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction.  He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again.  (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)

The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me.  I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns.  I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out. Continue reading

Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

In a post last weekend, I revealed that my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) would be published as a crossover academic-trade title.  Some of you expressed interest in how I got a contract like this, as many of the scholar-readers here are interested in writing beyond a traditional academic audience of other professors and their students.  So, I’ll tell you my story and do my best to draw a few lessons out of it.

(Over the last several years, I would tell junior scholars who asked about how I got my first book published to ask the same question of a lot of other people, because it seems like no two journeys to a publisher and to publication are the same.  Maybe this is a truth universally acknowledged?  Those of you with more experience, PLEASE weigh in with your ideas, advice, and experiences!) Continue reading

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.”  She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read.  They’re eating our lunches!

History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling.  His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points:  Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively.  I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working.  (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)

This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two.  Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading