Edward Linenthal, the editor of the Journal of American History and Professor of History at Indiana University, is visiting Potterville, Colorado this week as the Hewit Distinguished Professor of History this year at the University of Northern Colorado. Yesterday he gave an informal talk to the History faculty there over lunch on the subject of “How to Get Published in the Journal of American History.” He also provided a lively and in-depth glimpse of how the journal works and some of his priorities as editor. I caged an invite from my pals at UNC, and found Linenthal so engaging and down-to-earth that I asked him if I could publish my notes on his comments, and he said yes. So, here you go:
- The numbers: Linenthal said that they receive 215 submissions a year, and that of those they can publish twenty. (For those of you who took remedial math like me, that’s an acceptance rate of about 9.3%–ouch!) Everything is read by a pair of Associate Editors, and of those 215 submissions, perhaps 35-40% are rejected in-house without review. (When asked which articles were rejected in-house, Linenthal said that it was only those that were very narrowly cast, “horrendously written,” and/or those that don’t fit the mission of the JAH at all.)
- The process: The 60-65% of articles that are sent out to readers are each sent out to four readers, which Linenthal admits can lead to a “cacophony” of opinions that are difficult to sort through. If you’ve got an article under review at this journal, don’t hang out by your e-mail in-box drumming your fingers: Linenthal says that he’ll “always go for thoroughness over speed,” every time, but says that their average in responding to authors is four months after submission. It’s a double-blind review process, and Linenthal says that they absolutely don’t play favorites. “We’ve pissed off any number of senior scholars” by rejecting their work, “but I say, if you’re at that level and you can’t deal with that kind of criticism–tough! Get over it.” He said that he sees providing four reviews for each article as a service to authors, whom he thinks get good advice even if the article isn’t destined for publication in the JAH.
- Commissioned articles/innovations: Linenthal says that the “state of the field” articles are each commissioned, and that they are very popular with readers. (Readers of this blog may be especially interested to know that he mentioned in particular a recent essay on early American history by Karin Wulf and Christopher Grasso, “Nothing Says ‘Democracy’ Like a Visit From the Queen: Reflections on Empire and Nation in Early American Histories,” published in December 2008, and he said that Nancy Cott has just signed on to do a “state of the field” essay on women’s history.) He is particularly proud of their special issue on Hurricane Katrina, which he saw as an important intervention in public history as well as a document in history-in-the-making.
- The all-digital future? At the JAH, not so much. When asked about whether or not he sees the journal going all-digital, he said, “I can’t see it now,” noting that “older people, who are our highest dues-paying members, they’re not going to go for that.” He affirmed the importance of their on-line publication and sees it as a growing way that people access their articles and reviews, but said that the hard-copy is still an important artifact.
- Book reviews: “As you might imagine, the book reviews are the neurosis center of the journal,” Linenthal said, and they get complaints all of the time from book authors about the selections they have made in pairing books with reviewers. “They complain, ‘I can’t believe you asked him to review my book. Don’t you know that at the OAH in 1984, we got into a screaming fight and someone called security to break it up?'” Still–if your book was reviewed in the JAH, that too is something of an achievement, since the journal gets 3,000 books sent to them each year and they can review only about 600 of them, or 20%. Linenthal said bemusedly that his 1991 book, Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields wasn’t even reviewed there!
- Accountability: Linenthal really warmed my heart when he told us that the journal keeps track of how their book and manuscript reviewers perform. “Every review and report is graded” just like student work on the A-B-C-D-F scale, and they well note who makes their deadlines, who doesn’t, and who is egregiously late. Lazy manuscript reviewers who send in two paragraphs that say “this is fine, I recommend publication” aren’t viewed favorably, nor are those nursing grudges, so those of you contacted to review anything for the JAH, know that someone is watching! (And it turns out that Patrick Alexander’s warnings are true: your fecklessness, laziness, and/or mendacity in reviewing books and manuscripts will go down on your permanent record, at least in the offices of the JAH!)
All in all, I found Linenthal to be appealingly open and frank. I also am convinced now that editing a journal is the last job in my professional world that I’ll ever seek–it’s really hard work, and even when you do it fairly and very responsibly, you just end up making a whole lot of people angry. Even people whose articles get published get all shirty about having to revise their work–or so I imagine. Where’s the love, Ed? I’ll show you: I’m bringing a carload of current and former grad students with me to his public lecture tonight called “The Holocaust in America.” Local readers: it’s at the University Center Panorama Room at the University of Northern Colorado at 7:30 tonight, and it’s free and open to the public.
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If you *do* want or need to hang out by your in-box waiting for readers reports, it might not be so bad. One time back in the last century (but late in the last century) I hand-dropped off a JAH submission in Bloomington on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. I was coming through central Indiana and wanted to see IU more than I wanted to fight race week traffic in the town that they later named after me. I had to track down the little house where they were headquartered, and wedged the ms. behind the open screen door, which was a pretty homey touch for academic publishing. I figured I’d get an acknowledgment of the submission by maybe Labor Day. To my amazement, a couple of days after the Fourth of July I got a fat envelope–but not THAT kind of fat envelope–from the JAH, with a polite note declining to publish, but with four remarkably extensive and in two/three cases, even appreciative reports. From, in a couple of cases, truly major figures, and all of them were very helpful in revising the piece for what became a chapter of a book.
Don’t try this in your workshop and your results may vary, but things can go right (even when they go wrong)!
Quick question to Indyanna: how did you know who your reviewers were? Were the reports signed?