Code Blue at Ferule and Fescue!

Drink up, then find another publisher

Friends, as you know I’m conferencing this weekend, but I’m wondering if some of you can offer some helpful advice and assistance to our friend Flavia at Ferule and Fescue.  As some of you may know, she’s enjoying a completely enviable summer in Rome, but that’s beside the point.  Last week, someone peed in her negroni, big time:

As you may recall, I’d been working with this press for two years. They first sent the manuscript to one outside reviewer, who had stern but encouraging words, so I revised according to her suggestions. They sent it to her again, and she was very happy with my revisions and recommended publication. Then they sent it to a second reviewer, who read the entire MS in three weeks and was highly critical–but he also seemed confused about the basic parameters of my project; he made lots of suggestions, but most of them were, at best, tangential to my topic. I was asked to address “at least some of” his concerns, and I did so to the extent that I felt I could while maintaining the integrity of the project. I also told the press very clearly what I had done, what I had not done, and why.

So after winter break they sent it back to him. . . and after more than four months he submitted a one-paragraph review, most of it cut-and-pasted from his previous review, saying that I hadn’t engaged sufficiently with his criticisms.

And that means that’s it for that press. The editor was quite apologetic, but explained that such a negative review tied the press’s hands and would make it hard for the editor to make a case to the publication board–even if the editor were to find a warmly receptive third reader.

Flavia is tenured, so at least she’s not in the position of having to worry about her job security.  However, she is in need of some bucking up and some good advice.  I myself have never heard of a peer review process that solicits readers in seriatum, and then askes the author to make two sets of revisions.  The history editors that I’ve worked with solicit two (and sometimes three) readers at a time, and then make what they will of whatever comes back in the reviews.  The process that she describes seems burdensome and counterproductive, but maybe that’s the way the literature folks do it?  I don’t know.

Senior scholars with wisdom and experience, can you help?  How about you junior scholars who are currently working through the process of publishing a book?  Are there any editors out there in my readership who can offer some insight into the process that might be helpful?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?

14 thoughts on “Code Blue at Ferule and Fescue!

  1. Speaking for tiny scholars: we publish papers not MS, but otherwise the process seems identical. Never heard about an assembly line of reviewers either. The mean, off point and close minded reviewer is common place. There will always be a reviewer who will ask “how tall is the tree” when you deal with cars.

    Advise: if Flavia believes in her MS, rearrange, make major changes without changing much and resubmit. It might work.


  2. I have edited a book series for over a decade and I’ve never heard of this kind of behavior. You send a manuscript out to 2 or sometimes 3 reviewers at the same time, you bundle the reviews when they are all in and give them to the author as a group and s/he replies and then makes changes and the reviewers reread the mss after changes have been made. If an initial reviewer does not really address the manuscript effectively (and this does happen) then we don’t send it back to that reviewer.

    Flavia ought to have a discussion with the press and ask why the standard protocol was not followed and if she learns her situation was unusual, then further discussion ought to take place and her revised mss should go to the editorial board with a letter from her explaining her revisions and a letter from the editor explaining why there was a problematic review. If she looks for a new press she should ask to have the copy of the positive review forwarded to that press.


  3. I don’t think this is a difference between history and literature.

    Usually presses do solicit two reviews at a time, but it’s not always easy to find two reviewers. If one review comes back before the editor has identified a second reviewer, she might well send it to the author and say “We still need to send it to a second reviewer, but it has a better chance of a good reading if you address these changes first.” The way this press has done it seems a bit unusual.

    I do not think Flavia should waste her time trying to get this press to reverse itself. Procedural error may be a reason for overturning a legal decision or a grade but not a decision about publication.

    “My hands are tied, I couldn’t take that to the board even if there were a really good third reading” sounds like the editor has decided that the second review is decisive–either because she (however mistakenly) agrees with it intellectually, or because the reviewer is such a Big Name that she doesn’t feel like she can go against his view. An editor can go to the wall for a project under these circumstances if she wants to. But not in every case, and she appears to have decided this is not the case.

    This blog and comments have talked before about how the process of finding a publisher is like dating. Flavia has been dumped after a long term relationship. Of course she feels hurt, and the dumper has behaved badly. However, when you’ve been dumped, trying to persuade the ex he has behaved badly and shouldn’t have dumped you is not generally an effective strategy.

    Someday your book will appear and get great reviews and the editor will think “Boy, did I make a mistake on that one.”


  4. I don’t have any words of wisdom. I just want to condole. What an annoying, frustrating, demoralizing situation. At least in biology, where new knowledge can sometimes accumulate at a rather rapid clip, it’s not unknown for Mr. Bad Reviewer to be a more senior honcho with a similar project in the works who’s trying to slow down the competition’s publication. Editors fall down on their jobs a lot — picking disinterested reviewers, intelligently evaluating reviews — in the attempt to clear their desks.

    Hang in there, Flavia. As Ruth says, the fastest, most effective route to publication is to go with a new publisher. Doesn’t change the fact that it’s maddening as hell.


  5. In the natural sciences, we go through this kind of endless rounds of review-revision followed by final rejection all the fucken time. Eventually it gets easier to take, but yeah, it stings like a motherfucker.

    All you can do is dust yourself off and send the shitte to another venue.


  6. I am an editor (on a three person board, each of whom manages papers from start to finish) at a scientific journal. I think what happened to Flavia is unusual but can imagine why it might happen.

    As has been suggested, finding willing reviewers with the right expertise can be a challenge. Some focus areas are harder than others and working as an editor has certainly produced in me some biases about various communities. It might be that Flavia’s editor struggled to find the second reviewer and thought the first review good enough to send it back straight away. If that is what happened, then the rejection on the second reviewer’s opinion is odd, unless there was some extenuating circumstance, as Ruth suggests.

    No matter what, the only thing to do is to move on. There is no winning in an argument over personal biases and it only slows you down to fret over the behavior of that editor.


  7. Thanks Historiann & co.!

    As I just mentioned in a comment at my blog, this is indeed an unusual procedure, not just in literary studies, but even at this particular press. The press has various peculiarities in its review process, but no one I know who has worked with them has had this experience. My best guess is Truffula’s: that the editor (who had always been extremely enthusiastic about the project) had a hard time finding reviewers with the right expertise. And I think the second reviewer was simply a not-quite-right choice: someone whose expertise is adjacent or aslant to the subject of my book and who thought it was, or should be, something other than what it actually is.

    But regardless, I’m moving on.

    I do have a specific question for your assembled wisdom, regarding that one positive review I now have. Although I don’t know who the reviewer is, I assume that, if I got a second press interested, I could tell them I had a strongly positive review at Press A and maybe the editor at Press B could talk privately to the editor at Press A about releasing his or her identity just between them (it’s a small world, and all that). But. . . how and when in my correspondence do I bring up the fact that the book has been rejected by Press A? It seems like that’s the sort of thing one doesn’t really admit, especially to an equivalently good press.

    Has anyone actually done this and/or have thoughts on how to do it delicately?

    Thanks, again, all y’all. I’ll drink some extra limoncello for each and every one of you.


  8. Equivalently good presses are always publishing books that have been rejected by each other. They won’t be surprised. I’d wait until after they have expressed interest. If you say it got a good review, though, you have to tell the whole story–I just don’t see any way around explaining that there was a negative review, because clearly Press A didn’t get one positive review and then drop the project. You might put it something like this:

    I’ve been working for two years with Press A. They got one very strong review, I revised accordingly and the reader said to publish. The second reader, though, was out of sympathy with the whole project. I would be happy to share both reviews with you.

    If you’re not going to share both, then I don’t think you can share just one. They’ll know something else is going on. Just treat it as a new submission.


  9. In my humble opinion, if you think there is a chance the same reviewer(s) will get the manuscript, then you are better off addressing the history up front and putting a wonderful spin on it. “I took these comments seriously, addressed them thusly, but it was time to move on to a new venue so here I am.”

    This may not be a first date conversation for a book, though as an editor I like it when authors include this kind of information in the cover letter for a journal submittal. It is not that difficult to discover that an article has a history and I have always thought that it would have saved me and the author grief if I had known it up front (sometimes I figure it out from the start, sometimes I hear it from reviewers). Knowing the history helps *me* handle the work correctly.


  10. Something very remotely like this happened to me years ago, although it was an edited collection of essays on which I was one of the very juniorest of the invited contributors, and I think none of us contributors had much of an insider’s view of what had happened. The volume editor was a pretty senior person and the contributors were all looking to get first publications out of recent dissertations. There were three concurrent reader’s reports, two with enthusiastic recommendations to publish and the third quite critical but I think with no clear recommendation one way or the other. The volume editor, I think, got very similar “hands are tied” from apologetic editors at the press. So ze just “bundled [the essays] up and took them across town” to another somewhat less prestigious but perfectly respectable press. The editors there took the three reviews, solicited a fourth, and green-lighted it. It came out maybe a year later than it would have. The reviews were all very nice and the volume editor even generously carved the royalties (you don’t tend to even get royalties now on such projects) into nine separate checks in each of the next three years and distributed them. (Even though ze had pretty little to gain from the whole thing and the contributors a lot). As I say, I didn’t know from anything how academia worked back then, as if I do not. I also do agree with Ruth on her last comment: editors wouldn’t have much to talk about at their conferences if not for bar-side “ate the other guy’s lunch” on some project that the other guy fumbled on the one yard line. So I think nothing to be defensive about with respect to the debacle.


  11. I would just say that what everyone else has said. This is a funky process, but it’s not worth going back to the editor. I think the editor mishandled it. I had something like this happen at a journal once, where I got lousy reports on an article that I think the editor wanted to publish. A friend who had been a journal editor commented that the editor had obviously done a bad job in choosing readers. With a book, you ought to have been able to have a conversation with the editor that said, “Well, Reviewer #2 really wants a different book; it I address X and Y, do you think that’s adequate? Or where do you see the need for more work?” In other words: the editor really screwed up, and is not taking responsibility for it.

    When I was publishing my second book, I sent the ms. to two presses. I got really good reviews from one, and a good review and a bad review from the other. The editor at the second press offered to send it out to two other readers, but he told me he’d need two additional strong reports because the person who had panned the book was a big name. So I went with the other press, which was probably my first choice anyway….

    In terms of identifying other presses, if you have colleagues/friends who have worked with a particular press where your book fits, you can write to an editor, saying that “I am writign at the suggestion of Jane Doe, who thought you might be interested in my project”…

    I’m so glad you’re off in Rome enjoying yourself. Have a tiramisu gelato for me, and maybe another glass of proseco.


  12. To give credit where credit is due, I once drove through Bloomington, IN, on the way home from somewhere to hand-deliver an article ms. to the _Journal of American History_. I mostly wanted to avoid Indianapolis on race weekend, but thought that shoving the thing into the screen door of a locked office would improve my hopes of acceptance. It didn’t get published, but… between the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and about two days after the 4th of July they shipped the thing to four readers, got four very substantive multi-page reports, two quite enthusiastic and two more ambivalent, and got them to me. The “decision” was, of necessity a no-go, but I’ve never stopped being astonished that they got all this work done between about May 28 and July 7. Whenever I take more than that time to read something I’m embarrassed, and the thing did find its way into print as a chapter in my book. I don’t even know who the editor was then, but my hat’s still off and my jaw is still only about halfway back up from the floor.


  13. Pingback: From crisis to between covers in 19 months: Congratulations, Flavia! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  14. Pingback: From crisis to between covers in 19 months: Congratulations, Flavia! | Historiann

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