Book-Writing Workshops at the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association

Julia Gaffield

Participants in the 2019 LACS-SHA Book Writers’ Workshop. Photo courtesy of the author.

In 2017, I participated in the inaugural Second-Book Writers’ Workshop at SHEAR, where I workshopped a fellowship proposal. It was a remarkable event because of the insightful feedback and the community-generating conversation. Participants like me learned that we did not face unique problems and roadblocks; rather, we generally were facing similar challenges in different specific circumstances.

At the time, I was president of the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association, so I began thinking through how to expand this initiative to help scholars support each other while also broadening the intellectual benefits of conference travel. Historians of Latin American and Caribbean history usually have to travel internationally to do their research. Such travel requires time and funding—things that are in short supply for midcareer scholars. Service and family obligations often prevent the long-term travel that usually sustained their first projects. When I participation at the SHEAR 2BWW and while leading the LACS-SHA 2BWW, it was evident that scholars were relieved to be talking about these issues in an organized setting.

I organized the first 2BWW at our meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2018. Following the model of the SHEAR 2BWW, participants submitted a draft fellowship, book proposal, or chapter. We began our workshop with mini-presentations by a panel of experts: two senior scholars who had published multiple books, Nancy Appelbaum and Pamela Murray, and one acquisitions editor, Chuck Grench (University of North Carolina Press). Each expert spoke about their own personal experiences working on or with second books, and then engaged with participants who had the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. Our workshoppers, about 12 of us, then split into two groups to discuss the pre-circulated drafts. This experience further reinforced my appreciation of how such workshops improve and accelerate scholarly work.

I had pre-circulated a series of questions for our experts to get them started: 1) How did you chose the topic of your second book? How do second books typically differ from the first in terms of topic/range/audience? 2) How is the research process different for a second book? How is the publishing process different for a second book? How is the editorial process different? 3) How do contracts differ for the second book? 4) What obstacles did you face in writing the second book that weren’t there with the first? Where you do you see authors get caught up? Their advice highlighted a broad range of intellectual and practical considerations throughout the process of research and writing a second book. We also discussed these themes as a group.

The majority of the participants chose a second-book topic that was “bigger” than the previous book—either thematically, geographically, or chronologically or in terms of intended audience. Most projects seem to have developed from a thread from the first project that the authors didn’t have the chance to explore. The publishing process seems to have been similar for the most part, with the exception of advanced contracts. The research process was an area that many struggled with since their time was stretched across different professional and personal responsibilities to a greater extent. Other challenges included finding a writing group, the lack of structure that a dissertation advisor and cohort had previously provided, and finding the time to write.

The following year, as past-president of the LACS-SHA, I opened up the workshop to first-time authors to include the large community of graduate students and junior scholars who were keen to participate.  This workshop, now called the Book Writers’ Workshop, deepened previous efforts to sustain conversations with editors by including an informal discussion and Q&A with two acquisitions editors, Walter Biggins (then at University of Georgia Press, now at Penn Press) and Claire Lewis Evans (University of Alabama Press). I began the workshop by asking each of the acquisitions editors to answer a series of questions, and then we opened the conversation to take questions from the workshop members. This was a particularly useful conversation since it demystified the publication process for the junior scholars, while the more experienced midcareer scholars were able to reflect on what they valued as well as questioned in book publishing.

We did not pre-circulate or exchange written work, though it might have been possible if we had organized the event differently. Instead, we chose to keep it informal to promote participation. The LACS-SHA is a smaller organization, and we prioritized including all members. The mix of first- and second book-writers, however, prevented conversations about the unique challenges for second-time authors. Much of the conversation focused on the process of publishing rather than the process of researching and writing since first-book writers already had a draft of the book (their dissertations!). We discussed topics such as how to approach an editor, what materials you need to submit to a press, and how to write a strong book proposal. It was beneficial to have second-time authors there to share their own experiences and to help first-time authors become less intimidated by the process. But, based on this experience, I would advise having separate events and instead organize a First-Book Writers’ Workshop and a Second-Book Writers’ Workshop. The LACS-SHA plans to make some version of the BWW a regular occurrence at the conference, and hopefully this coming fall will be the third annual workshop.

Each of these book writers’ workshop experiences further convinced me of the absolute need for supportive structures for both early and mid-career scholars. The feedback on my writing was much more valuable than a traditional conference paper both in the short and longer terms. In one case, for example, I even followed up with a fellow workshopper from the SHEAR 2BWW when I saw that we would be at a conference together months later, and we exchanged chapter drafts to gain critical feedback for mutual benefit. This example illustrates the enduring benefit of a 2BWW in cultivating a research community to enhance the quality of scholarly work by leveraging individual insights in highly productive and enjoyable settings. As all authors know, such settings are priceless!

11 August 2020

About the Author

Julia Gaffield is associate professor of History at Georgia State University.

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