DANIEL LOPRETO: What was your path to book publishing and becoming an Editor at Columbia University Press?
CAELYN COBB: I became interested in media and publishing work while in undergrad at the University of Chicago, and did several internships at university presses like the University of Chicago Press and non-profit publis``hing groups like the Poetry Foundation. I then went on to work as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press and NYU Press after graduation, both times with editors who worked on politics books. This led me to my interest in international politics and to doing a graduate degree in international policy at NYU while employed there. I had the opportunity to acquire some books in international politics at NYU Press, like Kara Ellerby’s No Shortcut to Change, and that experience gave me the skills to take over the list in global history and politics at Columbia University Press when it opened up in 2017. I’ve always had an interest in history and did electives on global history in graduate school and undergrad, so it was exciting to get to work on that area as well.
DL: Which subjects do you acquire? What excites you about these fields? Are there certain trends that you want to see more represented on your list?
CC: I acquire history and politics outside of the United States. It sounds big, but my primary subfields in history are global history, international history, and the history of the Middle East and Asia, and in politics, international relations, comparative politics (mostly Middle East and Asia), and security studies. (Columbia University Press as a whole has a long-running strength in Asian and Middle East Studies, which informs my more area-specific lists.) The folks at Toynbee might also know my series Columbia Studies in International and Global History, which is co-edited by the prior Toynbee Prize Foundation president Dominic Sachsenmaier and has published his work and that of the current Toynbee executive director Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz, among that of many excellent scholars.
I love working in these fields because they expose me to many new perspectives and stories throughout time and around the world. The US can be very inward-looking and it’s always a pleasure to champion work that broadens readers’ horizons. I particularly want to acquire more books that take non-Western and non-hegemonic approaches to global history and global politics. Also, I always like to publish professors doing public scholarship; it’s an important part of the university press mission to help non-academic audiences understand important intellectual trends.
DL: What are the common characteristics of successful book proposals? What makes a proposal catch your eye? Alternatively, what are the red flags that might make you disregard a proposal?
CC: First of all, I want to say that you should always have a proposal, even if you are submitting a full manuscript. In addition to providing a bird’s-eye view of the project to decision-makers, it also conveys your overall vision for the book and your sense of where it fits into the conversation. This is helpful to me as an editor, but it’s also useful for peer reviewers, who can use the proposal to judge how well you are achieving your stated aims. Almost every peer reviewer who does a full manuscript review for me asks for a proposal if one is not provided.
The components I like to see in a proposal are a tight one-paragraph project description, a slightly longer project overview (3-5 paragraphs) that touches on methodology, a table of contents with short descriptions of each chapter, an overview of competing and complementary books that discusses why your book is different, and a statement of simple logistics (how long, how many images, when do you plan to complete the book.) A good proposal will be succinct but informative, and not oversell the uniqueness of the project. That’s probably my main red flag: proposals that have unrealistic expectations for the book. Chances are, your book is not the only book ever written on this topic, though it may take it on in a unique way. And, good as it may be, it’s likely not going to be the next Guns, Germs, and Steel or Piketty—and that’s fine.
DP: What advice would you give to junior scholars, especially those who are interested in writing a book proposal based on a revised dissertation?
CC: Two things make a big difference between dissertation and book: the foregrounding of your own ideas, and highlighting the ‘so what.’
Dissertation are often an exercise in summarizing the existing research, proving you understand the theory, and defending why your research is newer and more exciting than what came before. This can lead to a piece of writing that’s mostly about other people’s ideas. In revising a dissertation, boldly assert what you think and what you conclude. The other research should be acknowledged and discussed, but only after you make your own claims.
By a ‘so what’, I mean that a book should gesture to a bigger question. What does your research say about the field and how it is studied? Why should someone be reading this book? A lot of dissertations look at very niche topics, and the key to taking it to the next level is connecting that niche to a wider discussion in the field.
Lastly, I’ll just say that a lot of first book authors spend too long agonizing about getting their manuscript and proposal just right, and thus put themselves in a tight spot in terms of tenure and moving on to new research. Yes, authors should spend time revising and rewriting to improve upon their dissertation—you don’t want to go to a publisher with what you just defended a month ago. At the same time, you probably don’t need five years to work on it (especially if you plan to go up for tenure) unless you are researching and writing an entirely new book. The manuscript needs to be ready for peer review—not perfect.
DP: What are your publishing goals for the next three to five years?
CC: I just want to keep on publishing great books!
You can learn more about Caelyn’s books here and you can also follow her on Twitter at @caelyncobb.