Friday, January 10, 2020

The Book Production Blog, Part 2

Throughout the eighteen months that I have been actively writing the new book, I have been working with one title in mind: Teaching Distracted Minds. I liked this title for a number of reasons. First, it identified the audience in the first word, indicating that the book was for teachers. Second, it identified the focus of the book very well: it would address the topic of distraction in education. Third, it left room for speculation about what the actual argument of the book might be.

Agent and editor and everyone with whom I shared the title all seemed on board with it, and I was hopeful that it would make it through to the actual book. At the same time, I've been around the block a few times when it comes to book titles, and I knew full well that proposed title changes from the publisher, and the addition of a long and clunky sub-title, were very real possibilities. 

When the publisher finally did propose a new title--and the expected long and clunky sub-title--just as I was finishing the book in November, I didn't much like it. I still don't love it. I prefer my title: three words, simple and elegant. You won't find much simplicity or elegance in the new title: Distracted: Why Students Can't Focus and What You Can Do About It. When this title first showed up in my e-mail, I had two immediate objections.

First, as I explained to my editor, this title makes it sound like I am blaming students for their distractions, or kids-these-days-ing, which is the opposite of what I am doing. The book argues that we should have empathy for distracted students because distraction is endemic to the human condition, impacting teachers and students alike. As a result, we should stop worrying about how to wall out distractions from the classroom and instead think creatively about how to cultivate attention. My editor rightly pointed out that this sentiment isn't ruled out by the new title, and that in fact my original title could equally have been interpreted as blaming students for their distractions. True enough.

The other problem I have comes from the part of me that loves beautiful sentences. The one word title Distracted works just fine, but that subtitle . . . oh, that subtitle. It's almost as bad as the other two subtitles that were foisted upon me by previous publishers: Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Those subtitles ain't poetry, folks. They're not even that great as prose. 

My first inclination was to dig in my heels and fight for my original title, but it didn't take me long to decide that the fight wasn't worth it, and might not even be in my best interest. In the publishing process, I've come to believe that, for the most part, we should all let each other do our jobs. The editor should trust me to write the book, I should trust the editor to give me good feedback, I should trust the cover artist to catch the eye of readers, and I should trust the marketing people to know what kinds of subtitles show up in search engines and sell books.

Ultimately, unless you're writing a literary work of some kind, that's what titles and subtitles are for: to sell books. I love to write, and I love to publish books, but selling them is another story. I'm happy to let the experts guide me and my book through that process. So that's where we have landed. The book that appears on November 17, 2020, will be called Distracted: Why Students Can't Focus and What You Can Do About It. 

The argument that really clinched the new title for me came when my editor reported to me the outcome of a meeting in which the editors pitched their forthcoming titles to the marketing and sales teams. When my editor presented my book with its new title, excitement in the room was high. People were requesting advance copies just so they could read the book for themselves. If the title can generate that kind of excitement even within the publicity team, I'm willing to live with it.

In the end, I hope that my regular readers will know that I wouldn't come near a kids-these-days approach with a ten-foot pole. I hope they will trust me enough to expect an empathetic and creative approach toward the cultivation of attention in the classroom. I hope that the publisher is right that the title will pull in new readers, including some who might want and expect a kids-these-days approach, and that instead they will find in my book new ways to think about their students and their teaching.

At the end of the first blog in this series, I mentioned that this next blog would address the author questionnaire. I'll make sure we get to it eventually.

In the meantime, the semester starts on Monday. Best wishes for the new year to my teacher friends.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Book Production Blog, Part 1

On the morning of Tuesday, October 29th, I submitted the first draft of my new book, tentatively entitled Teaching Distracted Minds, to my editor at Basic Books, copying my agent on the e-mail. I explained in the body of my message that I was very satisfied with Parts One and Two, but that Part Three still needed a hefty dose of revision. I described Part Three as "ponderous and academic," destined for a 5K-10K word trimming. But I'll take care of it when you send me your revision suggestions, I concluded. I look forward to the feedback.

This is a PARTIAL list documenting the many stages of the book's
revision over the full two years of its composition. Every time
I decided to re-organize or change direction,
I started a new folder to give myself a fresh slate. 
I had no great feeling of satisfaction when I hit "Send," largely because I was so dissatisfied with Part Three, and felt like I had just slapped it together to meet my deadline. I headed upstairs to get ready for school, and stepped into the shower. When I stepped out of it ten minutes later, I knew precisely what I needed to do in order to make the necessary revisions to Part Three. I ran downstairs and sent another e-mail to the editor, asking him to hold off on reading Part Three until I could get him a revision, which I thought would take less than a week. (Authors, right? We're so annoying.)

The actual work I did on the book over the next five days began with my original vision in the shower, but then expanded into some other revisions that continued to tighten everything and make the remaining material pop. I condensed five chapters into four, and excised 8,000 words from the manuscript. (This leaves a good 50,000+ words that I wrote for the book which did not make the final cut. I know from past experience that I'll find ways to re-use some of that material.)

When I sent the revised version of the book to my editor on Sunday evening, November 3rd, five days after the original submission, I felt the sense of accomplishment that I had been missing. No doubt more revisions are in store, but for now I am satisfied that I have written a thought-provoking book about attention, distraction, and education. Two years after I first started thinking about this book, I still find the subject fascinating--which is important, since I still have to see it through a year's worth of production into an actual book, and at least a couple of years of promotion and speaking after that.

I submitted the book on November 3rd, 2019. Currently the book is scheduled for publication on Tuesday, November 17th, 2020. We chose this date because I'll be giving a keynote lecture at the Original Lilly Conference at the end of that week, and it will provide a nice opportunity to celebrate its publication.

But looking at those dates, you might be asking yourself about that timeline. What happens during that year between submission of the manuscript and the actual publication date? Why on earth does it take so long? Especially in this digital age, it seems like we should be able to produce books more quickly than a year, right?

I was frustrated and confused by the extended timeline of the book production process before I published my first books, when I was especially eager to see my babies get out in the world. But having been through this ringer five times now, and having served as the editor of a book series, I have a much clearer view of the reasons for what can seem like an interminable delay.

How I have missed writing in these beautiful, handmade
journals! They come from Bomo Art in  Budapest;
I discovered them while visiting Central European
University in the spring of 2018.
Over the course of the next year, I'll use this space to provide a monthly update on the book production process from the author's perspective. I hope it can help potential authors gain a better understanding of what they're in for--and I hope it will help them understand how they can take advantage of the production timeline in order to help make their books a success. In December's post, I'll tackle what I find to be the most annoying task in the publication of a book, in spite of its seemingly innocuous title: the author questionnaire.

For now, I'll finish by noting that I love writing books, but I also love being done with them. For the past six months I haven't posted to this blog, submitted an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, or written a single word in my journal. I'm excited to get back to all of those activities, which I love, and dream about the next big project.

If you have questions, you are also welcome to post them below, and I'll try to address them in a subsequent blog post.