Monday, August 16, 2010

Professional query

Various senior scholar-type people have occasionally told me, "Oh, you should really ask [random established senior scholar I've never met] to take a look at your book manuscript. It's probably right up her alley."

I've never been sure whether this is intended as advice, exactly, or how to implement that advice if it is; sometimes there's an appended "you can mention my name," but more often it seems like well-intentioned free-associating: huh! you work on this stuff! it sounds like that stuff that so-and-so works on!

So tell me, O internets: is this something that people actually do--contact established scholars they don't know and ask them to read a goddamn 220-page manuscript? I'm having a hard enough time working up the nerve to ask people I sorta know, and who have been kind in the past, to do such a thing.


Shane in Utah said...

I've never done that, but I guess it can't hurt to ask. But my own strategy, if there were a senior scholar working on something very close to my own project, would be more indirect: I would invite him/her to take part in a conference panel I organized, or manufacture a reason to visit the special collections at his/her university, or otherwise give myself an excuse for striking up an acquaintanceship. The more well-known the scholar, the more requests he/she gets to peer review manuscripts, tenure dossiers, dissertations, etc., so I'd be reluctant to "cold call" some big name I'd never met.

Dr. Crazy said...

Wait - you've sent the manuscript off the publisher already, right? So are you asking in the sense just of "Oh, would you read this and give me casual feedback?" or are you asking in the sense of the list that you provide for your publisher about who might be appropriate as a reader for your manuscript?

Flavia said...

Crazy: the former. On the one hand, I'm eager for whatever readerly feedback I get, from whomever the press selects. But I'm also feeling that the more perspectives I can get, the better--and various people have been suggested to me at various times.

I'm in no rush, nor am I eager to be importunate (and I have grad school friends, etc., whom I'll definitely be asking to look at my work before I ask fancy senior scholars!), but as I sit twiddling my thumbs it feels that there might be a way I could make this time more productive.

Susan said...

I've never done this, nor had someone do it to me. BUT (as a senior scholar) I'd have no problem if you sent me an email that said, "My colleague/friend/mentor X suggested that you might be interested in reading my MSS on.... I've just sent it to Fancy Pants Press, and I'm waiting for readers reports, and am planning one last revision when I've received them. If you'd be willing (and have time) I would be most grateful if you would read it and provide any feedback ..."
Such a note allows me to gracefully say, "Wow, this sound fantastic but I'm completely overloaded, but I'd love to talk to you if you are at MLA/SAA/RSA this year" or "This is just up my street and would be helpful to me in an article I'm working on..."

I think the key with all such approaches is to give the recipient a polite way to say "no" without saying "How dare you?" And at the very least, it might establish a relationship.

Anonymous said...

"Well-intentioned free associating" sounds about right. In my experience, even those who volunteer to read one's work are likely not to follow through; I wouldn't expect much return on emails sent cold to senior scholars inviting them, with no incentive, to read an extra 220-page MS. As Shane and Susan say above, it probably won't do you any harm to ask-- just don't be surprised or hurt if you're met w silence, polite refusal, or vague promises ("Sounds fascinating! Sure, send it along and I'll get to it when I have the chance...") that come to nothing.

Real readers--those who will give you detailed, informed, thoughtful, workable feedback on your written work-- are as rare as real friends.

Cheers, TG

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Is it really worth doing this if it's off being read at a press already? Because if the press ends up wanting to publish it, you're going to have to address what they want, regardless of what a senior scholar says (and what if the press wants to go in a different direction than the senior scholar? how do you decide who to listen to? What if the press decides to send it to the scholar you pick?).

In the grand scheme of things, more feedback is always useful. But wouldn't this be kind of a duplication of effort, at this stage?

life_of_a_fool said...

I was at a publishing panel a few weeks ago, and a Very Important Senior Scholar in my field encouraged us to do just such a thing (though he was talking about journal articles, and he is a journal editor). He said he gets cold requests often, and usually reads the paper and gives feedback (though not as detailed as a formal review).

I was very surprised. I don't know how common that is, or how common that kind of generosity is. I would think it would be rare. I like the give-them-an-easy-out framing though.

dhawhee said...

my suggestion would be to select a chapter or part of a chapter or the introduction and a chapter and make such a request only if this person's particular expertise would really help that particular *part* of the book.

as someone who is often overloaded with requests to read stuff, getting an entire manuscript would make me gulp and whimper. i think being more direct and selective would be more likely to get a good response.

undine said...

I like Susan's suggestion, but New Kid is right. If I received a request to read a full manuscript that was already at a press, it would feel like a duplication of effort. Besides, if this is someone you might like to suggest as a reviewer for the published book, having the senior scholar read it could be construed as a conflict of interest. Assuming that the scholar would have time to do this, you'd have to decide whether you'd rather have the comments or a review.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all, for your thoughts and advice--Susan's and dhawhee's suggestions are good, and I'm intrigued by LoaF's recent experience, which surprises me, too.

I won't be making any sudden moves, and I've already thought of a few targeted people to send a chapter or two to, based on their expertise (and with whom I have a reasonably close professional relationship).

On the one hand, that approach makes sense, since my book deals with six different writers, and some rather understudied texts, covering about 100 years--and there aren't that many people who are experts in ALL of it (I'm sure not!). And/but my concern is about whether the book holds together as an argumentative whole, whether the big picture is compelling, etc., and that seems hard to get a sense of without someone reading the whole thing. It doesn't strike me as a duplication of effort simply because I know a lot of people whose MSS have been read, thoroughly, by a number of people--and everyone's expertise and perspective is different.

But I'll probably sit tight for now. Thanks again!

StyleyGeek said...

I'm late to the party on this, but I have actually done this. My strategy was to read the work of the scholar in question that had made people think of the connection with mine, then email the person with questions/comments on the work I had read, mentioning in the same email that I had a MS on [related topic] and would be glad to send it to them if they were interested. I've done this twice and both times it lead to a very interesting and long back-and-forth email conversation about their work, and they did request and read my MS and give feedback on that too. (In one case it was clear they just skimmed it, but the other gave really detailed and useful feedback.)