This post is by Professor Les Back, whom I had the pleasure of meeting on a trip to the UK in late 2015 when we were presenting as part of a panel on writing at Goldsmiths. Les is a well respected and much liked professor of sociology at Goldsmiths University in the UK and fellow blogger. I’m jealous of Les’s blog because, well – it’s much prettier than mine and he writes with a deft hand that I very much envy.
I got talking to Les, after our gig, about his upcoming book, which emerged from his blogging work. We discussed some of the challenges of moving from an endless, time stamped format to the finite realm of the book. Les had some really helpful suggestions, so I nagged him to do a post for me on the topic.
I’m very optomistic about the future of books. While I’m an avid consumer of blogs, I think there is nothing as good as a book for the reading experience. This is partly because, unlike a blog, you can finish a book. ‘Finishability’ is recognised as a unique selling proposition for magazines like The Economist. As scholarly presses around the world struggle, I am sure blogging will soon be a much more common route to producing academic books and monographs, which can harness the feeling of finishability. Supervisors, particularly in the humanities, often counsel their PhD students not to put their work online, but I question this advice. In my experience, Publishers realise the value of an author who has already connected with an audience for the work.
In this post Les tells the story of how his blog, Academic Diary, eventually became a book. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did.
To be honest, I am a reluctant blogger. Although, my blog Academic Diary established itself quickly with on-line readers when it first appeared in 2011, I always intended these short essays on university life – from PhD Supervision to the challenges of academic writing – to be published as a book. Blogging was actually a way of coping with rejection.
I had taken this idea of a book in the form of a diary about university life and scholarship to lots of publishers. It was roundly rejected by all of them. There was a lot of interest, and even excitement but the idea simply didn’t fit. ‘Could you write like an academic self-help book?’ one publisher commented, or, ‘Maybe you should write a book about how to be a professor before you are 40.’ All this advice was given in good faith but I had little or no interest in following it.
For some considerable time I felt defeated and resigned to the fact that this was an idea that would never be realized. It wasn’t until I met Kat Jungnickel who suggested an online format that it came back to life. Kat has a PhD in sociology but she is also a filmmaker and a professional digital designer. She immediately understood the idea and could envision the project. Kat embodies the intellectual virtues of curiosity, openness, dynamism and creativity that I have tried to argue for in this book and I am eternally grateful for her generosity.
It was made available online through Kat’s inventiveness and the help of Caedmon Mullin at Big Pebbles Media. The response to it was amazing. One of the advantages of online publishing is that you can see who is reading it and it became clear that tens of thousands of people accessed it from all over the world.
When Sarah Kember approached me with the idea of publishing the diary as the first publication of Goldsmiths Press distributed by MIT Press, I jumped at the chance. You’d think there wouldn’t be a problem, hadn’t I always intended it to be a book after all? But preparing the book manuscript for publication has raised a lot of really interesting issues about the difference between authoring blogs and books.
The books of brilliant blog writers, even Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life or the Gentle Author’s Spitalifield Life read as if one is thumbing through a filing cabinet full of brilliant fragments rather than an unfolding story. This is because blogging and authoring a book has a different relationship to time.
Turning Academic Diary into a book made me realise that the ‘backwards temporality’ of blogging. The first blog is the most recent – which means we start or at the end of the story. It took me a long time to figure out how to put the blogs I’d written into a books structure. What was its beginning middle and end?
Blogs are episodic in nature because relate to a particular moment in time when they were written. So I had to re-write quite of few of the blogs so they fitted within the story line of the book and its narrative time.
The other thing that was a challenge how much explaining to do at the beginning of the book? A blog establishes itself over time. You don’t need to explain what it does or what it is because the identity of the blog is established through the accumulation. A blog is what it does.
But in turning Academic Diary into a book I couldn’t decide how much I need to explain about the history of the blog, failed attempts at publishing or why I started writing it in the first place. In the first version of the book I had a long explanation of how the book came to be written. One the readers said it felt like all the explaining got in the way of the substance of the story.
The editor suggested that I moved all this material to the end of the book along with the acknowledgments. It was brilliant advice and the book is all the better for it.
Then there was the problem of where to end. I had planned the final entry of the diary to be about graduation ceremonies. But when I tried ending there it just didn’t seem right. Actually graduation, I came to realize, is not the end of the academic year but the beginning of something else. For students graduation is the beginning of the rest of their life and for staff it is the New Year’s Eve of the academic cycle.
So, I couldn’t find an ending for a long time. I eventually decided that the denouement of my story is actually the annual holidays. In the northern hemisphere this falls in the summer months of July and August. Writing is also often done then and it is when we have time to take stock of it all.
I offer these consoling thoughts to rejected authors everywhere because Academic Diary was blogged into existence. Blogging was a way to keep this book alive when everyone said “great idea but – no thanks!” It is ironic though that its publication has required it to break free from the time code of blogging and cut – figuratively speaking – the digital umbilical chord.
Thanks Les! Here’s the official blurb for Academic Diary:
Is a university education still relevant? What are the forces that threaten it? Should academics ever be allowed near Twitter? In Academic Diary, Les Back has chronicled three decades of his academic career, turning his sharp and often satirical eye to the everyday aspects of life on campus and the larger forces that are reshaping it. Presented as a collection of entries from a single academic year, the diary moves from the local to the global, from PowerPoint to the halls of power. With entries like “Ivory Towers” and “The Library Angel,” these smart, humorous, and sometimes absurd campus tales not only demystify the opaque rituals of scholarship but also offer a personal perspective on the far-reaching issues of university life. Commenting on topics that range from the impact of commercialization and fee increases to measurement and auditing research, the diary offers a critical analysis of higher education today. At the same time, it is a passionate argument for the life of the mind, the importance of collaborative thinking, and the reasons that scholarship and writing are still vital for making sense of our troubled and divided world.
Have you had experience of turning a blog into a book? Or have you bought the book of a blog? What do you think of this shift in publishing? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.