Composite image showing the book cover of Redeeming Leadership on the left and a stack of the hardcover books on the right
Activism

How I Published My Academic Book (and My Regrets)

In January 2020, I celebrated the publication of my very first book, Redeeming Leadership with an independent, not-for-profit academic publisher, Bristol University Press.

The book is a cumulation of all my research on organizational leadership. In it, I challenge the violences of leadership as a tool for imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, and heteropatriarchal oppression. I then imagine how leadership could become a site for radical possibilities if exercised through an intersectional feminist ethos.

If you’re thinking about writing and publishing a scholarly book of your own someday, I’ve written this post to share the experiences of my book writing and publishing journey. I hope that by reading about my experience, and especially my regrets, you’ll have a much better idea of what to expect and how to plan a successful first (or second) book.

At the end of the post, you can download a copy of my original book proposal to get ideas for how to craft your own.

A woman of color lays on a pillow and rug in the woods during fall reading a book, representing my dreams to become a writer and publish my own academic book.
Photograph by Tim Samuel

Forming the Dream

Like many children who love to read, writing a book has always been a dream of mine.

Early in my career, a professor gave me a mentoring session where he guided me through a goal-setting exercise. He got me to visualize what ‘success’ would look and feel like for me in five years’ time.

I immediately pictured myself at the launch of my book, reading an excerpt from it. But as I shared that dream aloud to my mentor, it felt impossible that I could get there.

Building My Track Record

Unlike fields in the Humanities, business scholars are usually dissuaded from publishing books. In my field, journal articles are much better regarded, and thus it’s quite rare to see PhD graduates turn their dissertations into books, even though that may be a classic rite of passage in other fields. Books typically end up being passion projects for business scholars who have already established their careers.

Photograph of Helena Liu in 2012 for my PhD graduation at the University of Sydney, wearing my black and red gown and holding my cap in my hands.
Me at my PhD graduation in 2012

I started my academic career in 2012 when I was awarded my PhD from the University of Sydney. My doctoral research looked at banking leadership in Australia during the Global Financial Crisis. Over the next five years, I gradually built my research profile while growing into my radical voice. I designed and conducted projects looking at billionaire philanthropists, managers of color, and grassroots organizers to understand the problems and possibilities for leadership.

So in 2017, after I had published over 15 journal articles, it was the right time for me to consider a book. However, I held myself back.

“I’m too busy”, I told myself.

“I just started a new role, I should settle into it more first”.

“I don’t even know how to write a book proposal”.

“Maybe when I publish 20 journal articles it’ll be better… or 30”.

What I couldn’t and wouldn’t recognize then was that beneath the surface of these excuses was a profound lack of self-worth. I didn’t really believe I had to right to claim my voice and take up space. I feared that if I tried, people would think I was a vain and hollow impostor.

I’m not sure most people would’ve guessed I felt that way from the outside. My academic career was skyrocketing at that stage, and on paper, I looked like I was killing it. I ran into my former doctoral supervisor at a conference and she exclaimed that my research had “gone gangbusters”.

But I also couldn’t see any women of color around me. Two friends from school dropped out from bullying. Another colleague left academia after burning out. One more left and moved to another city after someone started the rumor that she slept around to get her publications. The only woman of color whom I ever saw speak as a keynote at a conference in my 12 years in academia, anthropologist Karen Ho, was attacked and derided by a white male professor in the audience.

It didn’t really matter how ‘successful’ my career looked from the outside, the persistent and pernicious message I received was that academia was not for people who looked like me.

A grand building in Liverpool, United Kingdom against blue skies in June 2017 where I met the editor of Bristol University Press with whom I eventually published my first academic book
Liverpool, United Kingdom, taken during my trip for the CMS Conference in 2017

Meeting the Editor

While procrastinating from pursuing a book, I received an email from someone at Bristol University Press who would later become my editor in June 2017. Paul told me that their not-for-profit publishing house, home to the award-winning Policy Press, just launched a new imprint focusing on more international titles and audiences.

Paul saw my name among a list of presenters at the Critical Management Studies Conference I was set to attend in Liverpool later that month. He was commissioning prospective authors for the new imprint and from the sound of my conference paper, he thought I may be a good fit.

Two weeks later, I met Paul in-person at the conference where we talked more about Bristol University Press. He mentioned another academic at the conference who had recently published a book with them, and I later reached out to her who spoke positively about her experience.

By the time I returned to Sydney, Paul had helped me outline my book proposal and I only needed to fill in the details. With his encouragement and support, I finalized the plan for my book and started to see my dream take shape.

A Warning on Predatory Publishers

Predatory publishers, meaning an opportunistic press that preys on students and academics who want to publish without delivering the processes and support in producing a high-quality book, are rife in academia.

As soon as I submitted my PhD thesis back in 2012, I was inundated with spam emails inviting me to publish my book. Aside from my name and thesis title (which they can pull from a library database), the rest of the email was obviously generic copy. A resource for checking if a publisher may be predatory is the list compiled by librarian Jeffrey Beall (archived in 2017).

Predatory publishers usually charge authors to publish their work or buy copies of their book. They have flimsy review processes where books may not be reviewed at all or again, spam emailed to academics not even from your field for comment.

Your university or Faculty would likely have their own list of publishers that they consider to be ‘reputable’ and it’s worth asking a librarian or your department chair.

Even though Bristol University Press was a new press, I had a lot of clues that they could be trusted:

  • Bristol University Press is associated with Policy Press, which is over 20 years old and was listed in my Faculty’s approved publishers list.
  • Paul’s initial email was personal and polite. It specified exactly what my presentation was about and how it related to Bristol University Press’s interest in books about organizations and gender and identity. We were able to meet in person at the conference, where I got to see their stand and learn more about their plans for their new imprint.
  • Paul was able to point me to someone else who had published with them, another scholar whom I trusted, and she had vouched for their professionalism. She told me that she was particularly impressed by their thorough copyediting process.

Beware of predatory publishers and if you’re not sure after seeking all the resources, share your information from and about the publishers to an experienced academic in your field and ask them what they think.

Getting Reviewed and Securing the Book Contract

I submitted my proposal in late September and waited two months for reviews to be collected.

The first round of feedback was completely polarized. One reviewer loved the proposal and the other did not.

What helped my case was that the favorable reviewer directly counteracted the other’s criticisms and was more precise about the potential they saw in my book. So while the negative review said my proposal oversimplified feminist traditions, the other reviewer praised the complexity and nuance of my discussion of feminist traditions. The negative review also claimed I ignored a number of scholars who were in fact included in my proposal.

Placed side by side, the favorable review was more compelling.

The positive reviewer nevertheless suggested some constructive ways to improve the book. For one, my original plan was going to talk about management and organizations in general, but they thought the book would be stronger if I focused on a particular area.

Given my research background, leadership was the obvious choice.

Following this feedback, I redeveloped my book proposal and everything just felt right.

The second version took me a fraction of the time it took to write the first one. I was in my element. I drew on my knowledge and experience on organizational leadership and finalized a proposal that I was truly proud about.

Even the negative review was valuable.

It highlighted for me all the objections a reader could have towards intersectional feminism. I identified and responded to these objections alongside my revised book proposal that my editor helped communicate to the press. Through all of the Christmas and New Year break, they sought a second review from the positive reviewer as well as four new reviews.

At the end of January 2018, I get an email from Paul with the subject line, “Reports are attached (good news!)”. All five reviewers were positive and supported the book to be commissioned.

In March, while I was traveling through Malaysia and Singapore on sabbatical, my contract was drawn. If you’d like to learn more about contract negotiations, independent scholar Helen Kara has produced this helpful article about why and how to negotiate with academic book publishers.

We made an agreement for a 70,000-word book with a submission deadline of 1st April 2019 and a publication date of April 2020. I signed it from my hotel room in Kuala Lumpur.

Writing

I know in that tweet above I said that the “journey of writing begins”, but let me spill the beans: I actually began writing as soon as the agreement was made in late February. I had just started my six-month sabbatical and I was going to make the most of my time off by writing the book.

I should also acknowledge my immense privilege: a secure job, good pay, funded time off to work almost exclusively on this book for six months, and no caring duties. My writing progress has very little to do with my capabilities and a lot to do with my circumstances.

Tracking Tool

One thing that helped me maintain my focus and momentum with writing was a free tracking tool called Pacemaker Planner.

You create a project on the app and set how many words you need to write and by when. (You can also track by paragraphs, pages, chapters, verses, acts, or even by time).

You then set your completion strategy. I went for “steadily” because I’m generally pretty consistent about how much I can write every day. Other strategies include “rising to the challenge” where you start small and then ramp up your targets closer to the deadline. “Mountain hike” puts the hardest effort in the middle. “Valley” is the opposite with intense effort in the beginning and end.

As I began writing, I logged the progress I made each day in Pacemaker Planner. It was satisfying and motivating to visualize the progress I was making towards my goal.

Pacemaker screenshot showing my productive writing progress in May 2018, which helped me to write and publish my academic book
My writing in May 2018

Self-discipline is my secret superpower.

I completed writing the first full draft of my book on 3rd September 2018.

Beta Readers

After I completed the first draft of my book, I sent the book to two dear friends who agreed to act as my beta readers. They each represented two reader demographics: women professionals of color and progressive white women. I gave them a reading guide that highlighted what I wanted them to focus on. In particular, I asked them to highlight anything that was too jargon-y or triggering.

My beta readers reviewed my book for around two months and gave me invaluable insights into the path readers take through my book. I integrated their suggested changes, did one final round of proofreading, and submitted my full manuscript to my publishers on 6th December 2018, almost four months ahead of schedule.

The Book Cover Design

Shortly after I submitted the draft, I voiced my hopes about the cover design to my editor. I named specific titles in their collection so that the designer didn’t need to read my mind about what I wanted:

I was immediately attracted to BUP for the visually engaging and thoughtful covers in your collection. I would especially appreciate a design that is multilayered and intriguing. Something that hints to the themes of the book without being too obvious and one-dimensional in its depiction. My favorites at BUP include The Moral Marketplace, Leading the Inclusive City, and Like Mother Like Daughter? Even something simple and bold like the cover of What’s Wrong with Work? is quite appealing.

I would prefer to veer away from any covers that look resemble a business/management textbook. Given that the key themes in my book are about finding solidarity, love, and justice to challenge mainstream leadership practice, a cover design that subverts typical business management imagery would be most appropriate.

The publisher then sent through four draft designs.

The four original draft designs for my book, Redeeming Leadership, showing various colorful stock images with a solid color box and the title of the book.
Draft book cover designs for Redeeming Leadership

I debated on them for a while but decided to voice my reservations about them. While I thought some of them were vibrant and attractive, admittedly none would entice me as a reader to pick up the book.

I then took an afternoon to sit down and outline three different cover designs ideas with three levels of complexity.

  1. Reference underground presses and riot grrrl zines (handmade, indie punk-feminist pamphlets) with the cover looking like it was made with typewriters, black-and-white images, or news clippings collaged together and printed on an old photocopier.
  2. The base of the cover can be an old black-and-white (public domain) photograph of a classic ’leadership’ scene like this (attached photograph) of Mussolini. It can be ’vandalized’, such as scratching out the dictator’s face with black biro-like lines or defaced in some other way and then the title of the book printed alongside in a typewriter-like font, mismatched magazine alphabet cut-outs, or scrawled handwriting.
  3. A variation of the text-box-on-photograph style that is more contemporary and visually arresting.

The designer went with the second option and produced what ended up being my final cover.

The final cover design for my book, Redeeming Leadership, showing an old black and white photograph of 
Benito Mussolini with his face scratched out and the title of the book in a red box.
Final cover for Redeeming Leadership

Shortly after my book was published, another leadership scholar published a generous review that compared my book with a classic white masculinist leadership book from 1967 to show how our field, as well as our culture and society, have changed. Dr Suze Wilson’s review helped the book generate more positive interest and attention.

My Book Proposal

Seeing someone else’s book proposal can provide ideas and inspiration for writing your own. You may download my book proposal for Redeeming Leadership here.

My Biggest Mistakes

Having published my book now, I can look back and say that the process was absolutely worth it. I’m proud to have this artifact of my accomplishment that pulls together all the knowledge and experience I developed over the first years of my scholarly career.

More importantly, it was an absolute joy to write. I woke up every day during my sabbatical excited to work on the book.

Did I make some mistakes? Of course.

Here are some of my biggest regrets I’ll share, in the hope it’ll save you from falling into the same pitfalls.

Chasing the Status Symbol

I wish I took some time to get clearer about why I wanted a book. I’m proud to have my book and it’s allowed my theorizing to be accessible to a wider audience.

But searching myself now, I confess having a book was a status symbol that I assumed would provide external validation of my intellect, relevance, and importance.

External validation was certainly not the only reason why I wanted to write a book, but it surprised me how foundational that assumption was to my desire.

Signing the contract or even holding the book in my hand didn’t make me feel validated. That could only be addressed from within.

Neglecting My Health

I showed off my writing progress in May 2018 earlier, but this was me in August and September.

Pacemaker screenshot showing my unproductive writing progress in August 2018 when I sustained a back injury from overwork, highlighting the pitfalls of pushing yourself too hard when writing and publishing your academic book
My writing in August–September 2018

After I returned to work from my sabbatical in July, I was completely crushed by the workload alongside a grueling travel schedule, all while trying to finish my book. Through July and the first half of August, I was working 10-hour days.

In August I traveled to Tokyo for my fourth conference that year. The night before the conference, my lower back seized up while I was in my hotel room. I tried lying down at first but then the pain escalated to a point I couldn’t get out of bed. As I tried getting up, what felt like electric shocks were running down my spine and I broke into a cold sweat simply by the effort of inching my way to the phone to call some friends to help take me to the hospital.

I spent the rest of my week in Tokyo lying on the floor of my room on a heavy dose of pain relievers and muscle relaxants. MRI scans when I returned confirmed I suffered from two bulging discs in my lower back.

There was absolutely no need for me to submit my book four months before the deadline and destroy my health in the process. I wish I knew it was okay to slow down. To not achieve all the things all the time and prove to everyone (and myself) that I’m worthy of being in academia.

If you’re anything like me and struggle to take care of yourself, please take a look at my post about designing self-care days to start taking small, regular steps towards maintaining your physical and emotional wellbeing.

Not Having a Promotion Plan

My only reference for how publishing books works is from Sex and the City when Carrie publishes a book and Samantha takes over the PR and throws her a lavish launch party overflowing with cosmopolitans and mini cakes with sugar stilettos on them.

I don’t know if any actual publication company has that kind of budget. Among academic presses, that’s even more far-fetched.

When my book was published, I posted about my book on Facebook and Twitter once or twice, but I was not prepared with any promotions plan beyond that.

My publishers asked me if I was having a book launch a couple of times so they could organize flyers, posters, copies of my book, and it was hard to admit that a) I had never attended a book launch before, b) I didn’t realize that they weren’t doing that for me, and c) I had no idea how to organize one, and d) didn’t have any time.

If I were to do that all over again, I would’ve spoken to my publishers and friends who I know have launched books to learn about what they involve and what I needed to do. I would’ve put a plan in place to organize an event and blocked out time in the month my book was launched where I could focus on promotional activities without chasing research and teaching deadlines.

In all honesty, the idea of throwing a party for myself where the attention is on me and my achievement fills me with excruciating dread. However, I would consider hiring an events manager to run a book launch for me, rather than let the publication of my first book emerge into an embarrassed silence.

A young woman of color lounges in bed with a book open in her right hand and patting a happy cat on her tummy with her left hand. Publishing your book should be an enjoyable process.
Photograph by Sam Lion

Conclusion

The process of securing my first academic book contract and publishing Redeeming Leadership: An Anti-Racist Feminist Intervention was an immensely positive and rewarding one.

I was lucky that such a suitable press was established at the right time, and an encounter at a conference set the wheels into motion. The people I worked with at Bristol University Press were attentive and kind and gave me so much support and encouragement from when I first drafted my book proposal through to reporting on reviews and sales of my book.

I would absolutely encourage any scholar and activist to publish a book. Books are valuable and powerful ways to communicate your message and your cause to a wider audience. Books still delight and inspire their readers. Books can transform minds and uplift spirits.

I don’t need to know who you are to know that your voice deserves to be heard.

But to avoid the mistakes I made along the way, make sure that first, you’re clear on why you want to publish a book. If you’re mostly or only desiring a status symbol to prove to yourself that you’re intelligent, relevant, and worthy, then no number of publications, glowing reviews, or awards could ever do that for you.

The problem is less likely about the lack of books you’ve published and more about the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchal world we live in that tells us we don’t belong.

Don’t put achievement before your physical, psychological, and emotional health. Again, the interlocking systems of oppression around us are pernicious and their pressures to overwork and overachieve need to be challenged.

Take time for self-care and rest as you’re planning, writing, promoting, and recovering.

When you’re certain that writing a book is what you want, create a plan for your book and feel free to use my proposal above as a guide.

After your book contract is signed, don’t neglect to begin devising a plan for marketing and promotion. Ask around for ideas and plan for a launch or get someone to manage the launch for you. Don’t sell short your achievement and take the time to celebrate what you’ve created.

Featured image of my book (cover design by Bristol University Press)

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