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I am early in a tenure-track position. I undertook with a publisher to write a reference book a while back and with a light load to start with in my new position, I recently agreed to set a deadline of later this year.

I progressed quickly through some of the core chapters where I knew what I wanted to write.

Now I have a heavier teaching load, preparing course material from scratch week-to-week, and am struggling to cope with my work hours.

But spending all my few spare cycles in the book seems to be carrying a huge opportunity cost. Though my research profile is sufficiently strong for me not to have to worry about journal output for a while, and I'm currently in the "harvest cycle" of a couple of journal papers that are coming through from about a year ago, I feel I am missing opportunities to start collaborations with other faculty members. I want to start on some new directions and target new communities with the help of new colleagues.

Furthermore, I feel like I don't have the bandwidth to bring the quality of the book to the level I would like. Writing the book has thus become a disheartening chore, trying to balance progress and quality. Working odd hours here and there, I can't dedicate myself to it. There are more pressing things to think about while showering in the morning. Every time I go to work on it, it's a cold start.

In this rather excellent answer on an unrelated question, @Pete L. Clark mentioned the following:

With regard to writing books: one of my most distinguished colleagues, Dino Lorenzini, wrote an excellent and rather successful book near the beginning of his career. He now tells anyone who will listen that junior faculty should not write books. Of course sometimes the heart wants what it wants, but from a strategic perspective I think this is eminently sound, and I say this as someone who may turn around and write some books now that I am solidly into my mid-career.

This prompts me to ask, is it generally the case that writing a book early in one's tenure-track career carries too much of an opportunity cost? My hope is that the book will stand in good stead for my tenure application, and may attract citations in the long term (I believe it is in a good niche), but would I be better off with two-to-three more good journal papers instead (what I estimate the opportunity cost to be)?

Essentially I'm looking for anecdotes on how writing a book helped/hindered early-career (tenure-track) researchers.

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    You don't say what field you're in. That's surely relevant. – David Richerby Mar 21 '14 at 0:38
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    Computer Science. I think the question generalises though. – badroit Mar 21 '14 at 1:22
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    It generalizes to some extent but I'm under the impression that books are much more important in the humanities. – David Richerby Mar 21 '14 at 1:34
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    You might want to consult with your department head how much a book publication like yours will help your tenure case and research profile. – Jim Conant Mar 21 '14 at 2:00
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    The problem is that you're asking arguably the wrong question. The question you're asking makes sense before you start the book. But now, with the time you've already sunk into it, the question is whether you "throw good money after bad" or "stick to your guns". – Suresh Mar 29 '14 at 22:05
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I agree with the advice Peter Clark offers in the bit you've quoted. You're further along in your career than I am. (Defending in May). However, I've had many friends in your circumstances. Here are two things that I have gleaned from their experiences:

(1) A mediocre book has little impact on the field, just like a mediocre journal article does, except that the book has such a higher opportunity cost.

(2) A bad book can actually be a kiss of death. People might laugh off a bad article, but if you put out a bad book, you might actually harm the good reputation you've built with your other publications.

(3) To write a good book requires so much time, and such a high level of expertise, that it's usually not worth doing for a junior person.

My sense is that these three sentences might not hold in all fields universally. Some fields are book fields where you are expected to publish the dissertation as a book. In those fields, I'd assume there's more reasonable expectations about book length publications. But in primarily journal based fields, I suspect (1)-(3) are true.

Can you write the publisher and ask for a long extension so as to be able to keep a more reasonable research/writing schedule?

  • Thanks! Publishing a dissertation is different I feel. As for a deadline extension, I've already had about 2 years. :/ – badroit Mar 29 '14 at 21:01
  • Ask them for two more years! Assuming they didn't pay you for an advance, it's really no skin off their teeth to let you take the time to make the book really good. – shane Mar 30 '14 at 13:54

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