Books or Articles?

The advice I’ve gotten as a junior professor is to stick with articles and put off scholarly books until post-tenure. It’s an interesting question, especially when your work begins to show some consistent themes that would lend themselves to systematic treatment in a book. Therefore I wonder: Is the advice to put off books until post-tenure good advice? I can think of a couple of reasons that it might be. First, tenure committees might not be as familiar with how to count books, if they count them at all. Second, a good book needs some fresh content to supplement the revamping of articles past, and the opportunity cost of that fresh content might be two or three new articles.

Even thinking beyond tenure considerations, are books really worth it for most of us (i.e., the non-Cass Sunsteins of the academic world)? Royalties can’t be enough of a financial incentive in most cases, and citation counts might on average be lower (although I haven’t empirically tested this) because articles are more accessible to other scholars through electronic databases. So what are the relative benefits of books and articles, and does the equation change pre- or post-tenure?

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8 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    I teach outside of a law school, so the publication requirements for tenure are different than in law schools (having several peer reviewed works is extremely important for me). But for what it’s worth, books published on a top press are considered much more significant than articles for me. As for actually having written a book recently at the assistant professor stage, I found it very intellectually useful – my research combines both law and education, and it was the perfect opportunity for me to engage in the full on “interdisciplinary” approach that I couldn’t fully employ in just law journals or education journals. Now, having written the book, I’ve solidified my approach to synthesizing both disciplines, and this synthesis has served me well in writing articles since.

  2. I’ve found the following test to work pretty well for deciding what format to write in:

    How much space do you need to make the points you’d like to make?

    Perhaps not coincidentally, I haven’t written any books.

  3. Gerard N. Magliocca says:

    I think not writing a book until tenure is bad advice, but only if the book is mostly composed of material that already exists in articles or drafts. Book writing is a lot more fun than article writing. And your coffee table will no longer be empty.

  4. Mike Zimmer says:

    As long as we live in the crazy world of US News, Brian Leiter, and others who value only what can be counted digitally, articles are a better bet than books. I think the crazy world is likely to continue for quite some time, at least until some even crazier method of evaluating quality is developed.

  5. I’m a computer scientist, not a lawyer, and I wrote my first book when in industry, not academe, so take what I say with a very large grain of salt. That said, writing that book was by far the best thing I ever did for my career, not so much for the royalties as for the attention it drew. Even today — and despite other things that I’ve done, before and since — there are people who still know me most for that book.

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    As another non-academic who has published several books and lots of articles, I’d second Ben’s and Steven’s remarks.

    When you ask “are books really worth it for most of us?” it sounds, in context, like you’re only concerned with the material fruits of writing the book (be they money or prestige), not the benefits it might have for your own thinking. If you’re basing a decision about whether to elaborate your ideas on a larger canvas on your estimate of whether you’ll become as famous as Sunstein or his ilk, it sounds like your approach to your chosen profession is a little shallow, I’m sorry to say.

  7. Darian Ibrahim says:

    A.J., sorry I wasn’t clear — my assumption was that the ideas could be explored (roughly) equally in either format; one book or multiple articles, so the question was thinking beyond that.

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for your clarification. You might find that there are some topics where the multiple article approach doesn’t let you express the same things. Writing a book from start to finish is a kind of iterative process, where you can tweak the early parts to emphasize themes that were implicit or even absent when you began but that consolidate in your mind as you go along.

    Even collecting articles into a book isn’t necessarily a simple agglomeration process. One of my books was a collection of 30 shorter articles I had published in a magazine over the course of a year or so; I was able to update some, restore a paragraph here and there that had been cut for space, and make other tweaks so that the whole read more coherently and with a more pronounced “arc”. I had planned out my 1-year series in advance, but still there was an evolution as I went along, and editing the collation was a welcome opportunity.

    Maybe a secondary reason to publish a book is that the occasional curious lawyer like me would be more likely to read it than to track down and read a slew of articles. (Especially if you supplement the footnotes with a list of references at the end, so readers don’t have to snake through all the notes to find bibliographical info, or to see whom you did and didn’t read… please!)