Monday, December 27, 2010

International Book Competition

The California Series in Public Anthropology draws professional scholars from a wide range of disciplines to address major public issues in ways that readers beyond the academy find valuable. Many academics write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. Instead, the Series strives to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

To date, the California Series in Public Anthropology has enjoyed significant success. Many prominent scholars – from Paul Farmer, Margaret Lock, and Aiwa Ong to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Philippe Bourgois, and Carolyn Nordstrom have or, will soon, be publishing in the Series. And some of the authors, such as Paul Farmer, have not only sold well beyond the academy but their writings have helped shape how particular public problems are addressed.

As a way of continuing and expanding on these efforts, the University of California Press in association with the Center for a Public Anthropology is sponsoring an international completion. The Series will award a formal, publishing contract to the best book proposal – without the author necessarily having completed (or even started) the writing of the proposed manuscript. The winner will receive, in addition to a formal book contract with U.C. Press, a five thousand dollar advance.

The editors encourage prospective authors to keep four important points in mind in preparing their proposals:

First, in developing their submission, authors should focus on questions readers beyond the academic pale find compelling. This means forsaking the questions that absorb academics and addressing the questions that absorb others.

Second, authors should write their proposals in ways that will likely attract the interest of a wide range of readers. They should avoid theoretical jargon and put obscuring details, theoretical elaborations, and citations in footnotes. Authors will know they have succeeded in this regard when they can show their proposals to non-academic friends and these friends not only understand the proposals but find them absorbing.

Third, authors’ proposed manuscripts should tell stories. A whole manuscript might present a story or, if an author prefers, stories could be used to develop concrete points within particular chapters. Humans, by their nature, are story tellers. We understand the world around us not only through our experiences but, also, through stories people tell about the world. The proposed manuscript -- by the way it is structured, by the way it develops its “plot” -- should keep a readers’ attention while drawing the reader towards new insights.

Fourth, a manuscript’s importance should not be equated with its length. The Series rarely publishes manuscripts of more than 100,000 words (including footnotes and references). It does so only in exceptional circumstances.

One of the present ironies of anthropology – and why this competition is casting a broad net for submissions – is that the most appreciated and best selling anthropologically-oriented books today are all written by authors with little or no formal anthropological training. Prospective authors may wish to consider the following books as models in developing their proposals.

Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down deals with miscommunications between a Laotian Hmong refugee family and the medical staff of a Merced California hospital treating the family’s epileptic daughter. It offers a nuanced, account of the problems well-intentioned people face when they talk past one another. It has received numerous honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest. The New Yorker observed "Fadiman describes with extraordinary skill the colliding worlds of Western medicine and Hmong culture."

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed deals with how low wage workers struggle to get by in America. It tells Ehrenreich’s story, as an undercover journalist, trying to make a living in such jobs as a waitress, cleaning lady, and Wal-Mart salesperson. The book spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was deemed a “Long-Running Best-Seller” by BusinessWeek. Gallagher, in a New York Times Book Review, described Ehrenreich as “our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.”

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies uses an environmental/cultural/evolutionary perspective to explain how the West achieved its prominent global position. The book won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for almost four years. PBS has produced a documentary on it. Crosby wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Diamond “is broadly erudite, writes in a style that pleasantly expresses scientific concepts in vernacular American English, and deals almost exclusively in questions that should interest everyone concerned about how humanity has developed.”

Prospective applicants to the competition might ask themselves: Are they writing for the same audiences as Fadiman, Ehrenreich and Diamond? Are they dealing with problems of broad import that others, beyond the academy, find of interest? Will their relatives and friends find their proposals absorbing?


Interested individuals should submit a 3-5,000 word overview of their proposed manuscript – detailing (a) the problem to be addressed, (b) the manner in which the problem will be approached, and (c) a summary of what each chapter will cover. The proposal should be written in a manner that non-academic readers find both interesting and thought-provoking.

We would discourage the submission of CV’s. A short summary of the author’s preparation for writing the book with any personal background deemed relevant to the project is sufficient.


Submissions should be emailed to: with the relevant material enclosed as attachments. They can also be sent to: Book Series, 707 Kaha Street, Kailua, HI. Questions regarding the competitions should be directed to Dr. Rob Borofsky at:

All entries will be judged by the Co-Editors of the California Series in Public Anthropology: Rob Borofsky (Center for a Public Anthropology & Hawaii Pacific University) and Naomi Schneider (University of California Press)

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