Book publishing can be an unclear, mysterious process to many scholars, including those who are first in their family to attain a college degree.

In our First-Generation Scholars Book Publishing Survey, we found several ways that the first-gen author experience differed, especially with particular challenging aspects of the process. From there, we wanted to dive deeper and hear directly from these scholars about their experiences.

Our staff interviewed 17 first-gen scholars, across different disciplines, stages of career, and many different backgrounds to identify key themes of the first-gen book publishing experience.

What we found was a range of themes that cut across informational, emotional, and social aspects of the first-gen experience. The challenge often wasn’t just that first-gen scholars needed more information about publishing, it was also that they might need more social support in getting advice, or emotional support from mentors to combat self-doubt. As one participant described, the first-gen population can feel hidden, but there are specific challenges, like not knowing who to ask for things or if asking is even okay; Plus, things are sometimes exacerbated by impostor syndrome.

The themes described below cover one part of our findings from the our interviews. We’ll be sharing more insights in the coming months. The quotes included below are taken from interviews with our participants and any identifying information has been removed.

FirstGen is a diverse group, from many different backgrounds that can impact their access to resources, mentoring, and information about publishing.

Several of the scholars we talked to emphasized the diverse backgrounds of first-gen scholars, who might experience intersecting inequities depending on their race, gender, class, citizenship status, disability status, and more. Additionally, first-gen scholars who ended up at well-funded or elite universities, might have very different access to resources or support networks than scholars at other institutions. These variances mean that the publishing experience of one first-gen scholar to another may be significantly different. For example, one respondent contrasted her challenges in publishing against the experiences of a white male colleague who was also first-gen. Other scholars said:

“You have to keep in mind the ways that people are firstgen: international, rural, family or regional background that causes people to not communicate. We don’t know if it’s okay to ask.”

“There are multiple first-gen identities that I embody.”

Need for transparency in the book publishing process.

Many scholars we talked to said they had no idea where or how to start when it came to book publishing. Often they weren’t sure what questions to ask, even if they had someone to talk with about publishing. This could lead to a lot of extra work and uncertainty.

“There’s an inherent hustle to us figuring out what to do. Because you don’t know what questions to ask. You don’t know what you don’t know and that’s something that’s a constant hurdle.”

I discovered as a tenured faculty member that once you cross that boundary and gotten tenure you’re on your own, it’s assumed that you know everything or that you should have learned it in the last five years.

Importance of social networks to get advice or support for publishing.

Even if scholars did have questions about book publishing, many expressed they weren’t sure who to ask. They did not necessarily have clear support networks to turn to on this topic. Some expressed that it was a challenge not having role models to show them the process. Sometimes colleagues could share their experiences, but seeking out this advice before having a job or tenure felt risky. Another participant stressed that what’s often not obvious to first-gen scholars is how everything is based on relationships and building connections, and that these relationships are often institutionalized for white scholars, but not for scholars of color.

“Other than these friends of mine who were going through the same process, I didn’t really know who to talk to.”

I sort of had to plunge into it very quickly and I didn’t have any kind of support–I felt throughout the process that I was in the dark. It was not a very pleasant experience in general for me.

I could not walk into anybody’s office and say, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to write a book. I don’t know what I’m doing. You can’t tell the people who are going to vote on your tenure case…. I did not know who to ask.”

…particularly for first gen students, we don’t have role models or our family certainly [to show us] this is what it takes to produce a huge piece of scholarship.

Uncertain relationship with the publisher.

Several first-gen scholars expressed that they weren’t sure who at the press could help answer their questions and did not feel supported through the process. Others expressed that approaching editors could be intimidating and fraught, especially given the publishing field’s lack of diversity.

There really wasn’t anyone at my press that I could speak to about the process or how things were going. I really only remember talking to the production editor so there was no one for me to reach out to and ask questions.

There was nobody at the presses, who I felt comfortable asking for any kind of mentoring because I thought I should know all that before I went to the press.”

I never really developed strong relationships with anyone that worked on my book, with the editor or with any of the other people that were working with my stuff. So I spoke to all of them very infrequently.”

Editors felt very intimidating, and it’s difficult when you go to a conference, and the people at the booth don’t look like you, you don’t feel comfortable approaching them.”

Feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and frustration about their work.

Often wrapped into this difficult and confusing publishing process were feelings of self-doubt about the quality of their scholarship. Uncertainty about the value of their work sometimes led to more work, more time spent on the process, and more anxiety generally for first-gen scholars.

I published for tenure and it took about two years to get the book published. Much of the time was a lot of false starts primarily my own insecurities about how good the book is.

For me, there was a lot of anxiety about whether or not I could actually do this. And there was a lot of feeling of like, who am I to be trying to publish this book on this topic, even though I’ve been studying this topic for a very long time.

Not hearing back from an acquisitions editor is especially devastating for first-gen authors, who already have doubt they belong.”

When somebody gives a compliment, I don’t know how to respond. I’m about to get an endowed chair, and I still have that feeling. Maybe it goes away for some people.

Imposter syndrome and the need for a safe space to ask questions.

Many of these themes that we’ve covered were further impacted by imposter syndrome. Many first-gen scholars expressed feeling unsure they belonged in academia, or that they could publish a book. This made it very difficult for them to feel safe asking questions, and to admit they didn’t already know how publishing worked. As one scholar said, it’s intimidating to ask a publisher questions about proposals because there’s a “stigma around not knowing.” For some, this wasn’t a feeling that went away even after tenure.

“You’re kind of mortified to admit, or you don’t really feel that you’re in a safe space to admit, that you really don’t know.”

It was harder for me to reach out and ask questions. I could have used to support to feel confident what I was publishing was worthy of being published. I had serious doubt about the quality of my work. I felt that as a FirstGen scholar, I did not have a strong support group that could hold my hand through the process and help me feel that I was doing the correct steps.

When I first got to my PhD, I felt like some people assumed things about me, and I felt like I had to pretend like I knew stuff and felt a class issue that made me feel embarrassed about what I didn’t know…. what I ended up doing was trying to do everything myself.

Initially in my career, I was not aggressive enough to really consult with people and to just sort of ask questions and bring them on. I think I always felt like I should be knowing more than I did. And it made me isolated in a very bad kind of way.

As they described these challenges, the scholars we talked to also emphasized how first-gen scholars bring incredible strengths that should not be ignored. As one participant said, “first-gen scholars are incredibly hard-working and have been working hard for the last several years,” by the time they’re publishing. Another scholar described how first-gen scholars often get to where they are despite all the obstacles: “because they have a purpose they got there. They have new voices. They have completely unique contributions to make …We see because we’re outside of those [frameworks] and there’s a freshness that’s there.”

We want to thank everyone who took the time participate in the interviews. We’ll be sharing more learnings in the coming months. If you’d like to receive regular updates about our findings and our FirstGen program, you can sign-up for our email list.