Guest Post: How to Write a Book in Twenty Years – Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Worn Through is pleased to have another guest post from fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell*

KCC Cover


FROM KIMBERLY: Twenty years ago, when I first started working on the project that would become my new book Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, I loved talking about it to anyone who would listen. Ten or twelve years later, my friends and family had learned not to mention the book; I was in the midst of a dispiriting crash course in the harsh realities of academic publishing, and my frustration was painfully obvious.

Now that Fashion Victims is out at last, my unpublished colleagues keep pulling me aside and asking in hushed tones how I did it. How did I choose a publisher? How did I score 90,000 words and 220 illustrations? How I you negotiate a contract? These are the same questions I had before starting the publishing process, and I can finally say with confidence that we’re all asking the wrong questions.

If you’re thinking of writing a book about fashion, you should be asking yourself the following: How many images do I need? Where am I going to find these images? Who’s going to pay for them? Answer those three questions, and the rest will quickly start to fall into place.
I probably don’t have to convince Worn Through readers that an appropriate number of high-quality images are essential to any discussion of fashion; that number will vary depending on the particular subject and methodology, but–whether it’s ten or 200–every image should serve the text rather than simply illustrate it. Lackluster or irrelevant images are a red flag, raising doubts about the quality of the writing. The same is true, however, about books that are mostly pictures. On the other hand, I’ve happily bought lousy books just for the pictures. Images are evidence. Neglect them and you do a disservice to your readers, and, more importantly, to yourself.

The number and type of images you want to use in your book will dictate so many other factors. There are only a handful of publishers who will even consider fashion books—or illustrated books of any kind—and many of those have strict minimum and maximum image counts. A few publishers told me they’d love to publish my book with ten, twenty, or even fifty images—fine for a cultural history or museum studies book, but not nearly enough for an art historian to do justice to the infinite variety of fashionable dress under Louis XVI. Others were more generous with images but wanted me to cut half the text (and all the footnotes). Yale University Press routinely publishes books with 200 images and footnotes galore, so that’s the one I targeted. Yale’s deservedly stellar reputation in the field, its well-established distribution networks, and the chance to work with legendary editor and designer Gillian Malpass were equally strong attractions.

Two hundred images may sound like a dream come true (and it is) but someone has to pay for all those images. That means paying for both the photo itself (or, more often, the digital file) and the reproduction rights, calculated on a sliding scale based on print run, image size and placement, distribution, and so on. With academic books, it’s usually the author who pays; the picture research, captions, photo credits, and paperwork fall on the author, too. Trade publishers often give authors a budget for images, but it doesn’t go far; it’s much more expensive to license images for commercial use, and the author is still responsible legally if not financially.

For Fashion Victims, I was able to cobble together grants, savings, and favors to cover my image costs, but the process of seeking out funding was time-consuming and soul-destroying. There are not many grants out there for publishing, although academics can sometimes get subventions from their universities. And a grant application can take up to a year from start to finish, with no guarantee that it will be successful.

Fortunately, many forward-thinking museums and archives have begun to make their image libraries available to anyone, at no cost, through “open content” programs. Other institutions offer free images for academic publishing. I was able to take advantage of this welcome trend, and it was certainly something I took into consideration when making the final decisions about my images and cover image. I also got very creative about sourcing mass-produced images. Why pay a picture agency for a fashion plate when I could get it from the British Museum for free? For contemporary subjects, authors can save money by taking their own photos; I was once advised by a journal editor that licensing a movie still would be cost-prohibitive, but my own photo of a billboard for the same movie could be published legally and at no charge.

However, I fear that the open content trend is only going create new problems, as the same images from the same collections will be published over and over again while other collections remain inaccessible and unknown. I am absolutely guilty of this; more than half of the 220 images in my book come from the same five institutions, largely because they were searchable online and free (or at least inexpensive) to license. Similarly, many publishers have agreements with certain museums or picture agencies that make their images more affordable than others.

But the money I saved on open content images allowed me to have other key objects photographed and published for the first time. So for every free, familiar image, there’s one that you’ve never seen before that cost me $500. Because I work on the eighteenth century, I generally don’t have to worry about copyright, which can drive the costs even higher. But if you’re using contemporary fashion photography or publishing with a trade press, you might need to sell a kidney. If I had to do it again (and I do—I’m already working on a sequel to Fashion Victims), I’d pay more attention to image costs during the research and writing stage, rather than face sticker shock and a lengthy fundraising drive at the end. Indeed, knowing how the whole publishing process is likely to unfold has made the early stages go much more smoothly.

If dealing with the images was the hard part, negotiating the contract was the easy part. A reputable academic publisher will offer you a fairly standard agreement with little wiggle room, especially for a first-time author. (My editor graciously fought for a few additional perks, like more color pictures and extra author copies—another reason why a good editor is as important as a good publisher.) If you’re publishing with a trade press, you should have an agent or lawyer negotiate for you. If you’re hoping to make money from publishing, your time would be better spent writing textbooks, or maybe romance novels.

But there are many other compelling reasons to publish your work, like getting tenure, giving back to your field, or increasing your chances of getting a job, raise, or promotion. If you’ve already done the research and writing (for a dissertation, conference paper, or exhibition, for example), why wouldn’t you want your efforts to have a permanent, public impact in print? Personally, I’m amazed at how much great research goes unpublished—not because publishers aren’t interested, but because the authors never submit it to publishers.

Ultimately, getting Fashion Victims published—finding a publisher, revising the text, raising grant money, locating and licensing illustrations, and slogging through the year-long editing process, from copy editing to proofreading to indexing—took roughly the same amount of time as writing it in the first place: nearly two decades in total. The book started as my MA thesis, then spilled over into my PhD dissertation, only to undergo a total rewrite before I even considered submitting for publication. Over the next few years, I continued honing the text as I figured out how I was going to pay for the image rights and reproductions. It evolved from a formal and somewhat fragmentary series of chapters—many of them originally developed as stand-alone conference papers or journal articles—into an organic narrative, ironically becoming much truer to the themes that got me interested in the subject in the first place.

During the same period, I worked in some museums, had a couple of kids, attended conferences, moved house a few times, and published a bunch of journal and magazine articles and essays in edited volumes and exhibition catalogues. Along the way, I discovered new objects, images, and sources; made valuable contacts; and learned the ropes of the publishing business; all of those things ultimately benefitted the book. At the time, I was intensely annoyed with myself because I hadn’t managed to publish it yet. But, looking back now, I can see how useful that season of discontent was. Fashion Victims is much richer for it, and so am I. And it was worth waiting to work with the publisher, editor, and images I wanted all along. The book I’ve had in my head for twenty years is now in print, and it’s even more beautiful than I could have imagined.

Check it out.

Related reading:

*Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries

Trivia question: Who painted the portrait on the book cover?
First person to email Monica the right answer wins a copy.
United States and Canada only please.

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  • Kendra February 26, 2015 12.47 pm

    This was an amazingly useful post!! I’m so looking forward to reading Kimberley’s book, and as I’m writing my own, this is immensely useful information.

  • Ingrid Mida April 01, 2015 06.18 am

    This is an excellent primer on the challenges of publishing an academic text. I too learned the “hard” way in sourcing the images for “The Dress Detective: The Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion” being published by Bloomsbury Academic in fall 2015. Although I took many of the 150 photos in the book myself, the hardest part of putting the book together was sourcing of external images – each one requiring lengthy negotiations with the copyright holders. Luckily the Society of Antiquaries helped with a grant and Ryerson University also permitted use of photos taken of objects in the collection, but in the end the process was far more complex and took longer than I ever expected. Nonetheless, I too am embarking on another book, but this time the work in sourcing photos will be integrated with the writing instead of the other way round.


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