Category Archives: Research

On Request: Marketing Your Book

So you’ve written a book, and gotten someone to publish it, you’re done, right?

It turns out that, though it depends on the professional incentives around your particular situation, in general, no, you’re not nearly done. You have just started a new chapter. Even without the book/chapter pun.

A friend of mine requested a post on book marketing, and that seemed like a good idea, since knowing how to publish a book and knowing how to promote one are two different arts.

Most (not all, but most) academic books are generally only marginally profitable – think, date night, once a year. If you’re lucky, date weekend, once a year.

Promoting you book is not about making money, though that might be a nice side effect. It is about getting people to buy your book, to read you book, to assign you book, and to cite your book.

Why? Well, I’m presuming the why matches why you published the book in the first place – that you have some professional incentives to construct a CV, develop a professional reputation, make your name, have the opportunity to publish more books, make it easier to publish a second book, etc.

The harder question is how to promote your book. You want to make sure that people notice your book without over-saturating the market or annoying people. Below the fold are some tips.  Continue reading

So Book Prospectuses Aren’t Anonymous …

The first time I sent a book prospectus out for review, I didn’t actually know that prospectuses are non-anonymously reviewed. When I got three (generally positive) revises back, I was kind of taken aback that each of them included an evaluation of my qualification to write the (largely already-written) book.

In fact, I still remember those evaluations. In hindsight, they were fairly generic and really the only thing I could have expected at the time – no, the Reviewers did not know me or my work; yes, my training looked acceptable to produce potentially good work, and the prospectus and sample chapter suggested that I was capable of translating that potential into a full book.

I think I was thrown because I had the expectation that my work would be be judged separately from “me” (as if those two things are separable), and I was jolted when they were not. Its not even like those evaluations judged anything deeply personal. They weren’t (yet at least) commenting on my lifestyle choices or personality traits. It was, in fact, a very narrow sense of professional “self” that was being judged – does the overall reputation of her work suggest that x publisher should expect that her book idea will develop into a well-done book?

This is the purpose of non-anonymous prospectus review. Like the quality of the writing of the abstract and the innovation of the idea, the identity of the author is meant to provide reviewers with more indicators of the potential quality of the book.

Largely, that is what it is used for in the actual review process. I say “largely” because there are two variables that can, and will, come up sometimes if not frequently. The first is conscious bias – people who know you and do not like either you or your work, and therefore judge it more harshly for being able to identify you. This happens much less frequently than you would fair. I have been involved in the book review process as an author, a reviewer, or an editor for almost 200 separate books. I have seen evidence of this sort of bias once during that time. It was minor, and did not negatively impact the process of publishing the book that was involved. The second variable that can come up is unconscious bias – the reading of your name and its sex/gender/race/nationality significations as a shortcut for qualification (e.g., women are less qualified to write about x). We cannot possibly know how often this impacts book reviewing. Statistics suggest that this sort of unconscious bias impacts everything in the professional world; so it probably does here too. There might be some saving grace in the fact that book reviews are often long and detailed enough that it is hard to write a negative one without a real, substantive complaint about the text. Still, I’m not even going to try to tell you it doesn’t happen. Because it certainly does. I can just provide two pieces of advice: a) don’t be the Reviewer that does this (examine you conscious and unconscious bias); b) don’t worry about stuff you can’t control (a decent piece of advice for life, not just a book prospectus).

Instead, when it comes to your identity and book prospectuses, worry about what you can control. What’s that, you ask?

I have three suggestions: 1) Frame yourself as positively as you can; 2) realize the potential interactions between your identity/information and other parts of your proposal; 3) especially if you are relatively early in your career, google yourself. The first and third ones are good advice for being on the job market and just generally, but I will discuss them specifically in reference to the book publishing process here. I’ll detail them below …

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News Report: Angry Women Angry Again, Part 2 of 2

A few days ago, I posted with a strong reaction to Inside Higher Education’s framing of female political scientists as angry. I think that my reaction was quick and strong both because the piece and conversation warranted it, and because it wasn’t anywhere near the first time I’d had to deal with the “angry woman”/”angry feminist” trope when there is a reaction to gender injustice.

If fact, in December, I posted one of two really important conversations that I had at the “What’s the Point of IR” conference at the University of Sussex – one with Patrick Thaddeus Jackson on epistemology, ontology, and (sometimes) God. The other important conversation I didn’t write here about, because I wasn’t yet sure what to say. That didn’t stop me from tweeting about it real time, though. I’ll show you my “angry” reaction first, and explain the conversation after.

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So, I’ll tell you a (brief, four-month-old) bit of context. I won’t identify the people in the story, though they are more than free to identify themselves if they’d like. A speaker who was discussing the Eurocentric nature of IR was asked a question by a (female, feminist) member of the audience. The question was why the story of IR’s Eurocentrism did not include a story of its sexism and heterosexism as well. I didn’t listen to the whole answer (see previous very interesting [to me] twitter conversation with Patrick Thaddeus Jackson). The part of the answer that I did here, though, caught my attention, not just then but fully for the next two days and off and on for the coming months.

The part of the answer that caught my attention was that the substance of the answer had previously been given to “an angry feminist” who wasn’t satisfied by it, and the speaker didn’t understand why. The speaker did not seem to be using those words as a parody, or to be poking fun at himself. Instead, the sentence seemed to be meant literally, and a straightforward explanation of the position he saw himself (and the “angry feminist”) in vis-a-vis the field. A few more questions were asked on the point (this exchange happened in the early afternoon if I remember correctly), and didn’t bring about any real resolution. Mine weren’t the only angry tweets, though I missed it if anyone else got as colorful as I did in their descriptions of and reactions to the situation.

In those tweets and in my presentation the next morning, I was the “angry feminist.” I justified anger from years of mistreatment, trivialization, intellectual shortchanging, and personal belittling – not (only) towards me, but towards women and femininity in disciplinary IR and in global politics more generally. I justified that anger because anger at injustice is justified, and trivializing and gendering anger is itself injustice. 

I’ve been accused of reifying the stereotype that gender scholars are humorless by expressing being appalled at the casual nature of gender and sex subordination in the discipline and in the world. I could defend myself by suggesting that I have both a sense of humor and a generally laid back outlook on life – and those who know me will understand that to be the case – but that’s not the freaking point. The point is that you don’t have to find gender subordination funny to be cool (in fact, I think its not cool to find it funny), and you don’t have to remain calm in the face of injustice to merit that injustice being solved (in fact, its perfectly fine for injustice to piss people off. It is, in fact, unjust).

My use of profanity in those tweets (and the next morning in my talk), and my performance of anger, then, was meant to express simultaneously how not ok sex and gender and race subordination are, and how not ok it is to stereotype anger about those subordinations to perpetuate them. Perhaps the speaker in Sussex and/or Scott Jaschik did not mean to link up with a long tradition of subordinating women and trivializing anger/expecting calm, but both did. I could have reacted calmly and explained the problem (in both instances, I did do some explaining), and some would suggest that’s the appropriate reaction – I’ve been instructed more times than I can count in my life not to play into this or that stereotype. This is what I wanted to say that day, and what I’ve wanted to say most days:

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Never Tell a Soldier the Costs of War…

Jon Lindsay over at PV@G said most of what needs to be said about Eye in the Sky. I will only make a few points but mostly reiterate the need for any IR scholar to see this movie. It is frankly incredible but it is also a “hard watch.” It wasn’t exactly the best movie choice for my last day in Los Angeles, but it is something that needs to be seen by those in our community.  EITS_Ex_Original

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Writing a (Kick-Ass) Book Prospectus

Whether it is your first book or your tenth, books start at prospectuses.

Ok, that’s the first lie I’ve told you. Selling your book starts at the prospectus. But your book idea, and your book description, should not start at a prospectus. First expressing your book idea in the form of a prospectus will lead to a prospectus that is more difficult to read than it needs to be, less strategically organized than it could be, and less likely to sell your idea to the press than you’d like it to be.

Your book idea, and book organization, should always start in some other form than a prospectus. And, no, ‘dissertation’ does not count.

That form can be personalized. For me, its aloud. My professional background before academia – my professional comfort zone, I guess – was in sales and public speaking. Ideas just make more sense to me aloud than they do in writing, and I work through stuff aloud. So I formulate the initial articulation of new ideas through explaining them to other people. When people ask – “what’s your next book about?” (and sometimes even when they don’t), I explain the idea. I do it about a dozen times to about a dozen different people until I finally have an account of what the book is about, what it is for, and what holds it together that doesn’t leave the person listening with either a perplexed or bored look on their face. Then I try it a dozen more times, then its time to write a prospectus.

Others explain themselves better on paper – in a four-or-five page summary of the book. Don’t mistake a four-or-five page summary of the book for a prospectus, though. That summary is an internal accounting, for you, so you know what the book is for, where its going, and what its claim to uniqueness is (a question we’ll return to later). You need to have a good sense of what the book is going to look like, and be able to express that in the prospectus, but the prospectus shouldn’t just be a summary of the book. Prospectuses that are summaries of books sometimes get contracts, but, in my experience, they’re less likely to, and less likely to be greeted with enthusiasm at the press, than prospectuses that do the job that prospectuses should actually do – both express and sell the idea, while giving the publisher a good sense of what they are buying. 

Make no mistake – a prospectus is you selling a book to the publisher, and the publisher deciding whether or not they can sell it to other people, or, in the case of some presses, whether it is independently important to take a risk on. This means that the prospectus needs to do a good job selling the book, without having the salesmanship of a used car salesperson.

This post will deal with what is, in my view, one of the most important questions in prospectus-writing: 1) What goes in a book prospectus, and how is it organized? Follow-up posts will deal with only-slightly-less important add-on questions: 2) How do I write a prospectus for a dissertation-book as a junior scholar? 3) How do I capitalize on my previous publishing history as someone who has written one, or multiple, books before?

For now …

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What to Look for In a Publisher (and a Contract)

(cross-posted at Bombs and Dollars)

About a week ago, I posted about book publishing in academia. I’ve gotten responses from a number of people, both interested in more information and happy for the first post. If its useful to even one person, I want to answer as many questions as I can with the information that I have – so I’m making this a follow-up post. I’ll focus it around two main question that I got in response to the first post – what should I look for in a book publisher, and what should I look for in a contract.

The bad news is that there’s not one answer to either question. The good news is that there are both some strategic things that it is useful to know and some shortcuts to finding out your answers to the questions.

So, first, what do you want in a publisher? This, of course, depends. Like I talked about briefly in the last post, there are some universals about this. You never want a publisher you have to pay to publish your book, and you always want a publisher that has a genuine interest in your project as a project and you as an author. But beyond that, it depends on where you are, what options you have, and what you need from it.

I strongly recommend spending some time putting together a kick-ass prospectus to give yourself the most options you could possibly have (I see that being the subject of my next post, now that I mention it). But, basically – you will be in different situations at different times in your career with different projects, and identifying your situation will help you be able to think about the question of what you want in a publisher more clearly.

So, first, at minimum, you want a publisher who will publish your book. There may be only one, or a couple, none of which optimize every value that you’re interested in.  Sometimes, the one publisher who will publish your book is a good if not perfect fit. If that’s true, yay! You have a publisher!  If its not, you may want to reevaluate the framing of the proposal and start asking people with experience in publishing why you are having the trouble.

There are, if you have options, other things you want to consider. The major ones, in my view, are academic incentives and marketing possibilities.

Academic incentives are the career-related demands and pressures that might help you select among publishers. Many of us have different incentives along these lines, geographically (its different in the US than it is in the UK than it is in Australia than it is elsewhere), by type of institution, and by stage in career. Here are a few factors that matter differently to different people:

a) Prestige. It is not true that all university presses are better than all commercial presses, or that university presses give better and more thorough review, or anything like that. It may work as a rough metric around the top 15 or 20 publishers, but even then, there are exceptions, and ‘down ticket’ (as we say in political science) it is not at all obvious to me that even the rough metric works. It is also crystal clear to me that some publishers are better at some subfields (e.g., Kansas at American Politics, or Chicago at Comparative Politics) than they would fare in an overall ranking, and ‘the’ presses to be at not only vary on subfield but even on sub-sub-field (e.g., Security Studies or Environmental Politics).

But absolute ranking of book publishers isn’t possible (remember, I’m a post-structuralist who at the end of the day does not believe in the possibility of objective knowledge at all – and that’s not the least of the problems with ranking publishers). Even if it were possible, its professionally useless. Your prioritization of publishers on the basis of prestige should not be based on some objective ranking, but instead on a subjective reading of your audience. There are some absolutes (I don’t know of any political scientists ever who got any shit for publishing with Cambridge, for example – though that does not make a perfect incentive for seeking publication there). Other than that, its important to think about how presses will be read by your various audiences. If you are junior faculty in a department that thinks that all university presses are better than all non-university presses, you’re probably not going to change their mind at tenure time (trust me, I tried this one, and I was right, and it didn’t matter). If you are an IR person in a department full of Americanists, the Americanists are less likely to know presses that are really only great at IR than generalist presses. Letter-writers can help with this, but if there’s a ceteris paribus, well, the audience helps determine prestige. If the audience is the open market, then the question of what kind of jobs you want (research/teaching/both) matters, as does the subfield in which you’re most likely to get hired (do people who do Your Subfield know that the two biggest people in Your Subfield run a series at Kinda Known but Otherwise NBD Press? – if so, that might be the best option).

b) Likelihood of getting reviewed. It used to be that Reviews ruled the roost in terms of determining the quality of a book in the short- to medium- term for the purposes of judging employment, tenure, promotion, and the like. It also used to be that Reviews helped people decide whether they were going to buy, read, and assign your book. These Reviews happened in generalist journals (think International Studies Review), but they also happened in subfield journals (think International Feminist Journal of Politics or Global Environmental Politics). Book reviews still matter, though more some places than others.  Now, google searches and Amazon help people choose books, and Google Scholar citation counts check citations to books. Still, the likelihood that the book gets reviewed coming from one press rather than another is another ceteris paribus condition that you might want to look at. You can influence if and where your book gets reviewed (sometimes), but publisher track record matters too. So if you’re choosing between publishers and looking to see which one is more academically valuable to you, looking through the Reviews is a good place to start.

c) Timing. Timing works differently for different people in different places. But, as I mentioned in the last post, different publishers’ timescales, both at the consideration and production phases, differ a lot  – not to mention differentiating between publishers willing to give you advance contracts and those that are not. There are no right answers to this question – publishers that take longer often (but not always) produce a more polished product; publishers that get stuff approved and out quicker are often able to produce books that feel more up-to-date (especially if your topic is current-events-related). You may have a wide variety of timing incentives – from a grant, from a promotion and review process, from the job market, or even from current events. Those should be factored into academic benefit calculations. Still, don’t choose someplace that is quick but doesn’t meet your other academic needs – that ‘wastes’ the credit you would get entirely, rather than speeding it up.

It is the marketing side that scholars looking to publish books know less about, and that might be worth discussing for a while. First, again, if you have limited options, you might have less to work with here. But if you have more than one option, these are some things you might want to think about (also contract-negotiable sometimes, which we will talk about soon):

1) How much is my book going to cost? 

The cost of a book does influence whether people will buy it or not. and people buying the book actually does influence the impact that it might have on the scholarly literature and in classrooms. A book that costs $160 might be worth it to you for other professional reasons, but it will be very difficult to have such a book reach a wide audience. Books that cost less than $40 are more likely to sell than books that cost more than that.

2) What format will my book be published in? 

What you want is for your book to be published simultaneously in hardcover, paperback, and e-book – that will get it the widest readership. Some publishers will offer hardback only, or hardback and then a time-delayed paperback if the hardback is selling. If you get to choose between publishers, a willingness to do a paperback (or an affordable hardback – for example, Cornell’s hardbacks are less than $30, I believe) should matter for getting your work out there; it might even, in my view, ‘skip’ a publisher a few places up the priority list.

3) Is there a chance they will publish my book as a trade book? 

This will be an issue for very few academics. But there is a classification our publishers have called “trade book.” They print more of these, and they try to put them places normal people go, like bookstores. The marketing system is completely different (and much more visible). If someone is talking to you about treating your book as a trade book, and you like either money or visibility, you might want to think about it.

4) Does the publisher go to the sorts of conferences I go to? 

The conference booth matters. If its a great publisher, but the publisher doesn’t publish a lot in your discipline or subdiscipline, then the value of the publisher goes down for you, reputation-wise. Conference booths signify engagement with the field, and they also help to sell your books. So if you have two publishers whose absolute prestige and  academic benefit feel about the same, the level of investment that those publishers have in the conferences you go to might be a good way to tell their relative benefit to you.

5) Ask to talk to the marketing person. 

If you are considering more than one press, or considering which press to allow exclusive review, and all else remains equal, talking to the marketing person about what they think about the book might be useful. You can tell from such a conversation how hard the book will be sold post-publication by the level of enthusiasm shown by the marketing person.

So then, okay, I chose a publisher, what should I look for in a contract? 

Here’s the place where you do not have to just be grateful that someone is willing to publish your book. If you ask for some concessions at the contract stage, no publisher is just going to walk away from negotiations (unless you’re a total ass, but I’ve actually never met someone who managed to be that big of an ass). They might say “no” to your requests, but then you’ll be no worse off. Here’s a list of 10 clauses I look at when evaluating a book contract:

a) The right of first refusal? 

Many standard book contracts have a right of first refusal clause in them – where the publisher gets the option to look over your next book project first, and either engage or pass on it. The value (or annoyance) of this clause is different depending on the quality of the publisher with which you are negotiating and the stage of your career that you are at. If the publisher is Absolute Dream Publisher, … what’s the harm in a right of first refusal? If the publisher is Among Few Dream Publishers, then the clause remains not a huge problem – the worst they can do is give you free feedback while they pass on it. If the publisher is anywhere from Eh, Well, There Will Be a Book to Okay Publisher, you probably want to try to have the right of first refusal clause struck. Most publishers will do this if you request.

b) How many copies do I get? 

While this is nit-picky, sometimes we’re broke. And I want one for my mother and my father, and one for me, and some to give out to important people in the field I might convince to read the book. Especially if the book will be somewhat expensive. This is something that is generally to negotiate up as well – publishers are less grumpy about getting you books than they are about many of the clauses I will discuss below.

c) How much money will I make? 

Disclaimer: Most academic books make very little money. You’ll get a check that feels like a participation prize most years, and no check other years. Still, both on general principle and in case your book is one of the small percentage of academic books that really sells, you want to check out the royalty structure. At the very worst, your participation-prize-check might buy dinner at McDonalds, or it might buy a very fancy date night.

So, it depends on the sort of book (you should be looking for a larger percentage on textbooks than on academic books; you should be looking for a larger percentage on trade books than non-trade books; you should be looking for a larger percentage on a lower price than on a higher one) and on the number of authors (co-authors split profits, and generally can talk a press into only a little more money than a single author total, if that) how much money you can expect to make. As a rule of thumb, though, I ask for 2.5% more than I am offered in the contract.  I mean, what’s the worst that happens? They say no? And more often than not, they say yes.

d) What am I going to make money on? 

You percentages will be on hardbacks, paperbacks, and ebooks, for sure – but there will also be percentages on translation rights, other editors, etc – a list of about 10 things. Make sure that they’re all there, and that the percentages aren’t artificially low for any of them. Try to up the number for translation rights especially.

Also, in most contracts, the royalties will be onset, or raise, after a certain number of sales. That number is often negotiable. In my view, 250 is nice, 500 is still good, 750 is ok, 1000 is high.

e) Who is obligated to who when? 

If it is an advance contract especially, but even if it is a regular contract, look at if you are obligated to the press and if the press is obligated to you. Most contracts have an escape clause for the press. Only about half of  them have an escape clause for authors, and those generally have conditions. As I mentioned in the last post, you probably don’t care about this. But it is good to know.

f) Who is paying for the index, and when does it need to get done by? 

I am a big fan of ‘do your own index’ – but if you’re not, you want to look at this clause in the contract and make sure it makes sense to you. It may or may not be negotiable – its worked some places and not others to try to negotiate it.

g) Who picks the cover? 

This is a recent lesson I learned the hard way – you may or may not agree with my disapproval of the cover of my own book, but we went to the mat about this one. We figured out we didn’t have the right to choose at the end of the day. Should have read that contract more closely. So, now you will.

h) Do I get an advance? 

This doesn’t mean you make more money overall (it is deducted from any profits you might have made later), but it is money upfront. This is mostly a non-starter for first books, but can come into play later. And if you have multiple presses competing, why not ask? $1000 is good for a book without textbook potential; a narrow textbook might net $2-4k. A generalist textbook (“Intro IR”) that will sell will net significantly more.

i) What happens to my book if it goes out of print? 

Some places let you have the rights back. Others keep the rights and make you buy them back. While you might not have a dog in this fight (I like to have the rights revert in case I want to do something with it), it is something else to look for.

j) What is the contracted length? 

You should have talked about this with the publisher before you got to the contract stage, but, if you didn’t, pay attention to it in the contract, and decide if it is realistic. Generally, presses retain the right to make you shorten a long manuscript to the agreed-on number of words, or lengthen a short manuscript to deliver a full book to their specifications. Often, they take advantage of that right. So, make sure you agree with the delivery length.

Note that I didn’t mention or pay a lot of attention to the delivery date. That’s because, while presses prefer it, most don’t enforce it.

I hope this helps. More on the book process soon!

The Ugly Truth(s) About Book Publishing

So a number of people at ISA asked me about the mechanics of book publishing, and how it differs from journal publishing. Since I’ve increasingly been thinking about turning this professional-development-advice-thing into a trade book, I figured this was the perfect time to talk about some of the differences between publishing books and articles, and some of the differences among book publishing houses.

Most of these lessons, I learned by trial and error. I sent my first book two places, and chose the first one that said yes. By contrast, I sent the prospectus for my 3rd authored book to every University Press in the US and some in the UK. I would recommend neither strategy. But make it sufficient to say – between doing a fair number of books and interacting with even more presses, I got a sense of the author-side of book publishing. Now as the editor of a couple of book series, I also have a pretty decent sense from the publisher side.

Book publishing works very differently than journal publishing. Some basics from what you learned about journal publishing hold: most are peer-reviewed, some aren’t; some peer reviews are more rigorous than others; most book publishing is a highly competitive process. But there are other things that are very very different, and worth exploring here.

We’ll go over four:  1) norms of simultaneous submission; 2) who is committed to who when; 3) the approval process; and 4) the production process.

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What Can We Know About Cyber Security Data?

Jamie Collier and Brandon Valeriano

(This post was written with Jamie Collier and cross posted on his blog Cyber Security Relations here. Check out his stuff. This post might be bit too mean to Norse for a mass-market website so RI gets the benefit).

With Norse, a cyber threat intelligence firm, imploding due to a lack of confidence in the company’s data and other associate problems, there is clear cause for concern about the nature of cyber security incident data. Although we should not jump to conclusions — Norse’s failings are unlikely to represent problems in the cyber intelligence industry more broadly — it does nonetheless lead to questions. There are two lessons to learn from Norse and the use of cyber security data.  images

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A Conversation from “What’s the Point of IR”?

This past weekend, I had the privilege of participating, with a number of friends and colleagues, in the Sussex International Relations Department’s 50-year celebration: What’s the Point of IR?

The conference was interesting in a lot of ways – just go look at the (annoyingly long, but effective) hashtag: #whatsthepointofIR. There was a lot of very important (and very diverse) discussion of what we do and how we do it, both in practice and normatively.

In this post, I want to highlight a part of the conversation I found particularly interesting: a discussion about if IR scholars have an individual or collective normative accountability for the product of their/the discipline’s work. This conversation was had alongside the conference, on Twitter, inspired by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s talk on the pedagogical value of IR – largely between Patrick and I, focusing on the question of moral responsibility but also engaging whether there is an IR, who is in it, and what it is for. We intend to expand on/continue to have the conversation, but I figured that it’d be interesting to share:

 

The Offense-Defense Balance Applies to Interpersonal Conflict, Too

Regular readers of my personal blog know that I am not a fan of firearms as a self-defense solution. While there are clearly cases in which firearms have produced good self-defense outcomes, on balance I think that they cause more problems (and cost more lives) than they save.

I know that there are plenty of folks out there who, for dogmatic reasons, will disagree with me. Some of them, if they were to read the preceding paragraph, would decide on the basis of those two sentences alone that I am not only wrong, but a communist/atheist/socialist/libtard out to take all guns away from everyone so that Obama can destroy America and rule over the new fascist dystopia he so desperately wants. Needless to say, I do not write for these people.

For those of you who might be interested in understanding why I regard guns as dangerous and destabilizing, I offer the following. This is not an exercise in “scenario gotcha” – there is always a different hypothetical that begins “What if I’m attacked in this situation…?” There are an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios, and I will freely concede that there is no one answer to all of them. What follows is a discussion for why guns, on balance, are more problematic than helpful.

I have long maintained that the study of interpersonal conflict and the study of international conflict (my primary field of expertise) have a lot in common. What I have been trying to say about the effect of guns on interpersonal violence has been long understood by those who study international conflict.

Many years ago, the imminent scholar Robert Jervis penned a seminal piece in the study of war (if you want to read the whole thing, you can download a copy here). Titled “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, Jervis explored the logic of when conflicts will escalate and when countries will cooperate in a world where there is no central government and every country is (in theory) afraid for its security against every other.

In exploring this question, Jervis introduces a really critical concept: the “offense-defense balance”. Jervis explains the idea this way:

When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than it is to defend one’s own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.

This is a function of technology and tactics. In World War I the combination of fortifications, automatic machine guns, and trench warfare made taking territory almost impossible and defending it much easier. Vast numbers of lives were lost trying to take a few hundred yards of land in Belgium and France. The war made no sense, and was possible only because the military and political leaders of the day misunderstood the true offense-defense balance until it was too late.

Fast-forward to the start of WWII, and the tables had turned. The maturation of aircraft, the development of the tank, and the new doctrine of Blitzkrieg made maneuver the order of the day. It was much easier, and cheaper, for Germany to take territory than it was for France to defend it. That advantage made it much more likely that Germany would launch the war it wanted anyway.

The important thing about the offense-defense balance is that it has a strong effect on whether countries (or people) are likely to initiate violence or not. In Jervis’ words, “whether it is better to attack or to defend influences short-run stability.” When the offense has the advantage, war is more likely because in a crisis countries will fear that the other guy will launch a surprise attack and thereby win. There have been enough examples since 1945 (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war comes to mind) to keep this logic alive. Simply put, in a world in which the dominant technologies & doctrines are offense-oriented violence between states is much more likely. In a world in which defense is dominant, violence is less likely.

Some might want to argue that “countries aren’t people” and therefore this logic doesn’t apply to the conflict between mugger and victim, or between two men in a bar, or in any other conflict between two individuals. It is true that the analogy doesn’t work whenever there are immediate mechanisms that can enforce security – a police presence nearby, for example. But most self-defense scenarios take place away from the protections of the government – that is, under conditions of temporary anarchy. No government, no central protecting force – you’re on your own, much like countries in the world.

So what do guns do in an environment of immediate interpersonal insecurity? Guns are an inherently offense-dominant technology – that make it easier by orders of magnitude to hurt or kill the other person than it is for that person to defend themselves against an attack. There are in fact few ready defenses against a gunshot (kevlar body armor comes to mind, but it is expensive, not widely available, and impractical to wear in most situations).

In this sense, guns are to interpersonal violence what nuclear weapons are to countries – the weapon against which there is no effective defense. Guns are actually worse in one sense: a country cannot defend itself against a nuclear strike (“Star Wars” fantasies aside), but nuclear-armed states have a reasonable hope of being able to fire back after absorbing that first hit, thereby destroying the other side too. This creates mutual deterrence (MAD, or “Mutually Assured Destruction”, as it became known in the Cold War), which creates its own kind of stability through a “balance of terror”.

Guns are worse, because they lack this tendency to create mutual deterrence. If I shoot you first, and if my aim is good, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to fire back. I am not therefore deterred by the thought that my opening fire will get me shot in turn. If we are both armed (or if I think you might be), I have every incentive to fire first so that you cannot shoot back. My own self-preservation depends on how fast I can get off the first shot.

Jervis himself, in his 1978 article, foresaw this. Long before Michael Brown, #blacklivesmatter, or the “war on cops”, he wrote this:

In another arena, the same dilemma applies to the policeman in a dark alley confronting a suspected criminal who appears to be holding a weapon. Though racism may indeed be present, the security dilemma can account for many of the tragic shootings of innocent people in ghettos.

I would modify this to suggest that the security dilemma rationalizes racism, and that the two feed off each other, but you get the point. This logic is in fact exactly the defense that police have been using in court to get away with shooting unarmed people.

If police have difficulty resolving this dilemma, how well will untrained or lightly-trained civilians do? The fact of the matter is that the only way you can use a gun to defend yourself, if push comes to shove, is to shoot the other guy first. Those that argue that arming everyone reduces the likelihood of violence ignore the unstable offense-dominance of guns. Guns can only be a deterrent if people are assured of their ability to shoot back – that is, if they can absorb the first strike.

Add to this the challenge of carrying guns in the modern environment. In most places guns must be concealed (in a purse, holster, etc.), increasing the time it takes to bring them to bear. Openly carried guns can make the carrier a target, further increasing the likelihood of violence. None of this pushes things towards more peaceful personal interactions, whether the problem is predators (in Jervis’ parlance, the aggressor-defender model) or people simply being afraid of each other (the security dilemma).

The offense-defense balance problem is real. Every age has its dominant technologies, and these technologies make violence more or less likely. Small, cheap, easily accessible guns are unarguably offense-dominant, and as such they make violence more likely and more problematic between people even if those people merely seek to protect themselves. So let’s stop referring to guns as tools of self-defense and call them what they really are: first-strike weapons.