On Writing Books

by Peter Conti-Brown — Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016

After more than six years of work, my book The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve was recently published by Princeton University Press. I’ll be blogging on its content in the weeks ahead, so I won’t pregame those posts here. Instead, I wanted to discuss a topic that might be of interest to some of our readers: why I think a book was worth writing at all, rather than publishing the ideas as a series of articles.

My default instinct was, in fact, to stick to my law-review-article knitting. I first wrote about Fed independence in 2009, eventually turning some preliminary ideas into an article, which I started circulating in 2012. After an illuminating conference in early 2013 at George Washington’s Center for Law, Economics, and Finance—an excellent conference for junior scholars writing in business and finance, by the way—I realized that I was facing a bit of a conundrum. I wanted to say much more than would fit within the confines of a law review article, but wasn’t sure how to do it. I started drafting two additional articles on different aspects of the Fed’s independence as I conceived it, but found that I, somewhat paradoxically, was both repeating too much of the basic theoretical architecture of the first article and still not fitting my arguments into the now 60,000 words.

As this was happening, I was working on my PhD at Princeton in financial history, and had a regular meeting with my adviser, Julian Zelizer. He had read one of the papers and agreed that while I had useful things to say, I wasn’t getting the full message through an already unwieldy article. We chatted at length various approaches, and he finally encouraged me to think about this project as a book, one aimed at various scholarly constituencies and thus requiring me to write in a non-technical way to make it more widely accessible to interested (though still mostly academic) readers.

In one sense, it wasn’t terribly surprising for a historian to recommend to another historian to ditch the article format for the more comfortable confines of a book. But for someone who cut his academic teeth in law rather than history, articles were still in my mind the coin of the realm.

With Julian’s support, I jumped in with both feet. The next two years were something of a blur. I wrote a book proposal and included the articles I had written, got a contract with Princeton University Press’s economics editor, and went on a tear to write what became a 120,000-word book.

Very little of my legal academic writing that preceded the book survived (although Yale Journal on Regulation did publish the main article I wrote on the subject, “The Institutions of Federal Reserve Independence.”). The process was incredibly demanding, sometimes quite miserable. I’ve never worked as hard as during the three months preceding the first completed manuscript, and then again the six weeks preceding the final revised manuscript.

I was surprised by how demanding the process was. I had originally imagined the book would just be like writing 5-6 articles. This is a misconception. For me, the process was much harder than that, for both stylistic and substantive reasons. Stylistically, I couldn’t write in the technical jargon required by law review editors. And substantively, while the research associated with the book would have matched, perhaps even been less than, that required to write five separate articles, the research inquiry became very different. The project required thinking about the argument as a single whole with various constituent parts that couldn’t stand on their own bottom. I wasn’t interested in how law did (or did not) structure Fed independence anymore. I was interested in the entire concept of Fed independence—past, present, and future. I wasn’t writing the book as an edited volume of essays. I was writing a single story that led me into various corners of central banking history and policy but still demanded my return to the overarching narrative I was trying to deliver.

Painful though it was, as many times as I wished I had never undertaken it when I was in the guts of things, I’m very pleased to have gone through the process. It has been the defining intellectual experience of my life so far. The disciplining process of writing the first book taught me a lot about myself as a scholar and about the ways that I want to engage my work, and my intellectual audiences, in the future. This payoff might be a bit idiosyncratic, given that I am increasingly writing history, where books far dominate articles as the main publication venue. But I think there is a generalizable lesson here, too. The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve isn’t in fact a book of history as much as it is an extended essay on central banking governance, policy, politics, and law (with plenty of history included in the service of the broader discussion). In other words, the very kinds of subjects we see in law review.

I’ve been asked by a few law professors whether I would encourage book writing, especially pre-tenure. I don’t have anything to add on the strategic aspect of the question, especially since I’m a business school professor and a financial historian, so there’s a different set of expectations about what my tenure file will look like (even though business schools generally and Wharton especially is an article-driven school). On substance, though, I say yes: if you have an idea that won’t fit in the usual structure of law review articles, where the historical development of ideas is a central part of the story, where the argument requires a little more room to stretch and explore, then the book is the medium.

Oh, last thing: you should buy the book and let me know what you think.

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About Peter Conti-Brown

Conti-Brown is an assistant professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. A historian and a legal scholar, Conti-Brown focuses on central banking, financial regulation, and public finance.

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