Publishing your first academic book

I’ve recently had several in-person and electronic conversations about the process of publishing a first academic book. I thought it might be useful to offer some thoughts and advice because it can seem like a very murky and opaque process. I’m drawing here on my own experience and that of friends and colleagues: others’ advice will surely differ, but I hope this gives at least a broad sense of how to think about approaching publishing.

One key step is to meet or speak with an editor about the project. You probably don’t want to approach before the book is even remotely ready (this appears to be different for more senior scholars), but I also don’t think there is any reason to have the full revised manuscript done. You can provide a timeline of when you expect a full manuscript or specific chapters.

I would suggest emailing press editors 6-8 weeks prior to a major academic conference (ISA, MPSA, APSA, etc). You can ask friends or advisers who have worked with an editor to make a connection ahead of time if you feel comfortable doing so. This doesn’t actually seem necessary, though; my sense is that the best editors have a pretty good nose for topics they are interested in, regardless of who has or hasn’t emailed them ahead of time.

It would be a big disservice if people talk themselves into not contacting top editors because they don’t have the pedigree/connections to get an introduction – I’d suggest just going ahead and doing it once you have a polished prospectus, a credible timeline, and a good sense of what you want the book to look like.

It can, however, be very useful to ask around among colleagues or looking through recently published books for a clear idea of which editors are most relevant to your project. If at all possible, don’t email the general email address for the press.

This email should ask if it would be possible to meet, provide a very brief overview of who you are and 1-paragraph summary of the book, and include an attached 4-6 page book prospectus. As an example, this is the prospectus I sent to Cornell in 2011 (note: much changed since!). I drew this from several older friends, so it seems like a useful general template. You may attach an introductory chapter or some other chunks of the book if you want; I didn’t but know others who did. You can also propose an email or phone conversation if you or the editors won’t be heading to relevant conference anytime soon.

The editor will hopefully write back and set something up, or let you know that he or she doesn’t see a great fit for the project. I’d recommend either contacting several editors at once or having a back-up list to go to if your top choice declines. Try to be gracious (easier said than done, I know. . .) if there is a rejection – you may end up wanting to work with this person again and they get many times more proposals than they could possibly publish.

At the meeting/in the conversation, try to get your basic argument and contribution across in a clear and engaging way – why would someone pay money to read your work? Why does this need to be a book instead of an article or set of articles? Which audience/s do you want it to appeal to? How far into the process are you? Engage the editor about the shape and direction of the manuscript, since they have tons of experience on the different ways books can be structured, what works and doesn’t, etc. You want them on your side, since all of their incentives are to pass on books given the crush of proposals/submissions they face and the alarming economics of academic publishing.

The editor may express interest and ask to see more of the book when it’s ready, or politely decline to move forward. Follow his or her lead on how to keep in touch and how to submit if there is interest. I personally have found book manuscript workshops staggeringly useful (I just had an amazing lineup of scholars break my current project down and rebuilt it on Tuesday) prior to submitting for review, but your rhythm, resources, and needs will vary of course.

Some people get interest from multiple presses. You can definitely ask about or even push for multiple submissions for review (i.e. to both Cambridge and Princeton, or Oxford and Chicago), but don’t expect it.

If you don’t have a finished manuscript ready to go, you can send an occasional brief email to the editor keeping them up to date on what you are up to. And then the review process is not unlike journals – off it goes into the ether, for some undetermined period of time, without much certainty about results. People tend, I think, to share their book rejection stories far less than their journal rejection stories, but they very much do happen, so don’t let your submission get too close to promotion time if at all possible. Even if it does get accepted, then there will likely be another year or more of the production process. Long-term thinking is important here – there is a limit to how fast even a supportive editor can move things along, and none can guarantee good news.

There is a whole complicated world after acceptance – contract negotiations, copyediting, indexing, etc, but those are ultimately secondary to getting someone to offer a contract. This is just my limited take on the process, so if you have more thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments.

PS. My colleague Austin Carson offered a set of valuable thoughts and tips on this process in this Twitter thread.

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