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Practicalities of Publishing Your First Book: Approaching the Editor

February 09, 2016
The process of writing your first book can be daunting. The unknowns abound, ranging from initial concerns about the topic’s importance all the way through making final revisions before the book goes to press. Although it pales in comparison to the sheer force of will required to complete the research and sit down to write your book in the first place, uncertainty regarding how, when, and where to approach acquisitions editors tends to give early career authors pause.

If you are planning your schedule for the ISA annual meeting in Atlanta and wondering whether and when you should set up a meeting with an editor to talk about your book, read on. Thanks to advice from four editors who all have an interest in encouraging early career authors and a wide range of experiences in publishing, I have put together a list of practical suggestions with the goal of better preparing ISA’s newest authors as you travel to the conference with proposals or manuscripts in tow.

Think carefully about your goals
Early career scholars—including postdoctoral fellows, tenure-track faculty, visiting faculty and lecturers, adjunct faculty, and graduate students—face constraints unique to their status in the profession when shepherding a manuscript through the publication process. One of the first steps you should take as you begin to search for an appropriate publisher for your manuscript is to think practically about your goals for the final version of the book and any requirements related to your current position or department.

David Earnest, editor of the James N. Rosenau Series in Global Politics at SUNY Press, suggested asking colleagues and mentors to relate their experiences with the publication process to gain an understanding of average time to publication. He noted that while the prestige of the press is important to many departments, graduate students on the job market, postdoctoral fellows, and tenure-track faculty, in particular, have important reasons to factor in the amount of time it will take a book to go from draft manuscript to finished product. Earnest also urges tenure-track faculty to be aware of their departmental requirements for tenure when looking for a publisher: specifically, it is helpful to know how much credit toward tenure the book will earn, and whether the department or university accounts for the publisher’s rank or assesses commercial and university presses differently. Early career authors should weigh these and other considerations early in the process.

Once you have a mental short list of potential publishers, the questions should shift to the book and its anticipated audience. Roger Haydon, Executive Editor at Cornell University Press, recommends that an author consider how well their book fits with books offered by a potential publisher. An easy way to make this determination is to look at the books on your own shelf or the books you cite in your manuscript; you should notice a pattern. Where do the scholars whose work you read and respect publish their books? (A side note: if your book seems like a good fit for a particular series, Earnest noted that contacting the series editor directly can be useful.) Determining your manuscript’s fit with the publisher’s current offerings is an important early step, but Haydon did offer the caveat that he is always on the lookout for something new and unique. Offering another highly practical piece of advice, Earnest observed that prestigious publishers with significant resources may be more likely to take a chance on a ground-breaking or narrowly focused project—a gamble for a publisher— than a press with fewer resources. Utilize your insights as the leading expert on your manuscript to identify the publishers who are most likely to be enthusiastic about your work.

When you are ready to make contact

When in the process should you contact an acquisitions editor? The short answer: timing will vary. Dominic Byatt, Publisher in Social Sciences and Humanities at Oxford University Press, advised first-time authors to wait until they have been awarded the doctoral degree and have devised a plan for converting the dissertation into a book. Such a plan may take the form of a 10-page book proposal paired with the author’s CV. Earnest acknowledged that many editors will want to see a full manuscript from a first-time author before offering an indication of commitment or moving on to the peer review stage. It is a good idea to reach out to an editor once you have a well formed prospectus or proposal, but keep in mind that a first-time author is likely to be asked to follow up after the manuscript is complete. Textbooks, however, follow a different trajectory and editors may want to be more involved in the drafting process. Marie-Claire Antoine, Senior Acquisitions Editor with Rowman & Littlefield, advised that if your ideal audience is a classroom full of undergraduate or graduate students, then an editor may simply want to see a fully formed proposal with a detailed table of contents and pedagogical features.

But when, specifically, should you contact an acquisitions editor to make arrangements to discuss your book? If you wish to set up a meeting with an editor during an academic conference like ISA’s annual meeting, aim to strike the right balance between procrastination and overly eager anticipation. Haydon cautioned that contacting an editor several months in advance of a conference is as impractical as making your request on the day you board the plane; he advised sending your meeting request around the beginning of the month in which the conference will take place. When making initial contact, be sure to give the editor some information about your book but keep efficiency in mind; Haydon recommended attaching a brief (2-page) description of the project, including the book’s actual or projected word count.  If you are already at the conference and browsing the exhibit hall, all four editors agreed that you should go ahead and visit the publisher’s booth. Antione joked that editors don’t bite (really!). In response to my request for advice on introducing oneself to an editor, Haydon laughed: “Walk up and say hello! That’s why we’re at the booth, as odd as it may seem.”

At the conference, be understanding if an editor cannot make last-minute arrangements to meet with you. They may have already booked a long stretch of back-to-back meetings in the exhibit hall (as well as breakfast, dinner, and evening meetings), or perhaps they have to staff the booth alone and cannot leave to discuss a project. If you want to game the system, try approaching the publisher’s booth in the first hour or two that the exhibit hall is open, as this tends to be a quiet time. Haydon’s advice: do not interpret an apparent lack of enthusiasm at a conference meeting as a signal of a lack of interest in your book; it may be that the editor is physically and mentally exhausted but has a genuine interest in working with you on your project.

When you do successfully arrange a meeting, how do you make the most of it? Antoine suggested that if your book is based on your dissertation, be clear about the revisions you have already made or plan to make. Each of the editors emphasized the importance of doing your homework on submission and proposal guidelines, which are readily available on each publisher’s website. Most importantly, you should have a brief, powerful, and well-rehearsed “elevator pitch” for your book. Just as you practiced (or will practice) your research and/or teaching presentations and responses to possible interview questions when preparing for the job market, you should prepare a 30-second summary of your argument or theory, the book’s contribution, and your intended audience. The remarks that introduce your book to an editor are crucial, so deliver them first to your mentor, a colleague or friend, your significant other, or even a mirror before meeting with an editor. Earnest recommended framing the project in a way that suggests broad appeal (i.e. many people will buy your book) and Antoine stressed the importance of articulating why your book stands out. Byatt suggested offering a straightforward description of the book, the literature to which the book relates, the contribution it makes, and the planned revisions. Haydon recommended going in to the meeting itself with a plan: know what you want to ask the editor; be certain of what you wish to convey about your project; and have an end goal in mind.

The better prepared you are the more smoothly this first in-person interaction will go. Still, conferences are hectic and often meetings occur in less-than-ideal situations. If your worst case scenario (whatever that may be) arises, Haydon offered a word of encouragement: even under the most abysmal meeting circumstances the result can still be a book that an editor enthusiastically embraces.

The resounding message in each of my conversations with the four editors was that editors want authors to contact them. Editors are always looking for new and interesting ideas and have a wealth of knowledge about trends and issues in the field. When you feel you are ready to start the process that will move your book from “manuscript in progress” to “forthcoming”, go for it.

The author wishes to express her thanks to the three editors who generously shared their time and advice:

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