Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Finding a Publisher for Your Book

Yes, a first time author may be more concerned with finding any publisher than with being picky about the terms of publication. Even so, she will have to choose ex ante which publishers to approach. And if she is lucky enough to have more than one nibble, she will have to choose with which publisher to proceed. When I finished my dissertation and turned to the book, the publication process was a deep dark black box. Thankfully, there were many more experienced scholars who patiently listened to my many questions and doled out invaluable advice. Below is a description of my experience finding a publisher intermixed with gathered advice and some factors to keep in mind along the way.

When to seek a book contract? The first question an author faces is whether to seek an advanced contract with a book proposal and little else or to wait until she has a full manuscript to submit to the press. I felt an advanced contract was imperative for both practical and substantive reasons. Practically, when I finished my dissertation I was in my second year at my first job. I would go up for pre-tenure review in my third year. My book would be the key element of my eventual tenure file but would not be very far along by pre-tenure review. If I could manage it, securing an advanced contract in time for pre-tenure review had obvious advantages. Substantively, as I discussed in an earlier post, my dissertation was a bit of a mess. Getting early advice from outside readers on my plan for the book and benefitting from the ongoing guidance of an editor as I wrote appealed to me.

Why wait to seek a publisher until the full manuscript is drafted? If I hadn’t been able to get an advanced contract with a publisher I was excited about, I probably would have waited and tried again with the full manuscript. Also, I’ve known people who were far ahead of me, having finished the dissertation and already started on the book before going on the market. In that case, it might also make sense to wait until you are in your job to secure a publisher, at which point you will likely have the full manuscript to submit. And some writers don’t want an editor meddling with their manuscript; they may choose to seek a publisher with a full manuscript in hand to maintain greater control over the project. Lastly, I suspect that if you have a full manuscript that is very good, you will be in a better bargaining position than you can ever be with a mere book proposal, however strong. You will be able to show several potential editors the end product instead of a few pages filled with visions and promises. If what you’ve shared is very good, more than one of them will be keen to have you formally submit the project to his or her press. Increased leverage ensues. Since this is not the path I chose, however, I’m less able to speak to why you would wait until you have a full manuscript to seek a publisher, so welcome comments from those for whom this was the right choice.

Which press to pursue? I started by talking to anyone who was willing about his or her publishing experiences; I was especially interested in the experiences of first-time authors. This helped me learn a lot about the presses that were out there as well as the pluses and minuses of each. Some generalizations I gleaned, which like all generalizations, won’t hold true in every case:
  • The biggest presses have the most institutional structure for promoting your book on a global scale but will pay less individualized attention to it than a smaller press.
  • A hands-on editor is a vanishing breed. Many presses, large and small, have editors (including series editors who are themselves historians) who pick projects but are not very involved in the editing process. Instead, for first books at least, many presses rely on outside readers to provide feedback on the manuscript.
  • There is a general consensus that, especially if you are tenuring in a law school, getting a big name academic publisher—if you can—sends important, comprehensible signals to your colleagues. A well-respected specialty series with a less well-known press, I was advised, may fail to translate to this non-historian audience. That said, people I talked to disagreed about which presses fit into this small congeries of prestige signalers. A good place to start in coming up with this list may be the presses that have published your colleagues.
  • Many people advised me to look at the already published books in any series, or with any press, I was interested in. Things to look for include price (if you care how affordable your book will be), aesthetics (if you care about how your book will look), and whether your book seems like a good fit with the other books in the series or that the press is publishing in your area. This last one can be important for legal historians, particularly those who are considering publishing with something other than a legal history series; for instance, one in political history.
In addition to alerting me to some of the general factors to keep in mind, these conversations gave me loads of information about people’s personal experiences with particular editors and presses. I won’t share the details here. Apart from not wanting to divulge confidences, the academic publishing industry is going through big changes these days so this kind of granular information doesn’t have a long shelf life. Besides, these conversations are important to have yourself because they hopefully will lead to one or two offers from those you engage to introduce you to their editors. 

These conversations led to a short list of 3-4 presses. I started with the two in which I was most interested, which happened to also be ones where I already had some sort of connection (one was through a post-conference boarding-gate conversation with an editor during graduate school, the other was through a prize my dissertation had been nominated for). I sent the two editors my book proposal and asked if they would be willing to talk to me about the project and their presses.

(N.B.: even if seeking a publisher is still a ways off for you, now is the time to strike up conversations with editors at conference book tables; in addition to possibly creating connections for down the road, you’ll get good practice pitching your project to a very instructive audience. Presenting at conferences at this stage is also a great way to make these connections since editors scour panels for talent.)

My inquiries led to the publishing equivalent of an informational interview. The editors gave me helpful feedback about what they saw of promise or concern in the project. They also gave me loads of useful information about the publishing process at their respective presses, including the steps and timelines involved in taking a book to publication.

I also learned a detail that hadn’t come up in any of my conversations with authors but that was, for me, very important: the stage at which a project is sent for outside review. One of the presses would sign an advanced contract on the basis of the book proposal and one or two model chapters, waiting for a full manuscript to seek outside review. The other sent the project for outside review at the proposal/advanced contract stage; if the press’ editors were happy with the eventual full manuscript it didn’t have to go to outside review again.

For a first-time author the difference between outside review of a proposal versus of the full manuscript can be huge, again for both practical and substantive reasons. Practically, if you are facing a short tenure clock, outside review at the full manuscript stage can be risky. Once you start talking to people about their publishing experiences, you’ll hear plenty of stories of outside reviewers who took forever to submit their review, which can delay publication accordingly. Also, if any reviews come back lukewarm or critical (which can be due to the merits but may also be due to the idiosyncrasies of the reviewer), the press may well decide it needs to seek further reviews, which also set publication back. And if your manuscript needs substantial improvements, making them and then satisfying the press that you’ve made them can also be a time suck. With only three years between completing my dissertation and going up for tenure and with a manuscript to write from scratch, I knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of cushion time at the back end. Outside review at the proposal stage appealed to me substantively as well. Given my unhappiness with my dissertation’s structure, I wanted to be sure I was on the right path with the book before getting too far along in writing it. Hopefully that would ensure a manuscript the press was happy with (and one that would have satisfied any ex-post outside reviewers had I needed them). And I figured that I could always seek my own, concededly unblind, reviews of the full manuscript. 

It just so happened that the press that did outside review at the advanced contract stage also had terrific series editors, a press editor I trusted, and a name my law colleagues would recognize. Cambridge University Press’s Studies in Legal History Series. With a 20th-century U.S. project, I would be working most closely with series co-editor Sarah Barringer Gordon who was just the kind of hands-on editor I was hoping for. As a bonus, the series’ paperbacks sell at a reasonable price, its editors are committed to publishing nice-looking books, and they are willing to consider a simultaneous hardcover and paperback release.

As an aside, my personal view is that in deciding which press to pursue, the prestige factor should be a lower priority than several of the factors I’ve discussed. In the end, what will help your tenure case most is having a strong book that is done when it needs to be done. Finding the press that will best serve that end should be your priority. If it happens to be one that your colleagues will appreciate, all the better, but no one is going to tenure you because of your fancy publisher alone.

How to secure a contract? In my experience, getting a book contract is a little like notice and comment rulemaking. By the time you formally submit your proposal to the press, much of the process has occurred and many formative decisions have been made. I decided on Studies in Legal History in the summer between my second and third years. That fall, I drafted two model chapters, which I then revised, along with my book proposal, based on generous and extensive feedback from the series editors. This meant that by the time I formally submitted my materials to the press in January, I had developed them to a place with which the series editors and the press editor were happy. This is key. Having your editors behind you doesn’t make a contract a foregone conclusion, but they are the ones who know how the press works and are in a far better position than you to position your proposal advantageously.

From there my proposal, model chapters, dissertation, and a memo explaining how the book would relate to the dissertation went to outside reviewers. Their helpful responses were positive but required some further tweaking of the proposal and a memo explaining how the book would address the reviewers’ feedback. Then all this went to what CUP calls the Syndics, a committee of academics who decide whether or not the press should offer you a contract. The Syndics approved the project and, about a year after I first decided to pursue a contract with CUP, I had one in hand.  

Do you have questions about finding a publisher, further advice, or a different perspective to offer? If so, please comment.