I was in academic publishing for over ten years. I was an editor acquiring Religion and Philosophy monographs and edited collections at a major, international academic press. Because I kept answering the same questions over and over again and saw so many young scholars make grand faux pas as they entered the academic publishing world, I wrote these ten tips a few years ago and posted them on my academia.edu page. I did this partially to help young scholars, partially so there would be less people making such dumb mistakes… okay, mostly because of dumb mistakes… and everyone kept asking me for advice. Of course, I’m not an expert, I’m just sharing some tips that I think are worth knowing and aren’t commonly shared. So, since I know this is primarily read by young theologians, I’m sharing it here, with a few tweaks. If you have your own tweaks or recommendations or want to share experiences, feel free to use the comments section below.
Nota Bene: This is a guide for monographs, not journals or edited collections. Also, these tips will not guarantee you a contract or a flourishing publishing career. This is humanities, after all. Oh. One last thing, before you ask any questions… READ THE SYLLABUS!
1) DON’T PANIC. I’m going to give you a lot of information. Yes, it’s unsettling and overwhelming. You’re no longer a student. The game is completely different. You have to think as an author, a reader, a scholar, an editor, and book buyer. You’re not writing for a small committee of knowledgeable peers anymore. This is the big leagues. You can do this. This is what you’ve been working towards for a very long time. Welcome.
2) YOUR NEW BIBLES. Two very useful books are From Dissertation to Book, 2nd edition and Getting It Published, 2nd edition by William Germano. Germano was editor-in-chief at Columbia University Press and then vice-president and publishing director at Routledge. He knows his stuff. Listen to him. I wish they would hand out these books with PhD diplomas.
3) PREPARE TO REVISE. Understand that anything you write will have to be significantly revised regardless of what anyone says. And be prepared to realize that your dissertation is very rarely your first book. I’m always leery of “ready for publication” because how scholars see the manuscript is not how editors see it. Your colleagues are complimentary, but hubristic. Anything you send for consideration will be blind peer reviewed and the editor will take the review into serious recommendation. Let the reviewer and editorial board make the call.
Nota Bene: if, by chance, you are given the opportunity to offer names of potential reviewers, DO NOT list names involved in your committee, department, or directly involved in your education. It looks like you’re trying to pull a fast one on the editor.
4) WHICH PRESS? Take a close look at your academic bookcase and dissertation bibliography. The presses you cite most are the ones you should probably consider approaching. Go to their websites and download their catalogs. Consider these questions: Are they publishing in your area? Is your work possibly a next direction for their list? Do they do ebooks? Do they publish paperbacks immediately? What’s the price point? Do they have an international reach? Is their list interdisciplinary? Do their books get good reviews in CHOICE and the leading journals? These are things to look for and to consider before you sending stuff out so there are no surprises for you down the line.
5) BE PROFESSIONAL. Treat this as a job interview. Professionalism is of utmost importance. This is about building a relationship that can last for years. Write a good cover letter email and keep it short, sweet, and direct. Don’t say “there is nothing like it” or “it’s ready for publication.” Look on their website for downloadable proposal forms. Send what the press wants. Don’t send the whole manuscript. If the editor wants more, the editor will ask for it. Most presses are wholly electronic, so sending everything as .doc files will suffice. Ask the press about multiple submissions. Some houses will only consider a manuscript if they are the only one in the running. DO NOT pit one house against another trying to get the best deal in royalties, format, etc. – especially as a junior scholar. We don’t have time for such haggling and you’ll burn your bridges.
6) EXPERIENCE IS PRICELESS. Why there aren’t regularly-scheduled formal departmental presentations to ABD’s and post-docs on academic publishing, I’ll never understand. I think that the scholarly silence of mentors and advisors on this topic is deafening. Sadly, you’re just going to have to take the initiative. Talk to your peers about their experiences publishing their first book. Attend a conference panel on the publishing process (they’re often sponsored by a major press in the guild). What were the most valuable lessons scholars earned? Learn about the different houses. Ask about the procedures and timelines. Be prepared to wait.
7) THE SECRET OF SERIES. Consider submitting the manuscript for inclusion in a series. It will align you with an established list, raise your profile, and ensure purchase by academic libraries, which is more important than you think. Contact the series editor directly and ask if s/he would be interested in considering the work. With a series editor’s imprimatur, you may get a better chance with an editor at the press. You also may get a better chance with your tenure committee.
8) TIMING. This is so important. If an editor wants something from you, respond as soon and as comprehensively as you can. When you sign a contract, you will agree to a delivery date. Be realistic about when you can get the book in. Think of it this way: If a student is late on a final paper, do you give the student an extension beyond when grades are due? Treat yourself as you would your student.
9) YOU ARE NOT A TRADE AUTHOR. You may think your scholarship is for a wider audience than what it actually is. It’s not. Deal with it. When you’re at a party with your significant other’s group of friends and they ask, “What do you do?” and you tell them and their eyes glaze over, you’re not a trade author. Deal with it. Publishing has had to become very pragmatic. Be specific about for whom you are writing. Don’t say in your proposal the book is written for “people interested in ‘x'”, because that’s vague and unhelpful. People outside academia don’t care about us. Deal with it. Write for the guild first and expand further once you’ve got a book or two under your belt. You’re welcome.
10) CONFERENCES. Spend quality time chatting with editors at the conferences. Look at the exhibitor list on the conference webpage. Contact the house to set up a meeting if you want. DON’T take your manuscript. We don’t have time to read it. We don’t want to carry it on the plane home. Take a three-page prospectus and your CV at the very most. Have a good thirty-minute conversation and you’ll figure out if there may be a good fit. Exchange contact information and follow up afterwards.
BONUS TIP! Think of your academic career as a giant hourglass. When you started as an undergrad, you started with a generalist education, which narrowed and specified through your master degree and, by the time you submitted your dissertation, you could count the number of readers on two hands. You are at the midpoint of the hourglass. NOW, you are writing to a (slightly) broader audience of a few hundred people. The second book will hopefully be more and the third more than that. And so on and so on. Maybe one day, thousands of people will read your work and you’ll be a great luminary… or… something. Until your sand runs out.
Good luck on your first book!
And just to make sure you read the fine print: The views on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer, Oxford University Press. [Update 11/14/16: I’m no longer with OUP, but the publishing advice still stands.]