bon bon/imagezoo/getty images
“I’m still bitter,” my colleague said. She scowled into space.
“It’s not you -- it’s them,” I said, aware of the triteness of the saying, while meaning it 100 percent. “You’re excellent. You’re brilliant. I would choose you if I were in their position.”
“I’m going to have to put myself out there again … and who knows whether the next one will work out?”
“The right one will appreciate you as you deserve,” I said.
An eavesdropper on the (pre-pandemic) bus ride might have assumed that I was comforting a friend after a contentious breakup. In fact, we were discussing a publisher’s rejection of the manuscript for her first book. She had made it past the initial gatekeepers only to be told, well into the process, that the board had decided that her topic was too narrow to appeal to their readers. As I was also navigating the path to publishing my first book, I was startled and dismayed by the board’s verdict: of all the assistant professors I knew, I anticipated that she would be among the sure bets to be snapped up by a publisher.
We were aware of the possibility of board rejection, of course, but we had no formal training in managing these obstacles in the process of publishing a first academic book. Thinking back to our conversation after I alighted from the bus, I wondered, could she have been done anything more to convince the decision makers? Why wasn’t this mysterious process -- so essential to the fate of our careers -- covered in graduate courses?
These days, guidance through the process is available, but it can be pricey: one workshop charges thousands of dollars for a few hours of advice on writing academic book proposals, a consortium directs early-career researchers to “make the ask” for their university to foot the bill for thousands of dollars for membership and other authors and companies host writing groups that automatically debit upward of $100 per month from your account. Certainly, academics’ expertise should be treated on par with that of other expert consultants, but many of those who most need this advice -- graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, adjunct scholars and nonaffiliated scholars desperate to publish to gain a foothold on the academic ladder -- can least afford it. One instructor told of selling pints of her blood in order to afford food.
In some of the best-known, more affordable sources -- books on the process -- advice is well-intentioned but tends to be dated or vague: a well-known guide limits its counsel on the all-important letter of inquiry (would-be authors send this letter to pique the interest of acquisition editors) to six pages, while devoting three times as many pages to a chapter on edited collections. Those are nice to have but not make-or-break for budding academics aiming to secure a job or tenure. Still other guides spend pages or chapters offering advice about outmoded technology.
To help rising scholars avoid breaking the bank, spending precious research time on reading without getting the information you need or becoming overwhelmed with advice, I’m presenting you with specific, actionable, nonobvious advice I wish I had received before embarking on that winding road to my first book: Defending Privilege: Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel (Johns Hopkins, 2020). More good advice is out there, if you carefully vet it. If you haven’t read “Asking the Editors,” the Inside Higher Ed series by the pseudonymous Junior Prof, click over to it posthaste. Below, I focus on navigating the obstacles you must surpass to nab that golden ticket to publishing, or what I call the four pain points of publication. They seemed to resonate when I presented them to a group that included graduate students, early-career researchers, adjunct scholars, independent researchers and associate and full professors, so I’m sharing the advice here to benefit more would-be authors.
Pain Point No. 1: Transitioning from dissertation to book. You must make many decisions, large and small, when moving from dissertation to book. Here are some places to start.
- During graduate school (and the earlier the better), begin two files of tear-outs and screenshots of: 1) books you see as inspirations for format, ideas and so on and 2) striking cover designs. Cast a wide net: consult publishers’ catalogs, social media, event announcements and other sources.
- Ask yourself: Why do you want to publish a book in the first place? If you aim to increase your chances of nabbing a faculty position, or to clear the bar for tenure, it’s best to choose an academic press. If, by contrast, you aim to reach a larger nonacademic audience, or you’re planning to apply for nonacademic positions, a trade publisher would be better. If you wish to honor your intellectual investment without putting yourself through the wringer, you could self-publish through an on-demand service and distribute to family and friends.
- Speak of, and see, your dissertation as a book. Mock up a physical copy of your book with a front and back cover, copyright page, dream blurbs from scholars you admire, a page at the end describing your choice of font, barcode and ISBN-13 number, and anything else that makes it real to you.
- Some humanities departments, such as English literature, tend to have shoestring budgets. Seek and sign up for prospectus- and chapter-reading workshops at better-funded departments or divisions in your institution, or at other universities, for faculty feedback beyond your committee. You can also attend their events to glean their perspective and consider how to present your material to appeal to multiple constituencies. I joined groups in history and law.
- Email faculty members beyond your committee to set up a meeting to discuss your book. You can still do this after graduation, as long as the faculty member is up for it. Some may be more receptive if they can meet via Zoom rather in person during business hours. I just met with an alumna remotely the other evening to discuss her plans for getting published.
Pain Point No. 2: Networking with publishers. Many academics identify as introverts and would rather be researching than making conversation with strangers. Even the self-identified extroverts I know can become tongue-tied and awkward in the presence of an editor who has the power to shepherd their book into publication and thus help their career take flight. Networking with publishers is akin to dating: there are no official guidelines, and charisma and a flashy presentation can create an unfair advantage. Here are some ways to make it easier on yourself.
- Be early! Arrive ahead of time at conference events. Browse publishers’ booths in the book hall at off-hours times. Sometimes acquisition editors will strike up conversations with you -- if you’re the only other person in the vicinity, your odds are good.
- Practice different versions of your elevator pitch: one minute, three minute, six minute. Don’t be like the overeager graduate student who talked at me incessantly and even blocked the door several times when I tried to leave.
- Follow academic publishers and editors on Twitter (e.g., @JHUPress).
- Too often, readers skip over acknowledgment sections in published books, but they are gold mines of information. Read those sections in recent releases in your subfield(s) and then look up the editors who are thanked.
- Clarify any time constraints -- if you need to have a book out in a couple of years, for example, editors should know that up front.
Pain Point No. 3: Meeting criteria for approval by the publisher’s board. Once an editor invites you to submit a manuscript, and you’ve passed the initial stage of review, the next step is to undergo board review. It can be paralyzing to know that people you’ve never met will decide your fate in a closed-door meeting. If networking with publishers is akin to dating, board approval is similar to trial by jury. Except in this case, instead of facing a jury of your peers, you’re being judged by those of higher rank: senior scholars selected for their expertise and discriminating taste.
No pressure, right? I’m not going to sugarcoat: it’s stressful. Focus on what you can control. Here’s how to improve your chances of making it through this level:
- In your materials, clarify the wider appeal of your book, preferably to multiple constituencies of readers. In this age of ever-increasing budget constraints, publishers are more selective, and they prefer topics that aren’t too narrow. That said, I’ve seen scholars with very niche topics survive the ordeal, including an assistant professor whose dissertation focused on a single obscure book. Editors have told me that single-text and single-author studies are usually frowned upon these days. Yet she passed muster by transforming her framing: she recast the book as an exemplar of larger trends in class consciousness.
- Return to your initial readers’ reports, and mark up the comments in multiple rounds: read once for structure, once for sources to add for lit review and so on.
- Recheck publishers’ recent releases: What do they have in common? Consider how you can make a case in your materials that your book fits among the other books in the publisher’s catalog. My publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, offers a strong catalog both in 18th-century studies and in law and literature -- two of my primary subfields -- and has published some of my favorite go-to books. If a publisher’s books are all Heathers and yours is a Veronica, ask yourself whether it’s the place for you.
Pain Point No. 4: Planning for publication. This isn’t a discrete stage so much as a time for contemplation that you may often neglect in the midst of teaching, research, service and finding a publisher. Here are some elements that a number of authors have told me they regret overlooking:
- Read your contract! I once saw a professor tell an audience full of would-be authors that, in this era of austerity, they should be grateful to be accepted by a publisher and shouldn’t even think of negotiating. I disagree.
- If it’s not included in your contract, ask for suggestion and veto power over the title and cover image. The cover of your book is a key advertisement for it -- extremely important when even elite presses tend to allocate zero funds for marketing first monographs. I negotiated to add images, if need be, and to increase the word count. Another reason I chose Johns Hopkins was that it has departments and staff devoted to cover design and publicity who work with first-time authors to promote books, which is not the case with some other elite publishers.
- Make sure your title is SEO (search engine optimization)-friendly -- that is, check that it includes key terms for which students, researchers and other readers are likely to search when googling your central topics. A quotation or phrase may sound mellifluous to you, but if your book doesn’t turn up in search results, you won’t get cited.
- Search online to see whether your planned title has already been used for another book or article. Check every three months or so -- don’t settle for one search at the beginning, as the process from dissertation to book can take years, and new work is being published in the meantime.
- If possible, arrange for the publisher to send books out for review. You will not receive sufficient free copies to send them to all venues yourself.
- Clarify your royalties percentage and register on your publisher’s online system for royalties. Once I was registered, it was one fewer thing on my list, and I could focus on ideas rather than muddling through the inconvenience of registering after inventory processing had already begun.
I hope these thoughts are helpful as you develop your own writing and ideas. To paraphrase the time-honored L’Oréal slogan: do it because you -- and your brainchild -- are worth it.