This month, I return to reflecting on the academic book proposal process. In previous posts, I provided a bibliography of all the advice out there on this process, as well as how to identify a book series as a means of narrowing your target lists. Now that I have several presses committed to reading the manuscript in full in the next year, I wanted to pause and reflect on the actuality of the process, as well as what things have changed in recent years with shifts in the academic publishing industry.
1 Ask everyone for samples, in and out of your field.
I began by putting together a file of sample book proposals, starting with my mentors and colleagues in my sub-discipline (Theatre History), in the wider field (Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies), and then in other fields (e.g., Anthropology). I read these deeply, identifying trends within my sub-discipline as well as conventions in the proposal genre more broadly. The only way I felt I would get the genre was if I could get a cross-section and get a sense of what is literary specific and not.
2 Use a consultant.
I used some of my start-up funds to hire a consultant to workshop my book proposal as there weren’t other workshopping venues immediately available to me that included folks who had completed a successful proposal or were at a similar stage. There are many options, including a four-week webinar if you are a member of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. Ultimately, I went with Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In Fame, who happens to be local to Oregon and could do the process with me in an expedited manner. This ended up being the best process for me as I had a short timeline between composing and meeting publishers at my national conference.
3 Publishers are down-sizing conference attendance.
Speaking of national conferences, after all the hurry to get a polished draft for meeting with publishers, it turned about only one of the five I contacted were going to be attending. (I ended up meeting with two, as I will explain.) The Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) book fair was maybe a sixth of what it once was when I first started attending back in 2012. It seems like it isn’t cost effective, or that California was just too far for many of the UK-based presses to justify shipping books and bodies. While I recommend meeting with editors face-to-face to establish rapport and ask questions about their particular processes and timelines (as much as to remind yourself they are humans, too), most of my engagement with editors has been entirely via email.
4 Fill-up your dance card.
I initially contacted five publishers that had relevant series and a catalogue my work clearly matched to meet at SAA. That email listed the plenary I was speaking on as a justification for meeting, followed by a very brief paragraph about the project, and little else. This still seems to be normal practice: ask for meeting, see if they will do so or if they will want to see the entire book proposal. If solicited, then send a book proposal tailored to the individual press’s sheet or guidelines, usually including a cover letter, abbreviated CV (4-ish pages), and sample chapter. Sometimes you will get reader reports back, sometimes just a request for the whole manuscript when it is ready, and sometimes no response at all. I was clear with each about what other presses were going through the process of evaluating my proposal, and it seems that this, too, is normal practice.
5 Put your work-in-progress on your website.
I keep a fairly extensive professional portfolio online that includes the title of my book project-in-progress. Once the conference program was released, I was then contacted by two for-profit publishers for my proposal or a meeting. These emails explicitly referenced seeing this title on my website.
6 A commitment isn’t a contract (but sometimes a pre-contract).
Once you’ve met with publishers, your dance card gets monogamous. While many can be looking at the proposal, it seems that, like scholarly articles, only one press should have the complete manuscript at a time. (If you generated a “hot sheet” of tiers and publishing priorities, this is a pretty easy decision to make. Again, appeal to your mentors.) While you will receive a commitment from the press to read the whole of the manuscript, there is no contract or formal document at this stage usually, especially for a first book. [Cue Flight of the Conchords.] There are two possible variations in this: (a) the press is aggressively expanding in this part of the catalog and so offers you a pre-contract, which is useful for job market and tenure purposes; or (b) a press solicits you for a book based on previous work and provides a contract to secure that commitment (which is more typical of mid-career folks).
7 Book subsidies aren’t just for vanity presses anymore.
This was perhaps the most shocking revelation in this process. Early on, a prestigious university press asked for the complete manuscript after reviewing the proposal and sample chapter. I was thrilled until I reached the part of the email requesting whether my university provided subventions for their faculty. Some large state universities, I now realize, do so, such as the University of Oregon, for example. After chatting with a colleague of mine who has three books under their belt, they mentioned being asked for this for their most recent book from a very prestigious east coast press. During my process, one university-based press asked for $5k subsidy up-front, justifying this as part of the nature of the publishing industry today. The increase in this is also notable in the number of subvention grants you can now complete for through your professional organizations to offset just this cost. (In next month’s blogroll, I’ll chat more about this and provide a list.)
8 To index, or not to index.
This is a very divided topic: whether to create your own index, use word processing software to create it, or pay a professional indexer to do this for you. The last is pricey, but it ensures a professional-grade index at a point when you may no longer want to be looking at your manuscript. The first is cheaper and, common knowledge suggests, more precise to your disciplinary conventions and nuances of your argument. I am myself still entirely undecided at this point. It is the kind of detail-oriented, organization work that really rewards the chemicals in my brain, and it would be a fun excuse for which to invest in a retro Rolodex and cards.
9 Editor pens; or, the four-in-one.
This was my favorite discovery of this whole process (thus far). These pens, what I thought were designed for little kids, have many names: nursing pens, editor pens, four-in-ones. At one point I used them often to chart my rereading of primary texts, my first pass being in blue, second in green, third in red, &c. Now I come to find that this is how editors at one time would hand-mark copy, going over the same page multiple times before committing it to type. I am currently working through a professional certificate in editing from the University of Chicago, and this was mentioned in class in the same week it was mentioned by a mentor over coffee. They have immediately become a part of my arsenal and I think might come to dominate my pen bag all over again. I shared this will some of my thesis advisees also, and they were all too excited as they head into their last revisions.
One of my big take-aways from this stage is that some of this I wish I had known during my first job market search. Namely, I think I could have more concretely argued for an increase in start-up funds if I could name exactly what it costs to get a book published, including consultant fees ($500), image rights, subsidies, and an indexer ($1k – $2k).
As someone who does a great deal of grant writing—for myself, for a playing company, and for a literary magazine—I find it rather difficult to build a narrative, to have a thesis around which to formalize a request for funds, without a concrete, itemized budget to express those needs. This seems not unlike scholarly work where, instead of a quotation, observation, or other kind of evidence, you have dollars amounts.
At the SAA last month, several of the plenaries and seminars were interested in how the association engages with the profession. A common refrain was the desire to be trained in skills necessary for academic jobs—from writing lesson plans to developing and managing budgets—in addition to the survey of courses related to our fields of interest. I am not the first to observe that there seems a kind of institutional shame about discussing the inner workings of publishing, and certainly around the strategies publishers want you to use in selling the book. Perhaps if we weren’t so shy about our scholarly output, I wonder how our attitudes toward our profession and graduate study may be different?
Do you have any observations about the changing book proposal process? Please comment here or send me an email and I would love to add it to this list!