When and how should a manuscript be submitted for publication as a book?

amy-binderprofilepicAMY BINDER

(I thank Lisa Nunn for making sure that none of this advice is egregious and for offering a few pearls of wisdom of her own. Lisa is an assistant professor at the University of San Diego, and the author of her first book Defining Student Success: The Role of School and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2014).

If you are like most people, the first book you write will be based on your dissertation—that theory-centric, heavily citation’d, jargon-laden, possibly passive-voiced behemoth that only your advisors (or mother) could love. The first rule of submitting a book manuscript is not to mistake it for your dissertation manuscript. There is a lot of work required to convert your thesis into a book and if publishers smell a whiff of diss, they will decline your offer to let them publish your masterpiece. Best case scenario, they tell you to go back to the drawing board. You might as well avoid that rejection.

One thing that might be useful for you to do, if you haven’t done so already, is ask an advisor—or perhaps a young scholar who has already gone through the book publishing process—to show you the “before and after” of their own first book experience—that is, what their dissertation looked like and what their eventual book looked like. You will be surprised at how different the two are, and how truly humbling this exercise can be for the author! Where the dissertation’s first chapter goes deep into the weeds of a brilliant conceptual framework, the book has a few pages upfront which succinctly lay out the argument and then are followed by theory, data, and findings interwoven together throughout the chapters. Where the dissertation featured tortured sentences, the book puts such concepts into simpler language.

The idea here is not to dumb down your book; it is to appeal to a wider audience comprised of sociologists beyond your particular subfield as well as to researchers in related fields, the educated public, graduate students and undergrads. Editors want to publish smart books, but they also want to sell books. The more people your book can appeal to, the better chance you have of getting it published. This is not selling out; this is building an audience for your research.

Once you have mentally prepared yourself to “think different” about your book manuscript, you need to do some serious intel about which publisher (or publishers) to pitch your book to. Nothing screams “newbie” more than approaching the wrong press about your project. You should spend some time getting to know the publisher’s sociology and/or education list (or culture or movements or organizations or inequality…), and you should prepare a pitch letter to the editor for why your book works so well with other books on their list.

If there is a special series within a press that you are particularly interested in, prepare an email to the series editor who curates the series. Work your networks. If you think your advisor or a colleague in your department can help—perhaps they have published with that press/series, or they went to grad school with that person—ask if they would be willing to reach out on your behalf. You obviously have to do the hard work, yourself, of writing the prospectus and describing your work in a pitch letter, but these people can vouch for you and help you get your foot in the door.

Next comes writing the book prospectus, and once again it’s a good time to depend on the kindness of experienced others. Senior colleagues, advanced assistant professors, one of your professors of old—ask a few people if they would be willing to share their prospectus with you so that you can see how these documents are structured. A model that I have used looks like the following, coming in at about 20 pages, double-spaced:

  • Overview—about 3 pages
  • Methods and Data—about 1 page
  • Context for the book (a bit of lit review, but all in the service of talking about your project. Plan to start with the sentence along the lines of “This book is about…”)—about 5 pages.
  • Audiences—1 page
  • Market Position/Related Titles—1 page
  • Manuscript Length and Time Table–½ page
  • Tentative chapter outline—10 pages
  • Works Cited—no more than 2 pages

While I and others have successfully deployed this template, you should bear in mind that most presses lay out an explicit format for what they want included in the prospectus. Lisa advises that you follow their guidelines to the letter, which means that, in effect, you end up writing different prospectuses for different presses.

Once you have submitted your prospectus and ancillary materials—usually a couple of chapters—the editor decides whether to send it out for review, and if s/he does, you should expect to see two, maybe three, reviews along with a decision letter from the editor. Be prepared for the reviewers to come back requesting more research: another comparison case; interviews from other sources; inclusion of a group you neglected the first go-around.  As Lisa notes wisely here again, this is not a death sentence. It’s an opportunity to build a stronger book. She cavalierly adds, go collect more data.

The whole process takes a while, and just a note: the production time on a book is far from fast. Give yourself plenty of lead time if you are expecting the book to do some serious work for you—such as including it in your tenure file.

Finally there are lots of odds and ends, caveats and warnings about different points in this process which, if this were not a blog, I would expand upon further. All of the following are worth talking about with trusted advisors. Or shoot me an email if you have questions.

  • Try to get a coffee date with a couple of editors during the annual meetings of the ASA. June and July before the meetings is a good time for your advisor or another colleague to introduce you to editors via email, or for you to introduce yourself. Be sure to practice how you want to talk about your book in an amiable, elevator-pitch way.
  • It is possible or even likely that you will have already published an article or two from the research that is going into the book. In my experience most editors have few qualms about this. But they also do not wish to publish anything again whole-cloth, so it is important to think carefully about what you want to say in your book that is new. Your book may bring together the many pieces of your project, or it may allow you to make a new argument. But in the end, your has to be more than the sum of article parts.
  • One thing that is different about book submission from article submission is that there is no global prohibition against submitting your prospectus to more than one press at a time. Editors may not prefer it, and some may tell you explicitly that you may not do it while they are considering your book. But the rules of the game are not quite so inflexible in book-publishing land as they are in submitting articles, where you may not double-submit. That said, I cannot be adamant enough that you must communicate openly and clearly with whatever editors you are working with. Playing the field may be exciting, but not if it’s going to foreclose an opportunity to publish your book. Be sure to consult an advisor or two on this score.
  • There are lots of facets to the question of which publisher is the right publisher for you: Overall prestige, quality of production, the editor’s reputation for working with young authors, book list, reputation in your area of sociology, helpfulness of reviews, size and capacity of marketing team, pricing, and so on. Talk with a few people about your options.
  • There are rare cases when you will not be asked to write a prospectus—I didn’t for my first book; my manuscript was ready to go and I simply wrote three long, detailed pitch letters to three different editors. But in the vast majority of cases, editors will ask you to write a prospectus.
  • Caveat time: This process can vary! I suspect if you ask a bunch of different book authors, you’ll hear a bunch of different variations on the theme. What you read in this blog should be understood to be fairly standard procedure, but probably reflects no one experience perfectly.
  • There is a different process involved for getting advanced contracts when your research project is but a glimmer in your eye (as opposed to laid out in dissertation form). Perhaps more on that later.
  • When all is said and done, and your book is out, be sure to have it nominated for prizes. Don’t be shy about asking people to do this for you!

I should end by noting one that I have experience with only one kind of publishing—monographs with academic presses. I do not know the in’s and out’s of publishing textbooks or publishing with a trade press. I welcome comments from others who have these other types of publishing experience and, also, any different views from what I have stated above.

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