What Does “A Book” Mean for Tenure? Don’t Assume You Know!

Most humanities scholars at research-intensive institutions know that “a book,” published with a university press, is the centerpiece of a successful tenure and promotion research profile. But did you know that different departments–or even different faculty in the same department–can mean very different things when they say “a book”?

In the context of (incredibly slow) academic book publishing, these different definitions can actually refer to points on the publication process that are two or more years apart!

Assuming that you know what “a book” means is the surest way to set yourself up for unnecessary stress and panic around mid-tenure, when you might discover that your book needs to be in a very different state than you’d thought and that few (or no!) university presses can now meet your timeline.

To spare yourself this stress, ensure that you, your chair, and your tenured departmental colleagues are all on the same page about your book. First, review the various points in the publication process to which “a book” might actually refer, organized from latest to earliest points in the publication timeline. Then, use what you learn to review your department’s tenure and promotion guidelines and query your colleagues, using targeted prompts.

Ready for clarity?

What “A Book” Might Mean for Tenure and Promotion

Published Reviews of Your Book

Your book is out in the world and several reviews have been published in top journals. It’s not very common, but some institutions expect your book to reach this milestone before tenure. Because it takes time for journals to receive your book, identify reviewers, ship reviewers the book, allow reviewers to prepare and edit the review, and find space in an upcoming volume, you should expect this will be a minimum of 6 months post-book-in-hand; 1–2 years would be a more realistic estimate.

Rough estimate: 24–30 months post final manuscript submission; approximately 36–42 months post initial manuscript submission.* Note: each press, each project, and each discipline are different. The estimates I offer throughout this post must, necessarily, make certain assumptions–for instance, that your book will not be rejected post-peer review, that your manuscript will only undergo one round of peer review, and that you will be able to revise the full manuscript in about 6 months. So, they should be taken as rough estimates. They do not constitute guarantees that you are on track nor do they reflect the actual timeline at every press. Your departmental colleagues, trusted mentors in your field, and your acquisitions editor will all be better positioned to assess whether your specific book is on track given your specific requirements.

A Book in Hand

This is common for some institutions with higher tenure requirements. Here, you absolutely want to be sure that your institution requires a book in hand and that page proofs are not an acceptable equivalent. If your institution truly does require a book in hand, expect it to be 18–24 months post-final manuscript submission. At some presses, it can be as few as 9 months post final manuscript submission, but this is far from the norm.

Rough estimate: 18–24 months post-final manuscript submission; approximately 30–36 months post-initial manuscript submission.

Proofs of Your Book

At many research institutions, proofs are considered an equivalent to a book in hand. As I outlined above, though, you don’t want to assume this is true in your department. At some institutions, proofs are not sufficient. “Proofs” usually means the book has been typeset and undergone copy editing. It’s likely that you will receive several rounds of proofs–the first round (at minimum) will contain queries you will need to answer and corrections made by the copy editor.

In the context of a tenure dossier, “proofs” normally refers to the final version you have approved (with no author queries or changes to make) that the press will send to the printer.

Rough estimate: 6–12 months post-final manuscript submission; approximately 18–24 months post-initial manuscript submission.

A Book in Production

Typically, a book is considered “in production” as soon as the author submits the final manuscript and there are no further rounds of peer review. So, by this point you will have revised the manuscript thoroughly post-peer review.

Rough estimate: 0 months post-final manuscript submission (that is, final manuscript submission is what defines this stage); approximately 6 months post-initial manuscript submission, depending on how long revisions of the initial manuscript take.

A Book Contract

There are actually two types of academic book contracts–advance contracts (sometimes called pre-publication contracts) and full contracts. Unless told otherwise, you should assume that “a book contract” refers to a full book contract, and not an advance contract.

Typically, a (full) book contract is issued when a manuscript receives two favorable reports (or split reports followed by a second favorable report by a third reviewer), the author prepares a compelling response letter outlining the changes they will make to the manuscript to address the reviewer’s comments, and the editorial board votes to give the manuscript a contract (sometimes up to 4 months later). After receiving the contract, the author will have the agreed-upon period of time to complete the manuscript revisions, and submit the final manuscript to the press (which will then go into production).

Rough estimate: 4–9 months post-initial manuscript submission, assuming only one round of reviews is required.

An Advance Contract

This is the other type of contract–sometimes also called a “pre-completion contract.” Unlike the full book contract outlined above, which is based on peer review of the entire manuscript, an advance contract is usually awarded based on a proposal (and sample chapters, if the press requires them).

Because the manuscript need not be anywhere near complete to be put under an advance contract, few research-intensive universities would accept an advance contract as sufficient for tenure and promotion. An advance contract can be impressive (and count for more) at teaching-focused institutions.

While it’s rarely sufficient for tenure and promotion at research institutions, an advance contract can be an important milestone on the tenure track. At mid-tenure, it can signal to your colleagues that your book is advancing toward publication.

Rough estimate: 3–6 months post-proposal and sample chapter submission, though not all presses offer advance contracts.

(Learn more about what you can negotiate in academic book contracts and what expenses you might be responsible for in book publishing.)

How to Find Out What “A Book” Means in Your Department

Look at Departmental or College T&P Guidelines

Departmental tenure and promotion guidelines’ specificity varies widely, but they should be your first stop in attempting to understand what is required. When reviewing your department’s guidelines, pay attention to the terminology it uses to describe the book’s state and the timeline it sets for dossier submission.

Questions to Answer When Reviewing T&P Guidelines:

  • Does your department solicit external letters? If so, expect your research dossier to be due in spring of your 5th year (on a 6 year clock), at the latest. See what specific dates it lays out regarding dossier submission to the department. You will need to keep this firm deadline in mind when working backward.
  • What specific language do these documents use to describe the book? How do you think it maps to the schema offered above?

Note: if your guidelines seem vague, you are not alone. You will get additional data points (which will range in their degree of specificity) through conversations with your colleagues.

Ask Your Chair

Once you have reviewed the published guidelines, you will want to verify your understanding with your chair. 

Questions to Ask Your Chair

  • When (what date) you must submit your research dossier to be forwarded on to external reviewers. This typically happens in the spring semester before the faculty member goes up.
  • In what state the chair believes the departmental tenure and promotion committee expects to see the book. You might approach this topic by saying “I reviewed the departmental T&P guidelines, which state that the candidate needs ‘a book’ for tenure. I want to be sure I know exactly what’s expected. Would ‘a book under contract with a university press’ be supportable? Or, would the department only support ‘a book that’s gone into production,’ at minimum? Or, is only ‘a book in hand’ supportable?”

As you have these conversations, know that there is a difference between “slam dunk” cases and “supportable” ones when it comes to your book–I’ve deliberately used the word “supportable” in framing the questions above. A “slam dunk” case means that the reviewers will be able to easily identify that your research dossier meets (or exceeds) the criteria for tenure in your department. A “supportable” case means that the reviewer or committee would likely recommend your case for tenure, but that your dossier is borderline or just barely meets expectations.

Of course, you should aim to put together a non-borderline dossier, and you should avoid giving the impression that you’re only interested in doing the minimum necessary to get tenure. But in some cases when these conversations are left open, chairs default to outlining “slam dunk” cases for the book, which can cause authors to panic. For instance, they might say “we want to see your book out with four published reviews.” Later, though, they might clarify that “a book in production”–a state up to three years prior!–would actually be supportable. (Learn more about how long things take!)

Also: keep in mind that your current chair might no longer be chair by the time you go up for tenure. So, whenever you have conversations with your chair about your tenure research requirements, you should try to get these details in writing. Often, these expectations will appear in your annual review or mid-tenure reports, where your chair should use specific language to describe whether you are progressing toward tenure.

If, though, you receive little concrete documentation, you can write an email to your chair following these conversations summarizing your understanding and asking for verification.

Ask Your Recently Tenured Colleagues

After your chair, colleagues your department tenured in the past 5 years are probably the best source of information regarding what’s actually required. Not only does their record testify to the requirements, but they will also be able to tell you important things like “[Colleague A] scared me because they said I needed at least 4 published reviews of my book and a second book under contract, but everyone else seemed to agree that at least proofs were sufficient. When I went up, my book was out, but no reviews had been published.”

Questions to Ask Your Recently Tenured Colleagues:

  • When was your research dossier due to the chair (for external review)?
  • What had you been told before you went up about the expectations regarding the book (or broader research profile)?
  • Was there a time when you were made aware of an unwritten expectation about your book that caused you stress or frustration? How, if at all, was it resolved?

Ask Your Senior Colleagues

If your department lacks clear guidelines, your senior colleagues might have wildly different expectations regarding what “a book” means. Though making sense of these different expectations can be challenging, it’s nevertheless a good idea to at least know what your colleagues’ expectations are earlier rather than later.

I highly recommend you approach the conversation by seeking confirmation, rather than more open-ended queries. Try: “I know the departmental guidelines say that a book is required for tenure, and my conversations with [chair] have helped me understand that while the department would certainly prefer that the book be out, proofs or a book in production can be acceptable as well. Is that your take?”

If you don’t yet have a good sense of what’s required, though, or if you want to uncover any hidden expectations that could send you into a tailspin at mid-tenure or later, you can approach the conversation more open-endedly: “I know a book is required for tenure, but I want to be sure I understand exactly what the departmental tenure and promotion committee will be looking for. What, specifically, do you expect to see when it comes to the book in a successful dossier?” 

As the conversation unfolds, do attempt to gauge whether your colleague is describing a “slam dunk” dossier or a “supportable” one. If you sense that they are describing a “slam dunk” dossier, attempt to get their take on what would characterize a “supportable” dossier, without suggesting that you’re only trying to do the bare minimum.

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