University Presses: 4 Things to Know

Information about University Presses for First-Time Book Authors

You might have heard that you should publish your book with a university press, but the publishing process–especially when it comes to university presses–might still be murky. Read on to learn the basics of university press publishing.

University Presses, Like Academic Journals, Specialize in Particular Areas

Not all university presses publish in all academic disciplines. Like academic journals, they specialize in particular areas, topics, and methodologies. So, even if your book is the most brilliant piece of scholarship since the dawn of time, you are unlikely to convince a university press who does not specialize in your field to publish it.

The Takeaway: Before you propose your book to university presses, you first need to know which presses even publish in your field. Then, you need to honestly assess your book before then identifying which presses publish books like yours in topic, methodology, and scope.

Having trouble figuring out whether your book’s scope is “just right” for a book–not too narrow and not too broad? We show you why to think not about “scope” on its own terms, but rather about the alignment between your book’s main claim and its evidence in Chapter 1 of The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook.

Both Academics and Non-Academics Review Your Proposal to Decide whether Your Book Gets a Contract

Did you know that the first person to evaluate your academic book proposal–an acquisitions editor–will not necessarily hold a Ph.D. in your field? Instead, they know about the intellectual and publishing trends in your field. Their job is to acquire new and promising scholarship, not to produce their own academic research.

Three other groups of people will also read your book proposal. First, if you are proposing your book for a series, the series editor–a senior scholar in your field–will read your book proposal. Second, peer reviewers–scholars in your field–will review your proposal (and eventually manuscript). Finally, the university press’s editorial board–usually composed faculty from a variety of disciplines–will review your book’s case (of which the proposal will be one part).

The Takeaway: Your book manuscript should be written for scholars in your academic discipline. Your book proposal, however, should be accessible to three groups: 1) senior scholars in your field; 2) academics who do not specialize in your field; 3) intelligent non-academics who understand the basics of your field.

University Presses Need to Consider A Book’s Commercial Prospects

As several current and former acquisitions editors underscore, before the 1980s, university presses could rely on libraries purchasing most of their new publications. Since then, however, libraries’ budgets have steadily declined, meaning that university presses can no longer count on a book necessarily breaking even. University presses can publish books at a loss, but seek to minimize this prospect.

The Takeaway: In today’s university press publishing climate, you must show that there is an audience (beyond libraries) for your book. Your publisher will seriously consider its market when considering whether to contract your book, and you’ll need to address this, realistically, in your book proposal. Learn how to tackle one of the trickiest parts of a book proposal: the “competing works” or “market competition” section.

University Presses have Different Levels of Prestige Within Different Academic Disciplines

Not all university presses are created equal. The same university press, for instance, might be perceived as strong in Civil War history but mid-tier in 18th-century British literature.

If you’re on the tenure track, you’ll want to ensure you get a realistic sense of not only what state the book is expected in for tenure, but also how your colleagues view your target presses.

The Takeaway: Do you hope to publish your academic book for tenure and promotion? If so, you should target the most prestigious university presses possible in your field. As you are working on writing your book (or revising your dissertation), informally query your senior colleagues and mentors in your field to assess press prestige.

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