Prestige aside, from the outside, it might seem like all university presses (and editors) are identical. You write your book, it goes through peer review, you revise it, and eventually it’s published. This broad schema, though, elides small but significant differences between presses’ and editors’ working styles that can significantly impact your book (and, in turn, your tenure and promotion dossier).
Once you have identified some target presses for your book project (see my four part series) it’s a good idea to get first book authors’ inside perspectives. Doing so can help you strategize proposal submissions, reveal hidden steps on your path to publication, and give you a more concrete sense of what your book’s timeline might look like at that press.
Here’s what to ask.
1. What do you wish you had known about working with this press (and editor) before the proposal stage?
Just because an author’s book was published with a press doesn’t necessarily mean the experience was pleasant. Sometimes a press produces excellent books, but the publication process is so slow (with lots of invisible delays) that it jeopardizes the author’s tenure chances. (Learn how “a book” can refer to milestones that are 3 years apart!)
Asking this question can tap into the author’s hindsight, giving you critical, timely information about working with this press.
2. Did you talk with the editor before submitting proposals? If so, what, if anything, did they tell you about their list’s direction and board’s priorities?
Presses acquire books in limited areas, but their priorities can shift over time. Sometimes, for instance, a press will begin to seek out projects in only one specific geographical area within a larger linguistically-defined space.
The answer to this question can help you gain insight into whether your project fits with the press’s current direction.
3. Do you have a sense of when the editor prefers to receive proposals? Early? Only when the manuscript is done? Do you know if the press offers advance contracts?
Here, you’re trying to glean information that will help you strategize when to submit proposals. Some presses invite proposals at any time and will offer authors advance contracts quite early, while others will not entertain proposals until the full manuscript is done.
4. How would you characterize working with the editor? Did they do a thorough review of your materials before sending them out to peer review?
Not all acquisitions editors are alike.
Upon receiving your materials, most will review them to make sure they meet minimum standards. If they do, they will send them on to peer reviewers, who will thoroughly review them.
Some, by contrast, are experts in the fields in which they acquire and prefer to conduct a more thorough editorial review of your materials (taking up to several months) before they send them out for peer review. After this editorial review, you will be expected to revise and resubmit your materials.
If your editor takes this “hands on” approach, you can expect your book’s publication timeline to be lengthened, at least at earlier stages.
5. How many rounds of peer review did your manuscript undergo and by how many reviewers?
Most US university presses’ standard procedure is to send book manuscripts to two reviewers in one round. A manuscript would be sent to a third reviewer if the first reviews are split (one favors publication and one does not). The manuscript would be required to undergo a second round of peer review only if the reviewers (or editor) required it.
Some presses, though, operate differently. Select presses always send the initial manuscript to three reviewers, not two, which can increase your book’s chances of rejection. If an editor rejects your project following peer review, you will have to submit proposals to other presses (possibly adding about a year to your book’s timeline).
Other presses also automatically require a manuscript to undergo two rounds of peer review, which can add more than a year to your timeline (the time to prepare the revisions, for the manuscript to undergo review again, and for you to revise post-second review).
So, by asking this question you can learn about practices that can significantly impact your own book’s publication timeline. This information is critical if you are on a tight tenure timeline.
6. Can I get a rough sense of your timeline? When did you…
- submit proposals
- receive reviews of your proposal, if applicable
- receive an advance contract, if applicable
- submit the full, initial manuscript
- receive peer review reports
- submit your author response letter (or, how long did you have to do so?)
- receive your full book contract
- submit your revised, final manuscript
- receive your proofs
- receive your book
By asking for these concrete dates (months and years), you will be able to calculate what your own book’s publication timeline could look like at that press.
How to Use The Information You Glean from Authors
Having more targeted information the publishing process at your target presses can help you strategize whether and how to continue to pursue publication with those target presses. You do want to target top tier presses, but not if doing so means risking your tenure chances.
Considering Whether to Pursue Publication with Those Presses at All
You might decide to eliminate presses you would otherwise be happy to publish your book with based on publication timeline alone. You do not want to jeopardize your ability to earn tenure because you chose to target a press that is known to operate slowly.
Or, you might realize that you are sick of your book and want the most efficient path to publication possible. While you could publish with a more prestigious press that automatically requires two rounds of peer review, you’d prefer to not sign yourself up for automatically spending an additional year (or more!) on your first book if you don’t have to.
Strategizing When to Initiate Contact with Those Presses
Knowing how the editor prefers to work can give you a good sense of when it might be best to initiate conversations with editors and, eventually, submit proposals.
Building Second-Hand Introductions
If an author has good things to say about their press and was willing to chat about the publication process, they might also be willing to allow you to use their name in a query or cover letter.
Being able to say “[Scholar] spoke very highly of [press] and recommended I write to you about my book manuscript, tentatively titled [title]” can help your project stand out.