What to Look for In a Publisher (and a Contract)

(cross-posted at Bombs and Dollars)

About a week ago, I posted about book publishing in academia. I’ve gotten responses from a number of people, both interested in more information and happy for the first post. If its useful to even one person, I want to answer as many questions as I can with the information that I have – so I’m making this a follow-up post. I’ll focus it around two main question that I got in response to the first post – what should I look for in a book publisher, and what should I look for in a contract.

The bad news is that there’s not one answer to either question. The good news is that there are both some strategic things that it is useful to know and some shortcuts to finding out your answers to the questions.

So, first, what do you want in a publisher? This, of course, depends. Like I talked about briefly in the last post, there are some universals about this. You never want a publisher you have to pay to publish your book, and you always want a publisher that has a genuine interest in your project as a project and you as an author. But beyond that, it depends on where you are, what options you have, and what you need from it.

I strongly recommend spending some time putting together a kick-ass prospectus to give yourself the most options you could possibly have (I see that being the subject of my next post, now that I mention it). But, basically – you will be in different situations at different times in your career with different projects, and identifying your situation will help you be able to think about the question of what you want in a publisher more clearly.

So, first, at minimum, you want a publisher who will publish your book. There may be only one, or a couple, none of which optimize every value that you’re interested in.  Sometimes, the one publisher who will publish your book is a good if not perfect fit. If that’s true, yay! You have a publisher!  If its not, you may want to reevaluate the framing of the proposal and start asking people with experience in publishing why you are having the trouble.

There are, if you have options, other things you want to consider. The major ones, in my view, are academic incentives and marketing possibilities.

Academic incentives are the career-related demands and pressures that might help you select among publishers. Many of us have different incentives along these lines, geographically (its different in the US than it is in the UK than it is in Australia than it is elsewhere), by type of institution, and by stage in career. Here are a few factors that matter differently to different people:

a) Prestige. It is not true that all university presses are better than all commercial presses, or that university presses give better and more thorough review, or anything like that. It may work as a rough metric around the top 15 or 20 publishers, but even then, there are exceptions, and ‘down ticket’ (as we say in political science) it is not at all obvious to me that even the rough metric works. It is also crystal clear to me that some publishers are better at some subfields (e.g., Kansas at American Politics, or Chicago at Comparative Politics) than they would fare in an overall ranking, and ‘the’ presses to be at not only vary on subfield but even on sub-sub-field (e.g., Security Studies or Environmental Politics).

But absolute ranking of book publishers isn’t possible (remember, I’m a post-structuralist who at the end of the day does not believe in the possibility of objective knowledge at all – and that’s not the least of the problems with ranking publishers). Even if it were possible, its professionally useless. Your prioritization of publishers on the basis of prestige should not be based on some objective ranking, but instead on a subjective reading of your audience. There are some absolutes (I don’t know of any political scientists ever who got any shit for publishing with Cambridge, for example – though that does not make a perfect incentive for seeking publication there). Other than that, its important to think about how presses will be read by your various audiences. If you are junior faculty in a department that thinks that all university presses are better than all non-university presses, you’re probably not going to change their mind at tenure time (trust me, I tried this one, and I was right, and it didn’t matter). If you are an IR person in a department full of Americanists, the Americanists are less likely to know presses that are really only great at IR than generalist presses. Letter-writers can help with this, but if there’s a ceteris paribus, well, the audience helps determine prestige. If the audience is the open market, then the question of what kind of jobs you want (research/teaching/both) matters, as does the subfield in which you’re most likely to get hired (do people who do Your Subfield know that the two biggest people in Your Subfield run a series at Kinda Known but Otherwise NBD Press? – if so, that might be the best option).

b) Likelihood of getting reviewed. It used to be that Reviews ruled the roost in terms of determining the quality of a book in the short- to medium- term for the purposes of judging employment, tenure, promotion, and the like. It also used to be that Reviews helped people decide whether they were going to buy, read, and assign your book. These Reviews happened in generalist journals (think International Studies Review), but they also happened in subfield journals (think International Feminist Journal of Politics or Global Environmental Politics). Book reviews still matter, though more some places than others.  Now, google searches and Amazon help people choose books, and Google Scholar citation counts check citations to books. Still, the likelihood that the book gets reviewed coming from one press rather than another is another ceteris paribus condition that you might want to look at. You can influence if and where your book gets reviewed (sometimes), but publisher track record matters too. So if you’re choosing between publishers and looking to see which one is more academically valuable to you, looking through the Reviews is a good place to start.

c) Timing. Timing works differently for different people in different places. But, as I mentioned in the last post, different publishers’ timescales, both at the consideration and production phases, differ a lot  – not to mention differentiating between publishers willing to give you advance contracts and those that are not. There are no right answers to this question – publishers that take longer often (but not always) produce a more polished product; publishers that get stuff approved and out quicker are often able to produce books that feel more up-to-date (especially if your topic is current-events-related). You may have a wide variety of timing incentives – from a grant, from a promotion and review process, from the job market, or even from current events. Those should be factored into academic benefit calculations. Still, don’t choose someplace that is quick but doesn’t meet your other academic needs – that ‘wastes’ the credit you would get entirely, rather than speeding it up.

It is the marketing side that scholars looking to publish books know less about, and that might be worth discussing for a while. First, again, if you have limited options, you might have less to work with here. But if you have more than one option, these are some things you might want to think about (also contract-negotiable sometimes, which we will talk about soon):

1) How much is my book going to cost? 

The cost of a book does influence whether people will buy it or not. and people buying the book actually does influence the impact that it might have on the scholarly literature and in classrooms. A book that costs $160 might be worth it to you for other professional reasons, but it will be very difficult to have such a book reach a wide audience. Books that cost less than $40 are more likely to sell than books that cost more than that.

2) What format will my book be published in? 

What you want is for your book to be published simultaneously in hardcover, paperback, and e-book – that will get it the widest readership. Some publishers will offer hardback only, or hardback and then a time-delayed paperback if the hardback is selling. If you get to choose between publishers, a willingness to do a paperback (or an affordable hardback – for example, Cornell’s hardbacks are less than $30, I believe) should matter for getting your work out there; it might even, in my view, ‘skip’ a publisher a few places up the priority list.

3) Is there a chance they will publish my book as a trade book? 

This will be an issue for very few academics. But there is a classification our publishers have called “trade book.” They print more of these, and they try to put them places normal people go, like bookstores. The marketing system is completely different (and much more visible). If someone is talking to you about treating your book as a trade book, and you like either money or visibility, you might want to think about it.

4) Does the publisher go to the sorts of conferences I go to? 

The conference booth matters. If its a great publisher, but the publisher doesn’t publish a lot in your discipline or subdiscipline, then the value of the publisher goes down for you, reputation-wise. Conference booths signify engagement with the field, and they also help to sell your books. So if you have two publishers whose absolute prestige and  academic benefit feel about the same, the level of investment that those publishers have in the conferences you go to might be a good way to tell their relative benefit to you.

5) Ask to talk to the marketing person. 

If you are considering more than one press, or considering which press to allow exclusive review, and all else remains equal, talking to the marketing person about what they think about the book might be useful. You can tell from such a conversation how hard the book will be sold post-publication by the level of enthusiasm shown by the marketing person.

So then, okay, I chose a publisher, what should I look for in a contract? 

Here’s the place where you do not have to just be grateful that someone is willing to publish your book. If you ask for some concessions at the contract stage, no publisher is just going to walk away from negotiations (unless you’re a total ass, but I’ve actually never met someone who managed to be that big of an ass). They might say “no” to your requests, but then you’ll be no worse off. Here’s a list of 10 clauses I look at when evaluating a book contract:

a) The right of first refusal? 

Many standard book contracts have a right of first refusal clause in them – where the publisher gets the option to look over your next book project first, and either engage or pass on it. The value (or annoyance) of this clause is different depending on the quality of the publisher with which you are negotiating and the stage of your career that you are at. If the publisher is Absolute Dream Publisher, … what’s the harm in a right of first refusal? If the publisher is Among Few Dream Publishers, then the clause remains not a huge problem – the worst they can do is give you free feedback while they pass on it. If the publisher is anywhere from Eh, Well, There Will Be a Book to Okay Publisher, you probably want to try to have the right of first refusal clause struck. Most publishers will do this if you request.

b) How many copies do I get? 

While this is nit-picky, sometimes we’re broke. And I want one for my mother and my father, and one for me, and some to give out to important people in the field I might convince to read the book. Especially if the book will be somewhat expensive. This is something that is generally to negotiate up as well – publishers are less grumpy about getting you books than they are about many of the clauses I will discuss below.

c) How much money will I make? 

Disclaimer: Most academic books make very little money. You’ll get a check that feels like a participation prize most years, and no check other years. Still, both on general principle and in case your book is one of the small percentage of academic books that really sells, you want to check out the royalty structure. At the very worst, your participation-prize-check might buy dinner at McDonalds, or it might buy a very fancy date night.

So, it depends on the sort of book (you should be looking for a larger percentage on textbooks than on academic books; you should be looking for a larger percentage on trade books than non-trade books; you should be looking for a larger percentage on a lower price than on a higher one) and on the number of authors (co-authors split profits, and generally can talk a press into only a little more money than a single author total, if that) how much money you can expect to make. As a rule of thumb, though, I ask for 2.5% more than I am offered in the contract.  I mean, what’s the worst that happens? They say no? And more often than not, they say yes.

d) What am I going to make money on? 

You percentages will be on hardbacks, paperbacks, and ebooks, for sure – but there will also be percentages on translation rights, other editors, etc – a list of about 10 things. Make sure that they’re all there, and that the percentages aren’t artificially low for any of them. Try to up the number for translation rights especially.

Also, in most contracts, the royalties will be onset, or raise, after a certain number of sales. That number is often negotiable. In my view, 250 is nice, 500 is still good, 750 is ok, 1000 is high.

e) Who is obligated to who when? 

If it is an advance contract especially, but even if it is a regular contract, look at if you are obligated to the press and if the press is obligated to you. Most contracts have an escape clause for the press. Only about half of  them have an escape clause for authors, and those generally have conditions. As I mentioned in the last post, you probably don’t care about this. But it is good to know.

f) Who is paying for the index, and when does it need to get done by? 

I am a big fan of ‘do your own index’ – but if you’re not, you want to look at this clause in the contract and make sure it makes sense to you. It may or may not be negotiable – its worked some places and not others to try to negotiate it.

g) Who picks the cover? 

This is a recent lesson I learned the hard way – you may or may not agree with my disapproval of the cover of my own book, but we went to the mat about this one. We figured out we didn’t have the right to choose at the end of the day. Should have read that contract more closely. So, now you will.

h) Do I get an advance? 

This doesn’t mean you make more money overall (it is deducted from any profits you might have made later), but it is money upfront. This is mostly a non-starter for first books, but can come into play later. And if you have multiple presses competing, why not ask? $1000 is good for a book without textbook potential; a narrow textbook might net $2-4k. A generalist textbook (“Intro IR”) that will sell will net significantly more.

i) What happens to my book if it goes out of print? 

Some places let you have the rights back. Others keep the rights and make you buy them back. While you might not have a dog in this fight (I like to have the rights revert in case I want to do something with it), it is something else to look for.

j) What is the contracted length? 

You should have talked about this with the publisher before you got to the contract stage, but, if you didn’t, pay attention to it in the contract, and decide if it is realistic. Generally, presses retain the right to make you shorten a long manuscript to the agreed-on number of words, or lengthen a short manuscript to deliver a full book to their specifications. Often, they take advantage of that right. So, make sure you agree with the delivery length.

Note that I didn’t mention or pay a lot of attention to the delivery date. That’s because, while presses prefer it, most don’t enforce it.

I hope this helps. More on the book process soon!