So a number of people at ISA asked me about the mechanics of book publishing, and how it differs from journal publishing. Since I’ve increasingly been thinking about turning this professional-development-advice-thing into a trade book, I figured this was the perfect time to talk about some of the differences between publishing books and articles, and some of the differences among book publishing houses.
Most of these lessons, I learned by trial and error. I sent my first book two places, and chose the first one that said yes. By contrast, I sent the prospectus for my 3rd authored book to every University Press in the US and some in the UK. I would recommend neither strategy. But make it sufficient to say – between doing a fair number of books and interacting with even more presses, I got a sense of the author-side of book publishing. Now as the editor of a couple of book series, I also have a pretty decent sense from the publisher side.
Book publishing works very differently than journal publishing. Some basics from what you learned about journal publishing hold: most are peer-reviewed, some aren’t; some peer reviews are more rigorous than others; most book publishing is a highly competitive process. But there are other things that are very very different, and worth exploring here.
We’ll go over four: 1) norms of simultaneous submission; 2) who is committed to who when; 3) the approval process; and 4) the production process.
As with the publishing world in general, today’s academic presses—hardly ever known for profitability—have had to adapt to a series of hardships. For many years now (a process accelerated by the recent economic crisis), libraries have been pushed to cut back on their book acquisitions (a central profit center for academic presses), and these days allocate ever more of their budgets to serials, databases, and other electronic resources at the expense of book monographs. Meanwhile, due to university-wide budget cuts, university presses have had to live with reduced subsidies.
As a result, academic presses are increasingly pressured to base their decisions on “what sells” in the publishing world. They are thus “faced with the choice of publishing fewer books or of changing the mix of books they do publish by reducing the number of specialized monographs in favor of books with a larger potential market—broad syntheses, biographies of well-known figures, anthologies, books with a potential for undergraduate course adoptions, even textbooks.”
Ironically, the pressure to publish books to attract a mass audience runs directly counter to academic trends toward increased research specialization. There was some hope that electronic publishing might provide an outlet for niche academic research, but for now, prospective authors should be aware of what they are up against. First time authors hoping to publish their dissertations as books are often the first casualty (I gave lots of tips on this subject in a prior post), as presses must be confident that their titles will sell at least 200-700 copies to be assured of breaking even. This means that books must be shorter (thus cheaper to print), and they must sell.