The Ugly Truth(s) About Book Publishing

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.

1) Norms of simultaneous submission.

In the journal world, you never ever ever ever submit something to two places at once (with the caveat that law journals behave very differently, but assuming we’re in disciplinary social sciences and humanities not law). For almost all journals, there is a check-box in the submission interface that requires verification that the piece is not under simultaneous consideration or submission elsewhere. Note that this includes as a book chapter – so if a book chapter is going to be a journal article, the journal article comes first.

For book publishers, this rule is relaxed, and manifests in different norms. If you’ve never reviewed a book, you might not know that book publishers pay reviewers. Wherever you stand on the question of publisher exploitation of scholarly labor (from “its fine with me” to “its the root of all evil”), it is important to know that they do pay reviewers because, for a publisher, choosing to send something out for review is a commitment of resources – between $200 and $600 usually. I mention this because, at the point that a publisher chooses to send something out for review, you should tell them explicitly that its under consideration elsewhere. Some publishers will take the risk anyway, others will bargain for exclusive review.

When you’re first submitting your book, you can send it as many places as you want to. Still, I don’t suggest my strategy of sending it everywhere – while I made some good contacts, I also both wasted a lot of time and burned more than a few bridges. Instead, I suggest choosing a handful (6-8) publishers in which you might have a serious interest, and which might be a good fit for you (has books like yours but not the same on the list, is cited heavily in your bibliography, has a reputation in your field). Always send a cover letter when you submit a book or book prospectus. In that cover letter, describe the project in a short paragraph, describe why you think it is right for the press, and mention simultaneous submission. When the press asks to send your materials out for review, bring it up again. This will stop any misunderstanding, and might get your favorite press to try to tie up your attention. Most presses have a preference against simultaneous review, but will allow it. There are some exceptions (e.g., Cambridge) which do not have a problem with simultaneous review (or, at least, did not at the last time I had a conversation with the editor).

Why send a book prospectus more than one place? A book venture is a much higher-risk, higher-reward strategy of publication than a journal article in some ways, and the from-acceptance-to-publication time (see below) is pretty significant. As such, finding the right publisher shouldn’t be a sequential thing. If publisher 1 takes 9 months, then publisher 2 does as well – that’s 18 months before the publishing process has even started. There are some places I’d submit sequentially after your initial submission (if I wanted consideration from X Elite University Press and Y High Quality Commercial publisher, I’d submit to X in January and Y in April for a response about the same time. If I submit to them at the same time, and Y gets back to me quicker (which they almost always will), I will be faced with the difficult choice of having to decide on the contract offer with Y without knowing what X says, or holding Y at bay for months without losing their favor).

So – rather than zero simultaneous submission like journals – measured, open simultaneous submission is ok for books.

2) Who is committed to who when? 

So this is one that makes me thankful that I went to law school (when not a lot of things do). First, no one is ever committed to anyone when there is no contract. (This doesn’t mean there can’t be bad blood for walking away, discussed more later). This is usually less important for the author in examining his/her/zir own commitment than it is for the author in examining the publisher’s level of commitment. Journal editors usually render a decision on a submission – accept, R&R, reject. Some of the language that publishers use is a little more opaque for the inexperienced book-writer. They often express interest, ask for revisions, ask to review, etc. All of these, as mentioned above, often involve the expenditure of resources at the press, and therefore are a good signal for those who are looking to judge the publisher’s level of interest.

Still, some publishers, especially at the most selective end of the spectrum, will review a prospectus and then a full draft of the manuscript before providing a contract, or might even look to review a second full draft of the manuscript. These things depend heavily on the nature of the original review comments, the experience of the author, the level of polish of the text, etc. But it is important to note that, though it happens rarely, a publisher can review multiple drafts of your book and not offer you a contract. It is important to know that both so that you aren’t shocked and surprised, and so you can manage your expectations and preparations. In terms of managing your expectations, you want to both have a clear sense of what the editor is promising and what they’re not (ask, they’ll usually tell) and how well the editor navigates the structures of their press (ask someone who has published there before.

Also, there are two types of contracts for books: advance contracts and book contracts. An advance contract is issued before the writing of the book. The purpose of an advance contract is to bind the writer to the press but not the press to the writer. This is not always a bad idea  for the writer, but you want to go into it knowing what’s what. For the most part, a publisher who has given you an advance contract is under no obligation to ultimately publish your book, and you are often under obligation to let them consider it first, and exclusively, for some period of time. The publisher’s rights in the contract include not only rejecting it for quality, but also for fit, or change of direction. Most publishers publish most books they give an advance contract most of the time. But there are exceptions. Some of them are because the author doesn’t deliver the book they promised; others are because of changes of staff or direction at the press. An advance contract is a good sign – the press cared enough about your book to be interested in investing the time and resources to tie it up. But that is not an absolute commitment to publishing it. If you try to change your mind and the publisher tries to use contract language to bind you, they still aren’t formally committed. They probably wouldn’t do that if they weren’t going to publish your book. But its not a guarantee.

The ‘safe’ zone comes from a regular, non-advance contract – committing to publish a full manuscript that the publisher has read with the revisions that you have committed to. Very rarely does this fall apart, especially when the publisher starts investing money into copyediting and production (these are expensive).

In my view (and others may disagree), you should never pay a press to publish your book. Whether you agree with that or not, you paying a press does not obligate the press.

If the press is rarely committed to you, you are more often committed to them. You are not formally committed to the press before a contract is signed, but the press might have negotiated for exclusive review. An advance contract generally commits you to the press, either indefinitely (‘cannot ever publish this book elsewhere until we’ve declined’) or for a period (‘after withdrawal, cannot submit elsewhere for a year’). Most of these things are not a problem for most authors – we sign a contract with a press we’d like to work with. But we should always know what we’re agreeing to. Contract language isn’t that tough to read for contracts this simple, but its important to read.

3) The Approval Process

How books get approved and how journal articles get accepted is one of the biggest differences in academic publishing. Journal editors are generally professional academics who have taken on journal editing duties for a short amount of time during their career – where they are largely on the other side of the manuscript-judging process. Book editors are professional editors. Most of them are in the publishing business. Some of them have been academics; most of them have some substantive knowledge (many PhDs) in the field they edit; but most of them have chosen the career of being a book editor. Most of them have lists in your field (e.g., Political Science/IR) and then in at least one other field (Sociology, Women’s Studies, Geography, Anthropology). A “list” is a portion of the press’ publications in a particular area.

Age is not an indicator of prolificness or success as a book editor. Some of the best editors I have had have been PhDs old enough to be Full Professors; others have been significantly younger than I am. In my view, a good editor is someone who is: 1) generally responsive (they go to a lot more conferences than most of us, so I give them some slack); 2) useful at providing feedback (they like your project but they want it to be the best it can be); 3) clear about what their process is (who makes decisions and how, then what happens after decisions have been made); 4) invested in your work (you really don’t want your book shepherded by someone who could really go either way); 5) accurate at representing what’s going on at the press and the likely will of the board/delegate. You can pretty much know the first four from interaction; the fifth has to be by reputation.

So I mention the board/delegate there on purpose. This is what happens to your book:

a) The editor decides whether they think it is worth sending out for review;

b) (if yes) The editor sends it out for review, choosing reviewers who are likely to be positive but critical if its good, and warn the press if it is bad;

c) (if you are in the positive but critical review category) The editor asks you for responses to the reviews, including plans for revisions, and sometimes, to do the revisions and get re-reviews;

d) (if the editor is satisfied with your response to the reviews) The editor takes the project to their editorial board or press delegate (these work slightly differently at different presses) for approval or rejection;

e) The board or delegate makes the decision;

f) The editor communicates the decision to you.

Note that most of us miss Step E. A-D are, in most circles, assumed, even if they take a few more (prospectus review) or a few less (for an advance contract) steps. But its E that most of us don’t even know is happening, even when we have some experience publishing books and the editor mentions it in passing.

When the editor wants to do a book, the compile the book, the reviews, and the letter, then they bring it to the decision-makers, who decide. Sometimes that’s a board of people whose work is broadly in the social sciences; sometimes it is one person, a delegate, whose area is very close to the list. Either way, it is normally not the editor who decides ultimately (note some exceptions, like, say, Lynne Rienner at Lynne Rienner). A good editor, then, isn’t just good at communicating with you and managing your expectations – they are good at reading what their board/delegate wants, knowing if your project fits, and helping you tailor your project to those needs. Most of my better editors have not been surprised, and consequently not surprised me, by their board’s decision. When they tell me its iffy/on the fence, then I know what to expect; when they tell me it’ll be fine, then I also know what to expect.

The editor you have to worry about is the one that says s/he knows what the board is going to do and then incorrectly estimates it. This happens to everyone once or twice, but you don’t want the editor to whom this happens more often than not. They’re unlikely to have their job for long and unlikely to be able to defend and protect you while they do. Unfortunately, this is a lesson someone has to learn the hard way, and you hope you learn by reputation. But it is important to know that it is a possibility that the step re: the board/delegate is being explained to you as a formality when its not, or even not being explained at all.

4) The production process

So when you get the final acceptance on a book, sometimes you just exhale and think its over.

Little do you know.

The production process differs significantly at different presses. While it is not as simple as the University Press/Commercial Press divide (there are some that cross expectations), it is a good metric for understanding some differences in the production process. So, here are some differences:

a) Some presses send out the revised draft for review post-contract. Not all presses do; not even all elite presses do; some presses only do it when revisions are pretty extensive. But some do. So, post-submission time: +4 months.

b) Some presses have the editor and marketing team read through it for additional edits, title changes, and chapter title changes that will make the book sell better. Post-submission time: +1-2 months.

c) Some presses copyedit the book. Some processes are more involved than others. I’ve gotten books back where there were less than 50 changes, and books back where there was more that was changed than wasn’t. Some presses have not copyedited at all (with my writing, I’ve learned this is a bad idea). The most involved processes= +3-4 months, while less involved processes add +1-2 months.

d) When the press copyedits, you have to respond to the queries. Individually. +1-2 months.

e) After you return copyedits, or if you don’t get them, the press typesets the manuscript (unless they ask you to, at which point, run the other way). +2-3 months.

f) You then need to read and provide edits to the typeset proofs, and provide an index. +1-2 months.

g) The press correct the proofs. +1 month.

h) There is printing, binding, and covering. Usually the proofs –> book-at-door stage is 3-6 months.

So, as you can see, after you submit your last draft of the book, it can be between 6 and 24 months between final submission and publication. In my experience, commercial presses run about 6-9 months, University presses 12-14 months. But you should take that into account.

Other things that are important to take into account in the production process include permissions and indexing. Permissions is that you need to make sure that you have permission to publish any previously published text (yours or others’) that is in the book, more than just a couple of quotes (different jurisdictions have different rules for exactly how much). You also need permission for any photos you did not take or graphs you did not produce. Sometimes there is a cost associated with permissions, even with permissions for your own previously published journal articles. Some presses waive those fees for someone’s own work (Cambridge journals let you republish your own work without specific permission); other presses are the same company as your journal (e.g., a Taylor and Francis journal article in a Routledge book), but it is important to start early on any permissions issues you might have.

I mentioned indexing briefly above, but will mention it independently in closing. Books, they have indexes. Someone makes them. There are usually three options: 1) you do it; 2) you pay someone to do it; 3) the press does it and takes the pay for the person that they paid to do it out of your royalties. I strongly prefer option #1 – I’ve done every index of every book I have written or edited. Because I know the stuff. But others vehemently disagree, and this is something on which reasonable people could disagree. For the purposes of this post, I’m just suggesting that you have budgeted both the time and the money to make sure that the need to index doesn’t come as a surprise.

Hopefully, post-this-post (haha), less about book publishing is a surprise.

 

  • David owen

    As an academic married to a publisher, this strikes me as very sound advice (though submitting 6-8 publishers would be on the high side in my view, 2-4 would have been my judgment). Two things to add. First, the editor and the attention that they give your book is really important, but editors at some, particularly large commercial, presses are under great time pressure and expected to publish 60+ books a year, so the amount of attention that you can expect will vary depending on the press in terms of the demands it makes on its editors – in general, expect less personal attention to making your book the best it can be for the market from editors who are expected to publish large numbers of books each year. Second, two points on the contract – (a) if you think that the book you have written is likely to sell well (i.e., has a significant student market), don’t just accept a flat royalty rate but ask for a royalty ladder where the rate goes up according to the volume of sales and (b) on digital royalties, make sure that you look at this and don’t accept the same rate as for print copies, it should be significantly higher. One final point to note, academic book publishing is in a strange transitional state at present where different business models are being experimented with to discover what works (most are struggling to make high returns), one side-effect of this is that editors are really delighted if the author is active in promoting the book themselves through social media, symposia, conference panels, etc. I know this is embarrassing to do but having a plan for promoting your work and discussing it with the editor or mentioning it in your submission will certainly help them support you.