Getting Published by a University Press
Elaine Maisner, May 2002
My purpose here is to provide some basic and practical information about the process of "getting published" by a university press. This particular overview is aimed at first-time authors, but it should be useful also to experienced authors, both as writers and as mentors. Note that university presses share, for the most part, the basic processes and procedures described here, but certainly differences exist and are to be expected. Note, too, that most of the discussion bears on the progress of a complete manuscript; presses also work on the basis of book proposals, but that topic is outside the limits of this article.
Understanding University Presses
Understanding how university presses go about the business of making publishing decisions provides some context for your selection of a press and a press's selection of your work.
University presses—now more than ever—straddle two worlds: first, the not-for-profit world of the academy, with its systems for producing scholars and consuming scholarship, and, second, the for-profit world of commercial publishing, both print and electronic, and the diverse marketplace to which it caters.
Every responsible university press directs a great deal of effort over time into creating—and varying—a certain felicitous "mix" of books, whose quality and sales performance will allow the press to break even financially, or, better, to achieve a modest financial margin that can be put to underwriting future publishing activity. Such mixes are affected by developments and trends in scholarship as well as by the interests of a press's leadership and editors.
A university press adjusts the mix of books on its lists in two main ways. First, a press features, in varying proportions, three basic kinds of books: the specialized scholarly book, which will have relatively few sales but which has been judged to make an important contribution to the particular field; the midlist scholarly book, which will have greater sales due to its potential to attract substantial numbers of scholarly readers as well as some others—nonexpert readers from outside the academy, or perhaps students assigned the book in undergraduate or graduate courses; and the scholarly trade or general trade book, an informed book that is intended—and effectively written—to be accessible and interesting to a broad audience of general readers as well as scholars.
Second, a press develops concentrations in certain subject areas and specialties. When successful, such concentrations help the press to attract other fine studies in the subject area, enhance effective marketing of books in that area, and—ideally—make a significant contribution to the development, sometimes at its inception, of an intellectual project or field.
Understanding the two main ways a press creates and develops the mix of books appearing on its lists will assist you in selecting a press or a short list of presses to receive your initial inquiry. Projects are commonly declined not because the manuscripts are judged to be lacking in quality or significance, but because they do not "fit" a press's mix. It is well known that a manuscript declined by one press may be accepted by another; be persistent in approaching other presses should your manuscript be declined initially.
In Advance of Approaching a Publisher
The publication of a first book, commonly one that is drawn from a dissertation, is a critical event in the career of a scholar, and one should be aware that the choice of dissertation topic may set a likely trajectory toward or away from ease of publication as a book. Choice of topic, and how effectively it is treated, together with the significance the manuscript is judged to hold for the field are of fundamental importance to editors as they select among scholarly monographs. Before you approach a press, consider exactly what you are offering. Is it a thoughtfully revised manuscript, one likely to extract praise from the expert reviewers to whom the editor will send it for the requisite peer review that comprises an essential element in the process by which university presses make publication decisions? A proposal for a book only partially or not yet written? A raw, unrevised dissertation? Allowing time to pass following the completion of a dissertation may allow your thinking and research to mature and expand, redounding to the benefit of the manuscript. Have you been fortunate to benefit from comments made by members of your dissertation committee and by other respected colleagues on whom you prevailed to read parts or all of the manuscript? Although your sense of when to pursue publication will be influenced by your particular career timetable, a dissertation manuscript typically requires revisions aimed at transforming it into a book manuscript intended to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, within the bounds of the nature of the work. In general, most editors prefer not to send unrevised dissertations to the busy established scholars who typically serve as reviewers—such people have their own students' dissertations to review. Authors should perform an initial revision in accord with their own vision for the book.
Editors sometimes identify a dissertation that they believe is so important or competitive, for a variety of reasons, that they are willing to undertake a formal review of it, usually accompanied by the author's plan for revision, in consideration of offering the author a contract in advance of the completion of a final manuscript. To depend on having one's dissertation so identified, however, would be risky. Time spent in purposeful revisions before the manuscript is sent to a press will improve the prospect of publication.
In the widest sense, revisions are connected to the author's purpose in writing a particular book, which is, in turn, connected to the author's envisioned audience. Having both a clear purpose and an articulated audience in mind helps the author to shape the most readable and marketable book. But more is needed to transform a dissertation into a publishable manuscript.
A first book is typically your most substantive presentation of yourself as a scholar to the larger community of scholars. In your revised manuscript, you have a chance to reach out to an audience wider than the dissertation committee. To accomplish this, the author may consider providing as rich and comparative a context—historical, theoretical, or as otherwise appropriate—as possible. For example, rather than retaining a solid block of text comprising the standard review of the literature that is often required in a dissertation, the author might set out a new contextualization succinctly in the introduction as well as revisit it in the final chapter. Such contextualization may also be provided on occasion throughout the main text. In a sense, the contextualization becomes part of the author's explanation of what is driving the study, and it should be presented in a vital, narrative fashion.
The importance of writing an excellent introductory chapter cannot be overstated. The introduction should serve as a " lure" that attracts the reader, allows the reader to comprehend the book's intent, and encourages the reader to continue reading. This is not to say that you will necessarily open with a thesis statement, but early on you will want to make clear what you are about. This seems obvious, but it is often overlooked or ineffectually accomplished.
Your project will exude energy when you take a positive approach in your writing. Don't define your project by what it is not, by what has already been published, by academic genuflecting to others in the field, or by bashing the work of others. Put your argument and voice forward, weaving in and referring to others' work as it serves your expression of your own project. Use language and style that make the reader's experience an enjoyable one. Lively, direct constructions are effective. Cut through diffuse, submerged language and cookie-cutter jargon in order to make your points clearly. Consider how to tell a story. Different disciplines have different conventions and expectations in regard to style and terminology, but remember that there are virtually an infinite number of ways to express something. Some choices will allow entrée to many more readers than other choices.
The length of a manuscript is important to publishers because length has a direct effect on the costs and, therefore, the list price that is ultimately assigned to the book. The list price, in turn, affects the likelihood of sales. A book should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. Plan to discuss with editors an appropriate page length for your manuscript. Should you like (or be implored) to trim your manuscript, you will consider whether whole sections can be removed without harming the project, but other effective steps may be taken as well. Reserve your notes mainly for citation and reference and refrain from using them as a site for digressions that, in effect, parallel the main text. Habitual use of lengthy and digressive notes may undercut the quality of the reading experience. Apply this test: if you feel that the content of the note is essential, then see if you can work it into the main text; if you cannot, then consider whether you can drop it altogether. If a digression is necessary, make it succinct. (Notes, by the way, should be formatted correctly and consistently; the Chicago Manual of Style is a commonly accepted guide.)
Avoid lengthy passages in which information is disclosed in a plodding, step-by-step style involving ultimately insignificant details and minutiae: instead, summarize such information and choose only a few of the most telling examples to make your points, thereby endowing the narrative with life, varying emphases, and dramatic effects that convey your most important points to the reader efficiently and comprehensibly.
Author's Selection of a Publisher
Efficient ways to learn about a press's editorial programs and to select among presses include the following: One, spend ample time in annual scholarly meeting book exhibitions, note which presses are present, which absent (but be aware that presses that are active in certain areas sometimes decline to take their own exhibit booth and instead exhibit relevant books through such "combined" exhibits as those mounted by the Association of American University Presses and Scholars Choice). While at publishers' booths, collect catalogs and speak with press representatives about their editorial programs. Two, visit press web sites. Three, phone a press and ask for catalogs to be mailed to you. Four, ask colleagues and advisers for their impressions (but keep in mind that their impressions can be incorrect or out-of-date). Five, consider which press features books in whose company you would be pleased to see your book. Six, consider the qualities of responsiveness, understanding, and energy possessed by the editor with whom you would be associated during the relatively long process of publishing a book. Seven, consider which press will likely do right by your book in regard to responsible marketing.
Approaching a Publisher
Understanding the many ways by which editors learn about and select manuscripts for publication will help you to make the most effective approach to a publisher. Editors create wide networks of scholarly advisers in order to learn about new work underway; the editor then might make an initial approach to an author. Such advisers also may refer projects directly to the editor. For this reason, an enthusiastic letter to an editor from an established scholar who supports your manuscript will not hurt your cause. And direct communication from authors to editors remains, of course, a standard and effective method of inquiry.
Take the time to identify (by visiting a press's web site or by calling the press) the specific editor who handles books in your field; address your inquiry directly to that editor. Because of the many pressures on an editor's time, it is not uncommon for an inquiry, even a promising one, to remain unanswered longer than the editor, not to mention the author, would wish. Nevertheless, the author should receive a timely response and should check in with the editor if no response has arrived within a reasonable time. You deserve the courtesy of knowing the status of your project all along the way.
The elements that should be included in an author's initial written inquiry include a cover letter; c.v.; a brief summary of the project, highlighting its significance, relation to comparative published works, and likely readership (all of this information may be included in the cover letter, if you wish); a table of contents; a sample chapter (but this is not essential). Also include information about desired illustrations, if any, and, should the manuscript be incomplete, the expected schedule for completion. Many editors prefer substantive initial inquiries to arrive by conventional mail, rather than e-mail, as the extra time demanded for formatting and printing out the material can be a hindrance.
Sending an inquiry exclusively to one desirable press may be an advantage to the author, as the author's evident strong interest in the given press may serve to strengthen the press's commitment—assuming the press is indeed interested—to seeing the project through the acceptance process. Some presses explicitly ask that the author allow them an exclusive review period; others do not. It is not uncommon for authors to send initial inquiries to a small group of selected presses, to see which respond favorably, and then to settle on one press, or, with the knowledge of all editors involved, more than one press for a formal review, including the press's obtaining expert readers' reports on the manuscript. If a press makes an offer to take a manuscript under formal review, the author should indicate whether the manuscript is at any stage of review by another press. Then the editor can decide whether the project and particular conditions warrant, for the press's purposes, entering into a nonexclusive review process.
Publisher's Selection of an Author
If the press lets you know that your manuscript will be taken under formal review (sometimes editors will ask for certain revisions prior to sending the manuscript to reviewers), you may expect some version of the following process. The manuscript will be sent to expert readers for written reviews. It may be sent to one reader at a time or to more than one simultaneously. Most editors will have their own list of choices for appropriate readers but may also ask the author for suggestions. The identity of the reader remains confidential unless the reader gives express permission otherwise. The readers are typically supplied with a list of guidelines and questions to help them shape the report. The finished reports are most often shared, in anonymous format, with the authors. Readers are distinguished scholars with many other commitments, and this part of the evaluation process can be time consuming, but you should expect the press to let you know when the reports are due and to keep you informed throughout.
It is helpful to view the review process as a valuable opportunity to improve the final manuscript as much as possible. Readers' reports often presage the sorts of criticisms that might show up in reviews of the published book. Particular suggestions, even if the author feels they are not operable as such, almost always demonstrate the need for some sort of increased clarity in writing or attention to other issues. The author is advised to take full advantage of the reports, usually in discussion with the editor. In the case of most reports, the editor will ask the author to provide a written response in order to set out a plan for final revisions, so that the author, editor, and press know what to expect in the final version. It is important that the author's and the press's visions of the book be in alignment. With the required favorable, supportive reports (often two are required), and the author's written response in hand, the editor and the press are prepared to make a recommendation for publication to the press's publications committee or board (variously named and typically comprised of faculty members) that is charged with the authority to make the final decision to publish.
Once the decision to publish has been made, a contract will be drawn up. (In the case of a book proposal or partial manuscript, an "advance" contract may be offered in advance of final approval by a press's publications committee or board. In that case, the completed manuscript would later be submitted to the required review and approval process.) The standard contracts used by most university presses are quite similar to each other, and should you have any questions, do raise them with your editor.
After signing the contract, you will finish up your revisions by the agreed-on date and send the completed manuscript to your editor. Assuming that all is in place as expected, the editor will then transmit the manuscript to the copyediting department. To have arrived at this point is cause for satisfaction all around, and you are well on your way to seeing your book into print.
Elaine Maisner is an acquisitions editor at the University of North Carolina Press
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