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The Writing Process, Part II: Finding a Publisher

This is my second posting on the writing process. The first post, from August 31, 2021, concerned selecting a topic. Next up: the would-be author must find a possible publisher.


Discriminating writers might well question the timing. If a writer has selected a topic but not yet written anything, why is it necessary to search for a publisher at this stage? Shouldn’t the author search for a publisher after some or all the manuscript is written?


The point is well taken. Let me explain my reasoning.


When I wrote my first book, Life and Death in Civil War Prisons, I finished the entire manuscript before I searched for a publisher. It took me well over a year before I found an editor who was interested in publishing the work. Even then, he wanted a substantial rewrite before he agreed to publish the manuscript. The rewrite took another year. If I had prepared a book proposal and shopped it around before I wrote the manuscript, I would have saved time and energy. It’s easier to tweak a proposal than to rewrite a finished product.


Lesson learned.


Looking for one or more possible publishers early in the writing process is smart. It’s not an absolute necessity, but it is a wise course of action, in my opinion. Having a publisher in mind beforehand allows the writer to tailor his or her manuscript to the potential market.


The most obvious—and therefore the best—way for a would-be author to find a suitable publisher is to examine books like the one he or she is writing. Often there will be only a handful of publishers that handle these types of books. For example, an academic book on southern history would find a home at the University of North Carolina Press, which specializes in the topic. Oxford University Press is a prestigious publisher of many academic titles, especially foreign policy. Every publisher has a website showing the books published by the press.


Some publishers, such as Praeger and Palgrave Macmillan, have a specific proposal format. Although these publishers’ proposal formats are not required, they are strong recommendations and a would-be author is well advised to adhere to the format, if possible. If no format is specified, there is a standard style, which I will discuss in my next blog.


Two questions naturally emerge. What about the prestige of a publisher, and what about multiple submissions? Let’s take them in order.


Prestige is important to a writer, especially if he or she is an academic professional on the tenure track seeking to advance. Some publishers are more exclusive than others, and tenure committees look at the “quality” of the press in deciding whether the book merits tenure or promotion.


Some presses—Oxford University Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge University Press, and so forth—are prominent and dripping with prestige. In other cases, a press might not be prominent overall, but the publisher has built an impressive list in a specific area.


Hey, I’m all for prestige. If you can get into Harvard as a student or publish with Harvard University Press as a writer, have at it. Good for you! Not everyone can get into Harvard, however.


Here’s some good advice: Try for Harvard or another prestigious publisher. If it doesn’t work out, have another outlet in mind. Don’t burn up years seeking a prestigious publisher, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Set your sights on a more modest outlet and try for the prestigious publisher next time if you are rejected from Harvard at the outset.


Speaking of rejection, get used to it. If a writer is lucky, he or she finds a suitable publisher the first time out. The chances are good that you will have to approach one or more publishers. Don't let the bastards get you down. Persevere. Don't give up. If you receive feedback, try to make changes accordingly and keep looking for another publisher.


The possibility of rejection raises the question of multiple submissions. Should a would-be author contact multiple publishers simultaneously? It saves time to talk with four or five places at once.


Some publishers will not accept multiple submissions. Others will accept them if the editor is informed about them. I have always contacted one publisher at a time. My thinking has been that courting a publisher is like courting a lover. Yes, some intrepid souls prefer to have multiple love interests at the same time. I guess I am old fashioned. One at a time. I want the publisher/editor/lover to know that I am committed. Playing the field conveys the opposite impression.


In any case, after the writer identifies a possible publisher, he or she should review the list of acquisition editors. If the press is small, there might be only two or three editors. Larger companies have dozens of editors.


As with selecting a publisher, it pays to research the editor. What types of books does he or she handle? In addition to reading the website description, it never hurts to Google the editor. Aside from the Linked-In entry, the editor sometimes has other social media accounts, a website, and/or a series of interviews posted online. Often the editor will appear in the acknowledgments section of books. It is helpful to see the types of books that the editor has worked on in the past. In short: Do your homework.


After the writer has selected a publisher and an editor, I recommend either an introductory phone call or an email to the editor. Even before submitting the book proposal, it is a good idea to reach out. A short introduction can help lay the groundwork for a productive working relationship.


“Hey, Mr. Jones,” you can write in your email. “I’m a professor at X College, and I am working on a book about Y subject. I see that you handle these kinds of books. I am wondering if you would be interested in receiving a proposal about [Z topic]. Perhaps we can chat for a few minutes at your convenience during the next few weeks. Would it be okay if I call you? If so, what would be a good time?”


The response usually will be favorable: “Sure, I am happy to talk. I am out of the office this week, but why don’t you call me at [phone number] next week, anytime between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.?” Even a negative response can be helpful. “I’m sorry. I don’t handle those kinds of books anymore. Perhaps you can check with my colleague, Sue Smith at [email address].”


A short discussion—15 minutes or less—should be enough time to discuss the project and determine whether it is possible to move forward. An editor once told me, “Well, what you are describing doesn’t sound quite right for us. I don’t think there’s a market.”


I was shocked. I thought there was a market, and I thought this publisher was exactly the right outlet. The editor disagreed. I was disappointed of course, but at least I knew where I stood. At least I did not invest a lot of time and energy into this publisher. I moved on to another publisher and editor. The new editor thought there was a market. In fact, we published three books on the topic.


Obviously, the initial contact with the editor can be helpful, but no editor guarantees publication based on one phone call or a single email. After the editor expresses interest, it is time to prepare a book proposal. It’s a promising beginning to have a dynamic topic and an interested editor, but it is still only a beginning.


I will discuss the process of writing a book proposal in my next posting.



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