A colleague of mine told me recently that he was writing a book. Just on spec, he said. And did I have any advice about what publishers might be interested.
What could I say? I wanted to say give up now. What I did say is that he needed to find a publisher right this minute before he went any further – or get into open access, self-publishing.
One of the great myths of writing is that One simply has to bundle the manuscript that One has spent a very long time on into a brown paper package tied up with string, send it off and then wait, Jane Austen like, for the unknown and unseen publisher to see it as the masterpiece it is. The reality is that book publishing involves a series of decisions which are highly dependent on personal relationships.
In the world of fiction-writing, these relationships are sometimes effected through agents, but often through the brokerage provided in Creative Writing Courses – some time is always devoted in such courses to meeting publishers and practicing ‘the pitch’. The same service is not generally offered to academic writers who usually have to find their own way to the relevant publisher. It is also very uncommon to see literary agents working with academics (there are of course some exceptions for Big Names).
The relationship that is established between an academic writer and the publisher (or commissioning editor) is of paramount importance. This is not about becoming part of an inner elite, some kind of old boys’ and girls’ club, although it is true that these exist. Getting to know the publisher is important for three reasons.
The first and most significant is that they are going to invest time and money into your book and into you. Put simply, the publisher wants to establish that you are a credible academic with good ideas who will ably represent yourself, your book and the label/publisher.
Secondly, academic publishers want to make sure that your book is not only going to be a good piece of scholarship but also one that they can sell. Publishers typically want to make sure that the text you want to write is one that will fit in their list, and one where they know that they can at least recover their initial costs. They therefore often want to shape the angle that you take, they may want you to write a slightly different book, they may want to work with you to organize the structure and they will generally have a strong say about the title and the cover design. So when publishers get a completed manuscript on spec, then it will inevitably be one in which they have not had that kind of input – the most likely scenario is that they will just say no, rather than work with the author on a rewrite to meet their needs.
The third reason is one of workload. Publishers have very busy in-trays and in-boxes. It is likely to be the case that a completely unsolicited manuscript will never make it to the top of the to-do list. One publisher told a workshop that I was running recently that he had a standard ‘no thank you’ letter that went to unsolicited manuscripts – these were just deleted without ever being opened! Gutting for the writer who has spent so much time on a text, but the reality.
It is therefore very, very important to not only choose the right publisher for your proposed book, but then to set up a meeting with them to talk through your idea. Publishers can be found at all the big international and national conferences, some of them visit university campuses on invite, and there are also lists of who to contact on academic publishing company websites. It is best to email or ring the relevant publisher or commissioning editor to make a time for a f2f or longer phone conversation about your idea for a book. Having done some work on a draft proposal will help this conversation, and I will be blogging about the book proposal soon.
Note: Publisher is the name given to both the company and the most senior staff. The next rung down the ladder is the commissioning editor and then editors.