Getting an Edge in Publishing with a University Press

By Flora B. Anthony, Graduate Student Assistant with the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence

Ever wonder how university presses select books to publish from the many proposals they receive? An Author Development Program Workshop led by Dr. Amy Benson Brown addressed this question on Nov. 7, 2010. To give an inside view of the proposal process, Derek Krissoff, Senior Acquisitions Editor with University of Georgia Press, also provided tips during this session on how to gain an edge through well-designed book proposals.

A sense of what is at stake in your research must be relayed to the publisher, Krissoff emphasized, in response to a question raised by Elizabeth Gallu, Associate Director of the Author Development Program. It can help to show how your work engages with larger questions. Further, Krissoff added, if your approach is novel, point out how your methodological perspective may shift paradigms of thought, impacting scholars in other fields.

What publishers seek varies from press to press, and Krissoff noted, authors should make sure that they research the presses that best fit their work. He suggests that authors make face-to-face contact with editors and presses. Meetings of professional associations are often a good way to initiate contact. In addition to these tips, Krissoff outlined the specific prerequisites for a publication prospectus for the University of Georgia and provided a handout with this information. Another helpful resource, suggested by Brown, is that of the detailed Harvard University Press proposal writing guidelines, available online.

University Presses differ from commercial publishing houses, of course, in their primary mission—to publish the best of rigorous scholarship. In contrast, commercial houses engage a more broad audience of readers. All presses today, however, have to give some consideration to marketability to meet their bottom lines. Promoting your work by being specific about marketing niches and informing the press if there is a “newsy tie-in” or an anniversary that would correspond with your proposed book release are also advised by Krissoff. Brown added that because this is not the way academics are trained to think, “becoming an advocate for your book” can be a difficult task. But learning how to pitch your research is a highly valuable skill. One way to hone this skill is to practice translating the language used to communicate with colleagues within the academy into language accessible to non-specialists. And both Brown and Elizabeth Gallu are available by appointment to work with Emory faculty one-on-one on these issues.

Krissoff added more “nuts and bolts” information to provide advice for faculty seeking to publish with university presses. Publishers remain skeptical of interdisciplinary books and many university presses find it easier to give a 100% push in one discipline than a 33% push in three—a notion that may be surprising to some academics. Additionally, faculty authors should keep in mind that a major market for scholarly books is university libraries. That market, however, has shrunk considerably in recent years. Today, if a book is sold only to university libraries, it generally sells about 200-300 copies. Krissoff suggested that the preferred minimum number of initial sales for his university press is a good bit higher. He encouraged academic authors to consider how to identify, realistically, the market for their work, and how that market could be broadened in some cases.

One audience member asked about page length estimates for chapters and whether or not one should pad the lengths on the high end or the low end. It was suggested that everyone should be as accurate as possible, but if you are unsure of the length, veer toward the high end because publishers need to know how long the finished work may really be. A different question about length also arose during the workshop. Participants wanted to know the average length of time it takes to publish a book from the proposal stage to when it gets on the library or bookstore shelf. Krissoff stated that the minimum amount of time to allot for this process is eighteen months from start to beginning, though it may well take two or three years, or even longer. The timing depends on whether you encounter “hiccups” in the process— such as a delay in response on your end or delays in the peer-review process.

For authors new to publishing, the Chicago Manual of Style is a great, basic resource to get a handle on industry jargon and expectations of both authors and publishers in the scholarly publishing process. Emory faculty can access the full text of that resource online through our library’s Euclid collection. The book Getting it Published by William Germano is another terrific resource because it clearly delineates a number of terms key terms and answers common questions asked by authors working on an academic book proposal. The ultimate goal, Brown emphasized, is for authors is to make the query letter so compelling that editors are eager to read the proposal and the proposal so compelling that they are eager to read the whole manuscript.

Other questions broached in the workshop regarded specific genres of work- specifically, memoirs and series. Those interested in publishing memoirs may wish to consult the Association of Writing Programs, as this genre can be “kind of iffy” Krissoff mentioned for university presses. Series, though, are a completely different entity. A series is a group of like books within a publishing house that is akin to a “brand” within a press. Krissoff said that if a university press has a series, then they usually have a Series Editor as well. Series Editors are tenured professionals who are interested in pursuing a specific line of inquiry. His advice was to look in your field to see if there is a series that meshes well with your research. The next step for the author is to figure out where the press is going and where it has been in order to see if the interests of the series are the same as that of the research being proposed.

An audience member asked, “What is the appropriate way to relay the fact that you are a postdoc and not a faculty member?” Krissoff says to tackle this issue by including your CV, as this will help them position you with who you have worked with and it will also help to identify where you are in the academic life cycle. When asked what not to do when submitting a proposal, Krissoff laughed and told the workshop participants to double-check that they always spell the editor’s name correctly!