A Cringe-Worthy Author Faux Pas

Last week, I talked in this newsletter about how simultaneous submission is one of those things many scholarly book publishers take for granted, while many authors don’t even know it’s a thing. While there are some publishers and editors who won’t consider manuscripts that are also under consideration at other presses, the default assumption (in my experience anyway) is that simultaneous submission is fair game. If a publisher requires exclusivity at any stage—especially submission—I think they ought to make this clear and explicit to all submitting authors. But then there are a lot of unstated expectations in scholarly publishing that I think ought to be more clear and explicit to authors. It’s why I write this newsletter (and why I’m working on a guide to book proposals).

Just a day after I posted that newsletter, I received an email from a person I don’t know asking for my advice. Coincidentally, their question also had to do with simultaneous submission (I don’t think they’d read the newsletter, because they referenced a different blog post I’d written when explaining why they were writing to me). When I read this person’s story and question, I thought, “oh no, this is how things go really wrong when people don’t understand the expectations in publishing and publishers don’t make their expectations explicit.” Without giving enough identifying information to expose this author, here was their situation:

The author had submitted their scholarly book proposal simultaneously to two publishers, one a commercial academic house and another a university press. Both ultimately responded positively, but the commercial house moved faster. They got reader reports based on the submitted proposal and offered the author a contract. The university press was also interested, but they moved more slowly. They also got positive reader reports, and offered the author a contract, but they took several months to do so. The process took so long that the author had already signed the contract offered by the first press by the time the UP came through with an offer. The sad part of the story is that the author had major regrets and really wanted to publish with the university press now. They were writing to me to ask if I thought they could get out of the first contract so that they could now sign with the UP.

My answer: uh, no. I mean, first of all, a book contract is a legally binding document. Everyone is bound to fulfill the terms of the agreement; on the author’s end that means furnishing a manuscript and on the publisher’s end that means bringing that manuscript to print. But even if the author could get the first publisher to release them from the contract, that probably wasn’t the author’s biggest problem. If the second publisher became aware that the author had allowed them to continue with peer review and drawing up an offer after that author had already signed a contract with another publisher? Well, that would be pretty bad. Because at that point, the author would be perceived to be operating in bad faith with the second publisher, who was putting time and resources into a project that, legally, was already promised to someone else. Perhaps it’s possible that the second press was aware from the start that the book was under review at multiple publishers (because this happens frequently, and is often ok with everyone), but I very much doubt they would have continued on with peer review and the offer had the author promptly told them the result of their dealing with Press #1.

I wished I had better news to give the advice-asker. I really cringed for them, because I’m sure they had no idea that they had committed a huge faux pas by not being transparent with both publishers and by letting things get so far along with Press #2 after things were settled with Press #1. I feel for them, because probably no one—including their editors at both presses—had made clear to them what was expected of them in this situation. I hope they end up happy with the first press, and I kind of hope no one at Press #2 ever realizes what happened, so this (I think innocent) author can save some face.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I could easily have found myself in the same position as this author because I had no idea this was even a thing,” then I completely understand and empathize. You might even be wondering if you’ve done anything cringe-worthy as an author without even being aware of it to this day! I’ve been there too! An episode like this just reminds me why it’s so important to spell out all the unwritten rules of this game, particularly when those rules seem obvious to people on the inside. Even when I posted my newsletter last week, I got mixed responses, with some people chiming in on Twitter to disagree with my claim that simultaneous submission is an ok thing to do. If people who work on the publishing side can’t even agree on what the norms are (and they often can’t), how can authors be expected to intuit and navigate expectations?

I think the takeaway here is that publishers should post their submission policies publicly and make them easy to find for authors. And perhaps editors can take an extra beat to make sure authors are aware of those policies from the very beginning, to save everyone some headache and heartache down the road. Authors: try to learn as much as you can about scholarly publishing before you jump into the process. I know that can be a haphazard process, and you still probably won’t be able to avoid every misstep, but I (and others) are here to help.

If you’re feeling mystified by some aspect of getting your scholarly book published, you can reply to this newsletter and your question will come straight to my inbox. Maybe I’ll answer it next week!

Two more pieces of Manuscript Works news this week:

First, this newsletter got a nice shout-out in an Inside Higher Ed column by @theJuniorProf. You can go read the article for some additional insider wisdom on first-time book authorship from Duke University Press’s Elizabeth Ault and University of Texas Press’s Jim Burr.

And second, I had the distinct pleasure of finding and purchasing my client Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze “in the wild” at a Barnes & Noble store this weekend! It’s somewhat rare for new scholarly books to be stocked in a big retail store like this, and it’s a real compliment to the author that both her press and B&N thought casual book shoppers would want to pick up her book after seeing it on the shelf. I couldn’t be happier for Liz!