In the last edition of this newsletter, I talked about responding to reader reports and some misconceptions that trip authors up. Above all, it’s crucial to understand the purpose of your response in the context of the publication process. Essentially, the response letter is your chance to make a final case to the publisher’s decision makers that your book is worth investing in. They will have access to your submission materials and to the actual peer reviews, but the response to the reader reports is where you pull it all together, reminding those decision makers what’s so great about your project and demonstrating how capable you are of bringing the project to its full potential.
As with all my templates, I need to share my caveat that there is no one right way to write a response to reader reports and that many different kinds of responses can be effective. Some people go through the reports point by point and address everything. I personally think that’s overkill—and that it’s more effective to address the feedback in terms of big picture categories of revision, as I’ve advised below—but I don’t honestly think it matters much to your chances of success what format you choose. The important thing is to keep the overall purpose in mind: making the case for your book and your potential to bring the manuscript to fruition successfully. As long as you don’t lose sight of that purpose in your letter, you’ll be good.
Although your editor will likely frame this letter as a response to the reader reports (and that’s what I’m calling it here), I think it’s more helpful to think of it as a “revision plan in light of reader reports.” Your job here isn’t to rebut the points the reviewers made or prove that your submission materials were perfect all along; your job is to show that you will use the reports to strengthen your project into something that represents a good (i.e. non-risky) investment for the publisher. Your publisher needs to know that if they offer you a contract for this book, you will submit a sound piece of scholarship that meets all their standards for publication. In other words, the people who decide whether to publish your book should come away from reading your response convinced that you’re a good bet. Providing them with a concrete, reasonable plan for revision—without coming off as defensive or ego-driven—is the way to convince them.
So, here’s how you do that.
The first step, obviously, is to read the reports. Maybe just skim them quickly to get an overall gist. Give yourself a day or two to think things over and get some distance from the comments.
Then, after you’ve sat with the feelings you need to sit with for a few days, return to the reports with an eye to making a revision plan. Print them out if you can, and go through them with a pen in hand. Underline anything that feels significant. When you see something that looks like a suggestion for revision, make a note in the margin recapping the suggestion in a few words. When you see something that looks like a nice summary of what you were trying to achieve with the manuscript, draw a little smiley face (or something less cutesy, it’s up to you, but do mark them because these summaries are one of the most valuable aspects of peer reviews). You can also mark examples of praise that you may want to quote in your response.
Some people make spreadsheets where they keep track of all the comments made by the reviewers and all the revisions they plan to make. If that works for you, go for it. You can also just jump straight from your notes on the reports to a draft of your response and use the writing of the response letter itself to organize all the feedback and your plans for revision. If you’re not at all sure what the letter should look like, you can use this template as a starting point:
Salutation (“Dear [Editor’s Name] and colleagues,”)
An opening statement of gratitude to the editor, publisher, and reviewers for their engagement with your project. Just a couple sentences, tops.
A recap of the project and the reviewers’ major positive takeaways. Restate what the reviewers saw as the main contribution(s) of your book; you can quote them directly if you like. (You can refer to the reviewers as Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, etc.) You’ll also want to recap the book’s overall project to remind everyone of your primary vision for the book. Ideally one of your reviewers will have given a particularly apt summary of the book’s project and you can quote that here as well.
A summary statement of the major areas of revision you will undertake in light of the reviewers’ feedback. (You’ll be addressing each of them in more detail as the letter proceeds.)
Several paragraphs, one or two per each major area of revision. For each major area of revision, summarize the recommendations of the reviewers and lay out concretely how you will execute the revisions in light of the recommendations. (More detail on how to do this below.)
An optional paragraph to address miscellaneous items from the reader reports if there’s anything else you want to say about them.
Another optional paragraph outlining any other major aspects of your planned revision that aren’t in direct response to the reader reports and thus haven’t come up yet in this letter.
A timeline for your revisions. You don’t need to get too specific here, but give enough detail to satisfy everyone that your plan is realistic and reasonable.
Let’s spend a little more time on how to talk about the major areas of revision. After you’ve marked up the reader reports and made your margin summaries of the suggestions for revision, you’ll hopefully start to see that the reviewers’ comments can be grouped together into broad categories. Some common categories of comments I tend to see in my clients’ reader reports concern the need for: engagement with existing scholarship, refinement/clarification of the argument, additional supporting evidence or analysis, restructuring of the narrative, and stylistic revision. You may spot different patterns in your feedback, and that’s fine. But do try to spot patterns; if only one reviewer commented on something and it feels like it came out of left field, you don’t necessarily have to address it (either here in your letter or in your revisions at all).
For each major area, write a paragraph that summarizes the main thrust of the reviewers’ comments and then lays out concretely how you plan to incorporate the recommendation into your revision plan. Your revision plan may even include items not called for specifically by the reviewers, but you can go ahead and lay those out here too. The paragraph might look something like this:
“Two of the reviewers recommended that I draw out connections to other scholarship across the manuscript, and I agree that this will improve the book’s use value for academic readers. Following Reviewer 3’s suggestion to add references on topic X in the introduction, I plan to insert a discussion of Scholar A, Scholar B, and Scholar C’s work in the second section of the introduction chapter. Following Reviewer 2’s suggestion, I will include additional discussion of previous research on Y in the introduction to Chapter 3 and in the fourth section of Chapter 4. I am also planning to weave some discussion of broader scholarly conversations about X and Y in the Conclusion, which will further solidify the connections identified by the reviewers.”
You’ll want a paragraph for each major area of revision you plan to undertake. If you need more than one paragraph to address everything you want to say about each area of revision, that’s ok, but try to be concise. Remember that you want to convince the people who read this letter that you have a clear, executable plan in place, and going too far into minutia here could raise doubts about that.
What if you don’t agree with the reviewers’ advice, or the reviewers contradict each other? You still focus on your own plan for revision, but strategically incorporate the reviewers’ comments in a way that shows that you’ve respectfully considered them as you formulated your plan. For example:
“I also plan to somewhat alter the structure of the manuscript in order to address the matter of narrative flow. While Reviewer 1 felt that Chapter 6 (on topic X) should be moved up earlier in the table of contents so that readers would be exposed to the information on X before they get to Chapter 3 (on topic Y), I believe that Chapter 6 builds organically on the information in Chapters 4 and 5, and thus should remain after them. However, I agree with Reviewer 1 that some information on X would be helpful earlier in the book, and so I intend to insert a few paragraphs of background on X in the Introduction and possibly in the first couple pages of Chapter 3. Reviewer 1 praised Chapter 2 for its engagement with existing theoretical frameworks, yet Reviewer 3 noted that Chapter 2 slows down the momentum of the book by dwelling too long on secondary sources. In my revision, I plan to condense the in-text discussion of secondary sources so that my original analysis will make up the bulk of this chapter. I will retain the references to scholarly conversations appreciated by Reviewer 1, but will weave them more organically into the presentation of my original analysis. I may move some of the discussion of secondary sources into footnotes in order to preserve the narrative flow of the main text.”
What if a reviewer gives you a huge revision suggestion and you’re not sure you want to take it? For instance, let’s say you’ve written a history that stops at a particular year and the reviewer insists that you must extend the narrative an additional 30 years, necessitating months of additional research and writing. This is where you have to return to your vision for the book. Would the suggested change advance that vision? Do you have time and access to the necessary research materials to execute the revision? If you’re not sure, you may want to have a frank conversation with your editor about how necessary they think the revision is. If the reviewer says the book is unpublishable without the change, and you ultimately decide it’s not a change you’re willing or able to make, you can still engage with the suggestion respectfully in your response, laying out convincingly how you can achieve a successful manuscript without doing exactly what the reviewer suggested. Perhaps you can come up with a compromise that allows you to acknowledge and address the spirit of the reviewer’s suggestion without altering your vision for the book. Remember that you need to convince your editor and publisher—not necessarily the reviewer—that your plan is sound.
Some reviewers may give you very minute suggestions, even identifying copyediting errors with specific page numbers. You can certainly take any of these suggestions that feel helpful to you, but you don’t necessarily need to address them in your response. The exception might be if the tiny points could be grouped together and addressed collectively because they represent a pattern across the manuscript. For example, you might say something like, “Reviewer 4 generously identified several points of fact that should be double-checked or clarified; I will carefully attend to these as I revise the manuscript.”
When it comes to laying out the timeline, you might detail the order in which you will tackle the major areas of revision across the manuscript and how long you expect each area to take, or you might lay out a month-by-month/chapter-by-chapter plan. Paint it in broad strokes; a couple sentences should do it. Then give a hard date by which you’ll have the full manuscript complete and ready to submit for further review (this may just be internal review by your editor if the original reader reports were positive enough). This is the date that will probably make it into your contract, so make sure it’s something you can realistically stick to.
And there you have it. If you have any uncertainty about what your editor expects at this stage, you should feel free to ask them questions. Remember that they’re on your team and you getting your response right helps them do their job (so they should want to help you help them). Editors deal with peer reviews and reader reports on a daily basis so they sometimes forget that authors may have little to no experience with these things. It’s ok if you need to nudge them for some guidance. And of course I’m here too, if you need additional support!
I’m currently enrolling participants in the January session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator. In the space of a month, I’ll walk you through how to produce a book proposal draft that you can feel confident talking to publishers about. We’ll also have live Q&As (via Zoom) and an online forum where you can ask questions and meet fellow scholars in the same boat. For more info and enrollment instructions, check out this page.