Between Advance Contract and Final Draft

The fourth post in my series on how a book becomes a book

Hi Manuscript Workers,

Over the past year I’ve been sporadically chronicling the process from book idea to published book through the lens of my own forthcoming book, The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors. Previous posts about this process have included How Does a Book Idea Become a Manuscript?, How Does a Proposal Lead to an Offer?, and Negotiating an Offer from a Publisher. In those posts I walked through how my current book project started (as an idea to adapt the curriculum of my Book Proposal Accelerator into a publishable handbook), what happened when I pitched that idea to multiple publishers, and what happened between accepting my publisher’s offer and signing their contract. Of course somewhere in the publishing process, the book has to get written. I don’t have too much to say about how I write, because I don’t think it’s very noteworthy or instructive, but I do want to talk about all the other steps that went into producing the final manuscript that became The Book Proposal Book (now available for preorder!).

As I mentioned in previous posts, I accepted an offer from Princeton University Press in October of 2019. At that point, I only had two chapters of the book fully drafted, which I had submitted as sample chapters. Most of the rest of the book material already existed in some form, as the course materials for my Book Proposal Accelerator. I had run the pilot session of the Accelerator with 50 prospective authors, so I had a pretty good idea that the material worked overall, and the reviewers who read the proposal didn’t suggest a major overhaul of the structural outline I’d pitched. My prospectus called for some additional material to fill out the book, so I had to research and write that, plus I needed to revise everything to hang together as a book. I spent November through March doing that writing and revision. Some days I didn’t work on it at all, other days I spent a few hours, but I didn’t do long writing sprints. On average over the five months, I probably spent less than an hour per day working on the manuscript. This was partly due to my personal habits and partly by necessity — I still had to run my business working with clients and take care of two small kids (which became much more complicated in March of 2020 of course).

On April 1st, 2020, I submitted a full draft of my manuscript to my acquisitions editor. This was the due date specified in my contract, and somehow I got it in on time (don’t ask me how, I’ve mentally blocked it more strongly than I’ve blocked either of my childbirths). Two days later, my editor emailed to say that he’d read the manuscript and felt it was ready to send out to peer reviewers. An advance contract with a university press will usually stipulate that the full manuscript must undergo peer review (even if the proposal and sample chapters have already been reviewed) before the manuscript can be accepted for publication. My editor sent the full manuscript out to the same two reviewers who had reviewed the proposal plus one additional reviewer. By early May, all three reviews were back and my editor wrote to tell me that they were “very strong, very favorable” and that we could move forward toward publication.

(As you might have noticed, the review stage happened freakishly quickly. My editor moved fast and somehow the reviewers were able to move fast as well. I’m extremely grateful for that speed not only because we were all dealing with the anxieties and logistics of the early weeks of lockdown but also because I was stressing myself out over the reviews and wanted to be put out of my misery as quickly as possible.)

Shortly after the reader reports came back, I had a brief phone call with my editor to discuss next steps. He informed me that he would need my response to the reader reports within 5 days in order to put it into the dossier he would bring to the upcoming editorial board meeting later that month. You may hear something similar from your own editor when you receive your reader reports back. If the reviews have taken a long time to come in (they can sometimes take 3 months, possibly 6 months, maybe even longer during a pandemic), you might feel salty that you’re expected to turn around your response in a matter of days after waiting so long. Know that your editor is not making this request to punish you — the quick turnaround is because they want to get your book approved and into production as soon as possible (for your sake as much as theirs) and they’re trying to have everything ready to go by the next editorial board meeting. If you really need more time to sit with the reader reports before submitting your response, you can tell your editor that. But just know that it may set everything back a month or more, depending on how frequently the press’s editorial board meets.

It took me about five hours total to process the reader reports on my manuscript and write my response letter. (If you need some tips on how to do that yourself, check out A Template for Your Response to Reader Reports.) My letter laid out the revisions I was planning in light of the peer reviewers’ comments and said that I would submit the final draft of the manuscript by the end of June, 2020. On May 19th, I received the good news that my book had been approved for publication by the editorial board! That meant I had about six weeks to make my final revisions based on the feedback I’d gotten from the peer reviewers and the other people I’d asked to comment on the manuscript. Let’s talk about them for a moment.

It was very important to me that I run the full manuscript by people who closely resembled my target readers. My editor had solicited the reviews from experienced publishing and writing professionals. Their engagement with the material was absolutely invaluable (and gave me much needed confidence in the manuscript, given that I have never worked in-house in book publishing myself), but their standpoint isn’t typical of my primary target readership, which is scholars who haven’t been fully taught the hidden curriculum of academic publishing and are seeking out this knowledge for the first time. For that reason, I wanted to identify beta readers who were more representative of the people I imagined speaking to in the book, to make sure that everything was explained clearly and helpfully.

My process of identifying these readers relied a little bit on serendipity. I’m contacted regularly by scholars who need help with their book proposals (because that’s one of the things I do in my business), so around this time I started reading these email requests through the lens of considering who might make good beta readers. To four of the scholars who emailed me in the spring of 2020 I offered a deal: a free book proposal evaluation from me in exchange for their reading and giving feedback on my manuscript (which would tell them how to write their book proposal before I did a personal evaluation with them). Lucky for me, they all took me up on the deal, and their diverse backgrounds and experiences were crucial to making sure the book addressed the needs of (what I am hoping will be) my diverse audience. I met with these beta readers via Zoom over a few weeks in May and June and was able to incorporate many of their suggestions into the final manuscript.

A few weeks before my revisions were due, I also received extensive comments on the manuscript from my editor. This isn’t always something acquiring editors are able to offer (because they oversee many projects and their time is limited), so I was grateful for his thorough engagement with the text. I also set up conversations with several other working acquisitions editors, to make sure that the advice I was offering in the manuscript was accurate from the perspective of people who actually deal with authors and their proposals every day. My peer reviewers had provided this validation to some extent, but there were a few gaps in my knowledge that I felt it was important to fill in, in particular how academic publishing does (or does not) address matters of racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of exclusion that authors may face in their publishing journeys. I also attended the Association of University Presses annual conference that took place around this time, where I was able to hear a number of speakers and conversations focused on equity and inclusion. All of these conversations were crucial to the outcome of the book and ensuring that the manuscript would really speak to the people I most hope to reach.

I had fully revised my manuscript draft by the end of June (the date when I said I would submit a production-ready final manuscript), but I didn’t want to rush sending it off. I emailed to ask my editor if I could sit with the manuscript for another week, and he agreed. At that point I printed out the manuscript and read the entire thing aloud to myself to identify any final tweaks I wanted to make. I submitted the final version on July 6th, 2020. In this stretch between full draft and final draft (May to July), I worked more intensely than I had before, averaging more like three hours of work on the book per day (versus one to two hours when I was writing the first draft). Three hours a day might not sound like a lot, but remember that we were still in lockdown and I had a 4 year old and a 1 year old at home and a business to run. Somehow, the book got done.

In a future post, I’ll run down what happened in the year between submitting the final draft for production on July 6th, 2020, and the book’s actual release, which is set for July 13, 2021. We’re still a few months out from that, so this from-idea-to-book series will go on a little hiatus until that point. The regular newsletter posts will keep coming though. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!