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Happy October, Manuscript Workers.
In last week’s newsletter I talked about some scenarios that scholarly authors sometimes find themselves in when they receive interest from publishers before their book projects are truly ready to move forward. This week I want to address some related but distinct scenarios that have also come up for authors I’ve worked with.
In all of today’s scenarios, an author finds themselves in some kind of relationship with an editor and then comes to realize that they don’t want to publish with that editor’s press. These authors come to me asking what they can do to extricate themselves from a particular press without burning a bridge with that editor. My response varies depending on the stage of the process that the author is at, so I’ll present a few different scenarios below. If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, I hope my responses will help you navigate it using your own best judgment.
Scenario 1: You spoke informally to an editor at Press A about your book project and they expressed strong interest. After doing your research on presses and talking to other editors, you’ve ultimately decided that Press B is your top choice. You’re not sure what to say to the editor from Press A at this point.
This one might not be as sticky as you think. If you haven’t made any commitments to Press A, you don’t really owe them anything. If you left things open with the editor at Press A, you might drop them a note expressing gratitude for their interest and letting them know that you’ve decided to go with another press. They will probably appreciate the update and hopefully applaud your future success. They may even encourage you to get back in touch when you have another project. No bridges burned.
Scenario 2: You discussed your project more formally with an editor at Press A before deciding to pursue publication with Press B. You may have shared drafts with the editor at Press A and received detailed feedback on your project from them.
This scenario could be a bit stickier than the first one, because the editor at Press A has invested more time and labor in your project. While they should fully understand that they were doing this labor “on spec,” they may still be a little irked if you accept their help and then abandon them for another press.
My advice in this scenario is to be as transparent as you can be from the beginning about your interest in exploring different presses. If an editor asks to see your materials and offers to give you feedback, you can express gratitude for their interest and also say something like, “I would love to hear your thoughts on this work. In the interest of full transparency I do want to say that I am still exploring potential publishing homes for it” (put this in your own words, of course). Then they can make an informed decision about how much labor they want to invest. They may still be somewhat annoyed if you use their feedback and don’t end up publishing with them, but at least you won't have inadvertently led anyone on.
Scenario 3: You sent a proposal to multiple publishers. Press A got back to you first and wanted to send your materials out for peer review. You agreed that Press A could review the materials, but then later you heard from Press B who also wants to have your materials peer reviewed. You’re wondering if you can pull your materials from Press A without burning a bridge with that editor.
The answer in this situation is a pretty clear no. Peer review involves an investment of not only time and labor on the part of an editor but also money and social capital. It’s so hard to find willing peer reviewers right now that an editor will want to be pretty sure they have a shot at landing your book before they try to enlist peer reviewers (and pay their honoraria).
Some editors will agree to simultaneous peer review at multiple presses, meaning that you can submit your materials to more than one press and allow them all to peer review your work in the hope of putting your book under contract. But if you are sending your proposal to multiple presses, you should confirm with any press that wants to conduct peer review that they are open to simultaneous review, should another press get back to you later. It should not be a secret to anyone that your project could be under consideration at multiple presses.
There’s still a risk here: let’s say Press B gets back to you after you’ve allowed Press A to review your materials, but Press B requires exclusive review (meaning they won’t seek peer reviewers while your project is under review elsewhere). You’ll have to wait until the review process is complete at Press A before you can start the process at Press B. And if the editor at Press A comes back with positive reviews hoping to be able to put your book under contract, they may well be annoyed if you say that you can’t make a decision until you go through the peer review process at Press B. It’s definitely your right to say that you can’t make a commitment yet, but this does come with the risk of being off-putting to the editor from Press A.
In any case, if you’ve agreed to peer review with Press A, it would be unprofessional to pull your project midstream. In my opinion, you do owe them the courtesy of waiting for the peer review reports to come back and making a fully informed decision about whether Press A could be a good home for your book. If you’ve been transparent from the start with the editor at Press A that your project is under consideration at multiple presses, then they should respect your need to gather all the information before making a final decision. Again, they might be a little bit privately annoyed if they don’t get to publish your book, but this shouldn’t burn a bridge.
This scenario is the reason why I advise authors who want to submit a proposal to multiple presses that they should only submit to presses they would be equally happy to publish with (at least in the first round of submissions). If you weren’t genuinely open to the possibility of publishing with Press A, regardless of Press B’s response, then I would have advised you to submit to Press B first and see the process through before bringing Press A into the mix.
Scenario 4: You submit a proposal or full manuscript to two or more publishers who all agree to simultaneous review. You see the process through at all the presses and ultimately receive offers to publish from more than one press. Everyone is aware that you can only choose one press to publish your book, but you’re worried that you’ll burn bridges with the editor(s) you choose not to publish with.
Again, if you’ve been fully transparent with everyone from the start, then there should not be a problem. If all the editors knew that you were considering multiple presses, then they took on the effort of pursuing your book at their own risk.
That said, I have witnessed editors get salty about losing a project to another press, especially after investing all the intense labor that goes into having a manuscript peer reviewed, generating profit and loss estimates, getting their colleagues on board, and in some cases formally presenting the project to the press’s faculty editorial board.
I have even seen editors accuse authors of using them to get free feedback from peer reviewers or to get an offer they can use as leverage with another press. My personal opinion is that this kind of response from an editor is not appropriate at all, if the author was transparent from the beginning about the project’s status at other presses. But it does happen.
My advice in this case is that if an editor reacts like this, the bridge may be burned, but it’s also valuable information about that editor’s professionalism (or lack thereof). This may not be a bridge you would have wanted to cross in the future anyway.
While feelings do get involved in the book publishing process, it is ultimately very reasonable for you to make the best choices for your book and your career, and as long as you are direct and honest with publishers they should understand that. A savvy editor will want to stay on good terms with you in hopes that you’ll recommend them and their press to your colleagues or even come to them with your next project.
Scenario 5: Your book is under contract with Press A, but before publication you come to decide that it would be better off at Press B. You’re wondering if there’s any way to get out of your contract with Press A without burning a bridge there.
This is a tough one. There may be very good reasons for wanting to pull your book from a press that you’re under contract with. Maybe the editor you initially signed with has left the press and you’re not receiving the attention you had expected. Or maybe the press is asking you to take the book in a direction you never intended. Or maybe your timeline is getting held up for way too long while the press searches for peer reviewers at the final approval stage.
My advice here would be to send a polite email to whoever your contact person is expressing your concerns and your desire to potentially pull the book. Focus on the facts, rather than your feelings (which may well be running high, with good reason). The press may snap into action and rectify the situation, or they may agree with you that the book would now be better off at another publisher. If you communicate calmly and in good faith, it may be possible to get out of this situation without burning a bridge with the publisher.
I believe that you should ultimately do what is best for you and your book, but be prepared that it may not go over well with the press. You’ll have to decide if that’s a risk you’re willing to take. I think it’s unlikely they’ll take legal action against you if you try to break your contract, but there may be some bad feelings. It’s up to you whether you can deal with that or not.
One takeaway from this whole discussion is that the publishing process is full of people. Editors and authors are humans with real feelings. Sometimes those feelings are negative and even unreasonable. You aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings. You can only be responsible for your own actions and behaving as ethically and transparently as possible.
One thing that’s so frustrating about publishing as an industry is that expectations are not always clearly articulated, so it can be hard for authors to know in advance what will be seen as ethical or reasonable actions to take. That’s why I try to demystify the process and norms as much as I can — though of course I can’t account for every editor’s preferences or expectations, and I can’t promise everyone will like every decision you make.
I believe that knowing the labor conditions that structure editors’ frustration with losing book projects to other presses can help authors act with empathy, which is why I talk about those conditions a lot.
I hope that editors also hold empathy for the structures scholarly authors are dealing with that might make it smart for you to explore multiple potential homes for your book. I want to believe that most people are just doing their best with the circumstances they find themselves in and are not personally trying to exploit or deceive anyone. That’s about all anyone can ask.
I’ll be doing more demystification about the scholarly book publishing process at my webinar coming up next week!
The webinar is FREE to attend and all who register will receive access to supporting handouts and a recording. You don’t have to attend live, but you do need to register in advance in order to get access to the recording after the fact.
You can find more info about the content of the webinar at the registration page.
Hope to see you next week!