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Conferences and Book Publishing
Do you really have to attend conferences to meet editors?
Hello Manuscript Workers,
If you’re an early career academic, you may have received the advice that you should be going to disciplinary conferences to network and raise your professional profile. If you are in a book field, your mentors may have told you that you should be talking to editors at these conferences so that they’ll be more likely to publish your eventual book.
I want to unpack that advice today, because I received it myself as PhD student and I always found it fairly… unhelpful. For one thing, I hate situations where I have to cold-introduce myself to someone, let alone situations where I feel like I have to sell them on something (such as publishing my book). For another thing, the advice always felt very vague. Ok, so I meet an editor at a conference… what exactly am I supposed to say and how exactly does that lead to them wanting to publish my book??
And for another thing, conferences aren’t exactly the most accessible space for a lot of people. Immunocompromised people, people who can’t afford long-distance travel, people who need visas to enter the country where the conference is being held, and people who don’t want to cross picket lines, among many others, find attending disciplinary conferences to be a hardship.
The good news is that you don’t actually have to meet editors at conferences. In fact, some publishers also find conferences inaccessible or choose not to attend for various reasons. While it can be helpful to get on an editor’s radar before you are ready to formally submit your book proposal to them, there are ways to do that aside from meeting them in person at a conference. You can email them to tell them about your book and ask if they can meet over Zoom so you can learn more about publishing at their press. Many editors are delighted to get these messages. Some won’t be available, but it’s ok to ask.
But for the sake of staying on topic today, I want to talk more about what it actually looks like to connect with editors at conferences, in case you really do want to do that.
Before I get to the rest of the post, I wanted to give a quick reminder that my Book Proposal Shortcut program is currently open for enrollment. The Shortcut is an online course that walks you step-by-step through drafting your book proposal and pitching it to scholarly publishers.
All registered Shortcut participants are eligible to join my upcoming Book Proposal Sprint, August 21st through 25th. The Sprint is five days of coworking and live Q&A designed to jumpstart (or restart) your proposal progress so that you can head into the upcoming semester well on your way toward landing a book contract.
I’m donating 20% of all sales of the Book Proposal Shortcut this month to Unite Here Local 11, the union of hotel workers that has asked the American Political Science Association to cancel their upcoming conference or move it entirely online (which APSA has declined to do). That means that up to $75 will be going straight to their strike fund for each person who signs up for the Shortcut. I’ve donated $500 so far and am very happy to make it more. (You can make your own direct donation here, if you like.)
Alright, back to conferences….
If you want to use the opportunity of a big in-person meeting to connect with acquiring editors, you can either start a spontaneous conversation in the book exhibit with the person who is staffing the publisher’s display or you can pre-arrange a brief chat.
I personally prefer the pre-arrange route, but sometimes that’s not possible. If you’re just a few weeks out from the conference, the editor’s schedule may be all filled up, so even if you reach out via email to arrange a meeting, they may just tell you to find them in the exhibit hall. If you find yourself in this situation, here’s what you do:
Find the display table of the press you might be interested in publishing with. Introduce yourself to the person at the display and say that you’re working on a book that might be a good fit for their press. They’ll likely ask you about it, at which point you can give your elevator pitch.
Your elevator pitch should just be a few sentences that cover your working title or topic, the site or objects of your research, and the driving thesis of your book, i.e. the thing that makes your book original and interesting.
This will hopefully lead to a little bit of back and forth conversation about your project. You can also ask questions about publishing with their press. I’d keep it general at this point—don’t presume they will be offering you a contract, just ask how things typically work when they do move forward. You’re not going to get an agreement to publish your book on the spot. Look at your conference encounter as a fact-finding mission for when you formally submit a book proposal.
Be aware that the person working the book exhibit may not be the acquiring editor. It’s still a good idea to be friendly and respectful. If they’re not the editor but can see that your book would be a good fit for the press, they’ll most likely tell you how to get in touch with the person you need to be speaking to.
Remember that publishers who go to conferences are there to meet new authors. They should be excited to have you approach them, but do bear in mind that editors are people too. They may be introverts who find conferences overwhelming, or they may be exhausted from travel and setting up their exhibit. So try to extend some grace if their social skills are not as sparkling as you might hope. That said, if you get the vibe that someone doesn’t want to talk to you because of where you’re employed or because of factors like race, class, or nationality, that person has failed to do their job properly (in my opinion) and you are better off pursuing a different press.
If you’re a month or more out from an upcoming conference, you might prefer to pre-arrange meetings with editors from the presses you’re most interested in. To do this, you’ll email the editor at each press who acquires in the area represented by your conference. You should be able to identify this person from the press’s website. If you’re not sure which editor is right, just make your best guess.
When you email, you’ll give the same introduction and elevator pitch. You don’t need a super thorough description of your book at this point. You want to respect the editor’s time by being succinct. Say just enough to situate yourself as having a profile and project that will make sense to the editor in terms of fit at their press. It should be clear based on your field/subject/approach why you’ve chosen to reach out to that press in particular.
As I mentioned above, the editor may not be able to schedule a meeting with you. If that’s the case, you can still try to find them in the book exhibit and introduce yourself. If you don’t get a response at all, it doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t like your inquiry. It more likely means they were swamped with conference prep and just didn’t get around to responding. If you’re not able to chat with them at the conference, you can still contact them later on when you’re ready to submit a book proposal.
I hope this post helped you feel a little more confident about connecting with editors at conferences, or to envision alternative ways of reaching out to them if conference attendance isn’t in the cards for you. There are lots more tips in the archive posts linked above too. (For my full archive of writing and publishing advice, click here.)
If you’ve already talked to an editor and they’ve expressed interest in receiving a book proposal from you—or if you just want a solid draft in hand before you even approach publishers—do check out my Book Proposal Shortcut.
Scholars who complete this program have had great success reaching out to publishers and frequently tell me they were praised for the high quality of their proposals when they did. If you’re looking for structured support and motivation to get to that point more efficiently than working on your own, the Shortcut is here for you!