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Did you pick the "wrong" research topic?
3 tips for when you worry your book is unpublishable
Quick reminder before we jump in: the Book Proposal Accelerator starts this Saturday! If you want structured support to finish an outstanding scholarly book proposal over the next 6 weeks, you can register here. As of writing this, there are 6 spots left.
Hi Manuscript Workers,
Have you ever had the experience of trying to talk to an acquisitions editor about your book project and seeing their eyes glaze over as you explained what you study? Or even submitting a book proposal and receiving a very short response from the press saying they don’t publish books like yours?
These can be super demoralizing experiences. You may feel as if you’re really s*** out of luck if no publishers are interested in what you spent the last five to ten years researching. You might starting thinking of worst-case scenarios, worrying that you’ll just have to shelve all that research and never publish the book you’ve been working toward.
If you find yourself having these unhelpful thoughts, I have three tips for how you can get back on track with your goal of publishing your research. (Spoiler alert: none of them involve changing your topic to something more “marketable.”)
Tip 1: Find your people
I’ve shared before that scholarly book publishers tend to have very specific areas of focus. Because they work with limited budgets and tight margins, each publisher tries to specialize in a few subject areas, and they get very good at reaching scholarly readers who are interested in those subject areas as efficiently as possible.
It could be that you just haven’t been talking to the right publishers about your book. Or there might be a book series out there that’s perfect for your topic or approach but you just haven’t heard of it yet.
Before you give up, set aside some time to research publishers and identify recent comps for your book. When you find the publishers that seem like they will “get” what you’re doing, you can reach out to them and make sure to mention some points of reference they’re already familiar with. Identify a few books they’ve published in the last couple years and tell them how you are trying to do something similar or reach similar readers with your own research. This can help them see the potential in your project to find a home at their press.
Tip 2: Reframe how you think (and talk) about your book
I ended up using the “find your people” strategy when I published my first book, which was adapted from my dissertation about politicized lifestyle choices of anarchist activists. I found a book series (Contemporary Anarchist Studies) that was squarely relevant to my topic and that explicitly welcomed my critical feminist approach. It ended up being an easy sell.
But I also could have taken a different path. When I was writing my dissertation, my advisor was forever saying to me “Your project isn’t just about anarchists. What’s the bigger picture here?” To be honest, I’m not sure I ever did a great job of articulating the broader takeaway (I think it’s something about the communicative potentials and limitations of micropolitical action??) but my advisor’s question was an important one.
Sometimes, publishers can’t immediately see beyond the narrow topic of your book. Maybe an acquisitions editor isn’t specifically interested in anarchist lifestyle politics, so their eyes glaze over because they think your book isn’t relevant to them or what they publish.
That’s when it becomes your job to get better at communicating the bigger picture. You might need to pivot away from talking about the specifics of your topic (which are naturally very interesting to you, the person who decided to invest years into studying it). You can instead highlight the more portable takeaways that will interest hundreds or thousands of people who don’t have that level of personal investment in your topic but who might spend a few hours reading a book that offers ideas they can apply to their own research topics.
It can be really hard to figure out the broader import of your research when you’re so close to it. Getting some distance from the project can help. So can talking to other people about it. It will take time and effort, but learning how to reframe your project in this way can pay off if you have your sights set on a competitive press.
Tip 3: Rethink your publication goals
If your heart is set on publishing your research as a book, then you’ll want to keep at it with one of the tips above and not give up until you find a publisher who shares your vision. Having worked with hundreds of scholarly authors on their book proposals, experience tells me that if you make a sincere effort to target your submissions well (Tip 1) and learn to frame your pitch convincingly (Tip 2), you will ultimately find a publisher for your book.
But sometimes it can be worth re-evaluating whether a book is really the best way to get your research out into the world. An alum of my Book Proposal Accelerator program recently wrote to tell me that, while the Accelerator had taught her a lot about how to pitch her book to publishers, she’d realized that the readership she cared about most was best reached through journal articles. So that’s where she decided to focus her publication efforts. (The Accelerator wasn’t a waste of time — she revisited the program materials to write a proposal for an edited volume that did get accepted by a prestigious university press.)
Other alums of the program have decided to put a dissertation revision on hold while working on a more exciting project, which is also a valid choice. As I’ve advised before, “A book you don’t want to be working on is infinitely more difficult to write than one you’re excited about, even if you already have a lot of the research done.” I’ve also worked with authors whose dissertations would require so much additional research to become a cohesive book that it ended up making more sense to turn the best parts of the diss into articles and then move on.
If you’re not sure whether you should keep trying to get your book published or seriously explore alternate routes, this post has some questions you can ask yourself to help decide.
I hope these tips have brought you a little bit of clarity if you’re feeling adrift in your book publishing journey. If you’d like more support, I help authors with all of above in my book proposal programs.
To me, there’s no such thing as the “wrong” research topic, just more and less effective ways of communicating why your project is worth learning from. Helping you get greater insight into your book project and figuring out how to communicate its value to publishers (and readers) is what I’m there for.
Both my Book Proposal Accelerator and Book Proposal Shortcut programs provide guidance on identifying promising presses and comparable titles as well as framing your book’s contribution in ways that will appeal to publishers. Both programs include a library of sample proposals from alums who have successfully landed book contracts, so you can get some inspiration and see how they implemented my advice.
In the Accelerator, you get personalized feedback from me on everything from your query letter to your project description to your author bio, so you can make sure every element of your pitch showcases your project in the most promising light.
The next session of the Book Proposal Accelerator starts on July 1. The cohort is nearly full, but there’s still time to sign up if you want in. I won’t be offering it again until 2024.
The Book Proposal Shortcut is a self-paced program and you can sign up for it any time. Get more information about it here.
Thanks for reading! Hope to see you in one of my programs soon, but if not, I’ll see you back here in the newsletter next Wednesday!