How to Handle Early Interest from Publishers
Hi Manuscript Workers,
It sometimes happens that a scholar is working on a book project — or maybe even a dissertation that they’re planning to revise into a book — and they receive interest from a publisher before they’re really ready to talk seriously about their plans for publication.
This might seem like a great problem to have! Maybe it doesn’t even sound like a problem — it’s obviously a good thing if publishers think your project is promising at any point in the process, right?
However, certain sticky situations can arise when you receive early interest in a book project that’s not ready for primetime, so I want to share some perspective on how you might navigate these situations if you find yourself in them. These scenarios are inspired by real situations I’ve received questions about from many scholarly authors. I’m sharing with you the advice I’ve shared with them.
Scenario 1: You’re approached by an editor at your dream press to talk about your book project. You’re afraid that if you speak with this editor now — before you have a clear idea of what you want your book to be — that you’ll blow your chances of publishing with Dream Press later on.
My advice in this scenario is to try to put less pressure on yourself and on the initial conversation. Editors understand that book projects go through various phases of development, so it’s perfectly fine to be honest and say, “I’m still in the early stages with this project but I’d love to chat.”
If they’re the one who approached you, they aren’t going to expect a beautifully crafted elevator pitch from you. You can tell them what you envision for the book at this point and also let them know which parts are still up in the air. They may be very happy to talk through your argument and contribution with you, and you may even find the conversation clarifying for your own thinking.
If nothing else, an early conversation like this is a good opportunity to gather information that will help you when you are ready to more formally discuss your book project. You can check out this post from the Manuscript Works archive for some helpful questions to ask editors at this stage.
You should also know that a conversation like this does not represent a firm commitment on either side. So you may speak to this editor from your dream press and realize that maybe you want to explore other options before you decide where you’ll submit your book proposal, which is completely fine.
If you do enjoy speaking to this editor and continue to think this is your dream press, you can feel free to check back in with a quick hello and status update, maybe every 6 months or so. You can even schedule additional informal chats, if you’ll both happen to be at the same conferences or whatever. Or you can wait to check back in until you’re ready to show them a proposal or any other materials they’ve expressed interest in seeing. (Don’t be surprised if they check in with you. Editors like to keep tabs on scholars they’re interested in, and they often get invested in people’s careers, even if they don’t end up getting to publish their books.)
Scenario 2: You’re approached by an editor from a press you aren’t too excited about, and you still have work to do before you will feel ready to approach an editor at your dream press. You’re afraid that if you speak with the editor who reached out to you, you’ll be locked in with a press that you may not want to publish with.
Let me reassure you here that an informal chat with an editor does not lock you into anything. I encourage you to have the chat if you’re able to, because you may learn something important or gain insight into your project that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
If you’re very concerned about appearing to commit to something with the editor, you can always say directly that you’re still exploring publishers and aren’t ready to make a commitment yet. You have the right to have exploratory conversations with as many editors as you like without being obligated to publish your book with anyone.
If the editor at your non-dream press is very eager to land your book, they may try to get you to agree to sending them a proposal when it’s ready or to talk to them before you talk to other presses. You don’t have to do this if you don’t feel comfortable. You can express gratitude for their interest and say that you will be taking some time to explore possible homes for the project.
That said, I do encourage you to keep an open mind. You might find in talking to this editor that they have a great vision for publishing your book and that they can tell you some of the upsides of publishing with their press that you weren’t aware of before. I still think you should leave the door open and explore the potential at your dream press too, just so you don’t end up with lingering questions or regrets. But there’s no harm in learning about other presses and seeing what kind of intellectual chemistry you might have with other editors too.
Scenario 3: You’re approached by a publisher and they’re so interested in your book that they urge to submit your manuscript right away (before you’ve had a chance to make your intended revisions), or they offer you an advance contract before even receiving your materials.
I would proceed with caution in this scenario. You need to feel like whatever press publishes your book is the best home for it, and that means both taking the time to do research on potential presses and giving your manuscript the time it needs to become the book you really want it to be.
It might seem like you’re passing up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a book contract if you demur on an offer like this. But I suggest looking at it differently: if a publisher is this excited about your book project early on, many other publishers will likely be just as excited once you’ve taken the time you need to feel ready to send it out for peer review. An editor who wants to rush your process and have you submit work before it’s fully baked may not have your long-term best interests at heart.
I’m not against advance contracts at all, but as I’ve advised before, I do think you should wait to sign one until you’ve gotten a very good sense of both what you want your book to be and what you want from a publisher. Your needs and desires may evolve as you work on your manuscript and committing too early could be a mistake.
Have you found yourself in a scenario I didn’t cover here, or do you have questions about other aspects of the acquisitions process?
So many of the questions I get from prospective authors have to do with matters of timing, interacting with editors and publishers, and what goes on behind the scenes as a decision is made whether or not to make an offer to publish your book.
That’s why I’m holding a free webinar next month where I will address all the most common questions I receive in this vein.
If you’re feeling some anxiety about this process, please sign up for the webinar and let me try to calm your nerves and help you navigate the acquisitions process in an informed and intentional way.
You don’t need to attend live, but you do need to register in order to receive access to the recording and transcript.
Please note that I will be focusing on the acquisitions process at scholarly publishers such as university presses. I won’t be discussing trade publishers where you might need a literary agent to help you navigate the process.
At this webinar, I also won’t be explicitly discussing publishing contracts themselves or how to negotiate any offers you might receive — the purpose of this webinar is to help you get to the point where you are getting those offers. However, if you have specific questions about contracts or negotiating after an offer is made, I’ll be happy to address what I can during the Q&A period.
Even if you’ve been through the book publishing process before, I’m pretty sure there will be new information in this webinar that will help you the next time around.
Tell your friends, and I hope to see you in October!