First Is Not Always Best

Sometimes it is, but not always

In the last edition of the newsletter I talked about why acquisitions editors aren’t as preoccupied with the ins and outs of your methodology and literature as you might have thought when describing your book project to them. Today, I want to talk about another really common assumption authors make that doesn’t always serve them well.

A significant proportion of the book proposal drafts that cross my desk mention the fact that the book is the first to address X topic, or, if it’s not the first scholarly book on X topic, then it’s the first to use Y methodology or Z theoretical framework to approach X topic. Here’s the thing: being first is only a compelling rationale for publication if there’s a gaping hole in the market and audiences are clamoring for a book like yours to fill it. This is to say, being the first to write a book with a topic or approach that no one is very much interested in yet will probably not impress an acquiring editor much. I’m not saying your first book on X doesn’t have the capacity to be interesting or to make audiences care about your topic and approach, if you write and promote the book strategically. I’m just saying that being the first person to do it is sort of irrelevant to the book’s appeal.

But let’s say you do have a “hot” topic that audiences are waiting for a book about. Come out and say that part about audiences in your proposal, instead of just saying you’re first and assuming that does all the rhetorical work for you. And then provide evidence to support your claim to be filling a genuine hole in the market. If no book yet exists on your topic, what evidence can you point to that your topic is appealing to book-buying audiences? Maybe a new section or interest group has started up in your disciplinary organization, and it’s gaining a lot of members. Or maybe a new journal has launched related to your area of study and is attracting a lot of attention. Maybe you’ve seen a trend of departments in your field adding courses related to your book’s topic. Maybe you’re privy to talk within professional worlds and can see that your topic is going to be of concern to practitioners in coming years. Any of these types of evidence (with numbers if you’ve got ‘em!) would help to show that being first would be a good thing, because there are readers waiting and promotion opportunities to be pursued when a book like yours hits the market.

A similar principle applies if you want to use an unorthodox method or theoretical framework as a selling point for your manuscript. Where’s the evidence that readers want a book that takes your particular approach to your topic? Say, for example, that your topic tends to be studied quantitatively, but you take an ethnographic approach. Before you lean on, “My book will be the first to take an ethnographic approach to X,” as your selling point, try to build a convincing case that there are people out there who are ready to buy an ethnography on X. The quantitative scholars who currently care about that topic are probably not your safest target audience, because most of them simply don’t read or accept the validity of ethnographic methods. (The same would be true for the reverse, by the way. It’s the rare critical scholar who will bang down doors to read a positivist study on their topic of interest, either. I’m not saying people never cross these methodological lines, just that these kinds of readers are not going to form a compelling primary audience for the purposes of pitching your book to a publisher.)

I don’t want to overstate the degree to which publishers are resistant to originality and innovation in scholarship. First can be a selling point, if the conditions are right. And I don’t want to make it sound like editors are all overly preoccupied with sales and the market, which isn’t necessarily true either (in scholarly publishing anyway). Above all, acquiring editors want to connect authors with readers, so don’t worry so much about “first” and do focus on who you’re speaking to with your book and how to reach them.

Next week in the book proposal accelerator, we’re going to be talking more about identifying audiences and markets for scholarly books. How convenient! I’ll be back on Monday with some more tips on how to figure out who your audience is and how to talk about them in your book proposal. If you have a friend or colleague who’s struggling with this at the moment, tell them to sign up for the newsletter!