Forget Goals

Happy (?) 2021, Manuscript Workers.

This post was supposed to go out last week, but in light of the ongoing coup here in the US, I decided to delay. Something tells me there won’t be a “good” time to send out publishing advice newsletters for quite awhile, so I’m just going to keep writing these in case they’re helpful for some people who are still able to think about such things. But I will try not to send them out during peak crisis moments, if possible!

I’d been mentally planning for a few months to write this new year’s post about setting goals for your book. There’s a spot in my book about book proposals (it’s on the last page actually) where I urge readers “to set goals for your book that don’t depend on the external approval of academic power-brokers,” and I thought I would write a newsletter about what such goals might look like. Except, when I sat down to write about “goals” here at the beginning of 2021, I mostly just felt exhausted. Goals are big end-results that you want to achieve and when it comes to book-related goals, they take years of investment and effort to pull off. Goals are good things to have and maybe we’ll talk about goals later this year sometime. But for now, f*ck goals. As we start 2021, let’s think about something other than goals. Let’s think about steps. In fact, let’s just think about first steps. First steps feel more manageable than goals at the moment.

I want to talk about first steps you can take to get closer to the goals of writing a book proposal, landing a book contract, or successfully publishing a scholarly book. Those are all points on the same journey, so the first steps are essentially the same. If you’ve got a book manuscript drafted (maybe it’s your finished dissertation) or you’ve got an idea for a new book (even without a draft at this point), here are three steps you can take right now to enhance your chances of someday getting that book published.

Figure out some presses that would be a good fit for your work. This step is fun because you can approach it like shopping or daydreaming. Maybe you have a couple publishers in mind already because your mentor published there or you have a bunch of their books on your shelf. You can also look at the Association of University Presses Subject Area Grid to see who publishes in your area. Imagine yourself at the next big academic conference (assuming those happen again); which publisher’s booth would you be most excited to see your book displayed at? Make a dream list and don’t talk yourself out of anything because you think your book won’t be good enough. This is just a first step, so there’s no need to get ahead of yourself.

Eventually you’ll need to research your target presses to prepare for actually making your pitch to them (I cover how to do this in Chapter 1 of the book). Your main targets might end up shifting once you get deeper into that research process. But for now, just get a list down. Start following the publishers on Twitter or Instagram, sign up for their mailing list, or just check out their websites. Let yourself get a feel for these presses in an ambient, low-stakes way, and you’ll be that much more prepared to make your pitch if and when you decide to submit a proposal to them down the road.

Have an informal chat with an editor. This might be a good first step for you if you’ve already got a handful of target presses in mind but aren’t sure where to go from there. Talking to an acquisitions editor can be an efficient way to learn how a press works, what they’re looking for in books to acquire, and whether you vibe with the person you’d be working with if you published there. Most acquisitions editors are working from home right now too and missing the interactions they used to have with potential authors at conferences and other events. Many will jump at the chance to just talk to a scholar on the phone or Zoom about fun things like book ideas and publishing processes (or cats). You don’t have to have your project completely fleshed out to set up a conversation. And if you need some ideas for how you might direct the dialogue, especially if you’re not fully ready to pitch your book idea yet, I’ve got you.

Start building your author platform. One of your long-term goals for your research may be to become recognized as the leading expert on your topic. That’s very good, but remember we said f*ck goals. All I want you to think about as a first step is to start positioning yourself as a person that at least a handful of other people will think of as their go-to knowledge source on your topic. Look at how low that bar is! You might simply take the step of posting more about your research on social media. You might reach out to a friend about giving an invited talk at their institution. You might submit a paper abstract to an important conference in your field. Those are all ways of getting your name associated with your book’s subject matter. It can feel slow or even futile at first, but once you’ve pursued a few opportunities like this, your reputation will snowball and more and more people will come to recognize you as that scholar who knows all about X. When they need to buy a book about X, they’ll come right to your book. That’s author platform. Not so scary, right?

So those are some ideas for first steps you can take toward publishing your book. Maybe you can challenge yourself to do one of these things this week. Or this month. Or possibly even just by the end of 2021. If you need some accountability, feel free to reply to this email and tell me what first step you’re going to take. Or let me know over on Twitter. I will cheer you on!

Client shoutout
Taylor Petrey’s book, Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism (University of North Carolina Press) was recognized as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2020 by Choice. Choice is the review magazine for the American Library Association; this recognition is a big deal because it’ll likely lead to a lot more librarians placing orders for Taylor’s book. I found the manuscript fascinating to work on, and if you’re interested in religious history, sexuality, or finding queer theory in surprising places, you’ll also love this book.

A change in plans
I wrote last month that I was planning to offer a webinar and course for people who are looking to train as academic developmental editors in 2021. After much thought, I’ve determined that in order to make it through this year and fulfill my other commitments, I need to postpone the plans for the webinar and course. I will hope to offer them at some point in the future (and I’ll of course share details here when I have them). If you’d still like to be on my list of people to notify when it happens, please do let me know. Just know that it may be a while before you hear from me about it. :)