How Does a Proposal Lead to An Offer?

Part 2 of my series on how a book idea becomes a book

The last post in this series covered the first stage of my current book project, from conception to proposal, which ran about a year long. To gloss it quickly: it started in summer of 2018 when I compiled the first bit of raw material for the project and went until July of 2019 when I submitted my book proposal to five publishers.

In this post I’m going to walk you through what happened as I navigated the initial review process with the five publishers. Some things about my experience may be different from yours, but I hope this sheds some light on what you might expect when you’re in the middle of this. I’m going to include as much detail as possible, because I think this process is so mysterious to authors who haven’t been through it (and it can feel mysterious even as you’re going through it!). I’m not going to name the presses or editors I didn’t sign with. I had good experiences with all of them, so I wish I could give them a shout-out, but it seems like the right thing for now not to name names. To be honest, it feels kind of weird to talk publicly about any of this at all, because people usually only discuss these things in private. But part of my mission in writing this newsletter is to pull back the curtain on aspects of scholarly publishing that tend to be opaque to first-time authors, so I’m just going to try to fight through the weirdness. (If you don’t care about the details you can just scroll to the end for the takeaways.)

As a reminder from the last post, these are the presses I submitted to:

  • Press A - a university press and editor with whom I had no prior connection. I submitted the proposal cold with a simple email inquiry and the materials requested on the publisher’s website.

  • Press B - another university press and editor with whom I had no prior connection. I submitted the proposal cold with a simple email inquiry and the materials requested on the publisher’s website.

  • Press C - a university press whose editor had approached me in the spring to chat about potential book ideas.

  • Press D - a university press whose editor had sent me a message on Twitter asking to see my proposal

  • Princeton University Press - I’d been introduced to acquisitions editor Peter Dougherty via email by a mutual contact (a participant in my Book Proposal Accelerator workshop) and Peter had expressed interest in the project a few weeks before I submitted the proposal.

I sent my proposal to all 5 presses between July 9th and 12th, 2019. Here’s what happened that month:

July 9th, 2019: Peter Dougherty at Princeton confirms receipt of my proposal by email and we schedule a phone call to discuss the review process there.

July 12, 2019: The editor I submitted to from Press A responds by email with brief feedback on the proposal (positive, with one suggested addition to the sample chapter). She says she’d like to send the proposal and sample chapter for peer review and summarizes the review process at their press. I write back to clarify whether the press would be ok with simultaneous review since I’m still waiting to hear from other publishers. (The editor was traveling at conferences for two weeks but finally wrote back to say that yes, simultaneous review would be ok. The editor just asked that I keep her posted on how things progressed with the other publishers.)

July 16, 2019: I have a phone call with Peter at Princeton. He lets me know that he intends to take the proposal to his upcoming editorial meeting. (At that meeting he gets approval to send it out for peer review. He lets me know that he expects the reviews back within a month. At this point he is aware that I have had interest from other presses.)

July 24, 2019: The editor from Press C emails to ask if we can talk on the phone about my proposal. On that call, the editor lets me know that Press C wants to offer me a contract pre-review. The full manuscript would be reviewed after I submit it, but they’re ready to make an offer on the book before that point.

July 24, 2019: Two weeks after my initial submission and with interest (though not yet formal offers) from three presses in hand, I ping the editor at Press D, who had DMed me about sending him my proposal, to see if he feels it’s a good fit for him. He feels he isn’t the right editor for the project, but forwards it on to a colleague at his press.

July 29, 2019: I reach out to the editor at Press B, from whom I’ve heard nothing so far. I say that I just want to let them know as a courtesy that I’ve received interest from three presses and things are moving forward. That editor responds the next day to say they are interested and want to move forward as well. (This kind of thing has happened to many of my clients too. You can often speed a response—whether positive or negative—from a press when you let them know you have interest from others.)

Things are quiet for the first couple weeks of August.

In mid-August I receive the first set of reader reports from Princeton. One is very positive, the other less so, and both have some suggestions for revision. Peter asks if I would revise and resubmit the proposal and sample chapter in light of the reports and I agree to do so.

In mid-August I also receive a kind note from the editor at Press D saying that they will not be moving forward with review after all due to having a similar book on their list already. (Note: this kind of thing can go both ways. Sometimes presses like to publish similar books because they can market them to the same audiences, sometimes they feel they can’t fully support both books at the same time. If a press passes on your project for this reason, recognize that it’s not personal and doesn’t mean your project is bad.)

Toward the end of August, I receive mostly positive reader reports from Press A. The editor there doesn’t need me to revise the proposal but does ask me to write a response to the reports, which I do, laying out how I intend to revise my plan for the manuscript in light of the reviewer feedback. Around the same time, Press C comes forward with an official offer. I let the editor there know that I’m still in review with a few presses but that I will try to have a decision as soon as possible.

In early September, I submit my revised proposal and sample chapter to Princeton and my response to reader reports to Press A. About a week and a half later, I receive an offer from Press A. A few days later I have a phone call with the editor from Press A and inform her that I have an offer in hand already from another press (I don’t name Press C here). Within a day, Press A comes back with an improved offer (in this case, “improved” means a higher advance, though still not as high as the advance offered by Press C). I’m sharing this detail so that you can see how you might communicate about offers when multiple presses are in play. You don’t name the presses to each other, but if you’re still considering publishing with someone you give them the courtesy of knowing if someone else has offered you more so they can decide whether they want to try to stay in the mix. It’s not about playing hardball, it’s just about professionally stating your status so everyone has enough information to act on. Sometimes they’ll say that they can’t offer you a competitive advance but they can do something else meaningful for you. Letting them know you have other offers gives them the chance to convince you they’re the right publisher for your project.

Just a day after I receive the amended offer from Press A, I receive what I consider to be an excellent offer from Princeton. Peter and I set up a phone conversation and I ask about a couple things that are important to me regarding the offer. A few days later he lets me know that he was able to get approval for some changes to the offer that I’d requested. I take a few days to weigh my options and finally, in early October, I decide to go with Princeton.

I based my decision not so much on the actual offer, but on what it represented to me. I felt very confident that Peter and the press as a whole were fully in support of my project and shared my vision for what it could be and that they would be the best partners to get it into the hands of the audiences I wanted to reach. You may note that this was the offer I had to work the hardest for—I was asked to revise my proposal materials for re-review before I got to the offer stage. I could have gone with either of the two other two presses that made offers without revisions—and I know I would have had great experiences with either of those presses because I really liked both editors on a personal level—but I chose to look at the request for revision as an investment of effort and interest on the part of my editor at Princeton. It was a little more difficult for me to deal with emotionally, but I knew that it would result in the best product for my book’s ultimate readers.

If you’ve been following this story carefully, you may be wondering what happened to Press D. After the editor who initially asked to see the proposal passed it along to his colleague, I didn’t hear anything. I wrote to the second editor and we exchanged a few emails, but we had a hard time lining up our schedules and weren’t able to set up a phone call to discuss next steps. While I would have been happy to pursue things with Press D (it’s a great press), I didn’t want to wait around for them while I had other presses moving quickly and responsively. I did check in once I had offers in hand just to see if the editor at Press D still wanted to talk, but didn’t receive a response. I don’t take any of that personally, but I do take it as an indication that my project probably wasn’t a priority for this editor (for whatever reason). Which is fine, no grudge held!

What are the takeaways from this process for other authors? First, things can move quickly. In my case, I think they moved so fast for a few reasons: editors saw the project as particularly marketable, they knew there would be competition for it, it was the summertime, and the content was pretty easy to read and therefore easy for peer reviewers to weigh in on swiftly. For academic monographs, things tend to move more slowly, and you shouldn’t be discouraged at all if things don’t move as quickly as I outlined here. Speed and competition may not be a priority for you at all, in which case you may prefer to have more leisurely dialogues with one or more editors over a longer period. But if you’re eager to get things wrapped up more expeditiously, being prepared with a tight proposal can make publishers more motivated to move things along because they recognize that others may be equally interested.

Another takeaway I hope you get out of this story is that transparency with editors and publishers is important. Everyone wants to be informed of the project’s status with other publishers so they can figure out their next steps. Again, you don’t have to name names, but you can make everyone aware when you have interest from other publishers, when you’re under review with others, when you have offers in hand from others, and what the nature of those offers are (it’s up to you how specific you want to get about the offers). You don’t need to inundate editors with updates, but do keep them in the loop about your status each time you communicate.

One more takeaway: you don’t have to have a prior relationship with an editor in order to get their attention or to get an offer from their press. I had no connection to Press A before submitting my proposal and receiving an offer from them, and I had only a cursory email introduction to the editor I ended up signing with before submitting my proposal to him. Established connections never hurt, but you can absolutely get published without them if your proposal and manuscript are appealing.

If could add one final takeaway that might not be apparent from my story, it’s that most academic books do not garner advances at all. Mine did because it’s a certain kind of project whose market is comparatively large and obvious. If you’re not offered an advance, don’t take it as a sign that the press doesn’t like your book. If they’re offering to publish your book at all, they like it plenty. And when we are talking about advances and other offer terms for academic books, we’re not talking about huge numbers in any case. A few thousand extra dollars is obviously nice to have, but publishing your book with the right press and an editor who you feel understands and supports your work can be worth more than money. The compensation might come back to you in other forms too, such as a promotion at work or the speaking fees you’ll be able to command after your book comes out. So try not to get caught up in offer terms and do try to focus on your greater goal, which is to publish a book that will find its way into the hands of the readers you want. Ultimately, the best publisher for you is the one who will help you achieve that goal, and everything else is gravy on top.

In the next installment of this little series, I’ll cover what happened between accepting Princeton’s offer in October of 2019 and submitting my full manuscript earlier this month.

In the meantime, if you’re hoping to craft a book proposal of your own and get personalized tips on your submission strategy, you can still sign up for my Book Proposal Accelerator, which will be running from May 1st–June 18th. I’ll even send you the entire packet of materials before May 1st, if you want to get a couple weeks’ head start while we’re all stuck in quarantine. Just let me know that you’d like to start early when you fill out the enrollment form here. Any questions? Reply to this email or chat me up on Twitter dot com.