Probably the most popular thing I have ever written or will write is this Medium post, “How to Email Your Professor (Without Being Annoying AF).” It’s gotten an absurd number of reads since I posted it three years ago, and it still gets thousands of hits every week. I think what makes it appealing to people (in spite of or in addition to the title) is its underlying premise that if you want students to follow certain standards of email etiquette, you have to actually spell out what those standards are at some point. High school students with a lot of experience interacting with professional adults might arrive at college already knowing the “rules,” but most everyone else is clueless. And you can’t really blame them.
Why am I bringing this up in the Manuscript Works newsletter? Because a similar principle applies when we’re talking about communication in academic publishing. A grad student or a freshly minted PhD may not have had occasion to learn much about what an editor at a scholarly press does, let alone how to communicate with an editor about a project one might hope to publish at the editor’s press. Certainly, every editor has their own style and preferred modes of communication. But there are some norms it’s worth observing when cold-emailing an editor you’d like to get interested in publishing your book.
Because I like to turn my own embarrassing faux pas into lessons for others, here’s a story. As a PhD candidate many years ago, I had occasion to attend a presentation on academic book publishing given by an editor who acquired books in my field at a prestigious university press. I found the presentation really instructive, so a few days later I wrote a nice little thank-you message to the editor. After taking a couple sentences to express my gratitude, I added a nice little one-paragraph summary of my dissertation project and sent off the email. Did I receive a nice little reply? No I did not.
Why did I bother including that bit about my research? Probably, in some misguided corner of my brain, I thought “maybe he’ll think this is really interesting and want to talk to me about publishing my book.” I mean, I don’t have actual figures on this, but the chances were probably less than 1 in 500 that my dissertation topic was so interesting that an editor would just spontaneously want to hear more about it. Best case scenario, he fleetingly thought, “oh that’s lovely, maybe she’ll get in touch again in a few years when she has an actual book manuscript to talk to me about,” before my message was lost in his inbox never to be seen again.
What should I have done in this situation? Well, if I wasn’t ready to pitch a book project to him (I wasn’t) I probably should have left it at “Thank you for your presentation” and waited to follow up until I did have something to pitch. But let’s say I did think the time was right to get this editor interested in my book manuscript. In that case, I should have made sure to include everything he’d need to know to take my inquiry seriously. A summary of my book project, including a clear description of my argument, archive, and methods. Why my findings mattered and whom they would matter to. What qualified me to write a book about my topic. Why I thought his press might be a good home for that book. And I absolutely should have closed my message with a straightforward request, ideally a yes–no question that could be answered in a few seconds. “Would you be available to speak with me at my field’s upcoming conference?” “Would you be interested in seeing a full proposal?” This last bit—the actual inquiry—is crucial, and it’s really where I dropped the ball in my own email. I didn’t actually give the editor anything to respond to, and thus it was no wonder I didn’t receive a response.
Editors at scholarly presses have approximately one million things they’re expected to do and not nearly enough time to do it all. So here’s a pretty basic tip: if you want to be a person an editor chooses to spend their precious time on, make your request for their attention unambiguous and easy to dispense with the moment it passes through their inbox. Even if the answer is a firm “no,” it’s better to know that than to spend weeks or months wondering if they ever saw your message and what they thought about it. (If you do send an unambiguous request and haven’t heard after a month, it’s probably ok to send a gentle nudge.)
I hope this (really very simple) advice saves you from a cringe-y moment of your own in the future. We’ll be talking a bunch more about letters of inquiry—and everything else that goes into pitching your scholarly book to an acquiring editor—this summer during Manuscript Works’s Book Proposal Accelerator. I might even have a template for your cover letter so you really can’t mess it up. Check out more info here, and as always, you can reply to this email or hit me up on Twitter if you have questions!