How to Talk to an Acquisitions Editor
WTF are you supposed to say to them anyway?
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If you’re working on a book project and hoping to publish with a scholarly press, you’ve probably received the advice that you should be getting out there and “talking to editors” about it. It’s true that forming connections with acquisitions editors is a good idea. For one thing, a human connection can help a lot when it’s time to submit your proposal for formal consideration. No editor is going to publish your book just because they’ve met and liked you (they’ve got to see the book as a fit for their press, above all), but they may respond to you more speedily. They may also give you a bit more leeway in the early stages of evaluating your proposal if they’re on the fence about what you submit in writing. That is, if you’ve already established a personal connection, they might be more willing to make time to talk with you about how to improve the proposal/project versus rejecting it out of hand.
But omg, as an introvert with a fair amount of social anxiety, there’s not much that makes my blood run colder than the idea of initiating a chat with a stranger to talk about myself. Especially in a situation where the impression I make (or fail to make) could have a substantial impact on my publishing goals and possibly even career plans. If the advice to make connections with acquisitions editors similarly strikes fear into your heart, keep reading because I’m going to tell you my secret tip for taking some of the performance anxiety out of these “casual” conversations.
Here’s my tip: frame your initial chat with an editor not as you trying to impress them, but rather as you evaluating them to see if they seem like someone you’d want to partner with on your book. This framing is a mindset thing, not necessarily something you’ll actually say to an editor when you invite them to have a conversation. That is, you’re not going to say “I’d like to speak with you so I can see if I like you and think you’d be a good person to work with on my book.” You’re going to say, “I’d love to have a conversation with you to learn more about your press and the process of publishing a book with you.” And then you can treat the conversation as just that—a learning experience, or even a “fact-finding mission” if being more purposeful about it in your head helps you follow through on it.
Once you’re having the conversation—sometimes these things take place at disciplinary conferences, but this year you’re more likely to be setting up a brief Zoom meeting with an editor—you’ll probably have to talk about your project a little. But at the conversations stage, you don’t need to have anything fully fleshed out or ready to present formally. You can explain your topic, your approach and argument (if you’ve figured them out yet), your research objects and sources, and that’s probably good enough. It’s ok to be honest about the stage you’re at and to say that you don’t yet know the answers to some of the questions they might have. You can spend the bulk of your time with the editor asking them questions, which will hopefully help you feel less like a deer in headlights and have the added bonus of allowing you to gather practical information that will be super helpful when it’s time to actually submit a proposal.
In a future post, I’ll give you a bunch of actual questions you can ask. In the meantime, remember that editors are people too, and most of them genuinely like talking to authors. You aren’t imposing on them or doing anything unreasonable if you ask to speak on the phone for 20 minutes. And if you ask to have a chat and don’t hear back, don’t get discouraged. Follow up and ask again in a few weeks. If you never get a response after multiple nudges, you can still send a formal proposal to that editor down the road (though you might want to consider whether you want to be working with someone who doesn’t reliably answer emails from prospective authors).
There’ll be more about how to approach acquisitions editors and make an effective pitch for your book project in my forthcoming book about book proposals, which will be part of Princeton University Press’s new Skills for Scholars series. I’m also happy to talk strategy with you as part of my Book Proposal Accelerator, the next session of which starts in January. Sign-ups will start next month but you can learn more here for now.
Good luck out there!