Landing an Academic Book Contract

Here's what the process looks like from initial contact to signed agreement.

As a scholar in a “book field,” inking your signature on your first book contract will likely feel like a huge accomplishment. (For me, it was much more climactic and fun than my dissertation defense, which sucked, to be blunt about it.) But how do you get to the moment of signing a contract as an early career scholar? If you’ve never published a book before, you might feel a little in-the-dark about how to work with an acquisitions editor to land a contract with an academic press. This edition of the Manuscript Works newsletter will spell out the series of events that (usually) leads to the proud milestone of a signed book contract. There may be variation in individual cases, but this is a pretty standard picture of the acquisitions process as experienced by most of my clients.

I’m adapting this from a presentation by Margaret Cummins, Executive Editor at Wiley, which I saw at the 2018 Association of American Publishers’ Professional and Scholarly Publishing Books Boot Camp. This isn’t exactly proprietary knowledge, but I liked the way Cummins framed the talk in terms of the moments when an acquiring editor might decide to proceed with or walk away from a book project. In this post, I’m going to add the author’s perspective, so you can see when and why you, as an author, might decide to stick with a particular editor/press or take your project elsewhere.

Step 1: You connect with an acquiring editor

This might happen at a conference, or on Twitter, or via good old-fashioned email. You might reach out to them, or they might reach out to you. At this stage, you tell them a bit about your book project, and they decide if it’s something their press might be interested in publishing. They might know immediately that your project isn’t a fit for their press (because they don’t publish in that area or they already have a similar book on your topic slated to come out soon, or because it just doesn’t strike their fancy). Or the editor might want to talk through the concept with you more and encourage you to submit a full proposal.

You should also be gauging your interest in them. Does the editor seem like an approachable person whom you’d enjoy working with over the next few years? Do they demonstrate genuine understanding of and enthusiasm for your intellectual project? Would you be proud to have their press’s name on your book? (There’s lots more to consider when selecting a press, but I’ll save that for a future post.) If you can answer yes to these questions, you’ll want to proceed to Step 2.

Step 2: You’re invited to submit a full proposal

You might skip Step 1 and send your proposal to an editor without making a personal connection first, simply following the directions on a press’s website, for instance. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to connect with an editor before anything else—hence my starting with Step 1—but plenty of book contracts have been landed by projects that came in “over the transom” (publishing-speak for a manuscript that comes in without prior arrangement between editor and author). When the editor reads your proposal they may again know it’s not a fit and let you know that. Or they may want to see you strengthen the concept and presentation before proceeding further, in which case you might revise the proposal and resubmit it (a developmental editor can help if you find yourself in this position). Or the acquiring editor may want to go ahead with peer review of some or all of the book manuscript. (If the editor is really excited about the project they may want to take it directly to their editorial board, pre-review, in the hope of offering you an advance contract. The manuscript will still have to be peer reviewed eventually, but an advance contract means that the press agrees to publish the book if everything goes well in the review process.)

At that point the editor will ask you to provide the materials they need for review, which might be one or two sample chapters or the full manuscript. This is when an editor will often stipulate exclusive submission, meaning that you agree to (temporarily) pull the project from review at other presses. (The exclusivity usually goes away once you get the reviews back, meaning that if you don’t like what the reviewers or editor want you to do with the manuscript, you can then try your luck with a different press).

Note that up until the moment of peer review or advance contract, you are free to (and probably should) be in talks with multiple editors and presses in order to suss out the best home for your book. As long as you are transparent with everyone that that’s what you’re doing, there is no problem with this at all. If an editor thinks your project is particularly appealing and recognizes that they will have to compete for it with other editors, you’re in a strong negotiating position and may be able to get them to agree to waive exclusivity during the peer review process.

Step 3: The reviews come back

This will likely be a big moment of decision for the acquiring editor. These are some possible scenarios:

  • The reviews come back largely positive and the editor decides to move forward with seeking a contract offer for you from their editorial board.

  • The editor doesn’t think the reviews are strong enough to get approval for a contract, but they still believe in the project. They may ask you to revise the manuscript and resubmit for a second round of review. (Again, a developmental editor can be helpful at this point.)

  • The editor thinks the criticisms in the reviews can be addressed through a response letter from you that will assure the editorial board that you can fix the problems in revision and gain their approval for an advance contract before another round of review.

  • The editor finds the reviews negative enough that they don’t feel sufficiently confident in the project to move forward. In this case, you’ll go back to Step 1 with any other presses you may be considering.

This is a moment for you to make a decision as well. Do you like the direction the press and reviewers want you to take the project? Are you confident you can address the requested revisions? Have you felt respected and informed throughout the acquisitions process so far? If you have hesitation about any of these questions, you may want to communicate these to the editor. You might decide to pull the project from this press or temporarily put it on hold while you seek responses from other editors and presses.

Step 4: The press’s editorial board approves the offer of a contract

When you receive the contract, take the opportunity to ask your acquiring editor lots of questions. Your editor should be able to explain everything in the contract and clarify anything you don’t understand. You may be able to negotiate on certain aspects, but bear in mind that publishing contracts tend to be boilerplate and press policy may not leave much latitude to accommodate special author requests. The date for submission of your final manuscript? There’s probably wiggle room on that. Your royalty percentage? That one may be tougher to move the needle on. Again, it doesn’t hurt to ask politely to alter or strike specific clauses, but be prepared for your editor to tell you they can’t really budge on some things. This is your last chance to walk away if you come up against something that’s a dealbreaker for you.

(If you received an advance contract before submitting the full manuscript, there may be one more round of peer review to go through before the final version is accepted for publication. Don’t worry about this—it’s usually just one final check and you’ll have the opportunity to address any concerns that come up.)

In looking over this whole process, it may seem like the acquisitions editor functions as a gatekeeper who stands between you and your publishing goals. It’s valid to feel that way, but it might be more productive to view editors as they tend to see themselves, as brokers who advocate for both authors and readers in order to bring quality scholarship to attentive audiences. Once you’ve managed to engage the interest of an editor, they should operate as an ally for you, shepherding your book project from concept to contract to publication. Often, editors will spend a good deal of time talking with authors about projects and even offering developmental advice pre-contract; that’s labor they undertake on spec, because until a contract is in place you’re free to walk away from their press. You’re not obligated to publish with an editor who invests this kind of effort in your project, but don’t take them for granted and always be transparent about your plans.

I hope that learning to relate to acquiring editors in this way and understanding the ins and outs of the acquisition process laid out above will help you feel more confident when it comes time to seek a contract for your book! If you have specific questions I didn’t answer here, you can always feel free to reply to this newsletter or ask me over on Twitter. And if you’re an acquisitions editor and think there’s something else prospective authors should understand about what you do, please let me know and I’ll help spread the word.