Scholarly publishing is full of norms and conventions that are taken for granted by those who know the ropes and are simultaneously largely unknown to emerging scholars. For instance, many authors don’t know that they can submit a scholarly book proposal to multiple presses at the same time. Perhaps the misconception that you can only submit to one publisher at a time comes from authors’ experience with journals, where it is indeed unethical to submit the same paper to multiple journals simultaneously. But book publishing works differently; scholarly publishers recognize that they may have to compete for an appealing project or author, and thus authors can hang onto a little tiny bit of power and self-determination in this situation.
I always urge my clients to talk to multiple publishers when they are preparing to submit their book proposal. I also always advise them to submit their proposal to multiple presses. Here are some reasons why:
Different editors are different. They will understand your project in different ways and treat you differently on a human level. Interfacing with multiple editors helps you see who is really the right person to shepherd your book to publication. So often in academia, scholars (especially marginalized ones) are forced to put up with mistreatment and disrespect from people in positions of power. Unfortunately, scholarly publishing is not immune to the toxic dynamics that we know from other parts of the academy, but in this one instance, you are in the driver’s seat. If you can get interest from multiple presses, you will be able to recognize good treatment in comparison to bad and to choose your publisher accordingly.
Plans change. You may have received strong interest in your book from a wonderful editor at your dream publisher. And then that person switches jobs or retires or stops answering email or just drags their feet when it comes time to solicit peer reviews or finalize your contract. Putting your eggs in a few different baskets will make you less vulnerable to these kind of unforeseen complications.
Competition = speed. If an editor thinks they will have to compete for your book, they have an incentive to move more quickly through the submission, review, and offer processes. They are also more likely to agree to simultaneous review, meaning that they will review your proposal and/or manuscript at the same time that other presses are doing so. (Some presses have a policy of exclusive review, meaning that they won’t do this. If you tell your editor that you have submitted your proposal to multiple presses, they should let you know whether they are ok with simultaneous review or not. It doesn’t hurt to double check on this if an editor says they want to send your materials out for review.)
Competition = money (sometimes). If an editor expects you to get multiple offers, they may try to negotiate a higher advance on royalties for you when they seek approval from their board to offer you a contract. Having multiple offers in hand will also allow you to negotiate a better advance for yourself. Most scholarly authors are not really in it for the money, but a little cash up front is always nice, and the higher your advance, the more incentive the publisher has to steer marketing and publicity resources toward your book. Now, scholarly publishers don’t have huge budgets, so don’t expect too much money to be in play here. And a press that’s perfect for you and your book in every other way may not be able to offer you much financially, so I wouldn’t let this be the only factor in your decision.
Are there any drawbacks to simultaneous submission? One might argue that if you really have one press and editor you want to work with, they will be more eager to work with you and more invested in your book if you give them an exclusive. Call me cynical, but I don’t think that’s a risk worth taking (see point 2, above), unless you’re in a position where you’re not under time pressure to get your book out (a situation which applies to approximately none of my academic clients). Worst case scenario, you submit to multiple publishers and the one you like the best says they won’t move forward unless you pull the submission from other presses. They’re perfectly justified in doing so, because it does take money and resources to put a proposal through review. You’ll have to send a few emails at that point (which is why I wouldn’t initially submit to too many presses), but you won’t be in a worse position with the press than you were before.
Overall, the negative stories from my clients who locked in with a press or editor that wasn’t right for them, combined with the positive stories from my clients who have negotiated offers from multiple presses, put me squarely in the “simultaneous submission forever” camp.
One thing to remember: transparency is a must. You should mention in your proposal or cover letter that you are submitting to multiple presses. And if things happen to move quickly with one of the publishers, you can update the others to let them know where things stand. An editor who has expressed interest in your project will appreciate knowing if someone else is proceeding with peer review or if you have an offer already.
One more thing to remember: when I say simultaneous submission, I mean that you are pitching the same book project simultaneously. The actual proposal you submit should be tailored to each publisher. You’ll want to make sure your submission to each publisher conforms to their specific formatting requirements and makes a specific case for the fit between your project and each press you submit to. This is another reason not to target too many publishers in your first round of submissions. Three to five is a good number and won’t make too much extra work for yourself.
What camp do you fall into regarding simultaneous submissions? Whether you ultimately decide to shop your scholarly book proposal to multiple presses or just one, I hope you’ll feel empowered knowing that, as an author, you have some choice in the matter.
We’re talking target presses in Week 1 of the fall session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator right now. Enrollment is now closed for this session, but you can sign up for the super-accelerated winter break session any time.