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Pitching an Interdisciplinary Book
Hi Manuscript Workers,
Today’s newsletter topic is one I receive questions about frequently. A lot of you out there are writing books that traverse multiple fields or are envisioning readers with diverse interests finding something of value in your research.
This is all great, until it comes time to find a publisher. I’ve emphasized the importance of getting the fit right when you send out a book proposal or letter of inquiry, but getting the fit right is tricky when it your book feels like it could fit in a lot of different places. There’s also the danger that a book with aspects that could plausibly fit in many places won’t feel like a perfect fit for any one place.
In today’s newsletter I want to address some of the most common concerns and questions authors have about pitching interdisciplinary books. I hope you’ll find this information useful and that it will increase your chances of making a compelling case to publishers that your interdisciplinary book is indispensable for a clear set of readers.
What is an interdisciplinary book?
First, we need to establish what kind of interdisciplinarity we’re talking about. Jason Weidemann, editorial director of University of Minnesota Press, articulated this really helpfully when he did a guest Q&A in my Book Proposal Accelerator program. He explained that there are books that draw on interdisciplinary literatures and books that make interdisciplinary contributions, and that these are not always the same thing.
Depending on your book’s topic, you might have done background reading in a lot of different fields. For example, for my first book—a monograph on the lifestyle practices of anarchist activists—I drew on literature from anarchist philosophy, feminist theory, social movement history, sociology of social movements, consumer culture studies, and communication and cultural studies (my home field). However, I would not say that my book attempted to make a significant intervention in all of those fields. It could certainly be read by scholars in any of those fields, particularly if they took a special interest in the topic, but I wasn’t specifically trying to make an argument that would change how people think in every one of those fields.
When it comes to your book, you’ll want to get clear for yourself on whose thinking you want to change. Many diverse readers may find something of interest in your book, but for the purposes of pitching it to a scholarly publisher, you’ll want to focus on one type of reader (i.e. readers in one particular area of study) as the primary audience who will need to read this book. At certain presses, you can stretch this to two or three types of readers. More than that and it gets difficult to argue that your book truly pushes thinking forward in all those fields.
Sometimes your primary readership is itself a fundamentally interdisciplinary one. In other words, you might be speaking specifically to other scholars who sit at a particular intersection of multiple fields. Depending on the fields, this can be limiting in terms of the potential size of your audience.
To go back to my first book as an example, had my book been preoccupied with a question that would only matter to scholars of both communication and anarchist philosophy, it would have been hard to find more than a dozen readers, let alone a publisher who was interested in reaching those 12 people.
If your intersection is broader — maybe your book has theoretical implications for scholars of both literature and Black studies, for example — you may well be able to find a publisher who is interested in reaching that particular overlapping set of readers. Several publishers have strong lists in both literature and Black Studies, so I would start with those when you’re ready to pitch. (A “list” is a subject area that the press explicitly specializes in and puts out many books related to. You can usually find a press’s lists or subject area specialties listed on their website.)
Some scholars think of their books as interdisciplinary because they want to include various chapters that appeal to different disciplinary audiences. They might say something like “the first 2 chapters of my manuscript are aimed at historians of religion while the last 3 chapters are for queer theorists.” A book framed in this way is going to be a tough sell for a publisher. In order to market a book effectively, the publisher has to show a well-defined set of readers that the whole book is necessary to their work. They may not have the resources or inclination to create different marketing pitches for completely different audiences. And, even if the publisher could reach those separate audiences, readers may not be willing to spend $30 on a book that they can only use a couple of chapters from.
If the structure of your manuscript currently looks like this, my advice would be to rethink it. You could decide to focus on one primary audience for the book and cut the chapters that wouldn’t be relevant to them (possibly publishing them elsewhere). Or you could take more care to weave in certain through-lines and framing in every chapter so that all readers feel connected to every chapter. That might mean rethinking the way you’ve organized the chapters or it might mean figuring out why the queer theorists will find the religious history chapters interesting (and vice versa) and highlighting those threads a bit more across your manuscript and in your proposal.
How do I find the right publisher for my interdisciplinary book?
When choosing a publisher to target for your book project, it’s important to get clear on the intervention or contribution you want to make and which readers will most appreciate it. To give another hypothetical example, you might have read a lot of medical history for your book on the politics of fertility technologies. But if your main intervention is not historical — maybe your argument is more relevant to science and technology scholars, for instance — you probably won’t have much luck with a publisher whose main connection to your work is their list in medical history, even if you cite a lot of their books in your bibliography.
The problem with pitching a book that draws on medical history but does not deeply engage with that field is that the peer reviewers that that press can find for your book probably won’t fully “get” the project. They may recommend rejection or give you completely unhelpful feedback. You’ll be better off targeting publishers with strengths in STS — their reviewers and editorial board may not know as much of the medical history that you cite, but they’ll be better able to endorse the soundness of your argument and give you tips that will actually improve your manuscript. If you can find a publisher with large lists in both fields, that would be ideal (though this is not always possible).
Some books make an argument or contribution that really cannot be put in a disciplinary box. These books are usually read most receptively by other scholars who don’t work in disciplinary boxes either. If you’re writing a book like that, you will probably have the most luck pitching presses that are explicitly invested in interdisciplinarity or nondisciplinarity. Duke University Press, the University of Minnesota Press, and University of California Press are well-known examples of presses that welcome interdisciplinary projects. (I’m sure there are others out there as well — editors, feel free to let me know if I should add your press to this list.)
You may also have luck with a press or series that specializes in your topic and is at least open to interdisciplinarity. For instance, I published my first book in a Contemporary Anarchist Studies series that welcomed feminist approaches to the topic.
If you find a series that seems topically relevant to your project, take a look at the fields its previous authors come from. If you’re an anthropologist who studies Latin America, and you find a Latin American Studies series, make sure that the series has published other anthropologists, versus, say, all historians. (If the call for proposals explicitly says they’re open to anthropological approaches, then it still might be worth pitching even if you don’t see any anthropologists on the list yet.)
What if I want to publish with a press that’s not particularly known for publishing interdisciplinary books?
You might have valid reasons for wanting to pitch a press that is seen as a leader in a specific discipline. Perhaps you’re employed in a conventional disciplinary department or plan to seek jobs in that kind of department. There may be certain types of presses that are most respected in those departments and will thus be the most helpful for your job prospects or tenure case. For example, if you’re writing an interdisiplinary book but are hoping to be employed in the field of political science, you may be quite invested in pitching political science editors at Princeton University Press, Cornell UP, or Cambridge UP.
If you’re pitching a press with specific disciplinary strengths, you can modulate your pitch to address the strengths of that press. Maybe your political science book would also be of great interest to scholars of South Asia. Look at the subject areas published by your target political science presses. Do they also have a large list in South Asian studies? If so, then you can play up the dual appeal of your book to both readerships. If not, then you can mention scholars of South Asia as a secondary audience, but focus your proposal more closely on the contribution your book will make to the field of political science and its indispensability for that readership.
On the other hand, maybe your training was in political science but you find the conversations happening in South Asian studies to be much more vital and see that field as your intellectual home. In that case, you might not emphasize your political science contributions as much in your proposal, and your list of target presses might shift a bit to focus on the publishers that put out the best books on South Asia, regardless of their reputations in political science.
As much as you might not personally care about disciplinary investments or publisher reputations, you should at least be aware that other people do care and this could affect the value your book ends up holding for your career. My first book having been published in a Contemporary Anarchist Studies series within a Politics list at my publisher likely did not help me very much when I went on the job market in communication and media studies. (It all worked out for the best for me, but I now realize I could have been more savvy about it had I wanted to stay in academia.)
What if I can’t find any books on my topic at the presses I’m interested in publishing with?
Interdisiplinary projects are often very unique in terms of subject matter. Your topic might not be instantly recognizable as something that has ever been written about by a scholarly author. This can stymie you when you’re trying to figure out which publishers might be interested in it. The good news is that you don’t have to find presses that have already published on your precise topic.
Again, what you’ll have to do is get clarity for yourself on the broader contribution you want your work to make. What wider lessons can be gleaned from your findings? Who will find those lessons compelling and applicable to their own work, even if that work is topically distinct from yours? Maybe no one has ever published a scholarly book on media representations of the specific sexual subculture you’re writing about, but is there something bigger that your work has to say to the field of sexuality studies? Or media studies? Or some other field? Make that bigger thing clear in your proposal and then target presses that publish other books in sexuality studies or media studies or whatever field(s) you want to be speaking to.
It’s fine to acknowledge that your research is unique when you pitch your book to publishers. But the onus is also on you to demonstrate that there is a readership out there ready and waiting for a book like yours. The number of readers who are intrinsically interested in your niche topic might be fairly small, so you’ll need to articulate why people who don’t already hold that intrinsic interest will be drawn to purchase your book.
If you don’t know yet who will be drawn to your book or why, start getting out there and talking to people about your work. Present parts of your book at different types of conferences, submit to different types of journals, join different kinds of working groups, and see who responds most productively. Dialoguing with other scholars can be the most effective and most rewarding way to find out what makes your work special.
How do I come up with comparable titles for my interdisciplinary book?
When I work with scholarly authors on their book proposals, the list of comparable books is often a sticking point for interdisciplinary projects. For a book on a unique and unprecedented topic, it can be hard to identify any comps at all.
My advice in that situation follows on from what I said in the above. You can choose other books in the broader fields that you would situate your topic within, even if they are not topically identical. Think about the readers you hope to attract and what books they’ve been excited about recently. Highlight what your book has in common with those books as well as the fresh insights your unique topic or approach will bring to the readers of those books.
Some interdisciplinary authors have the opposite problem — it’s not that they can’t come up with any comps, it’s that they have too many. They can come up with several books in 5 different fields that all have something in common with their book.
The problem with an eclectic comps list is that it may not paint a cohesive picture of your target audience for your publisher. The publisher may only specialize in one or two of the fields you’re drawing comps from. In that case, the books from other fields aren’t really helpful in your proposal — they could even signal to a press that your book won’t be seen as a necessary purchase by the readers they normally market to. The publishing truism that “a book for everyone may be a book for no one” applies here.
If you find yourself with an eclectic comps list that doesn’t make a cohesive case for your book’s fit at your target press, I recommend that you trim your list to focus on books that appeal to one or two primary audiences. You’ll want those primary audiences to match the press you’re targeting. For example, if your book could be of interest to China scholars, media scholars, and environmental scholars, but your target press doesn’t really have a list in environmental studies, don’t worry so much about putting comps from that field on your list. You also don’t need to emphasize that audience very heavily in your proposal.
What if I accidentally wrote an interdisciplinary dissertation and now I can’t figure out how to make it legible as a marketable book?
Maybe when you wrote your dissertation you weren’t too concerned about sticking closely within a particular area of scholarship, but now that it’s time to pitch your book you’re running into the issue of not being able to find a publisher that seems like a good fit. Maybe you’ve talked to a few editors and none of them seem to get what you’re trying to do or they are urging you to take the manuscript in a direction that’s not exciting to you at all. Aside from scrapping the dissertation altogether, there are a couple approaches you can take.
One approach is to figure out which field you really want to establish yourself in and revise the dissertation to emphasize the through-lines and arguments that are most relevant to that field. Most dissertations require revision and some new research anyway, so you can be more intentional about the direction you go in when you do all that. Once you’ve made these revisions (or at least have a revision plan in place), you could try talking to editors again and see if you get better responses.
Another approach is to stay solidly interdisciplinary but just be more strategic in your pitch. As I mentioned above, you can craft your proposal to emphasize the specific contributions and readerships that are likely to be most compelling to a particular target press. Be prepared that some peer reviewers still may not fully appreciate what you’ve done in the manuscript, but if you get reviewers who are receptive to your eclectic approach (or an editor who understands why you might not take on all of a peer reviewer’s more disciplinary feedback), it may be ok.
I’ve thrown a lot at you here, so let me boil this down to some key steps you need to take if you want to publish an interdisciplinary book:
Articulate the main scholarly contribution you want your book to make
Identify the readers you most care about reaching
Research publishers to get a sense of which fields they’re invested in advancing and which readers they have a track record of marketing books to
Thoughtfully craft your proposal and any communications you have with your target publisher to show how your book makes sense among what they are currently publishing, even if it’s not identical to anything currently out there
While I’ve tried to offer some ways you can adapt your pitch to the publishers you’re targeting to make your book look as legible and marketable as possible, it’s also important to stay true to the book you want to write. It will take years of your life to write it, and then you’ll also have to promote it and explain how it fits into your research or writing career for years afterward. Only you can decide what kinds of compromises might be worth it to you as you navigate your publishing journey.
Because this topic so nuanced and authors’ questions about it can be very situation-specific, I’m wondering if it might be helpful to host a public workshop on it sometime in the future. Maybe next spring? I’d give a brief overview and then open it up to questions so I can help you strategize how to frame your book and approach publishers about it. If you’d be interested in something like that, please let me know! You can reply directly to this email.
If you’re looking for some more immediate, structured support with the bullet point steps I laid out above, you might want to check out my Book Proposal Shortcut for Busy Scholars.
It’s a self-paced online program with modules that will help you articulate your audience, comps, argument, pitch to editors, and more. You can also see sample proposals and letters that worked at various scholarly publishers and get my perspective and advice along the way.
You can find more details about the program here, and I’m always happy to answer questions if you aren’t sure whether it’s quite the right fit for your needs. You can reply to my newsletter emails any time.
See you next week!