Q&A: More on comps, following up with editors, and whether it's terrible if your editor leaves your press while your book is under review

Hi Manuscript Workers!

Today’s newsletter will be another Q&A. These are all questions that authors have emailed me and that I thought others might find helpful to see answers to. (I will do more of these Q&A newsletters in the future, so feel free to send questions any time. You can simply respond to this email and it will come directly to my inbox.)

E. asks: I would like to ask a follow up question to this newsletter about comparable works. Since I’m submitting a proposal for a monograph, is it appropriate to add a couple of edited books on a related topic in this section? And a second question: how recent should these books be – or: how old is too old?

My answer: Yes, you can add edited books because they establish that a readership exists on your topic, and recently published edited volumes may speak to a growing area of interest within your field. Edited volumes are not necessarily comparable in terms of sales potential, so do include several comparable monographs as well.

For all your comparable works, try to stick with books published in the last 5 years. The more recent the better, because you are trying to establish your book as having something to offer to current, ongoing conversations (as opposed to conversations that were hot 10 or 20 years ago, which readers and editors might be tired of at this point). If there are a couple older titles that could serve as really illuminating points of reference for what you’re doing in your book, and you think they’ll help an editor understand your book better, you can go ahead and include them. But I would acknowledge their age and take the opportunity to talk about how your book offers something updated that will interest today’s readers. And make sure your list is mostly weighted toward more recent titles.

F. asks: I was solicited by the editors of a new series at a press to submit. They reviewed my proposal and sample chapters and then passed them onto the press's editor for consideration, who expressed interest in seeing the whole manuscript. I sent that in to the series editors about three weeks ago (as of right now). So a) at what point should I do a progress check-in and b) how will the press editor's perspective differ from the series editors? It's my understanding that series editors serve more as topic experts who identify interesting prospective authors, while the press editor considers more pragmatic concerns as well (possible sales, press fit, etc). However, I don't know how much he'll also take into account the series editors' endorsement.

My answer: You’re right on about the difference between series editors and acquisitions editor. It’s really hard to predict how much weight the series editors’ endorsement will carry, as this will inevitably vary by series, editor, project, etc. But having their endorsement is great, and you’ve done what you can at this point.

As far as a progress check-in, I would assume that the series editor did pass the full manuscript along to the acquisitions editor. What’s probably happening behind the scenes right now is that the acquisitions editor a) is drowning in email and projects and hasn’t had a chance to look at the manuscript at all yet; or b) has looked at the manuscript and is talking to others at the press and/or crunching some numbers to see if they think the book will work at the press; or c) wants to publish the book and is seeking peer reviewers so the acquisitions process can move forward. If it’s C, that’s definitely something they should be in communication with you about, but it’s happened to my clients countless times that editors move ahead with peer review without actually keeping the author in the loop that it’s happening (which is not great, because authors may think they need to consider moving on to another press when they don’t hear anything).

I would wait until a month has gone by since sending your manuscript to the series editors and then politely check in for a status update. Not to demand a decision but just to see how it’s going. If you’ve been in direct contact with the acquisitions editor before, I’d probably check in with him directly to make sure he received the manuscript, but if everything has been routing through the series editors to this point, then you could just check in with them (since that may be how all the editors prefer to handle correspondence with authors).

G. asks: Would you be able to address how editors handle authors who get contracts before finishing their manuscript? I am curious to know how editors set deadlines for prospective authors. Would you advise someone to approach an editor with a half baked manuscript or wait until the manuscript is written then go fishing for an editor?

My answer: Figuring out when in your manuscript-writing process to approach editors is one of the trickiest things for authors, as indicated by the fact that this is one of the most frequent questions I receive. I have a previous newsletter that covers this topic; it will hopefully help you decide at what point you’re most comfortable approaching editors and possibly pursuing an advance contract. If you’re looking for information about how the acquisitions process generally works and where advance contracts fit into it, this post might help as well.

As far as setting deadlines, editors tend to defer to authors to set their own deadlines, though they may suggest one to you. If you approach with a partial manuscript, the editor will depend on you to give a realistic date by which you’ll be ready to submit the full manuscript. If you are offered an advance contract, a submission date for the full manuscript will be specified in the contract. It’s pretty normal to have a due date that’s 6 months, a year, a year and a half out. If you think it will take you longer, and the editor is very interested in signing your book, they may be fine with an even later deadline. They may also say, “Ok, it sounds like this book will take a while to finish and may evolve quite a bit in that time. Our publishing agenda may change in that time as well. We’re interested, but come back to us when you’re closer to the end and we’ll talk about a contract at that point.” (They might not say it in exactly these words, but this’ll be the subtext if they decline to move forward with a contract but tell you to come back with a full manuscript later on.)

If you’re thinking of more casual deadlines, like when you reach out to an editor and mutually agree that you’ll send them a couple chapters in a few months, or something like that, then everything’s much more loose. Editors are very experienced with academic authors who take longer than expected to get back in touch with drafts. I’ve talked to so many authors who say “I told this editor I’d be back in touch in February but I’m nowhere near ready to show them something, have I totally blown it?” or “I told this editor I’d be in touch last summer and now it’s February and I never followed up, have I totally blown it?” and my answer is always “You haven’t blown it, just get in touch when you’re ready!” Is it possible your editor will be less excited about your project at this point in time? Yes, that’s always possible. But you can’t know that without checking in, so just show back up and try to pick up the conversation again when you’re ready. You’ll be no worse off than if you don’t follow up at all out of some misplaced sense of personal shame.

H. asks: Should I include references and a bibliography with my book proposal?

My answer: If you directly reference other writers in your proposal materials, then yes, you should credit those writers properly. If you’re citing figures or other data that comes from other publications, yes, include references for those (or at least make very clear where the data is coming from, even if you don’t include a formal citation). If you’re mentioning other writers and their ideas as a way to situate yourself in a scholarly conversation, then I think it’s sort of a gray area. Some people make a formal reference list for these works, some don’t. It’s never wrong to include a reference list, if it will help your readers locate what you’re talking about. Your peer reviewers in particular may appreciate having a centralized list of the thinkers who are so important to your project that you had to mention them in your prospectus. That said, you may not find yourself talking much about other writers in your prospectus, and that’s also fine.

If the only books and writers you mention by name are those in your comparable titles list, you don’t need a bibliography for those. Just make the publication info—author’s name, book title, publisher, and year of publication—clear within your discussion.

If you are submitting sample chapters with your prospectus, then there should definitely be a bibliography for any works referenced within the chapters.

I. asks: I sent my book proposal to a press; they were very enthusiastic and sent the proposal and sample chapters out for review. I am still waiting on the reader reports, but in the meantime, my editor has gone on leave and my project has been reassigned to a more junior editor at the press. Is that a terrible thing to have happened to my book?

My answer: It’s not the most ideal situation in the world to have your book assigned to a different editor than the one you started with, but it’s also not necessarily terrible. The acquisitions editor serves as your book’s advocate within the publisher. So if your original editor was very enthusiastic and the new editor feels no connection to the book and isn’t much inclined to fight for it, that could be bad. It may also not be optimal for the editor advocating for your book to be less experienced, because they may not have as much strategic acumen or carry as much weight with the people who make publication decisions (like the press’s editorial board). Those are big hypotheticals though, so it doesn’t much help you to worry about them on your end at this point. It might be that the new editor is an even more ardent champion for your project and is very hungry to fight for new acquisitions, so it could be a great situation, we don’t know!

My advice would be to wait for the reader reports to come back and then schedule a phone conversation or Zoom meeting with your new editor. Ask the questions you feel you need to to get a sense of whether this editor is the right partner for your book. If you feel comfortable moving forward with this editor and press, then great, keep going! If you don’t, you can still try take the project elsewhere once peer review is complete. You will need to go through the peer review process all over again at a new press, but if you really don’t feel the first press is the right fit without the original editor, then that may be what you need to do for your book.

I would be transparent about the situation with any new editors you approach. You can say that the proposal has been reviewed by another press but that ultimately you didn’t feel it was the right fit; you can explain that your first editor left so it’s clear that the circumstances were beyond your control. Then just be sure to make the case that you feel your book could be a good fit for the new press, giving evidence (like similar books they’ve recently published) to support your pitch. Good luck!

Alright, keep the questions coming! Don’t forget to spread the word about Princeton University Press’s Book Proposal Development Grants. I will have a fun personal announcement to share in next week’s newsletter. See you then!