Questions for Acquisitions Editors

What to find out before you commit to a publisher for your scholarly book

Hi Manuscript Workers,

If you’re an academic who’s never published a book before, you’ve probably at some point been told that you should be talking directly to acquisitions editors and making connections to enhance your odds of getting published. Easy advice to give, much harder advice to take, in my experience. In my last newsletter message, I gave you my big tip for making “casual” interactions with acquisitions editors feel less scary. In a nutshell: turn the tables and interview them, rather than feeling like you’re being put on the spot to talk about yourself.

Changing your approach to a chat with an editor could be all that you need to take the anxiety out of this step of the publishing process, in which case, good for you! But maybe that advice was still a bit too vague for some of you. Maybe you’re the kind of person who gets tongue-tied when you meet someone new and important. Maybe you’d like a little more guidance on how to use an informal chat with an editor as an opportunity to learn about them and whether you might want to partner with them on your book. If so, this post is for you.

I’m going to give you a bunch of questions and topics you can discuss with an acquisitions editor in an informal conversation. Some of these might be obvious to you already, and some may be things you didn’t realize you could or should find out before committing to an editor or publisher. Every author is different and has different needs, so you can focus on the items that feel most relevant to your situation.

It might help to think of the potential questions you could ask as falling into four main categories: really general questions about scholarly publishing; general questions about how things work at their press; specific questions about how things would work for your book at their press; questions about this particular editor’s interests and expertise. Now let me explain these a bit more and give you some examples in each category.

  1. Really general questions about scholarly publishing

    Examples:

    What goes in a scholarly book proposal?

    What are the differences between a dissertation and a book?

    What’s the difference between scholarly and trade publishing?

    How does the peer review process work?

If you’ve been a regular reader of this newsletter, I’m guessing that you’ve already made a point to be informed about scholarly publishing in general, in which case you may not need to take up the time you have with an acquisitions editor asking these types of questions. (For instance, if you need to know what goes in a book proposal, I’ve totally got you.) But you can still ask an editor if there’s anything you’re not clear on. Recognize that a given editor’s answers may reflect their own particular experiences and preferences with scholarly publishing which may not be universal across editors and presses.

  1. General questions about how things work at their press

    Examples:

    What kinds of promotion does the press typically engage in for their books?

    What formats do they publish scholarly books in? How likely is it that your book would be published in paperback, ebook, audiobook, etc.?

    How many copies do they typically expect to sell in each format?

    What’s a typical price point for their books?

    Do they support digital or open access publishing of any kind?

    Do they have a strong trade program? How do they decide whether to promote a given scholarly book as a crossover/trade title?

    How long does peer review typically take at their press?

    Do they peer review proposals and issue advance contracts, or do they require a full manuscript before they’ll proceed with review and making offers?

    What kinds of writing samples do they accept with proposals? Would you need to submit actual draft chapters from your manuscript or would something previously published be ok?

    Do they have any manuscript length guidelines they can share with you?

You can also ask questions to suss out the press’s general commitment toward anti-racism, accessibility, and other dimensions of social justice. One way to do this would be to ask whether the press has a code of conduct in place to address issues that might arise during the peer review, production, and promotion processes. You might ask about the press’s efforts to recruit, support, and promote work by authors from underrepresented groups (you can be specific about the efforts and groups that particularly matter to you if you like). The editor should be able to answer any of these questions readily. If they’re not able to answer, or they seem in any way unenthused about your posing these types of questions, take note, because that’s valuable information to have before moving forward with this press.

  1. Specific questions about how things would work for your book at their press

    Examples:

    How do they see your book fitting with their publishing program? Are there any series they think would be appropriate for your book? What would be the benefits of publishing with those series?

    What do they see as the major contribution or sales appeal of your book?

    Does the editor have any initial ideas about format, packaging, and/or promotion that they could discuss with you?

    How do they envision their press helping you reach your book’s core readership?

    Are there any less obvious audiences they think your book might reach?

    Do they think your book has crossover/trade potential? How would that affect the way they package and promote it?

    Do they think an advance contract would be possible for your book? How soon could it be possible to issue a contract? (Know that some of the timeline will be out of their control, because it will depend on peer reviewers and possibly other factors.)

    What types of peer reviewers do they think would be good to solicit for your manuscript? What fields and areas of expertise does the editor see as bringing the perspective needed to fairly evaluate your project?

    Do they have any concerns about your project or suggestions they’d like to share with you before you formally submit a proposal?

I would wait to pose these kinds of questions until after you have a clear indication from the editor that they’re interested in your project and could see themselves moving forward with it. It’s probably best to stick to the more general questions until that point, so that you don’t come off as too presumptuous about the likelihood of publishing your book with them.

  1. Questions about this particular editor’s interests and experience

If you’re looking for a good conversation starter with an editor (perhaps especially if your chat is spontaneous and you’ve never interacted with the person at all before), two good questions to lead with are “what kinds of books are you excited about acquiring right now?” and “what books have you been working on that you’re excited to bring out soon?” You’ll be able to get a sense of what this editor’s interests are and possibly the directions their press is moving in. You may also be able to pick up on the vibe of how this editor thinks about their authors and books and what kinds of efforts their press puts into promotion.

You may also want to get a sense of how hands-on the editor tends to be with their authors. Do they regularly read drafts and give feedback? (Know that most scholarly acquisitions editors don’t have time to do this for most authors, so don’t necessarily write them off if they say they tend to be more hands-off.)

You can ask whether they’ve ever had a problem arise with an author or peer reviewer and how they handled it. Ask about specific types of problems if you have specific concerns. For example, you could ask whether they’ve ever received reader reports that seemed biased due to racism or sexism, whether they’ve found it difficult to get fair reviews of interdisciplinary projects in the past, whether they’ve had trouble with authors missing deadlines, etc. You can also what steps they took to make sure the author in question was treated equitably and respectfully.

I’ve given you a lot to think about and bring up with editors, but don’t feel that you need to ask all these questions in your first meeting with an editor (or ever, if some of the questions don’t feel relevant to your situation). You don’t want a conversation with an editor to feel too much like a one-sided interrogation, so I’d probably suggest focusing on the few things that are most important to you—that is, your dealbreakers—and letting other matters come up as your relationship with the editor and press develops. Keep in mind that once you sign a contract (even an advance contract) and commit to publishing your book with a specific press, you’re really committed. You don’t want to find out that your press or editor isn’t equipped to handle something that’s very important to you after the fact. So do get all your questions answered before you accept any offers or sign anything.

A good editor will want you to feel confident in working with their press. If they make you feel weird or ashamed for asking questions—especially if they make you feel like a specific thing that’s important to you is silly or not worth asking about—take that as a red flag that this may not be someone you want to spend the next few years of your life working with. If, conversely, they engage with you and seem to genuinely care about your publishing experience, that’s a sign that you’ve potentially found a great editor to partner with on your book.

I’d love to hear how your interactions with acquisitions editors go. I’m always here for shoutouts to generous editors who take the time to talk with authors, and equally here if you have an experience with an editor that feels off and you want some external perspective on it. You can reply to this email, DM me on Twitter, or email me at laura@manuscriptworks.com.


Coming up
Enrollment is now open for the next session of my Book Proposal Accelerator, which will run from January 8th to February 25th, 2021. You can find out more details and sign up here.