One of the scariest parts of scholarly publishing is waiting for the peer reviewers’ reports to come back, culminating in that suspenseful moment when your acquisitions editor sends you the reports and you get to see what the experts honestly thought of your work. Some editors will provide helpful commentary to frame the reports for you, while others will give only cryptically gesture at what they think of the reports, and others will just send a terse “see attached” email, leaving you totally in the dark as to the path forward. If the reports are so doubtful about the project that the editor isn’t comfortable moving forward with you, I hope they’ll tell you that directly. In all other cases, you can assume that you will be expected to write up a response to the reports. Don’t assume that negative feedback—even with no softening from the editor—means the press won’t publish your book! If your editor is giving you an opportunity to respond to the reports—even if that opportunity just looks like them sending you the reports and providing no further guidance—that means they do see the potential in your book. Your response is your chance to make the case that you can rise to that potential. Your editor may even be testing you a little bit to see how you respond to criticism and whether you can put ego aside to produce the best book possible. So what do you need to know in order to craft a compelling response?
Way back in my first blog post about academic publishing, I mentioned that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to responding to the reader reports on the proposal for my first book. This is a problem first-time authors commonly face, because you’re expected to write a document—a response letter—that you may have never seen an example of in your life! If you have friends who have been through the book publishing process before, see if they’ll share their response letters with you so you can see a model or two that worked out. (In my next newsletter, I’ll give you a template you can use as a starting point for your own response letter when the time comes.) I’m also going to share with you here four misconceptions about reader reports that trip authors up when it comes to writing their responses:
Misconception #1: Peer reviewers decide your book’s fate with the publisher.
Peer review is a significant aspect of the scholarly publishing process. It’s what sets university presses and other academic publishers apart from the rest of the publishing world. So the input of experts in your field does matter to the decision of whether or not a press wants to take on the publication of your manuscript. However, the word of the peer reviewers is not final. For one thing, your editor will be gathering reviews from at least two different scholars, and if their assessments contradict each other or are otherwise ambiguous, the editor will probably get at least one additional reviewer to come on board, maybe more. So the negative opinion of one reviewer is not a death knell for your project. Even if all the reviewers agree in their criticism of the submitted materials, that doesn’t mean your project is doomed. Keep in mind that peer reviewers are asked to make recommendations about publication, not decisions. Decisions are made internally at the press. Your editor will take your submission materials, along with the reader reports and your response, to their press’s publications committee (or similar body—different publishers call it different things), and make the case for publication to the people who actually do get to decide. If your response helps your editor demonstrate convincingly that you have the ability to satisfactorily address the concerns voiced by the reviewers, that can go a long way toward keeping your project in play.
Misconception #2: Your response has to show why your peer reviewers’ negative feedback is wrong.
Notice in my previous point that I said your editor needs to believe you can address the reviewers’ concerns if they have them. That’s a very different thing than “your editor needs to believe the reviewers are mistaken in their concerns.” Authors are often tempted to treat the response to reader reports as a rebuttal, but that’s not the right move here. You will be much more effective if you use your response to demonstrate that you can use the reader reports strategically to improve your manuscript. You can overcome even a pretty negative report if you craft your response well! This is also an opportunity to show your editor and their colleagues that you are a willing collaborator who can make and execute a revision plan. When you write up your response, select a few of the reviewers’ criticisms that you think may actually have been merited and explain, in concrete terms, how you will revise the manuscript to address those criticisms. Say things like, “I will expand the middle section of Chapter 2 to fulfill Reviewer 1’s suggestion that I include more information on X,” to show that you have given real, practical thought to how you will execute the revisions. Include a specific timeline that shows just how doable the revisions will be for you.
If there are big issues brought up by the reviewers that you just don’t agree with, you can respond to those as well. But again, be strategic in your approach. It’s not about belaboring how wrong they are, but rather about acknowledging the reviewer’s position respectfully and showing how your vision for the book will result in something successful even if it doesn’t totally match theirs. Remember, again, that it’s not the reviewer you need to convince.
Misconception #3: You have to do everything the reviewers tell you to.
Hey, remember when I said that reviewers don’t get to make decisions about your book, just recommendations? That doesn’t just apply to the decision whether to publish, it also applies to the specific feedback they give you about the book’s content. To paraphrase Cher Horowitz, reader reports are just “a jumping off point to start negotiations.” By that I mean that you can usually pick and choose which of the reviewer’s suggestions you will take on board and which you’ll respectfully decline. Even if you entirely disagree with a reviewer’s understanding of your project, you can probably find something to spin into a constructive direction for revision. Say, for instance, that Reviewer 2 says that your research methods are questionable and the study in its current form is entirely unpublishable. Rather than believing that this means you need to redesign your entire study, you can respond with something like “I appreciate Reviewer 2’s comments about method, and I believe they indicate that I need to clarify the methodological underpinnings of my research and why they are appropriate to the research questions at hand. I will add several paragraphs on this matter in the introduction chapter.” Remember that you are an expert, and lean on your own expertise when deciding what changes should be made to the manuscript.
Misconception #4: You have to have an answer for everything the reviewers say.
When your editor asks you to write a response to the reader reports, they’re probably not looking for a 10-page itemized breakdown of every little piece of feedback the reviewers gave you. You can ask your editor what they expect, just to be sure, but in all likelihood, they’re looking for you to outline your revision plan in the space of two to three pages, max. You can focus on big picture matters—changes to the chapter order, chunks of content that you plan to insert or remove, broad stylistic revisions—without getting into the minutia of the phrasing Reviewer 3 wants you to change on p. 156.
Hopefully you now feel a bit less mystified about how to approach your response to your reader reports. If you want a pair of experienced eyes on your reports or on your response, please feel free to get in touch! I’m here to help you make a revision plan or to help you draft your response if you’re lost.
Did you notice that there was no newsletter last week? I’m transitioning the frequency of the Manuscript Works newsletter to once-every-two-weeks for now, but I’ve got some good stuff planned for the coming months (like that template for the response to reader reports), so I hope you won’t mind a less cluttered inbox for the time being.
You can sign up for the January session of the Manuscript Works Book Proposal Accelerator here. If you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get your book proposal drafted soon but just haven’t been able to make the time yet, this session will pull you through the entire process in a single month. Even if you don’t end up with a perfectly polished proposal at the end, you’ll definitely have enough to start talking with acquisitions editors and get the ball rolling on your next book! May I suggest signing up with a friend so you’ll have an accountability buddy?
Questions? Ask me here or over on Twitter!
Finally, congrats to my client Morgan G. Ames, whose book The Charisma Machine is now out from MIT Press in their Infrastructures series (which also features another fascinating client book, Documenting Aftermath by Megan Finn). Ames’s book is a timely takedown of the kind of technological utopianism that presumes tech is up to the task of solving deeper social problems like poverty and inequality, told through a historical and ethnographic tracing of the One Laptop per Child program. Well worth a read!