Revisiting the 7 Mistakes I Made When I Published My Academic Book

Hello and welcome to the Manuscript Works Newsletter! This is mostly going to be a place where I share new thoughts about about writing and publishing academic books, and from time to time I’ll announce new things I’m doing in my editorial business (without being spammy, I promise). For the next several weeks I’m also going to re-share some older advice I’ve previously posted on the internet, in case anyone here missed it the first time around.

I’m kicking that off with a link to a post I wrote on Medium almost exactly 3 years ago. In that post, I reflected on the “7 Mistakes I Made When I Published My Academic Book” (only 6 of which were actual mistakes). If you’ve ever Googled “academic book publishing,” you might have seen it already; it’s easily the most read thing I’ve ever written (except for this). While some people at the time read the post as an indictment of my editor or publisher—more on this in a minute—it was my genuine attempt to take ownership of the missteps I believed that I personally had made. I chalked most of them up to simple ignorance of the way things work in publishing, hence my motivation to talk about them publicly so that others might learn from my errors. With the benefit of an additional 3 years of perspective and the even deeper understanding of scholarly publishing I’ve gained as a professional editor in that time, I think it’s worth reviewing those mistakes again here. So this edition of the newsletter is really an old/new hybrid. Yay!

Mistake #1: Not spending more time on the cover copy

Having worked with many clients who have published books over the past 3 years, I’ve learned that some presses provide more assistance with cover copy than others. While some commercial academic presses seem to use whatever the author submits (as in my personal experience), I now know that Duke University Press, for example, will definitely take the copy the author provides and polish it up before they put it on the back of the book. For another example, I had a client recently go back and forth multiple times with staff at MIT Press over their cover copy. At first blush, that might seem like an annoyance to an author, but what it should actually tell you is that the press cares about getting the cover copy right so that the book will reach more readers. This is the kind of investment authors should want from their presses.

Even keeping in mind that some presses will help with cover copy, the lesson from the original mistake still stands: authors do well not to make assumptions about what will happen to copy they submit in their marketing questionnaire or proposal. Ask questions and find out as much as you can about how the press operates and what staff is able to assist with, preferably before you sign your contract.

Mistake #2: Not being a little more difficult about the cover design

Another thing that’s become clear to me as I’ve gotten to know more people who work in scholarly publishing: cover art and authors’ feelings about it generate a proportionally significant number of headaches for press staff. So apparently my not wanting to be difficult about the typography on the spine of my book made me a bit of an outlier. I stand by my advice to be a squeaky wheel if there’s something that doesn’t sit right with you about the cover proofs when you get them. You might find out there are perfectly valid reasons for the design decisions that were made, which could make you rethink your objections. That said, you have to live with the cover forever, and a good press will want you to love it and feel great about promoting the book with that art on it. You might have to yield to the design professionals on some matters, but there should be room for compromise too.

Mistake #3: Not hiring someone else to do the index

I still urge people to hire someone else to do their indexes, but it’s also true that professional indexing costs money and not all academic authors have much of that to spare. To me, paying a professional who understands the deep principles of book indexing is a worthy career investment, because readers often use an index to decide whether they even need to consult a book for their research. And how many times have you used an index to find a passage in a book you want to cite in your own writing? My argument, then, is that a good index can lead to more readers and more citations for your work and is thus not a place where you want to pinch pennies.

Since I wrote the original post, I actually took an introductory course on indexing, thinking that I might add it to my portfolio as a service for authors. What I learned from that venture: professional indexing involves a f*** ton of rules that take real skill and effort to master, so much so that I decided to just skip further training and go ahead and not offer indexing to clients. Seriously, hire an indexer.

Mistake #4: Not doing more “publicity”

Yep, this one’s still a mistake. You will have spent years and years on your book by the time it exists as a bound object out in the world. Please don’t squander all that work by being shy about getting people to read it or at least know about it. Find the mode of promotion that feels comfortable for you. If you don’t love public talks, get active on social media. If you hate social media, put your efforts into placing an op-ed in a high profile blog or print publication. If you feel weird telling people to buy the book, suggest instead that they ask their library to buy it. You might think publishing the book is the main thing that matters for your career, but that’s not entirely true. Your peers also have to think your book is good and important for it to help your career, and they won’t think anything at all about your book if you don’t bring it to their attention.

Mistake #5: Not knowing how to respond appropriately to reader reports

This is one of those things that just isn’t uniformly taught in graduate school or anywhere else, it seems. If you’re not sure what to say in your response to the reader reports, ask your editor for help, because it truly is their job to guide you through this. And by asking for their advice in order to get this right, you’ll in fact be helping them do another big part of their job, which is to make a successful case for your manuscript when they take it to their editorial board for approval.

Mistake #6: Not shopping my proposal to multiple presses

One of my first clients was a self-deprecating sort of guy who was expecting to publish his book with a niche series at a university press I honestly hadn’t heard of. He told me what his dream press was, but he wasn’t at all confident that he would have a chance of publishing his book there. I read his manuscript and thought it was quite well-written and marketable, so I urged him to at least try the dream press. Guess who ended up publishing his book? I’m so glad he didn’t talk himself out of aiming high.

I can’t think of a good reason not to submit your proposal to multiple presses, including at least one that you think might be a reach. Even if you already have an in with your top press, it doesn’t hurt to see what other interest is out there and what other presses might offer that you didn’t realize was on the table. A good acquisitions editor will want you to feel confident in your ultimate choice and will not make you feel bad for exploring your options.

Mistake #7: Not publishing Open Access

So this was the one that wasn’t actually a “mistake,” because I was very happy to have published my book with a series that offered open access. I still think that was the right decision for that book at that time, but I’ve since learned more about the intricacies of the great Open Access debate in scholarly publishing. For instance, one acquiring editor informed me that libraries may hesitate to purchase institutional copies of a book if readers can access it freely on the publisher’s website. Those library copies are often what makes the math work out when a noncommercial press determines whether it can afford to invest in signing a particular manuscript. What I’m saying here is that the OA question is complicated for university presses, and if it’s the hill you personally want to die on that’s your prerogative, but it’s worth talking to the presses you’re interested in and being open to different possibilities with respect to how you can make some of your book’s content freely available after publication. OA is not always the only or best option for every book and every author.

I said I would come back to the idea that some of “my” mistakes could be perceived as failings on the part of my editor or press. I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but, again, I really don’t see it that way. What is for-sure true is that I signed my book with a commercial hybrid trade/academic press, and things do tend to work differently there than at university presses. What’s more, the cool, independent hybrid press I originally signed with got absorbed by a much bigger publisher between the time I signed the contract and the time my book went into production. My original editor—the one who knew my subject area and believed in my project so enthusiastically from the beginning—eventually moved on, and my series landed with a more junior editor at the new publisher. This is just what happens sometimes in publishing, and authors should be prepared to respond by stepping up a little bit to make sure things that are important to them don’t fall through the cracks. The new editor was fully supportive of me in all the ways I asked for, but, as I tried to make clear in my original post, I could and should have asked for more and taken more upon myself in some cases, in order to achieve the outcome I had expected.

What general takeaways do I hope other authors will glean from my experience? There are three:

  1. Think carefully about what you want for and from your book.

  2. Find the press that will give you as much of what you want as possible.

  3. Understand that you will have to put in a good deal of your own effort to make your book a success, no matter where you publish.

If you found any of the above advice helpful, please feel free to forward it, tweet about it, and/or encourage your friends to subscribe to this newsletter. And if you need help with your own academic book project, you know where to find me.