Should you publish your book in a series?
Hi Manuscript Workers,
Today I’m tackling a question that I get from authors frequently, which is whether they should be trying to publish their scholarly books in series. There are actually a lot of other questions packed into this overall question, so I’m going to unpack it all here today. I hope that by learning more about book series you’ll feel more equipped to decide if a series is the right fit for your next book.
First of all, what is a book series?
In the context of scholarly publishing, a series is a collection of books united by a common theme. The theme can be topical, disciplinary, methodological, or a combination. Each book series will have a sponsoring editor within the publisher, and many series also have “series editors,” which are scholars who help to recruit new authors to the series and possibly work with the authors to develop their manuscripts for the series. These scholars are not employees of the publisher but they may receive a small royalty on any books published within their series.
I published both of my books with series. My first book, a revision of my doctoral dissertation, was published in 2013 in the Contemporary Anarchist Studies series. (This series was originally housed at Continuum Books—the publisher I signed my contract with—and then moved to Bloomsbury Academic when Continuum was absorbed by Bloomsbury. The series has since moved again to Manchester University Press.)
My second book, The Book Proposal Book, was one of the founding titles of the Skills for Scholars series at Princeton University Press. My acquiring editor, Peter Dougherty, launched the series in 2021 as PUP’s higher education editor; since Peter is retiring at the end of this year, Matt Rohal has taken over as commissioning editor for the series. I asked Peter and Matt if they might be willing to share their insights about book series as experienced publishing professionals, and they kindly obliged.
In the rest of this post I’ll be sharing their answers to some questions I posed to them about book series via Zoom last week. (The questions and answers have been edited and in some instances paraphrased for conciseness and clarity.)
Why might an author want to publish their book with a series?
Matt Rohal: Sometimes a series is your best access to publication with a particular press. Most series have a brand identity, and they’re often books you’re already engaged with in your scholarship, so it can make good professional sense to align yourself with other books in that series. A good series can act as a signal to other scholars that your book is “that kind of book.” Another advantage is the opportunity to work with an acquiring editor and a series editor who are familiar with the kind of space that you’re writing in, so they are likely to understand and support your scholarship. This can be especially useful for early career authors.
Peter Dougherty: I would add that there is prestige attached to certain series. Even at smaller presses, there are specific series that are recognized as elite within their fields. So there is credibility that comes with publication in certain series.
How can an author identify whether publishing with a particular series is likely to bring them prestige or credibility?
Peter Dougherty: Talk with senior colleagues. Pay attention to ads in the publications you read and trust, because presses often promote their series there. Be alert and aware of what’s happening in your discipline.
Matt Rohal: Some series have especially proactive editors who approach authors to recruit them to the series. If that happens to you, talk to your mentors, talk to people who you trust and value their opinions. You don’t want to make a decision just based on someone presenting you with an opportunity if that opportunity won’t bring your book the recognition you’re looking for.
What if you get approached by an editor to contribute to a new book series without an established reputation yet?
Matt Rohal: For me as an editor, a key to attracting exciting scholars with really exciting projects is having a strong vision of what we’re trying to accomplish with the new series. We in-house editors also lean on series editors with amazing credentials who are interested in making the series impactful. And we’re relying a little bit on the reputation of other books that we’ve published or have signed up to be in the new series.
As an author, you want to assess opportunities like this with an open mind and a critical one too. You should think about what you want to accomplish with your book and then ask questions to find out if you can do that with any given series. You can ask any editor who approaches you to share their vision for the series and why they think you and your work would be a good fit specifically.
Peter Dougherty: It’s a matter of trust. Do you trust the publisher? Do you trust the series editor? Who else has been signed up for the series and do you trust those scholars’ reputations?
There are a lot of series that fail to get off the ground. In some cases the series editor loses interest. If there are multiple series editors they may have conflict between them or an unequal division of labor that causes them to get disenchanted with each other. Another reason series fail is when the first three or four books don’t sell well.
So you have to do a little bit of homework when you’re considering a particular series.
What is the role of the series editor? How do you know if someone is a good series editor to work with?
Peter Dougherty: Successful series editors are out there, talking to people, actively recruiting new authors. But if you are the one doing the approaching as the author, there’s not a simple answer as to who you should approach between the series editor and the acquiring editor at the publisher. If you have some kind of credible connection to the series editor, that’s probably who you should approach.
The best series editors love what they do, they work very hard, they love books, and they like having influence in their discipline. So they usually like to meet new authors and read new manuscripts.
To gather information about the editors of a series, I would go to a couple authors who have previously published in the series whose work you admire and ask them how they got connected to the series and if they have advice for you.
Matt Rohal: There’s no necessarily right or wrong answer to how you find your way into a series you’re interested in. If you are talking to a publisher, like at a conference or publishing talk, you should absolutely feel empowered to broach the topic of series. The acquiring editor will often want to look at the project and discuss it with the series editor. The series editor is in a better position to assess the quality of the scholarship, whereas the acquiring editor will have publishing and market expertise.
If an author approaches a series editor and is told their work is not a fit for the series, can they then contact an acquiring editor at the press to see if publishing with that press outside of the series is still an option?
Peter Dougherty: For an editor, it’s awkward to publish a book that has already been passed on by a series editor. There would have to be a strong strategic justification, because the series editor could feel their expertise was being undermined and the press wants to maintain good relations with the series editor.
Matt Rohal: It could be politically tricky. In most cases the series editor is discussing new projects with me so I’m in the conversation already, and I tend to trust the series editor.
If you’re an author and you receive a rejection from a specific series, I think it’s acceptable for you to say to the series editor you’ve been in contact with, “I really love this press, what do you think about me taking the book to them to be published outside this series?” Then you’re kind of covering yourself politically, so to speak.
[A note from Laura: If you are eyeing multiple series at the same press, I would suggest reaching out to an acquisitions editor at the press first. They should be able to advise you on which series they think would be the best fit and put you in contact with the appropriate editor for further discussions.]
How can an author figure out in advance if their book would be a good fit for a particular series, especially if their book is interdisciplinary or the series is interdisciplinary?
Peter Dougherty: There are all sorts of minefields in cross-disciplinary publishing. My impulse is to ask the scholar what field did you get your PhD in? Do your homework, look at the books that have already been published in the series. I think you’ll sort of know it when you see it.
[A note from Laura: I will add here that you’ll want to think strategically about how you want the book to function in your career. I published my first book in a topical, interdisciplinary series in anarchist studies because my project was an ethnography of anarchist activists. It was a great fit for the series and sailed through peer review and board approval. Yet I was on the job market in communication and cultural studies — not applying to anarchist studies jobs (which don’t really exist anyway). So the series may not have done me any favors in making my career trajectory legible to hiring committees in communication. It also didn’t necessarily help my work get read and cited in the fields I most wanted to contribute to. It did probably raise my profile among scholars of anarchism, for what it’s worth!]
If an author thinks their book might be a fit for multiple series at the same press, should they be talking to multiple editors to figure out where they belong?
Peter Dougherty: That’s a little tricky because that has to be coordinated. It’s bad business to talk to one editor and then talk to somebody else at the same press. It confuses things and makes for very awkward situations. That’s why I think there’s a lot to be said for talking to other authors and getting their advice on the right editor to approach.
Matt Rohal: At Princeton UP, we’re pretty collaborative, so if we catch on that someone’s trying to talk to more than one editor, we’re going to try to clarify that immediately. It might not be like that at other presses. So your best bet is, say you’ve written a book on political history and you’re talking to the political science editor, you can ask them whether you should be talking to them or to the history editor. That’s an entirely reasonable way to do things.
Are there any downsides to publishing with a series?
Matt Rohal: I think you’re better off not publishing in a series that isn’t a good fit with the subject or field of your book, i.e. a series where your book will look like an inexplicable odd duckling.
I would also avoid a series that is not a good fit for the scholarly profile or reputation that you’re trying to build. For example, certain books merit wider (general) audiences and many authors have ambitions to reach those audiences. An author might be better served publishing that book outside of a series—especially in order to avoid non-bespoke academic book design styles (if the series in consideration has such a thing). [Here, Matt is referring to series where all the covers share similar design elements, which makes for a cohesive series brand but may mean that your book won’t stand out as individually.]
At the very least, you should do your homework regarding whether other books in that series reach those wider audiences or whatever kinds of audiences you’re aiming to reach. Similarly, if it’s a new series, find out whether the publisher has the intention and ability to reach the audiences you hope to reach. You don’t want to limit yourself by publishing within a series that has a focused, limited, or incongruent audience. Alternatively, some series offer a fantastic platform for a wider, even general, audience, so it all depends.
Can you say a little bit about the Skills for Scholars series at Princeton UP?
Matt Rohal: Skills for Scholars is a collection of books dedicated to promoting the best academic practices and ways of reflecting on their influence and efficacy. This includes books offering the finest methods, techniques, approaches, knowledge, philosophical reflections, and diverse experiences and expertise relevant to the flourishing of the scholarly world.
The series has been really interesting and exciting for me because we have established books that have found their markets, Laura’s included, which have really set a tone for the series in a meaningful way. Peter and I have talked a lot about how the authors in the series really feel like a cohesive network. We see the interactions online, and we feel the kind of support that the authors’ different books have offered. Authors also connect us to other prospective authors.
Peter: We probably have another 15 or 16 books under contract. So the series has a lot of momentum. I’m really excited about the future of it.
Note from Laura: if you have a book project that you think would be a good fit for the Skills for Scholars series, you can email Matt Rohal directly at Matt_Rohal@press.princeton.edu. You can check out all the books in the series here to see what kinds of topics and approaches they might be looking for.
If you want to hear from an author who has published in the series (me), I can tell you that working with Peter, Matt, and everyone else at PUP has been a great experience. I know that Matt is approachable, responsive, and welcoming to new and diverse authors, so you should definitely feel empowered to get in touch with him!
Hope you found this newsletter informative!
Do you have questions about book series or experiences (good or bad) that you’d like to share? I’ll eventually be turning this post into a permanent blog post in my website archive, so if there’s anything else you think I should include in it, let me know.
A quick reminder that next week I’ll be sharing books published in 2022 by my clients and newsletter readers, so if you’d like your book to be included, please drop me a quick email with a link to your publisher’s webpage for the book.
See you next Wednesday!