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What Will Your Book Do For You?
A post about goals (that I've been trying to write for two years)
Hi Manuscript Workers,
A few weeks back I posed a question in this newsletter, asking you to tell me what your goals are for your book if you are working on one. I got a lot of thoughtful responses (thank you).
Here are some of the measures of success you all mentioned (some of these received multiple mentions so I’ve paraphrased them here):
finishing and getting the book published at all
publishing with my dream press / a university press
getting an agent, advance, and publication with a trade press
being cited at all
getting cited across disciplines, not just my home discipline but also scholars working in my topic area and geographic region
getting invited to give academic talks
getting paid to give talks all over the world
landing a contract with one of the presses where my heroes and colleagues publish so I can be taken seriously within the conversation about my region
proving that my ideas are important despite some gatekeepers looking down on my background
getting the book assigned in syllabi
being included in bibliographies with or participating in panels alongside scholars I admire in my field
receiving compliments from peers, people saying they enjoyed the book or found it useful
having a book review in a prestigious disciplinary journal
winning a book award within my discipline
garnering media mentions
seeing it for sale at a local bookstore or circulating at a local library
selling as many copies as possible so as to be able to donate funds to organizations I want to support
being in direct conversation with a population my book speaks to outside of academia
having people read and enjoy the book even if they wouldn’t have initially thought the topic was inherently interesting
engaging in theoretical discussions with readers that might lead to a new project idea
having this book segue into a second book
effecting real change in the world
establishing myself as an expert on my subject, such that my book becomes a calling card for future opportunities (writing/journalism, non-profit or political/government work, industry, consulting, etc.)
being offered a tenure-track job
These are all valid goals! And I love the variety. No one person or book has to achieve all these things, either. You get to decide which one or two are most significant for you and make other decisions about your book (such as where to try to publish it) accordingly.
It’s really helpful to think about your goals before you commit to a publisher. I want to reiterate something I said at the end of The Book Proposal Book and very much believe:
“Revisiting your own goals—beyond just ‘get a book published no matter what’—is empowering, because it helps you to keep in mind that you’re evaluating publishers just as much as they’re evaluating your project. They should be demonstrating throughout the submission and review process that they can and will do what is needed to publish the kind of book you want to publish, whatever that happens to be.”
Now, you might be saying, “that makes sense, Laura, but I have no idea how to evaluate a publisher in terms of their ability to help me reach my goals for my book.” So here are my tips for that:
First, above all, make it a point to discuss your vision and goals with any editors you end up talking to about your book. This can happen in preliminary, fact-finding conversations, or later on, as you approach a contract. A good editor will really want to know what you see for your book and will want to talk with you about what’s realistic at their press.
It’s a bit of a delicate balance — you want to share early enough so that you can get a sense of a press’s capabilities before you get too far into the review/contract process, but you don’t want to seem presumptuous about their interest. Let me tell you that it’s completely fine to be up-front and direct about what you are hoping for in a publishing partner, as long you don’t present it as a list of demands on the editor you’re talking to.
You can share, for example, that you are hoping for media coverage of your book, and, while acknowledging that you know that it can’t be guaranteed in advance, you can ask how the publisher typically supports its authors in pitching media outlets. Some scholarly presses will have a whole publicity team that can help you with that; some won’t. It’s best to find that out in advance, if publicity is going to be very important to you.
Second, you can explore the track record of any presses you’re considering on the items that are most important to you. If you want your book reviewed in a particular journal, look at the book reviews from that journal over the past few years. Which presses’ books are represented? Same goes for disciplinary book awards. If you’re hoping to see your book on a bookstore shelf, go to the bookstore. Scholarly publishers are not always well represented in retail outlets, but look around to see which ones’ colophons (logos) you can see on the spines of books in the section where your book might be stocked. You can do the same at your local library.
Every book is unique, so you won’t be able to guarantee that your book will achieve the same things as other titles from a given publisher, but you’ll at least know that the infrastructure was in place at that press for the possibility of these things to happen (e.g. the press provides review copies to journals, submits books for awards, has reps that sell their books to retailers and libraries, etc.)
Third, think about the more intangible connections between your goals for your book and the press you publish it with. If you are hoping to connect with or impress certain audiences (whether that’s your academic peers, a tenure and promotion committee, or people in your nonacademic communities) think about the extent to which the press name and reputation matters. In many of the cases you care about, it won’t matter — the fact that you have a book will be plenty — but for some audiences the imprimatur of the press communicates some form of value in itself (whether rightly or wrongly, it’s true either way).
When I was looking for a publisher for The Book Proposal Book, I knew that I wanted it to come out with a press that would be aspirational for many of the authors I hoped would read the book. This wasn’t the only factor in my decision about where to publish it, but it was significant.
You can also think about aspects of the book’s publication that will indirectly support you in your own efforts to promote the book to the audiences that are important to you. For example, if having a beautiful cover will make you more excited to show your book to people or share it on social media, it’s entirely reasonable to make production values a criterion when you are evaluating presses.
Some of these measures of success are aligned with ways in which merit is assigned within academia. This is fine, because many of you will be writing books for purposes of career advancement, and it’s smart to be aware of how the book translates into that. But I also love that some of your measures of book success are more personal.
For me, I’ve come to believe that the best outcomes from my book are the connections and conversations it has helped me to enter into, which can’t be reduced to the kinds of metrics that are traditionally rewarded within the academy. Case in point: if I hadn’t published my book, I might not have as many readers of this newsletter who share their own journeys with me via responses to my posts. And I really enjoy your responses!
As I put it on the final pages of The Book Proposal Book:
“I urge you to set goals for your book that don’t depend on the external approval of academic power brokers, though I know that such approval may reasonably matter to you very much. Think about what intrinsic qualities of your book would make you feel proud of it and want to share it with others. Think about the readers who can benefit from your work. This is what will keep you going when times get tough.”
I hope today’s newsletter brings you some clarity and sustenance as well.
If you are in the process of evaluating publishers to see who might best support your goals for your book — or if you haven’t started this process yet but suddenly realize that maybe you should — I have something that will help.
I’m running my 5-day challenge, Find the Perfect-Fit Publisher for Your Scholarly Book, again in April. It’s completely free to join, and you can find more information about it here.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!