Rule 1 of the acquisitions department: the publishing house is a business.
Rule 2: rejecting book proposals is easy; accepting them is hard.
It may seem strange to think that some twerp intern with only an MA (if that!) has the power to reject manuscripts from emeritus professors, but more than one submission has found itself in The Slammer (AKA “The Rattling File of Death,” AAKA “the non-invited submission file”) on an intern’s advice. Sure, I spent over three years in grad school learning the minutia of my field, but really—they’re trusting me with Someone’s Life Work, the Brilliant Book What Will Change the World?
Cue the angry letters from snubbed geezers, but that’s the way it is. Of course, there are reasons why . . .
- Your book just plain sucks: Yeah, I’m being a bit crass, but that may well be the truth. Every once in a while, a proposal comes along that could have used a few honest remarks from someone with good judgement. Everyone has stories of these—people who mail their handwritten journal of philosophical truths they learned while grieving over their dead cat, Harry Potter slashfic, or 600-page racist screeds written with the caps lock key depressed on the typewriter. Happily, we don’t get many of these; something about being an academic press that publishes books mostly for university students and professors keeps the illiterate and insane at bay. Most likely, this isn’t why your book got shot down—if you’re submitting to someone like us, you probably know how to write for Serious Academic Audiences.
- We Don’t Publish That: I work at an academic press, known mostly for publishing theology and philosophy, along with stuff in medieval studies, history, and a bit of literary scholarship. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your nuclear engineering monograph is, we aren’t going to publish it. Ditto your great work of serious literary fiction. Perfectly written psychological thriller? Go elsewhere. It’s not just that we won’t work with you—chances are, we really couldn’t. Our little press just can’t pay enough people with the expertise in acquiring, developing, and marketing these areas. Of course, this doesn’t mean that some other press wouldn’t be glad to have your book—and, to be honest, would probably do a better job with it than we ever could.
- No, Really, We Don’t Publish That: Yes, the press is associated with some organization or other, be it a university, a think tank, or a civic/religious organization. It may even be associated with some combination of these, as is the case with some research organizations hosted by religiously-affiliated universities. This doesn’t mean, however, that any book aligned with the general subject matter or reputation of that institution is going to be published by us. For instance, The Catholic University of America apparently has pretty decent programs in architecture (and urban planning), social work, and nuclear engineering. CUA Press doesn’t publish anything on these topics. More obviously, CUA is, well . . . Catholic. Very Catholic, actually. Want to publish a new edition of the Bible? Please don’t ask us to do it. Ditto devotional literature. Again, we don’t have anyone who really works with those things, and we haven’t got the money to hire someone who does—but, not to worry, someone else does publish those things, and will do it well.
- Did I Mention We Don’t Publish That? Okay, this is really where your friendly neighborhood intern/editor will reject things. Yes, CUA Press publishes things in philosophy, but not just any philosophy. If you’re looking for hard-line analytic stuff that views philosophy as just another branch of the natural sciences or contemporary French continental philosophy, look elsewhere. Heck, you might have a hard time getting a work on Aquinas through, depending on which side of the Thomist turf wars you’re on. This is really where Rule 1 comes into play. It may seem short-sighted to reject an otherwise good work of scholarship simply because it doesn’t fit with the party line, but the fact is, nobody picks up one of our catalogues looking for the latest work of feminist philosophy or liberation theology. The people who look to us to publish what they want probably aren’t looking for that, and the people who want that aren’t looking to us. Again, go elsewhere for better service.
- The world doesn’t need ANOTHER book on that: Seriously, do we need another translation of Augustine’s Confessions? There are a couple good ones out there, and the English language just hasn’t changed enough for them to sound antiquated and clunky. Ditto any number of other books on topics that have been popular in the last 30 years. If everybody who might be interested in that topic already has a copy of a book just like it, they’re not going to buy ours—and, if the book can’t sell, we won’t publish it. There’s a reason why presses ask if there are any books that might compete with yours and how yours will be different.
- Our press really doesn’t need another book on that: Sure, you’ll be well-served by looking at a prospective press’s website to find out exactly what kinds of books they publish. However, if they’ve already published a book on the divine ideas as exemplar causes in Thomas Aquinas, they’re definitely not going to publish another one. If competing with another press doesn’t make sense, competing with yourself makes even less sense. This, perhaps more than any of the other reasons, is the painful one—while you might have at least a snowball’s chance of getting published somewhere else (and even coming out better for it), academic publishing can sometimes be a bit of a niche-laden market. If there’s only one press that really caters to your particular niche, and said niche is already full, you’re in trouble.
So yes, there are a lot of reasons why the dullards like me say “no.” Most of the time, however, it really is a matter of “it’s not you, it’s us.” If anything, it’s almost merciful to have the intern shoot you down with the form letter; it’s hard to nurse a project through rounds of editing, finding reviewers, responding to their comments, prepping a manuscript for presentation to the editorial committee, then, after all that work, have it rejected because the committee didn’t think it right for the press. For junior professors on the tenure clock, that year or so of hard work could have been better spent with a press that was a better fit for their project; a rejection after a week and two e-mails is much better than one received after twelve months and a file full of correspondence. To agree to publish a book is to put the press’s reputation and financial solvency on the line. While we bribe professors to review our manuscripts to prevent shoddy scholarship from getting published, it’s the job of the acquisitions department and the editorial committee to make sure that any books we agree to publish we can actually sell—which means we have to know that there are, in fact, a significant number of people who will shell out $70 for a copy of your book. If we don’t know that we can sell your book to the people who buy from us, then we won’t agree to publish you. Even the interns know that.