The Life Cycle of an *Academic* Book

A few months ago, Publishing Trendsetter did a series on the life cycle of a book.  Not surprisingly, it was focused on trade—since, well, that’s where “everyone” wants to go.  The thing is, academic publishing doesn’t always work like trade does.  Seeing as Ye Olde Humble Blogge deals with academic publishing, and Ye Olde Humble Authorre works in it, let’s fix that imbalance.

Acquisitions, Part 1: This is where we decide whether or not we’re going to take the risks of both resources and reputation that it will take to turn your manuscript into an actual printed book.  At our press, this job is handled, depending on what your area is, by the Bossmen (and, well, me); in trade, this would be separated into several stages handled by literary agents and various editorial sorts.

If you’re used to the trade vision of things, combining the substantive editing and polishing of manuscripts with deciding whether or not to publish them at all may seem just a bit odd.  After all, why bother editing a manuscript that may not even get published?  Short answer for now (but only for now): we get someone else to suggest the edits, and accept/cut you loose if you do/do not implement these “suggestions.”  Our main job is to decide if your book is worth publishing, or, at the very least, if it can be shepherded to that point.

Thus, the first step: the ice heap.  No, not the slush pile: that’s the half-melted Limbo proposals destined for the Rattling File of Death and Rejection start out in.  You want your proposal to start out life among a slightly better grade of slush.

Academic publishing is dirty.  It’s nepotistic.   It definitely doesn’t exist solely to get your manuscript in print.  If you don’t know the press or our particular angle, you probably shouldn’t submit to us.*  If you don’t know the acquisitions editor, you should probably fix that.  Most submissions in the ice heap, even from people who have never published with us before, begin with some variant of “it was good to see you at the last conference; I have the manuscript I told you about ready to submit, if you’re still interested.”  If you’ve published with us before, of course, we may start talking to you about acquiring your next book while we’re still doing pre-orders for your current one.

Knowing your topic is important, but knowing the person who is going to have to live with rejecting your manuscript is more important.

Speaking of knowing the press and its staff, try this instruction for prospective authors on for size:

A cover letter should explain why your manuscript is a good candidate for publication by the Press and with which Press book(s) your manuscript engages.

Your cover letter is important—it’s your chance to tell us how your book fits with our press’s mission and will carry it forward.  Sure, there are other important things to put in the cover letter (the title our marketing manager will change anyway; the word count that, after the reviewer suggestions, won’t be anywhere near the same; a description of the audience of your book that’s probably wildly optimistic and overblown; telling us that it’s not your dissertation, especially if it isn’t), but letting us know that the book fits with what we do is quite possibly the most important thing you can do.  Sure, we’d like to know your book is of good quality, but the presses at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins also publish good books—and none of us would think of publishing most of the things the other two would take in a heartbeat.

Remember, every press has a certain readership.  Cater to them, and your book will sell; ignore it, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be rejected before you end up wasting your time.

Most proposals get weeded out at this stage.  The intern formats the form letter, sticks a lavender tracking sheet on the packet, and shoves it into the Hell File.

Acquisitions, Part 2: So you survived the review of the acquisitions editor and his/her intern.  Woooo!  You’re not home free yet, but the person behind the desk doesn’t pick duds very often—if you’re willing to do revisions, you’ll probably get accepted.


This is where the real fun starts, and why (as I mentioned earlier) acquisitions also includes editorial schtuff.  Once we’ve accepted your manuscript for formal consideration, the intern will go and hunt down a pair of experts in your field to review your work.

You want to earn major author brownie points?  Suggest about seven potential reviewers to us, especially if your field’s a bit odd, or if you’re doing an interdisciplinary project.  You’ve just saved us the trouble of figuring out a field we may or may not know anything about—oh, and it means you get to pick reviewers who are sympathetic to your point of view and might get back to us in a timely manner.  No, it’s not stacking the deck in your favor, no it’s not dishonest.  If you think it is, just wait until your read what the person who thinks your entire concept of philosophy was disproven by Frege, or whom you disagree with once on page 63 of your book, has to say.  It also means that if you know of people who are prominent in your field, but don’t respond to e-mails, spend months in Australia, or are just otherwise cantankerous and hard to work with and won’t give us a review in the six weeks we like them to do it in—well, we won’t ask them.

In an ideal world, we ask two reviewers, they agree, we get your reviews back in six weeks.  Realistically, we go through five to eight people, and get everything back in three months.  For Projects From Hell, make that fifteen people (all of whom would love to review it, but are terribly busy), five months, or waiting five months before giving up and looking for someone else because we never heard back from our first round of reviewers, even after tapping into the Logician Mafia, so we go to another round, who can’t be reached because one of them is on spring break in Finland, which is six weeks in Helsinki, so we go so someone else who is deathly ill (and gives us all the details), but suggests we ask two people, one of whom already turned us down, the other of whom was your dissertation director.**

Eventually, come Hell, high water, and disappearing professors, we get your reviews back.  If you translated something from a foreign language, we’ll also get a translation reviewer, in addition to your substance reviewer(s).

Now, your reviewers will, in addition to the narrative of what they thought of your book (its strengths, weaknesses, ideas for improvements, specific quibbles), make an overall judgment of what should happen to your book: accept as is (not common), accept, but make some revisions (really common), make revisions, then re-review (not uncommon), do not publish (someone screwed up/you hacked off the reviewer).  If one of your reviewers picks one of the last two ratings, but the other one of the better ones, we have to find a third reviewer; if both pick a bad rating, you have to revise and resubmit.  It’s not uncommon to have this happen, so don’t worry if it’s your book that gets reviewer #3/sent back for revision.  Sometimes, if the rating seems harsher than the narrative review warrants, we might talk to the reviewer and see if they’re willing to reconsider their multiple-choice answer.

But, if you get two positive reviews, it’s off to the editorial committee with you.  The intern writes a summary of your manuscript and reviewer comments, puts things in order, and makes eight copies of everything, including a few chapters of your manuscript.  The EdCom reads over everything, and, over cookies, brownies, and the occasional cake (hey, interns know where to scrounge leftovers), makes the final decision on whether your manuscript is worth publishing.

Not everyone is accepted by the EdCom—sometimes your reviewers made valid points about things that needed to be revised, perhaps your book really is disorganized and in need of a rewrite, or that extra chapter/essay submission to your edited volume would be nice.  However, most people who make it this far do get the Phone Call and Letter of Happiness from Bossman, telling them that they’re now on the path to becoming authors with our press.

Yes, there might be conditions imposed, and yes, we really do want you to make those revisions.  But hey!  You can now put “manuscript accepted” on your CV!  That’s something, right?  Oh, you’re on the tenure clock, so it’s everything.  Well then, enjoy your continued ability to put a roof over your head!

Production: Next thing you know, we’ll send you a title memo (a sort of pre-contract where we agree to the actual title of your book and when your final manuscript is due).  Sign on the dotted line, hire a proofreader, prepare your final manuscript submitted in the very strange format we require (no, that’s nothing at all like what it will look, don’t fret), track down the weird Unicode fonts you require for Greek and Aramaic characters, and mail us the Blessed Thing.  Bossman will put a rubber band around it, grab the intern, and the two of us will grin maniacally as we hand it off to the managing editor.

It’s her problem now

Okay, it’s still yours.  The million little details that go into the layout, design, and production of an actual book aren’t trivial, and you’ll be consulted at every point a decision or problem arises.  Greek font still not working?  Need rights for that picture you took?  Some part of this book appeared somewhere else?  One of the contributors to the edited volume did something weird?  Welcome to it, sucker.

Oh, and you’ll also be sent a contract.  Look it over, make any corrections if we did something stupid, and send the thing back.  That said, only make corrections if something’s obviously wrong; most of it’s tried-and-true boilerplate we’re not going to budge on, and, much as I’d love it if someone decided they wanted a 49.99% share of subsidiary rights just to mess with whatever interns and bean counters come after me and have to check up on such things, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t.

Granted, most of the things that happen at this point in the process you never see.  Our managing editor is hard at work coordinating with our book designer, proofreaders, printing presses, and style gurus, asking you for input when it affects your book.  Of course, as everything that happens at this stage affects your book . . .

This stage is similar in both trade and academic publishing.  Sure, the standards and expectations are different—trade books and academic books have their own layout and design quirks appropriate to their genres, and academic books have to be printed and bound to library standards, not mass-market ones—but the end goal, of producing a book that fits the intended audience’s needs, is the same.

Marketing/Publicity: Actually, this one starts before the production stage is quite done.  While the  managing editor handles everything that affects what goes between the two covers of the book, from font to paper weight, our marketing director is the one who handles such niggling details as what goes on the front cover.

Hint: if you want to be on our list of Good Authors, don’t be a pain in the tucus when it comes to this.  Go make some friends with graphic designers, and ask them what they think when a client constantly makes them redesign something they’ve put their time and expertise into without additional compensation.  Go on, try it.

Now that you know the true meaning of “profanity,” don’t make us do it.  We’re not going to ram anything down your throat—normally we’ll give you several options to choose from—but, when you’ve got a team of marketing professionals and award-winning layout artists working for you, it’s in your best interest to trust them.

We’ll also ask for suggestions on who to send copies out to for review or publicity quotes—other people in your field, prominent journals people who will read your book will also read, etc.  In addition to being ways for grad students to pad their CV’s, book reviews are a kind of free advertising for us, a kind we fully intend to abuse.  Sure, a paid ad in the back of the Review of Metaphysics might generate some interest, but a good review from someone who knows the subject?  You can’t buy that kind of good publicity.

Not that we won’t try, mind you.  We’ll probably ask you for the names of people who might be interested in your book (please, don’t just send us your whole contact list—especially if you think postage is still cheap), people who might talk about your book if we sent them a free copy (and might even do it in a good journal), and which conferences we need to take copies of your book to.  Community and Progress in Kant’s Moral Philosophy is an obvious choice for APA East, but North American Patristics Society?  Leave extra room for Fathers of the Church volumes.

Oh, and jacket copy/catalogue blurbs.  We’ll probably have the resident expert on your field (like, say, the acquisitions editor) write it, along with the marketing people.  This is another “please, for the love of God, don’t mess with this” moment.  You may know how to write a good academic monograph, but advertising copy is not formal academic prose.  The one you don’t have practice writing sells books.  If the other people in the office—smart folks with advanced degrees in areas other than yours—can’t figure out what your book is about and why they should be interested in it, the blurb’s no good.  Trust us, we have people on our staff who can make an extremely dense book on Aquinas sound interesting to someone who never studied him.

Sure, there’s a lot of other stuff we do you never see*** (honestly, the less you know about ONIX data aggregation and whatever BS Amazon is putting publishers through this week, the better), but trust us, it’s important.  Most of the ways in which this post-production sales, publicity, and marketing stage differs in academic publishing from trade publishing falls into the “you don’t see it” category.  At a university press, it means we spend at least as much effort marketing to academic libraries (you know, the biggest customer for academic books) as we do to Amazon or book distributors and bookstores.  For scholarly or professional societies who may give their publications away to members, or whose publications are mainly intended for members, the distribution and marketing methods are going to be much different than anything even a university press would use.

Everything else: At this point, it’s pretty much done.  We put your folder in the contract filing cabinet, continue to market and publicize your book, and keep paying you royalties until the stock’s run out or we remainder what’s left.  If you’re really lucky, we might reprint your book (don’t count on it, really); if you’re insanely lucky, you might get to put out a second edition.  At that point, we run you through the process again, but quicker—there’s no doubt your book’s worth publishing, so the acquisitions phase will be pretty speedy.  We may entirely redesign your book—okay, we almost certainly will—since the design standards in place when the first edition came out are almost certainly not the ones commonly used today.

A final word: Whatever press you publish with will probably have their own particular instructions or styles they want you to follow.  Ours insists that you submit in Word (and only Word) in 12-point Times, using underlining where you want text italicized, double-space the footnotes.  Most places want endnotes, never mind double-spacing your non-existent footnotes.  When in doubt, follow the directions; when the directions don’t say anything, ask the press.  We’re a friendly bunch—we’d rather you ask questions up front than cause everyone headaches when you accidentally deviate from The Protocol.  Yes, there are a lot of things to work through, even after your manuscript has been accepted for publication, but we will make it happen.

*Trust us, it won’t do any of us any good if your submission doesn’t fit with our list.  Consider a rejection based on lack of fit an act of mercy—and take it to a publisher whose readership will actually appreciate your book.
**There are so many stories I can’t/won’t tell in those last two paragraphs . . .
Please, don’t be a problem reviewer.  It’s even worse than being a problem author.
***Or, at the very least, shouldn’t see.  Sometimes Amazon gives us the runaround and doesn’t put your book on sale two months after we told them to (trust us, we’re mad at them too), or the person who did your review for Mind got it accepted, only to find out it’s being run in an issue two years from now.  These things happen.  We’re just as happy about them as you are.

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