The Dungeon Master’s Guide to Manuscript Evaluation

Yes, it’s time to break out your 2d4 and make profession checks (academic author), because we’re going to play the geekiest RPG ever—Publish or Perish.  It’s finally time to divulge the secret formula we use to evaluate your manuscript.

Well, okay.  It’s only secret because we’ve never thought to publish it in three core rulebooks (plus innumerable supplements) with lovingly rendered pictures of elves in chainmail bikinis.  That’s all quite beside the point though, amirite?

Character Level: There’s not just a whole lot you can do about this one.  Either you’re Kind Of A Big Deal, or you’re a grad student.
Popes: At my press, this one’s shockingly literal—if you’re JPII or Papa Ratzi, we’ll publish a guide to restaurants in the Vatican City so long as your name’s on the front cover.  In its first year, it’ll make up at least half our sales.  Every field has its popes—the people that don’t just make the field better, but make it what it is.  These are people who can draw tens of thousands of people to hear their speeches; world leaders, public intellectuals, and Albert Einstein.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably not ever going to be a pope.  It’s okay, only two of our authors are, and one of them is dead.  +10 to roll
Saints: Again, sometimes very literal at the press.  Sometimes former popes, sometimes people a hair away from popedom, sometimes just people who get canonized after they die.  These are people the “educated public” might have heard of, and will almost certainly be known outside your field.  Freeman Dyson and John Searle are good examples of saints.  They won’t sell as well as well as popes, but the marketing department won’t have to do that much for them.  +9 to roll
Cardinals Cardinals are people who are known by everyone within their greater field, even if they haven’t necessarily read them; within their particular area, to not have read them is a sin.  In philosophy, Alistair Macintyre is a cardinal.  These people probably won’t sell to a popular audience, but will probably sell steadily to academics for many years to come; their works will become part of the greater scholarly dialogue.  +7 to roll
Bishops A lower class of cardinal.  Known within their particular area, their writings are still definitive within their particular subfield (e.g., Thomistic metaphysics).  A bishop’s writings may be accepted on name alone, since they’ve built their reputation on a long series of impressive writings in the past; however, a good acquisitions editor will at least read a bit of the sample to make sure the bishop isn’t resting on his or her laurels or turning in the odd dud.  It does happen, and, when it does, people question both the abilities of the bishop and the reputation of the press who published them. +4
Priests Most of the manuscripts we accept are from priests.  Well-established scholars working on their second or third book, priests are taken on the quality of their manuscript and the promise of fit to our list, not their name.  Sure, some priests have done good work for us in the past, but, let’s face it, outside their very narrow subfield, nobody’s going to buy a book on their name alone—and even within their area, their name is only a recommendation, not a command to buy.  Being a priest is more a requirement to being published, rather than an aid. +/-0
Clueless Seminarians: Yup, you’re Father Dougal McGuire to us.  A newly minted PhD, working at their first faculty position (or an independent scholar with an excuse for not having a faculty job), trying to get their dissertation published like their director said they could.  Hate to break it to ya, but if we don’t know who you are, and if nobody else does, your book’s not selling.  New blood is always risky—you could get the first book of someone who will one day be important, or you can get stuck with a dud on the fast track to the pulper.  Experience teaches that it’s usually the latter.  -3
Heretics: Most “independent scholars”—yes, there are some good ones, but there are a lot of people who just couldn’t get faculty jobs—or people with “great ideas” fall into this category.  Abandon all hope, ye who are entered here.  —5

Skill Check (Tactics): If you’ve chosen your press carefully, your manuscript will go in easily.  Sometimes, you fit the list; sometimes, you get mocked in staff meetings.
Perfection: You know our list better than we do, and you know what the one gap in it is.  It just so happens you have a book that fits it exactly . . . +3
Worthy Adversary: You know what we publish, and, more importantly, you know the slant we take on it.  You’re able to read the signs, and know which side of the academic turf wars our press is part of.  Sure, you may not know that we want a book on divine causality in Thomas Aquinas, but you were sharp enough to figure out that a rather traditionalist interpretation of Thomistic metaphysics would be a good fit for our list. +1
Dangerous Bumbler: You saw we publish on Aquinas.  That means we publish on religion, right?  How about this book on the Reformation you’ve been working on?  It’s actually pretty good, you know; maybe the acquisitions editor feels like taking a chance . . . -2
Canon Fodder: You do realize five of the things you say you’ll be dealing with in your cover letter have been condemned, and three of your chapters are devoted to defending heresies, right?  Do you really want your rejection letter to include citations of where Augustine refutes your positions?  -7
Dead: Dear Lord, did you actually make other people listen to that poetry?  They paid for your first self-published volume because $10 was worth it to get you to go away.  -11, and endless mockery at staff meetings.

Charisma Check: Yes, I know, academics, charismatic?  Don’t laugh.  Connections and making the acquisitions department feel guilty can be everything—and if you’ve pissed off everyone from the marketing director and book designer to the managing editor and director’s assistant, then the acquisitions department has heard all about it and is taking it into consideration.
Friend of the Press: You’re not only a multiple repeat author or former teacher of the acquisitions editor, but you go out for dinner and drinks with them at every conference.  If your book gets rejected, it’s going to be by personal phone call, and probably with an offer to revise and resubmit.  A rejection is going to mean burning a few important bridges. +5
Valued Associate: You’ve contributed something to us before, or you’ve been out with the editor a few times—certainly on a first name basis.  The editor refers to you as “a great person, but . . .” when rejecting your book. +2
Known: The editor could pick you out of a crowd and knows you by name. +/-0
Just met: “It was good meeting you at the last conference . . .” -1
Who? An unknown quantity—and therefore a known risk. -3
Loose Canon: 
You’ve hacked someone off, told our book designer how to do their job, fallen in on the wrong side of a turf war, or have otherwise gained yourself a reputation as a Problem Author.  -4 if it’s the marketing or production departments of the Press you’ve hacked off, -4 if it’s academics we care about, -9 if both.

Intelligence Check: Believe it or not, we do want you to write good, solid academic books.  It’s not the only thing we want, of course, but it’s a big thing.  However, this is all kinda hard for us to decide when reading your proposal—evaluating this is one of the main reasons we do peer review
The Canon: It’s going to revolutionize the field.  In the future, people who don’t read your book will be thought dim.  We don’t get many of these, but neither does anyone else.  +5
Masterpiece: Might well become a well-regarded resource for those in your particular niche.  If someone’s book doesn’t cite it, it gets looked at funny. +2
Profound: Makes a significant contribution to the scholarship.  If someone’s doing work in your area, your book will probably be helpful. +0
Perhaps Adequate: Like a reasonably good doctoral dissertation—fits with the scholarship, rather than really adding to it.  -3
Dear Lord, This Is Just Wrong:
 If even the laypeople in the office catch your logic errors and bad argumentation, we’re burning your manuscript. -7

Wisdom Check: Wisdom includes a lot of things, including common sense, writing ability, and resistance to magically induced insanity.  If we think your book’s the work of a condescending nutter, it’s not getting published.
Erudite: Your writing is so good that you could explain all of philosophy to a 5-year-old, your tone so reasonable it could bring about world peace, and your jokes are actually funny. +3
Gentle: You don’t talk down to your reader when you’re writing popular books, you don’t make people’s heads hurt when your’e doing monographs.  There’s a bit of polemic every once in a while in your writing, or a few places where you get bogged down in technicalities, but, really, who doesn’t have those problems? +1
Academic: The writing’s grammatically correct, but, oh God, it hurts to read.  The copy editor couldn’t make heads or tails of what you were saying.  Plus, was that rather nasty attack on the person who disagreed with your last journal article really necessary—and would it kill you to lighten up a bit?  Oh, and “popular audience” does not mean “dumb.”  Oh well, what can you do?  The rest’s not bad. -2
Off the Meds: Go find a bottle of Doctor Bronner’s Magic Soap to get an idea of how this one sounds.  I can’t even imitate it—but it’s universal to conspiracy theorists in the far back corners of the Internet and some of our more insane manuscripts.  That and being just downright nasty to people who disagree with you will do Bad Things to your chances with us. —7 or more

Weapon Choice: Fighting the evil Pulpbeast?  Make sure you pick the right kind of book to write so it doesn’t get recycled after only 250 copies.  While a fair bit of it has been evaluated above, the kind of book you’re writing can influence your chances of acceptance.
Sharp and Tradey: Yes, “Tradey” is an adjective.  If we can put your book in general bookstores, then hey, profit!  Of course, that’s more trouble for our marketing staff, and you’d be surprised what academics think has potential to sell to a popular audience . . . +4 if it has trade potential, +/- 0 if you just say it does
Keen Textbook: Not only can we sell these to people, we know people who can force others to buy them.  Oh how we love these. +3
Trusty Monograph: Hey, someone, somewhere, really wants a book on this.  Because of that risk, academic libraries will buy it. +1
Blunt Edited Volumes: Not always “blunt” as in “not sharp,” but, depending on who’s included, as in “blunt trauma.”  Get really prestigious people in there, and it’ll sell; pack it with friends from your department, and, well . . . +1 to -2, depending on contributors
Dull Festschriften: Speaking of words with two meanings, “dull.”  These have all the problems of edited volumes, but, rather than possibly having multiple famous people from multiple departments, you’re hoping that the fame of one person calls in favors from students and colleagues—but, since Dr. Famous has been at one school for a very long time, those students and colleagues are all connected to each other, rather than to others who buy books.  These don’t sell. -2
Rusted, Broken, Worthless Dissertations.
 Seriously.  Don’t even try.  It can be on a good topic—most are, we do feel bad rejecting them—but they take way too much work to develop, first-time authors need too much help to get the hang of publishing, and there’s that whole thing about dissertations being available for free in online databases and thus not worth $70 to potential customers.  Leverage your dissertation into great journal articles and conference appearances, and write your first book from scratch.  -5
Other: Don’t ask. -7

Scrying: Know your enemy.  If the acquisitions editor has weaknesses or preferences, exploiting them will help you.  +2 if on editor’s pet topic, +1 for an area of interest, +/- 0 if neither, -2 if editor doesn’t like that view, -5 if they’ve come out in public against it.

Artifacts and Allies: Mostly applicable to junior scholars writing their first book or faculty authors, though there are cases where a good recommendation letter can help your cause . . . especially if it’s from someone with money.
Letter of Recommendation from Director: If your dissertation director is known to the press—especially if they’re a press author—and they tell us to publish your revised dissertation, well, we’ll consider you on book #2. Remove dissertation, new author, and unknown penalties; book becomes a monograph, author is treated as a priest for all subsequent rolls.
Letter of Recommendation from Demigod Being or Higher: If you’re established, you probably won’t need these, but having someone with clout (a bishop, politician, public figure), especially with clout over the press, can tip the scales just a bit.  Treat author as having one bonus level for all rolls.
Letter from a Funding Agency: Oh, hello sweetie.  If someone’s offering to offset the costs of your book, then it suddenly becomes much less risky to publish it.  It can go from press to pulper for all we care, and the lot of us will still come out as winners!  Treat book as having a +2 weapon bonus, author as having one bonus level and +2 to charisma.
Faculty Ally: If you’re associated with the sponsoring institution, even if you’re just a member, you get a pretty nice bonus.  If you’re from a part of the faculty or staff that agrees with us—or you’ve made notable contributions to the institution—you get an even bigger one.  This ignores the fact that, if you’re part of an association or faculty, you probably know the biases of the institution, the discipline, and the press.  Oh, and some societies require you to be a member before even considering your book for publication, so keep that tidbit in mind. +1 bonus to author level for simple association; +2 bonus author levels, +3 to charisma, +2 synergy bonus to all other checks if close associate.
Letter of Endorsement from Known Heretic: If someone the press or editor has ideological differences with endorses your book, we already know where you’re coming from.  Treat author as a heretic for all subsequent rolls.

The Dice Roll: At the end of all this, there’s still quite a bit of random chance.  Perhaps the intern read it first and something you wrote went against his pet areas.  Perhaps you misphrased something crucial.  Perhaps the editor’s desperate to make their yearly acceptance quota.  Who knows?  Roll 1d6 and add to subtotal.

So, how’d you come out?

20 or higher: Dragon dead, princess rescued, kingdom saved! The press staff will probably buy your book.  Yes, they get copies for free.  Yours, they’ll buy anyway.
Will someone help me with this dragon corpse?  It’s blocking all the gold. You’re probably exactly what we’re looking for; you’ve published a few books before, possibly even one or two with us.
10-14: A bit of treasure, still alive, no injuries. The editor is probably going to take their time looking over yours, but, in the end, it may just get invited.  Don’t bet on it, and don’t expect peer review to be a mere formality, but crazier has happened.
5-9: Escaped with major wounds. There’s a chance you could get through if the intern likes your book and can con the acquisitions editor into giving a risky book the shot it deserves.  More likely, though, it’ll sit on their desk or in the “questionable” pile for months on end—a pocket decline, since we couldn’t bring ourselves to actually say no.  This kind of book may be worth the effort of seeking publication elsewhere; there’s a nonzero chance you could get lucky.
0-4 Dead. Well, we’ll actually look it over before declining.  We’ll even feel bad as we send you the form letter.  Truth be told, most manuscripts we get fall into this category—good, worthy projects by bright people that we just can’t publish and stay solvent.  Trust me, we don’t feel good crushing the hopes and dreams of people who deserve to be in print with someone who isn’t us.
-1 to -10 Very dead. Your book has problems.  Real problems.  It’s not that we passed on it, it’s that, realistically, everyone will pass on it—or you really, really misjudged which press to send it to.  As in, “the acquisitions department is questioning your judgment and common sense” level of misjudgment.  Some books (especially dissertations) can be improved if you can leverage a few other points from somewhere else, but quite a few can’t.
-11 to -20 Dead beyond hope of resurrection. Seriously, you did something very, very, wrong.  We’ll remember this submission, just because it was that bad—and we’ll remember you.  Writing books is probably not your thing.
-21 to -44 Consigned to the infernal planes. Not even vanity presses will touch that.  We’ll probably pass your submission around at staff meetings just because it’s so entertainingly bad.
-45 (or lower!): Unspeakable Horror of the Outer Planes. Yes, it has happened.  No, it wasn’t pretty.


3 thoughts on “The Dungeon Master’s Guide to Manuscript Evaluation

  1. Re: your “Saints”
    Freeman Dyson has an article in the latest Science – Is Science Mostly Driven by Ideas or by Tools?

    Science 14 December 2012:
    Vol. 338 no. 6113 pp. 1426-1427
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1232773

  2. Pingback: An Education for Academic Writers, Part I | Intentio Lectoris

  3. Pingback: Meet the Minigraph: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 2 | Intentio Lectoris

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