(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)
Last week, I wrote about an interview I recently conducted with two university press editors — Elizabeth Ault, an editor at Duke University Press, and Jim Burr, senior editor at the University of Texas Press — about first-time book authorship. They shared with me what you should do to prepare your book for submission, including how to know when you are ready to start searching for an editor. In this second essay in a three-part series, I’ll provide Elizabeth and Jim’s perspective on networking and meeting with editors.
Finding the Right Fit
Working with an editor to bring your book project to print can take months, if not years, and is a highly collaborative process. So, ideally, you’ll end up with an editor you like working with, and I hoped Elizabeth and Jim would be able to shed some light on the process of finding such a person. “I’ve heard from colleagues and mentors that finding the right press and the right editor can be a lot like dating,” I told them. “What does the right fit look like to you, and how do we as authors know it when we see it?”
Jim recommended that would-be authors meet with several people at conferences where editors are present. “That’s a good way to talk to several people at once — speed dating, if you will,” he said. “You can judge whether the editor is interested in your project, if they get it, if they have insightful questions or advice at that stage, how they see your book fitting in with the rest of their list and, generally, if this seems like a person you want helping bring your book into the world.” And he added, “Just like actual dating, there’s no magic formula. You just need to see if you click.”
Elizabeth said she first focuses on whether an author’s work would support the specific mission of her university press: “As an editor, I want to work with authors who are open to broad audiences and understand the kind of interdisciplinary perspectives so many of our readers come to our list with.” She also seeks to identify the right team to provide each author with feedback: “I imagine that authors would want to work with editors who intuitively get their projects and see how they can become the best possible versions of themselves. That involves matching authors with reviewers who will offer generous and rigorous feedback that serves and pushes the author’s vision of the project — rather than the book the editor might have commissioned or the reviewers might have written themselves.”
Reaching Out to an Editor
As a junior professor, I haven’t yet figured out the best way to introduce myself to a prospective editor. So I asked Elizabeth and Jim, “What’s the ideal time to reach out? And the best way to do so?”
Both editors were kind about the trepidation first-time authors feel when it comes to contacting them. Jim reminded me, “We want to meet you as much as you want to meet us. It’s a symbiotic relationship, so we need authors just as authors need publishers.”
Elizabeth said she also understood why it’s hard for some people to introduce themselves, so she has adjusted her communication accordingly. “I send emails asking people about their work on a routine basis, so I love it when people take the initiative to reach out to me,” she said. “I know that can be hard for people who aren’t socialized into a sense of entitlement or a feeling that their work is worth others’ time, so I particularly encourage scholars of color and women to not be shy about reaching out.”
For Jim, you have to find the sweet spot when it’s not either too early or too late to reach out: “If you do it too soon before a conference, for example, I might not have even made my travel plans yet — and so don’t know when I’m arriving or leaving or what panels I want to attend. But if you reach out too close to a conference, I might be already pretty booked up.”
He counseled, “If you’re not able to set an appointment beforehand, go to the press’s table early in the conference to see if the editor might be able to fit you in. Don’t be offended if they are already booked up, but they might be able to find time for you if you’re polite. If I’m at an exhibit with colleagues, I’ll generally leave my schedule with them so they can tell you when I might be available, even if I’m not at the booth right then.” Elizabeth echoed this advice and suggested reaching out three to four weeks before a conference.
Jim suggested that, when setting up appointments by email before a conference, you should provide enough information about your project so the editor can judge whether it’s a possible fit for that press’s list. “Let the editor know at what stage you are with the project. Are you only just finishing your dissertation? Have you already revised it, in full or in part? Or is it not based on your dissertation at all?”
He also recommended, “If you have materials like a full proposal or sample chapter, you should offer to send them to the editor only if they want to see them at that point. Some will prefer to talk to you first and then decide whether they want to see written materials. Others will prefer to go into the conversation having at least skimmed your material to be better prepared talking with you.”
Avoiding Faux Pas
To avoid gaffes and blunders, the two editors recommended that you:
- Respect the editor’s personal time and space. “At a conference, it’s best to approach an editor at their exhibit or maybe entering or exiting a panel,” Jim advised. “Don’t interrupt if they’re already talking to another scholar. Don’t bother them in the restroom. If you see them in the hotel cafe quickly snarfing down a sandwich, pity them and let them have their few minutes to eat.”
- Read over the website submission guidelines before starting a dialogue with an editor. Elizabeth mentioned how frustrating it can be if you don’t. “Our website has very clear submission guidelines, so if the question is about whether or not to submit, I find that somewhat frustrating. I’d prefer to receive proposals as outlined on our website, so I can consider them most carefully.”
- Don’t bring paper copies to meetings. I chuckled when Elizabeth explained how awkward it is to figure out what to do with them: “Am I supposed to read it while they watch me and we sit in silence? If I’m on the road for a conference, I’m not going to have time to read it then, and it’s unlikely that it will make it back home.” She advised, “I much prefer getting materials in advance of a meeting, whether in person or over the phone, to form a shared basis of a conversation. Or I like just talking about a project over coffee and then seeing the proposal or additional materials as a follow-up.”
Both of them stressed the importance of checking back with someone if you haven’t received a reply after 10 to 14 days. Jim commented, “As good as we all try to be, we might miss the occasional email or lose it to a spam filter.” Elizabeth added that, if she hasn’t replied, it could be because she’s still doing some research on the author’s project: “The reason I most often don’t reply to queries over email is that the project isn’t a clear yes or no, and I want to dig more deeply into the materials before writing back. I am hoping to finding more clarity, or to determine the correct follow-up questions, and simply haven’t found the time.”
Materials You Should Prepare
I told the editors that I was new at contacting editors and that not knowing how the conversation will go often adds to my hesitation when it comes to scheduling. I’m also highly introverted, which means that, while I often have clearly thought-out ideas, the moment I’m in a social situation, they evaporate. In a perfect world, I’d like to come to a meeting with an editor with a few notes. So how do I know what I should prepare?
According to Jim, you should bring to the meeting:
- A concise summary of the book without going into every little detail (unless the editor signals they’re ready for it).
- Descriptions of how the book fits into the field as a whole, what you’re doing that’s different from what’s already out there and how your book enhances the press’s list.
- Answers to the questions such as: If the book’s based on your dissertation, what changes have you made or will you make? What’s your timetable for completing the proposal, sample chapters and entire manuscript? Do you have constraints such as the tenure clock, and if so at what stage of the process? Is an advance contract OK?
- Technical information, like an estimate of the manuscript’s final length, preferably in the number of words.
- Information about images. How many? Is color necessary? What are the restrictions on third-party material such as the images you’ll want to use? You should also ask about the press’s policies concerning rights, so that you know up front. Some publishers have more liberal fair-use policies than others, for example. Ask whose responsibility it is to get permissions. (Spoiler: it’s probably yours.)
Elizabeth added that if an author is able to send a description of the book project to her in advance, she likes the meeting to focus in “more depth on questions of audience, the theoretical framework and even sometimes the nuts and bolts of topics, texts and organization.” While she’s happy to talk technical things, she finds it “much more exciting to brainstorm the possibilities” and engage in the creative process.
Each editor also had a friendly reminder for authors to make sure the meeting is as fruitful as possible. Elizabeth commented, “This may also be a personal pet peeve, but when I ask who you’re in conversation with, I’m hoping to hear about contemporary scholars, rather than worthy but unlikely-to-respond folks like Edward Said and Stuart Hall.”
Jim reminded us that press editors are not necessarily experts in your research area. (That’s you!) “Be aware that just because an editor acquires in a subject doesn’t mean they formally studied it. I got my degrees in classics, but I also handle film/media studies and Middle Eastern studies. Although I’ve picked up a lot in my time, I might not know the ins and outs of, say, 17th-century Iranian history,” he told me. “So make sure that your description is accessible to a layperson unless the editor signals deeper knowledge or interest.”
Every editor is different, so you might expect that working with each one would result in their own quirky and nuanced process. So I asked Elizabeth and Jim how working with each of them might be different from working with their colleagues.
“Maybe one quirk I’d say about my own preferred style,” Elizabeth responded, “is that I am not a huge fan of questions — at least, questions without answers — in book proposals and introductions.”
Jim came up with his own examples. “I’ll often nag about including a conclusion if your book doesn’t have one, so that it properly ends rather than just stops,” he said. “I’ll overuse metaphors involving dating or midwives. I’ll drop in pop culture references because of my own interests in the area. I don’t think I’ve ever burst into song while talking to an author, though I’ve had to restrain myself at times.”
Elizabeth also described her approach as tailored to each author. “I try my best to match my communication style to what I’m picking up on from an author. For instance, should I use my TV metaphors or my puzzle metaphors? I want to be a steady presence, regardless of the level of anxiety they seem to be communicating at any given point in time. So I can be as responsive or as hands-off as seems useful.”
She noted that she doesn’t want to be overbearing or too forceful in holding authors accountable: “I tend to want to give folks their space to work out the manuscript or proposal once we’ve had a good initial conversation, rather than pressuring them to get the work to me; in general, I think junior scholars are far more cognizant of their own timeline pressures than I am. But just because I’m not checking in every quarter doesn’t mean I forgot about you! I just assume you’re out there doing the work and will let me know when you need something from me.”
In conclusion, I hope the insights shared here will help you contact the editor of your choice and have a productive meeting. In the third and final part of this series, I’ll provide Elizabeth and Jim’s take on what I think of as the tough stuff.