(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)
This essay is the third in a three-part series dedicated to answering the question “What do university press editors have to say about the mystery surrounding first-time book authorship?” In this series, I’ve shared information and insights from two seasoned book editors, Elizabeth Ault, editor at Duke University Press, and Jim Burr, senior editor at the University of Texas Press.
In the first piece, the editors and I went over what you should know and do leading up to your book’s submission. In the second one, we talked specifically about networking and meeting with editors. This final article is dedicated to the tough stuff. It highlights the role of social media in book publishing, the fears that faculty members often have when it comes to institutional prestige and their ability to secure a contract, and how to avoid being dropped by a press once you’ve agreed to work together.
The Role of Social Media
I recently saw someone announce on Twitter that they’d gotten a book contract. One of her followers commented, “Keep us posted,” to which the tweeter replied, “I will! I have to. It’s in the terms of my book deal.” That led me to ask the editors about how much they relied on an author’s social media presence for book marketing, promotion and sales.
Elizabeth, who is also on Twitter, speculated that mass-market booksellers like Amazon may have pushed publishers to work harder than ever to try to connect directly with their audiences through social media. She said her press doesn’t require authors to have social media accounts, but she also noted that an aim of university presses is to bring together intellectual communities and conversations, and social media can help meet that goal: “Especially for books in my nascent ‘weird studies’ list or for those with interdisciplinary or nontraditional audiences, the author’s willingness and ability to get behind the book can make all the difference.”
That said, “getting behind the book” can take many shapes, according to Elizabeth, only one of which includes social media promotion. Others include:
- Giving talks and readings;
- Putting together panels at conferences;
- Appearing on podcasts; and
- Doing other kinds of interviews.
And she added a caveat about social media promotion: “That kind of attention can be particularly risky for folks from marginalized backgrounds, especially women of color and those whose work is politically controversial. That’s a key reason why we’d never require people to promote their work on social media.”
For his part, Jim said he doesn’t do social media. He pointed out, however, that an audience usually values what authors have to say over what the university press does — which could be one of the reasons why author social media accounts are rising in popularity.
He also questioned how much social media presence impacts book sales: “Our marketing department recently tried to figure out whether social media mentions had any correlation to a book’s sales, and their results were all over the place. But they have created a how-to guide for social media that we give to our authors who are new to that world. It’s important for young academics to start building their platforms early.”
The takeaway is that authors must be willing to engage their audience after the book is in print, but the exact contours of what that engagement should look like are up to each individual. As first-time book writers, we should do the homework of asking ourselves what feels comfortable and what an appropriate venue for suggesting people read our work looks like. And that may or may not be social media.
The Importance (or Not) of Institutional Prestige
Junior faculty who aren’t at leading research universities often fear that the name of the institution or job title on their letterhead will prevent them from getting a book deal. So I asked the editors, “If you’ve never heard of my college or university, or I’m not in a tenure-track job, or I’m an independent scholar, how can I advocate for my work and its quality?”
Jim acknowledged that the fear is real and well founded, and he suggested that if you’re at an institution you don’t think would immediately command respect, then you might have to rely on other aspects of your record: “Where did you get your degree? Who were your advisers? Do you have articles in respected, peer-reviewed journals or chapters in edited volumes from reputable publishers?” If not, Jim advised, “You should make sure that your proposal is knock-your-socks-off fantastic and your sample chapters are likewise (which you should be doing anyway).”
At the same time, Jim pointed out that a press’s reluctance to consider you based on your affiliation or “pedigree” might reflect it wasn’t a good fit to start with: “Is this an editor or a press you want to work with anyway?”
Elizabeth agreed that the fear that comes from not working at a large research institution is realistic, but often because those universities have more resources, which may or may not be related to reputation: “It’s a reality of the unequal distribution of labor in universities that faculty members with permanent positions and lighter teaching loads have much more time — at least in theory — to dig into their ideas. A better-resourced institution may also have a library that has more robust collections and subscriptions.” But she contended, “All that can definitely be overcome by a truly tremendous proposal.” And Jim added, “It’s possible that people not at top research institutions might have more creativity, freedom or flexibility in how they conceive of their project or understand their audience, and that can be really exciting.”
Elizabeth had some specific advice for independent scholars. She recommended that they consider several questions before meeting an editor:
- How will you help make sure that your book circulates inside the academy?
- What other audiences do you have access to?
She explained that an author’s presence at relevant conferences or on the campus lecture circuit is important work in terms of making their book visible. “That is true regardless of where an author is positioned, but such venues can be more challenging to access for independent scholars. It’s also true that most university presses offer very small or nonexistent advances and so aren’t able to support most of our authors’ writing or traveling.”
Avoiding Being Dropped
“Have you ever had to drop an author?” I asked the editors. “How does one avoid being that person?” In general, they suggested that, although it can happen, dropping an author is rare. It seems that if you adhere to the basics — i.e. write the book and be a nice person — it probably won’t happen to you.
Elizabeth shared an anecdote about an author who almost got dropped because their contract was a decade old. “University presses are forgiving when it comes to deadlines — we know how busy our authors are. It usually takes many years of missed deadlines and/or radio silence before we move to release someone from their contract. Sometimes authors take that threat as an impetus to finally submit their revised manuscript, and sometimes they don’t. I’d advise staying in touch and being realistic about your capacity — and not taking a decade to do your revisions. In general, university press folks are super committed to our authors, even the very difficult ones. That said, people who have completely unrealistic expectations about what our production and marketing teams are able to pull off may find their editor less enthusiastic to work with them on a subsequent project.”
Jim told me that he’d had to drop authors “with decades-old contracts who clearly weren’t ever going to deliver a manuscript, or because the market or our list had changed such that the book didn’t fit anymore.” He also said that rather than dropping an author in the middle of a book, he has sometimes chosen not to work with one a second time “because they’ve been a pain to me and everyone else down the line from the copyeditor to the publicist.”
“The golden rule applies here: treat press staff like you’d want to be treated,” he advised. “We’re all human, and we’re all trying to do what’s best for your book. You know your subject better than us, but we know book publishing better than you, which is, theoretically, why you came to us in the first place. If you disagree with a decision we’re making, then argue your case respectfully and politely, but accept that we might come to another conclusion.”
Finally, I asked the editors if they wanted to share anything else. Jim, who said he once estimated that he turned down 90 to 95 percent of the proposals he received, pointed out patterns that lead to book proposal rejection:
- The author didn’t do their research and submitted a project that’s not at all within the bounds of the publishing program
- The author did incomplete research. “Just because we published a book on, say, French film as part of our film list doesn’t mean we’re interested in publishing on every aspect of French culture.”
- The topic is so narrow that the sales potential is low. (That varies from press to press and discipline to discipline in terms of expectations and how much a book needs to contribute to the overall margin.)
- The book is too long.
- The book overlaps with another book already under consideration or is so close that the press doesn’t want to publish two similar books on that topic within a couple seasons of one another.
- The book is simply “not up to snuff. It might be poorly presented, not argued well or just badly written.”
“And sometimes,” Jim concluded, “there’s the intangible quality of the book simply not fitting the feel of a list. It can be highly subjective, very much a ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ aspect that might make me pass on a project while another editor would jump on it.”
Elizabeth agreed and added, “So much of the fit for us at Duke has to do with the argument and the style of the proposal rather than the topic. The more an author can do to convince me that something I thought I’d heard already enough about, or didn’t think I had to care about, is something that they are seeing through a fresh and compelling perspective, the more impressed I usually am.”
To wrap up, I’d like to highlight one more thing Elizabeth shared that can help put some of our fears related to being “good enough” to get a book contract to rest: “We all know the value of being brilliant, but it’s also important to be human(e). I strongly encourage junior scholars to respectfully leverage their relationships with mentors and colleagues who have published in venues they’re interested in, to make connections with editors, to put together writing groups and to connect with audiences for their ideas.” And she added, “I’m interested in growing a community of thought and conversation where enthusiastic appreciation and invested disagreement can live together.”
A hearty thanks to Jim and Elizabeth for the generosity they demonstrated while working with me on this project. I hope that first-time book authors will benefit from our conversation as much as I did, and that other editors will reach out and share their thoughts.