From the outside, publishing your first academic book seems both straightforward and mysterious. Most first-time book authors associate one key moment–the book proposal with the entire process. Do it right? You’re good! But publishing your first academic book is much more than the proposal alone. This post breaks journey down into the seven stages of publishing your first academic book.
Whichever stage you’re at, this article on publishing your first academic book will demystify the whole process and spare you unpleasant surprises. I tell you what’s most important at each stage, what not to waste your time on, and what usually trips first time book authors up at each stage.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Stage 1: The Pre-Revisions or Pre-Drafting Author
This stage can come at any point in a scholar’s career. It begins at one of two points: either when a scholar submits her dissertation or, if drafting an entirely new book, when a scholar starts thinking about her book in abstract terms. It ends when she actually begins revising (or drafting) the manuscript. Stage 1 of publishing your first academic book is more about planning than actual drafting or revising.
Biggest Stumbling Block of Stage 1: Not Making Writing a Routine
This stage usually goes hand-in-hand with major changes such as moving to an unfamiliar place, getting used to a new institution and department (or several), while teaching more classes than you ever have before.
The problem, though, is that scholars use these changes to justify that they “can’t find time to write.” Academic writing–especially long projects like publishing an academic book–is a marathon, not a sprint. If you wait until you “have the time to write,” you will usually find yourself binge writing to meet deadlines. As a result, you will begin to associate negative emotions with writing, which will further reinforce your writing avoidance.
The best thing you can do at this stage is to make writing part of your larger daily and weekly routine instead of waiting for things to “calm down” or “get easier.” Things will never really “calm down,” so figuring out how to do your writing now, amidst your other responsibilities is important.
Best Uses of Time and Energy in Stage 1
- Familiarize yourself with the tenure and promotion requirements of your institution (or an institution where you would hope to earn tenure). Write a tentative five-year plan showing how you will get there.
- Take stock of your research interests and where you see your research heading. Research which conferences would be good outlets for your work. Put their dates and abstract due dates on your five-year plan.
- Attend conferences in your fields and discuss your research with scholars in your fields and those adjacent to yours.
- Establish a weekly writing review routine.
- Get in the habit of setting product-focused weekly goals for your academic writing projects.
- Identify accountability systems that work for you. Are you more likely to write when you have to drive somewhere to meet someone? Do you only finish articles when faced with an impending deadline?
What Not to Waste Your Time and Energy on in Stage 1
I hope it goes without saying, but do not send your unrevised dissertation to academic publishers. Do not prepare a proposal based on your unrevised dissertation, either.
Best Resources for Authors in Stage 1
- If you are revising your dissertation, you need to read the first half of William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book. It helps you decide if you are going to publish an academic book at all.
- Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers. This book was the most important thing I read in the summer before I began my first academic job. Seriously.
- Scrivener 3, the word processing software that I use for all my long academic writing projects because foregrounds content and structure. Read my review of Scrivener 3 for more.
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Stage 2: Actively Revising (or Drafting) your Manuscript
This is the longest stage of publishing your first academic book. At minimum, it will last two years. This stage goes from beginning revisions (or drafting) to about three months before you intend to submit your proposal. In this article, I assume that you are waiting to submit your proposal until your manuscript is complete.
The Biggest Stage 2 Stumbling Block of all: To Propose or Not?
- Jumping the proposal gun. The question authors in this stage most frequently ask is “when should I submit my academic book proposal?” When I was in this stage myself, everyone I asked told me to wait to submit a proposal until the entire manuscript was complete and ready to send directly to peer reviewers. Having gone through the process myself I now agree with their advice.
Biggest Stumbling Blocks of Stage 2: Time and Energy Management
- Maintaining energy and enthusiasm for a project that unfolds over years. Overcome it by setting product-focused weekly writing goals to see tangible progress from week to week.
- Accountability. Because this stage is so long, you need regular external deadlines to keep you moving forward. Overcome it by starting or joining a writing group and by creating external deadlines for yourself (attending conferences).
- Making writing regular. As in Stage 1, telling yourself that you will write “when things calm down” will only set up negative writing habits. Instead, start implementing a weekly writing review.
Biggest Stumbling Blocks of Stage 2: The Actual Writing
- Mastering “book style”. Overcome it by reading Sword, Hayot, and Jensen (see below) and actively practicing writing more engagingly. See what audiences respond to at academic conferences you attend, and, when possible, seek out comments from strong writers in your field.
- Identifying and keeping a handle on your academic book’s argument and main threads. Trust that this will happen. For me and for many other authors, this does not really become clear until you have almost completed the entire manuscript. Getting senior scholars’ constructive comments helps you get a more objective view, too.
Best Uses of Time and Energy in Stage 2
- Set up systems such as a weekly writing review to make writing your academic book part of your regular weekly schedule.
- Secure funding to give you summers and semesters (if possible) off to write.
- Attend conferences where you present portions of your book manuscript. Meet other scholars who might be willing to give you feedback on your chapters. Doing this will also you to generate interest for the book, which you will mention in your proposal.
- At these conferences, keep your ears open for talk about presses other scholars in your field have recently published with. Read what questions you should ask other scholars about presses. Note if you happen to meet series editors.
- Prepare 1-2 articles for publication in journals your book’s target audience regularly reads. Publishing these articles will actually make your book proposal stronger because it will establish you as an expert in your fields.
- If interested, consider pitching articles on portions of your topic to editors of popular media outlets. You can also join HARO, a platform to connect reporters with experts in particular fields. Publishing articles for the general public is not required at all. But doing so can demonstrate the broad appeal of your topic and establish you as an expert in your fields. In turn, these popular articles can strengthen your proposals and make you eligible for certain grants, such as the NEH Public Scholar Program.
What Not to Waste Your Time and Energy on in Stage 2
- Do not write a proposal until you finish your book manuscript.
- You will need to decide for yourself whether pitching your book to an acquisitions or series editor before the manuscript is complete is worth your time or not.
Best Resources for Stage 2
- The three best books that help rid you of your bad writing habits and breathe life into your prose: Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style, Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What.
- TextExpander, a small program that allows you to define shortcuts for words and phrases you type frequently. Read why I recommend TextExpander for large academic writing projects and how I set it up to save me time and headaches.
- Scrivener 3, the word processing software I always use for long academic writing projects. For more, read my Scrivener 3 review for academics.
Stage 3: Preparing and Submitting the Proposal
This stage spans from three months before you plan to submit your book proposal to the day you submit your book proposal.
Biggest Stumbling Blocks of Stage 3
- The proposal genre. In general, Rachel Toor is my go-to resource on how to think about what this genre does.
- Not knowing which presses are good fits and not tailoring your proposal. Sometimes first-time book authors mistakenly assume that all university presses are the same. They also think that because a press publishes in their general field, their project is a good fit for that press. So, they prepare a general book proposal and send it off to many presses. Instead, a book proposal should be the strongest possible case for why that press in particular would be interested in your book. You should spend time researching your target presses and tailoring your proposal to each press individually. See my series on “Finding an academic publisher” below.
- Managing emotions at such a high stakes point. After the job market, the proposal seems like the turning point in humanities careers. Develop and practice self-care during this point.
Best Uses of Time and Energy in Stage 3
- Making sure you are targeting the right presses. Continue attending scholarly conferences and making connections in your fields. You should be actively interviewing recent book authors and senior scholars about presses and establishing first- and second-hand connections to series and acquisitions editors.
- Researching your target university presses to prepare the strongest possible case for why your project in particular is a good fit for their lists.
- Practicing your pitch. As Rachel Toor, a former acquisitions editor at Oxford, underscores, editors use your cover letter and proposal to quickly assess: 1) can this author captivate readers? and 2) is there a market for this book? First-time academic book authors usually struggle to pitch their book to intelligent non-academics and are rarely used to thinking of it in terms of a product that will be sold.
- Situating your book in both the intellectual terrain and the market. As with the previous point university presses want to know whether there is a market for your book. This often comes as a surprise to first-time academic book authors.
What Not to Waste Your Time and Energy on in Stage 3
Don’t waste your time on anything unrelated to finalizing the manuscript or preparing your proposal.
Best Resources for Stage 3
- Rachel Toor’s articles in the Chronicle on pitching your academic book. See especially her series “PhD.s are Still Writing Poorly.”
- My series on compiling a long list of academic publishers, narrowing the list using your bookshelf and bibliography, researching your target presses to assess fit, and interviewing colleagues in your fields to rank presses.
- My article on the “competing works” section of academic book proposals.
- William Germano’s Getting it Published, which gives you insight into what editors are looking for.
Stage 4: From Submitting the Proposal to Book Contract
Most everything from this stage forward could be lumped into “stuff you didn’t know you’d have to do.” Stage 4 was one of the most difficult for me personally, because I discovered a lot of steps I didn’t know existed. Generally speaking, stage 4 starts when you submit your book proposal and ends when you receive your book contract.
The Biggest Stumbling Block of Stage 4: Lack of Control
- Waiting and managing emotions, twice! This stage is like being on the job market all over again. You submit your proposal and then you wait. You can (and should!) submit your proposal to multiple presses simultaneously, but you can only submit your full manuscript to one press at a time. So, while you wait for presses to decide, you should work on other projects. You will probably wait at least 3 months to hear about the proposal, and up to a year or more for reader reports to come in. If one of the reports does not recommend publication, the editor will probably send it to a third reader, during which time you will wait for another 6 months or so. In the case both initial readers do not recommend publication, the editor will likely decline your book (see below). If you’re counting, that means you could wait for almost 2 years in this beginning part of the phase alone. While waiting so long is fairly atypical, it’s not so uncommon either…
Other Major Stage 4 Stumbling Blocks: Responding to Presses
- Deciding what to do if you hear back from less desirable presses first. Because you can submit your proposal to multiple presses, you might hear back from one press that’s lower on your list first. You are never obligated to send your manuscript just because a press asked for it, but once you sent the manuscript to one press, you cannot submit it to others. So, if you hear back from a lower ranked press first, consult with trusted mentors about how to tactfully buy more time with that press, and whether and how to reach out to the ones higher up on your list.
- Responding to reader reports. This was the step I did not know existed. After your manuscript has been reviewed, your editor will send you the reader reports. If they recommend publication (with revisions), your editor will ask you to prepare a formal response. Your response should synthesize the reader reports, and describe how you will revise the manuscript to address the readers’ concerns. The editor will then present your book (your proposal, the manuscript itself, the reader reports, and your formal response) to the editorial board. The editorial board then votes, and if favorable, you are given a contract.
- What to do if your book is not given a contract. If this is the case, you can write to any other presses that indicated initial interest in the manuscript. You should also consult with senior mentors about how to navigate this stage.
Best Uses of Time and Energy in Stage 4
- Thinking about what will come after the book.
- Responding to reader reports.
- Researching and planning (but not necessarily actually making) any major revisions to the manuscript.
- Securing permissions for images and other copyrighted materials that appear in the book. This can take a long time, so start early.
- Much of stage 4 is outside your control. Practice (or develop) self-care routines, and channel creative energies into new projects.
What Not to Waste Your Time and Energy on in Stage 4
Once you receive reader’s reports back and prepare your response, you might be tempted to start revising your manuscript right away. I would strongly recommend you wait until you have the contract in hand, in case the editorial board’s decision comes back negative. If that happens, you can make a more informed decision about whether making those changes would make your manuscript stronger in the eyes of a different press or not.
Best Resources for Stage 4
Stage 5: Preparing and Delivering the Final Manuscript
Congratulations! You have a contract, and now all you have to do is make the changes you promised, and submit the final manuscript.
Biggest Stumbling Blocks of Stage 5
- No more safety net (impostor syndrome). Between now an the time your book comes out, it’s pretty much just you who decides what makes it into the book. While some presses send the final revised manuscript back to readers, most do not. So, you might experience twinges of impostor syndrome at this stage (“what if readers don’t like it?”).
- Needing more time. You might find that the date you proposed to deliver the final manuscript was overly ambitious. If this is the case, do reach out to your editor to ask for an extension. This happens frequently. Make every effort, though, to make your extended deadline.
- Formatting. Even though your manuscript will be copyedited, you should do everything in your power at this point to make the manuscript consistently formatted throughout. Doing so will save you time and headaches during stage 6, which I’ve named “the slog” for good reason.
- Securing Permissions. When you submit your final manuscript, you will also have to submit high resolution copies of any images that will appear in the book and copyright permissions. Securing high resolution files and permissions can be expensive (your press will not usually pay) and take time, so you should start early.
Best Uses of Time and Energy in Stage 5
- Everything related to preparing and formatting the final manuscript.
- Securing high resolution image scans and copyright permissions (if applicable).
What Not to Waste Your Time and Energy on in Stage 5
Right now, don’t worry about anything that comes in later stages (indexing, website, publisher documents, etc.).
Best Resources for Stage 5
Ideally, you would have set up TextExpander back in Stage 1 or 2. If you didn’t, though, now is the time to look for good tutorials on how to use Word’s Advanced Find and Replace tool.
Stage 6: “The Slog,” or Copyediting, Indexing your Academic Book, and Press Paperwork
Most first-time academic book authors find stage 6 the hardest of all. If you’re like me, then submitting your final manuscript felt like the “final hurdle.” Unfortunately, it’s not. Stage 6 is characterized by two parts: waiting while the manuscript is being formatted and copyedited and responding to queries and checking proofs.
Biggest Stumbling Blocks of Stage 6: The Stuff you Didn’t Know Was Your Responsibility
- Cover images. Double-check with your publisher, but you will probably have to provide a cover image for your book. Academic publishers do not normally pay for copyright permissions.
- Back cover blurbs. Like above, you should also check with your publisher about whether they will contact scholars about blurbs.
- Marketing. Marketing is really a catchall term I’m using to refer to several discrete things. Your publisher will ask you to complete publicity paperwork. But you should also research book prizes your book will be eligible for and think about journals where your press should send review copies. Read more about what you do to market your book before it’s published here.
- Copyediting back and forth, forever. This is the longest and most psychologically draining part of the whole process. In essence, you must answer copyeditors’ queries, read the proofs, and suggest changes. With each set of proofs, you will need to ensure that your changes were implemented correctly.
- The index. You will need to decide who will index your book. You have two options. Either you do the indexing, or you hire someone to compile the index. Presses do not usually pay for indexes, but they normally have recommended indexers. I did my own index, and found it both intense and refreshing. I liked being able to see how important ideas developed throughout the book.
Best Uses of Time and Energy in Stage 6
As soon as you submit your manuscript, you should immediately begin doing the three things you didn’t know you had to do. These include finding cover images, creating a list of scholars whom you or the press might contact about back cover blurbs, and setting up your book’s marketing (see above). After you have completed those tasks, you should review other books’ indexes to get an idea of terms and structure. If you are not interested in doing your own index, you should apply for funds at your school to cover indexing fees. The press will not usually not pay for indexes. Finally, do take responding to queries and checking the proofs seriously.
Best Resources for Stage 6
- My article on marketing your first academic book before it comes out in the world.
- I will be publishing an article on indexing in the near future. Let me know in the comments or by email if you would like any other topics covered in standalone articles
Stage 7: You are a Published Book Author! Now What?
Congratulations! Your book is now out in the world and have received your author copies. For me, this stage was somewhat anticlimactic because in many ways, it felt like I had finished the book months prior.
In this stage, you should focus on two tasks. First, you should continue marketing your book. Be sure to send announcements to listservs (when appropriate) and work with your school’s press office. During the next two years, you will also submit your book for prizes. Know that it might take a long time (one year or more!) for reviews of your book to appear.
In a few months, I will publish more materials on what to do after the first book. It took me about two full years to settle on my next book’s topic. But the best thing I did during these two years was to continue to give conference papers and read new works of literature.
I, like many other first-time academic book authors, have found that the process really is much easier the second time around.
Now, Your Turn!
Where are you in the stages of publishing your first academic book? Do you have questions about a situation not discussed above? Did you find this definitive guide spot on? I’d love to hear from you by email or in the comments below!
Or, do you know someone who is revising her dissertation into her first academic book? A writing partner confused about academic book proposals? I’d be so grateful if you’d use the buttons below to share this article!
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