Should You Pitch your Academic Book to an Acquisitions Editor at a Conference? What to Consider.

The question I wondered about as I was going through my own academic book publishing process, and the one I am asked most frequently now relates to meeting with acquisitions editors at scholarly conferences to talk about your book. Should you do it? When? How?

The advice I found online seemed to contradict what my mentors had told me. I get it now. The answer to this question is really dependent on a lot of variables: your academic field, the stage of your particular project, the way the editor you would like to meet with works, etc.

As I describe a previous post, I was frustrated and confused when I reached the point of submitting the proposal, and my mentors (who had overwhelmingly dissuaded me from meeting with editors about my book) suggested that I needed to have a personal connection to the editor before submitting it. “But I was told not to meet with acquisitions editors at conferences,” I thought, “and now you’re telling me that I need to magically have a personal connection to these people?” (Read the full post for why it was my narrow definition of “personal connection to the editor” that was incomplete, rather than actions I did or did not take along the way, and how you can set yourself up for success in this area).

In this post, then, I do not offer a definitive answer on what you should or should not do. Rather, I lay out

  • The advice mentors gave me about meeting with acquisitions editors
  • Potential advantages speaking with acquisitions editors at conferences
  • Potential serious consequences to speaking with acquisitions editors
  • Other factors to consider in making your decision
  • Practical Resources to consult if you decide that meeting with acquisitions editors is the right step for your project (what to do prior to contacting an editor, how to contact an editor, and how to pitch your project)

I must point out that I never contacted my acquisitions editor until I was ready to submit my proposal, so I do not have any personal experience with pitching a book project in person at a conference. That said, this is still a topic that fascinates me–particularly since the advice I’ve heard given to others is so varied. Ultimately, you must make the best, most informed decision for your project, and I hope that this guide will help you in that process.

What My Mentors told Me about Meeting With Acquisitions Editors before my Manuscript was 100% Ready

In my first two years after the Ph.D., I regularly asked senior scholars and mentors in the field their opinion on contacting acquisitions editors about book projects before the formal proposal stage. Their unanimous response? Don’t contact them until you have the full manuscript ready to go. This advice might be highly field-dependent; however, their justifications made a lot of sense.

First, in their understanding of the academic (university press) publishing landscape, it is extremely rare for first-time book authors to receive contracts for anything less than a two favorable recommendations on the full book manuscript. Talking to editors about the project before I had the full manuscript ready to go, then, in their view was a risky move that had few rewards. 

Potential Advantages to Meeting with Acquisitions Editors about your Book

  • You get on the acquisition editor’s radar in a good way. This is contingent on you giving an engaging pitch. It also assumes that the acquisitions editor will still be in her role when you are ready to submit the proposal.
  • You can ensure that the press is, in fact a good fit, which will ultimately help you when it comes time to prepare your proposal. You might, for instance, get intel from this conversation that the press will soon be moving in a different direction. This information can save you time down the line, by ensuring that you target your proposals to presses that are really potentially interested. Or, if an editor rejects your request for a meeting because of fit (see below), you now no longer need to spend time researching the press and tailoring your proposal for them.
  • You might get useful feedback that can help you structure your manuscript. Some acquisitions editors actually like to have a hand in shaping projects. This is contingent on you making the editor care about your project.

Potential Disadvantages to Meeting with Acquisitions Editors about Your Book

  • Presses can decline your request for a meeting, which usually also means that a formal proposal for the same book would not be considered by that press. This can, however, be an advantage, because you are spared the time you would have spent preparing a book proposal for that press.
  • You get on an acquisitions editor in a bad way. If you are unprepared, or your pitch is not engaging, you might blow your “shot” with an acquisitions editor, especially if she feels like you are wasting her time.
  • Editors like to move fast on projects they are interested in. Having too much of a lag between pitching the book and having the manuscript ready to go, I have heard, is less than ideal.

Other Factors to Consider when Deciding whether to Meet with an Acquisitions Editor

  1. Current state of the book project: Will your entire manuscript be ready to go in 3-6 months? If not, you risk an editor losing interest in your project, or a project changing so significantly that the meeting wasted your and the editor’s time.
  2. Your confidence in the project’s fit for the press: Have you already ensured that the presses would be good fits for your project by: identifying the longest list of university presses that publish in your field, narrowing the list by cross referencing it against your own bookshelf and bibliography, consulting the press’s webpage and existing series and lists in your field to ensure your book is the right “fit” in scope and methodology, and solicited input on press choice from your current colleagues (those who will be evaluating your tenure case) and senior scholars in your field? If not, your meeting (or your request for one) might simply reveal that your project is not, in fact a good fit for that press.
  3. Your command of the project: Is the scope, argument, and trajectory of the book set? Can you describe how all of the pieces fit together?
  4. Your confidence in your pitch to an intelligent, non-academic audience: Have you practiced describing your project to intelligent non-academics in ways that get them excited about the types of questions you’re asking and objects you’re analyzing? Do you have the time and energy between now and the meeting date to craft such a description, and to rehearse it to the point that it no longer sounds rehearsed?

Of course, scholars talk to acquisitions editors all the time in less formal settings about their book project at very early stages in its development. However, especially for a first-time author, the stakes are high in an increasingly competitive academic book market.

Practical Resources to Consult, if you Decide to Meet with Acquisitions Editors

Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In)’s article “How to Pitch your Book to an Editor at a Conference.” In it, she not only answers all of your practical questions (like how early you should contact editors), but she also includes a sample pitch.

Rachel Toor’s “Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly,” Parts 1 and 2. In this series, Rachel Toor, former acquisitions editor at Oxford and Duke University Presses, and whom universities now regularly hire to advise their junior faculty preparing book proposals, describes the mistakes she often hears young academics make in pitching their books to presses (in writing and in person). Her main takeaways: speak (or write) as if you are teaching, and ensure that the passion and enthusiasm you have for the questions your book asks shine through. Remember that acquisitions editors are intelligent non-academics, and pitch your book accordingly.

Rachel Toor’s “The Reality of Writing a Good Book Proposal.” Though this article is meant for scholarly authors preparing a written proposal (rather than an in-person pitch), it nevertheless lays out important questions the editors will want to assess about the project. It also, like most of Toor’s writing, pleads academic authors to spend serious time thinking not only about the ideas within the book, but also how to convey them to their audience in a way that generates enthusiasm. She dispels the myth that editors are only evaluating “the work”:

Some academics forget that when they send in manuscripts and book proposals. They seem to think that showing up in the equivalent of tatty jeans, with unwashed hair and without an intriguing opening gambit will suffice. It’s the work that’s being evaluated, they think, and that speaks for itself. Why should you have to get all gussied up to merit evaluation?

And, finally, my series on selecting the right university presses for your project:

What advice did you receive about contacting editors? What questions do you still have about meeting with acquisitions editors? Ask in the comments below, or email me! Or, if you have meetings with editors scheduled, or have successfully met with editors, I’d love to hear form you.

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