Academic Book Proposal, Preparation #4: Ranking University Presses

This post is the last in a four-part series that helps you identify academic publishers for whom your book would be a good fit. This post walks you through the questions you should be asking to rank university presses.

(Looking for a comprehensive guide where I answer all your questions about academic book proposals? Read Academic Book Proposals: All Your Questions, Answered).

After first seeing your book through publishers’ eyes in Activity 1, and generating the “long list” of potential university press publishers for your academic book in Activity 2, you analyzed those presses’ recent publications to ensure they publish books like yours in Activity 3. But finding a good publisher for your academic book—especially if you intend for your book to help you on the academic job market or in a tenure and promotion case—requires you to rank publishers in terms of two criteria: their area of focus and their prestige. Activities 1-3 focused on ensuring your book was a good fit for the press; Activity 4 helps you rank university presses in terms of their prestige in the eyes of the two populations to whom it will matter most: the colleagues who will be evaluating your tenure case (your current senior colleagues, if you intend to stay at your current institution), and mentors/established senior scholars in your field.

How to Interview Your Mentors and Colleagues to Rank University Presses

In this activity, you’ll get input from colleagues and mentors by email or in person about presses’ prestige and whether your book would be a good fit for the press/series. I assume that you have absolutely no knowledge of the prestige of presses in your field; however, if you already have a good idea of presses’ reputations in your field, you can use the activity below to confirm what you know about the presses.

Before contacting scholars, colleagues, mentors, and series editors (if applicable), attempt to rank university presses to which you plan to submit proposals by creating a “first tier” of the top 3-5 you would like to query first. (Note that, though you can submit proposals to multiple presses at a time, you can only submit the complete manuscript to one at a time, so if you are not under significant time constraints, you should submit a first round of proposals to your “first tier” before moving on to your “second tier”). Write one sentence about why you think your book would be a good fit for each press. Write another sentence about why you think that press is prestigious in your field.

First, you’ll query mentors and scholars you know in your subdiscipline to confirm that your book is a good fit for the press, and that the way you’ve ranked university presses is more or less accurate. Start with scholars you know well (trusted advisors or senior scholars you’ve met more than once and/or who have reviewed portions of the book). If you will see them at a conference in the near future, arrange to have coffee with them to talk about your book publication plans; if you won’t see them soon, you can query them by email. Ask the following questions:

  1. I’m at the point of identifying publishers for my book [Title, relevant description, including how it differs from your dissertation, if the person read that]. I’ve compiled my top tier of target presses, and wanted to see if you might be willing to offer feedback. Currently, I intend to submit proposals to: [list of presses].
  2. Based on the short description above, does it seem like my book would be a good fit for these presses?
  3. Are there any presses I should consider eliminating from my top tier? Any I have overlooked?
  4. Is there anything else I should know about these presses? (This is also the place to mention if you are on an extremely tight timeline)
  5. (In this email or a subsequent one): Do you happen to know the acquisitions or series editors at these presses? If so, might you be willing to let me use your name when I contact them?

After receiving feedback, eliminate any presses that no longer seem a good fit, and re-rank your target university presses. Add any presses that scholars have indicated would be a good fit, and complete the “Press Information Sheet” by doing Activities 2 and 3.

Second, query authors you know well who have published with your target presses. Your goal in doing so is to find out about their personal experience with the press, and to see if they might be willing to introduce you to acquisitions editors (or let you use their name in your query letter) when it comes time to submitting your proposal. (See my post on why you need connections to series and acquisitions editors). Ask them:

  1. I’ve identified my top tier of publishers for my book, [Title, followed by a very short description], and [the press s/he published with] is in the top tier. I wanted to write to see if you’d be willing to share a bit about your experience publishing with them. Would you recommend them? Was there anything you learned along the way that you wished you’d known before you submitted your proposal or manuscript? (If you’re on a tight timeline, be sure to ask about the timeline for publishing his/her book).
  2. Based on the short description above, do you think my book would be a good fit for the press/series?
  3. (In this email or a subsequent one): Would you be willing to introduce me to the acquisitions editor by email, or let me use your name in my query letter?

Finally, now that you’ve ranked your target university presses, you need to check to ensure the colleagues at your institution also consider those presses reputable for the purposes of tenure and promotion. Set up meetings with senior colleagues at your current institution. Note that they will likely know the publishing landscape in their particular subdiscipline (African History, for instance) and for your general discipline (History, for instance), but might know nothing of the publishing landscape in your subdiscipline (Medieval history, for instance). So, you should focus your discussion with them on confirming your press rankings for the purposes of tenure and promotion and seeing if your colleagues might be connected to those presses’ acquisitions editors—either first- or second-hand. Ask the following questions:

  1. I’m at the point of preparing my book proposal and sending it to university presses. I’ve identified a top tier of presses where I’ll send the proposal first, and wanted to make sure that tenure and promotion committees in our department and college would consider these presses favorably. How do you think these committees would view [your list of presses]?
  2. Are there any other presses you think I should consider? Why?
  3. Do you happen to know anyone who has published with these presses? If so, would you be willing to introduce me to them via email, or use your name in an email to them?

By this point, you should now have a fairly vetted top tier of publishers. You should continue to ask colleagues about presses when opportunities present themselves; for instance, you can glean a wealth of knowledge by keeping your ears open at scholarly conferences. You should also continue to develop your scholarly network—especially of scholars who can connect you (either directly or indirectly) to acquisitions and/or series editors.

Further Academic Book Proposal Reading

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