Finding the Right Academic Publisher #1: Seeing Your Book Through University Presses’ Eyes

How can you find the right publisher for your academic book?

In this four-part series, I show you how to do just that.

Finding the right publisher for your academic book involves two principal factors.

First, you must identify academic publishers that publish books like yours. You see, academic publishers—like academic journals—specialize in particular disciplines, methodologies, and topics.

Even the most convincing proposal for the most pathbreaking book will not convince a university press to publish outside of its areas.

So, the first three posts will help you research your field’s publishing landscape. By the end of these three posts, you will have a targeted list of academic publishers who will likely be interested in your book. Better yet, you will also have a convincing case about why and how your book is a good fit for those presses. Ultimately, doing this research will save you time and help you prepare the strongest possible proposal.

Second, not all presses are equally prestigious. In fact, press prestige is field- and topic-dependent. The most respected university press in Civil War history might be mid-tier in Medieval European history.

So, in the final post, I will tell you what to ask your colleagues and mentors to help you rank your targeted list of presses.

But we’ve already gotten a bit ahead of ourselves.

Before you can do any research into your field’s publishing landscape, you must first get to know your book again, this time, through publishers’ eyes.

How University Presses See Your Book

You—the author—have the ultimate insider’s perspective when it comes to your book. You know everything about each object you analyze and how your ideas develop over the course of your chapters.

Publishers come to your book through a very different perspective.

First and foremost, they see it through the lenses of field/discipline, methodology, topic, and scope. And despite larger academic trends toward interdisciplinarity, many university presses still publish within narrow academic disciplines.

So, use the following questions to assess how presses will first understand your book.

Note: I highly recommend creating a document for your answers, since much of what you will write will become the basis for your book proposal.

How to Situate Your Book in the Publishing Landscape

Answer the following questions about your first academic book:

  1. Which one scholarly discipline would you categorize your book in and why? (Think national literary studies [English, French, Spanish], comparative literature, history, anthropology, cultural studies, art history, etc. Believe your book is interdisciplinary? Read why you might reconsider.)
  2. Which 1-2 subject areas listed on the  Association of University Presses’ Subject Grid best fit your book?
  3. What subdiscipline(s) would your book fit in (cultural anthropology, continental philosophy, postcolonial studies, etc.)?
  4. Which methodologies or theoretical lenses do you use in your book?
  5. What is the scope of the work? Is it sweeping or narrow? Does it present a “grand theory” or a more nuanced account of its topic? Does it consider many authors or one? Multiple works or one?
  6. What geographical context does your book focus on? If it is comparative, justify the comparison.
  7. What time period does it focus on? Justify any non-traditional scopes. Examples of “traditional” time periods might be the long 19th century, 20th and 21st-century, the Civil War era, etc.
  8. What primary sources do you use for your analyses (e.g. letters, literary texts, fashion, interviews)? If these are non-traditional for your discipline, or if you are looking at types of evidence not normally considered together, justify your choice.
  9. If the audience for your book is not scholars for your field, who is it?

Write Your Book’s Summary

Puts as many elements above together as possible into a 1-2 sentence summary of your book. For instance, you might write that your first academic book is:

  • broad, cultural studies approach (using printed literature, visual images, fashion, dance, and popular music) to race, ethnicity, national identity in 20th- and 21st-century France. (My first book, Race on Display in 20th- and 21st-Century France).
  • narrow historical and cultural study of dreams and dreaming (literally and figuratively) during the Civil War  using soldiers’ letters and dream journals. (Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War, which I heard about on the New Books Network).

Write a “Mini Competing Works”

To help you better understand your own book, it can help ask what makes it similar to and different from other published academic books. When you write your book proposal, you will probably have to put together an in-depth section outlining the “competing works” or “market competition” for your book. But for now, writing a “mini competing works” overview can help you better understand your own book.

How to Write a Mini Competing Works

Choose the top 3 academic books published within the past 10 years (5 if possible) that your book is in conversation with or builds on. Then answer the following questions to compare your book to each of its “competing works.”

How is this book similar to or different from yours in terms of discipline, subdiscipline, methodology, topic, scope, geographical and historical context, and type of evidence/primary sources?

Notice that I do not say anything about argument or conclusions. That’s something you’ll save for the real “competing works” section.

Note, too, that it is not bad if your book is extremely similar to its “competing works” in many of these criteria. In fact, this means that whichever press published that book, might be interested in publishing yours!

Example Mini Competing Works

For instance, here’s how my own book compares to one of its main “competing works” in these criteria:

“Competing work 1” and my book are very similar in terms of most of these elements: they both study issues of race and identity in 20th– and 21st-century France through a broad cultural studies framework. My book studies a different suite of authors and artists and adds music and visual culture to its considerations. Its historical contest also extends slightly beyond the earlier work. The main difference is that my book adds an additional theoretical layer by drawing from “whiteness studies” scholarship, which is not considered in the previous book.

Don’t forget to keep the answers to all 3 of these exercises (situating your book in its publishing landscape, writing your book’s summary, and doing a mini “competing works” section) handy. Believe it or not, what you just wrote is part of the foundation for your book proposal!

Next Steps

Now that you know how publishers will see your book, you will be able to better identify which presses actually publish books like yours. In the next activities, you’ll identify the longest list of possible publishers in your discipline before then narrowing the list to those who publish books like yours and assessing your target presses’ prestige in your fields.

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