Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of celebrating one of my boot camp alums as he reached an important milestone: receiving and responding to two favorable peer reviews of his full book manuscript.
Since this experience is still incredibly fresh in his mind and this step in the book-publishing process is rarely discussed openly, I asked him if he would be willing to offer readers the advice he’d wished he had heard before he received the peer review reports.
Below, you’ll find his account of this experience, in his own words.
Much of what he recounts below closely mirrors my own experiences as well. Ultimately, our goal in preparing this post is to:
- Help you know what you might experience when you receive your peer reviews (emotionally and procedurally)
- Normalize the wide range of reactions you might experience (from elation to panic, stress, and crippling doubt)
- Give you different ways of thinking about the reports (when your emotions take over)
- Offer concrete steps to take immediately after receiving your reports
Table of Contents
The Nitty Gritty on Academic Book Manuscript Peer Review Reports
When do book manuscript peer review reports come in the overall book publishing process?
Peer review reports come after you’ve submitted the full manuscript to the press. Typically, a press will send a book manuscript to two peer reviewers. Usually, if reviews are favorable, an author will be asked to prepare a formal response letter describing how they will (or will not) revise the manuscript based on the comments the reviewers offer. The acquisitions editor will then present the whole package to the board, which will often issue a full book contract. Sometimes, manuscripts must be sent out for a second round of peer review after the author has completed major revisions.
When did you personally receive your peer review reports?
I* (remember that throughout this article, the author is describing his experience in his own words) submitted my complete manuscript in early March and waited for four months before receiving the first report in late June. A month later, I received the second one. My editor made sure to let me know in the first email that the second reviewer had reached out and that they would be sending the review within a week or so. Needless to say, the next couple of weeks felt like ages before I got my second report. I finally got it in late July.
You should expect to receive your peer reviews 3–6 months or so after submitting your manuscript. They might come at separate times, but the editor might forward them as they are received.
How long did you have to prepare your author response letter?
When my editor sent the second peer review report, she told me that she hoped to be able to present my project at the press’s next staff meeting–when acquisitions editors meet to discuss projects before bringing them to the entire board–which was only 14 days away. So, she said that she would need my response in just one week to be able to review it and prepare the materials for the staff meeting. Even though I had, at the recommendation of my editor, already begun thinking about my response to the first report for about four weeks, I hadn’t formally started preparing any material for my response. I felt quite anxious about this tight turnaround, but was able to do it.
How long you have to respond might depend on when the reviews come relative to your press’s board meetings, which at most presses happen only 3–4 times per year. It’s not unusual, though, for a response letter to be expected in a matter of days or a few weeks, not months.
What was it like to receive the reports?
The first report was really positive! And in her email passing along the report, my editor noted how enthusiastic the reviewer had been. I was ecstatic. I sat down and began reading the document aloud very slowly to myself. Tears started to stream down my cheeks in gratitude and in disbelief. The report described the project very enthusiastically, highlighting its contributions, significance, interventions, and citing its archival work as a particular strength. It was a three-page (single-spaced) document and at the top of the second page, the reviewer took the time to mention they actually enjoyed reading the manuscript (something I could no longer say about my own work, since I was just ready to be done with it… We all know that feeling!)
At that point, I took a moment to take it in. With so much at stake, I desperately needed that sense of validation and to hear that my project made sense. I felt that I needed to understand how others responded to my arguments. When I read the reviewer’s bolded final recommendation that they had recommended the book “whole-heartedly” for publication, I was already screaming, jumping, crying, and dancing all over my living room. I had my own little party going at noon. I made sure everyone knew about it: my partner, my family, my close friends, my mentors, and my allies.
One month later, while I was cooking lunch, I received an email from my editor. It was almost 3 o’clock and I was starving. But I left my food on the stove, half cooked, and headed to the living room to sit down and read the email. I had learned from experience to dread reviewer 2’s comments…
When I opened the email and read how my editor had prefaced the reviewer’s report, my heart sank. She said I would need to seriously consider the comments contained within, and that the reviewer seemed quite passionate in places. She made sure to let me know that she was still processing the information and organizing her thoughts, but she wanted me to begin preparing my formal author response letter, which she expected within a week, as mentioned above.
The next paragraph briefly indicated that my response should be in the form of a letter addressed to her. She then went on to give me some advice: to give the same amount of “detail and care” in my response as this reader had given to my manuscript (as evidenced by the volume of their comments). Even before opening the document, the editor had already set the tone.
I opened the attached document and I found myself in front of a seven-page, single-spaced report. I almost fainted. My heart started racing and I began sweating profusely. My stress level skyrocketed. I scrolled through the document to get a general sense of its contents and I noticed the volume of subheadings and comments about material found on individual pages. And then, the concluding remarks stunned me: the reviewer had asked me to justify one of the main concepts at the heart of the book and wondered whether I was truly engaging it after all.
“Not good!” How could this possibly be? I felt very confident about my use of this key concept. I began reading their comments more thoroughly, assuming that my work wasn’t good enough.
Needless to say, as I read through the report, I felt defeated and overwhelmed. My eyes got watery too, but this time it was because I was feeling like a complete failure.
To be clear: the reviewer clearly expressed their enthusiasm for the project, stating that it was important, innovative, and worthy of publication. But I still read the rest of the report as a rejection of my work rather than an invitation to engage more critically with an interdisciplinary audience and cultivate a stronger authorial voice. I started to doubt that it would get published and worried that the press would require a mandatory second round of revisions.
Receiving peer review reports of a manuscript is a complete emotional rollercoaster. You might understand this rationally, but you likely won’t truly “know” it until you’re experiencing it. Do read the advice below on what to do when you receive your reports, but also consider assembling a support team ahead of time. Additionally, note that your editor should package and contextualize the reports for you and help you understand what will be critical for you to address in your response letter.
What advice do you wish you’d been given before you received your peer review reports?
Know That It’s Normal to Panic and Doubt
Take time to process the reports and, if needed, do not hesitate to reach out to others to help you assimilate and celebrate the news. I’m trained in literary and discourse analysis, and yet I struggled to see past my emotional responses to the reports.
This is perfectly normal and understandable for first-time authors.
The high stakes, extremely compressed response time, and pressure from the tenure-track process (not to mention the fact that we’ve never written a peer review response letter for a book manuscript before!) make it almost impossible for us to read these reports and emails objectively. Furthermore, the fact that there are few public conversations about this part of the academic book publishing process can make this stage feel isolating.
Longer, Detailed Responses Indicate Serious Engagement
When I was feeling overwhelmed–particularly by what I had internalized of Reviewer 2’s critical-feeling comments–my mentors reminded me that the reviewers would not have agreed to review the monograph if they did not believe the project had merit. Additionally, they underscored that the fact that Reviewer 2 had supported publication and taken so much care to engage my project so thoroughly indicated that they genuinely wanted to help me refine my ideas and produce the strongest possible book.
You Are The Final Authority
Receiving and responding to the peer reviews made an intimidating and challenging aspect of the process viscerally clear to me: I realized that I needed to own my project and my position as an expert in my field. Doing so felt overwhelming and intimidating because it required me to trust my work and myself.
This part of the process revealed to me something I had only intuitively known before–that no book project can do everything–and reminded me that I needed to go back to and trust in the deliberate decisions I’d made about what to include and what to exclude.
What should you do when you receive the peer review reports of your academic monograph?
It became crucial for me to immediately reach out to two of my most trusted mentors, with whom I have a close relationship and with different levels of familiarity in regards to my project. They are established scholars who could give me their professional opinion (as journal editors and seasoned book reviewers themselves) quickly. They both immediately replied and agreed to meet with me virtually. One asked me to put the reports aside and to take a break. I needed the distance to be able to re-read them and discuss them with my mentors, without taking the critiques personally.
I think it became vital for me to make this step social. Oftentimes, writing feels like an isolated and isolating activity but it is, in fact, a collective endeavor. I needed to share this milestone with the community that sustains me and uplifts me. Getting the reports and having the opportunity to respond to them meant that the project was moving along–an important step to celebrate along the way!
I’m part of multiple writing communities and intellectual circles. I let my mentors at my own institution and department know about this step. After all, this meant that I was on track to complete the tenure-track requirements and that I’m making progress. They, too, reminded me that I did not need to commit to making all suggested revisions and that it was perfectly fine to disagree. I also let my two accountability writing partners know: they had read versions of my proposals or multiple chapters. And I certainly let my loved ones know I was still on track.
How to Work Through and Process the Peer Review Reports
Concrete actions my mentors recommended I take to parse the peer review reports and begin planning my response letter included:
- Creating a document/spreadsheet where I wrote down each one of the suggested revisions, typed a possible response, and indicated whether I agreed or disagreed with it and why. My acquisitions editor had asked me to justify my choices, particularly if I disagreed with the reviewers.
- Identifying common questions and patterns. In my case, most of the questions and suggested revisions revolved around my engagement with a particular discipline.
- Making a list with the titles of the suggested books/bibliography; finding out the titles and authors and determining which to incorporate in the revisions
These three basic steps enabled me to distill the information from the reports and turn it into actionable revision steps. Doing so also enabled me to compare and contrast the suggested revisions with my book learning objectives and chapter learning objectives in order to rethink the overall narrative arc and argument of my book.
Return to the Boot Camp Work to Remember Highest-Order Concerns
For me, it became very important to go back to the materials I produced toward the end of the Dissertation-to-Book Boot Camp, where I had written down what my book was and what it was not. I needed to be reminded why I had decided on the chapters’ structure and scope and why I had excluded some case studies. I used some of that language to help justify choices I made that departed from reviewers’ suggested revisions. The boot camp materials also helped me explain what my project did not do.
[Note from Katelyn: This is precisely why I constructed many of the boot camp activities in the way that I did. I learned at the peer review stage what I should have been asking myself all along, and wanted authors to be able to think through those aspects of their book deliberately much earlier.]
And as I mentioned, it became very important to go back to my boot camp work in order to remind myself of the argumentative threads my book advanced. All of these documents reminded me of the stakes and investments in this particular project.
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