University Presses: 4 Things First-Time Book Authors Must Know

Are you a first-time academic book author? Do you hope to publish your academic book with a university press, but don’t know much beyond that? Below, I give you the information about university presses you must know to find the right academic publisher and write the strongest academic book proposal possible.

University Presses, Like Academic Journals, Specialize in Particular Areas and Have their Own Audience

Not all university presses publish in all academic disciplines. Like academic journals, they specialize in particular areas, topics, and methodologies. So, even if your book is the most brilliant piece of scholarship since the dawn of time, you are unlikely to convince a university press who does not specialize in your field to publish it.

Takeaway: Before you propose your book to university presses, you first need to know which presses even publish in your field. Then, you need to honestly asses your book before then identifying which presses publish books like yours in topic, methodology, and scope.

Both Academics and Non-Academics Review Your Proposal to Decide whether Your Book Gets a Contract

Did you know that the first person to evaluate your academic book proposal–an acquisitions editor–will not be a scholar? Instead, she is an intelligent non-academic who knows about the intellectual and publishing trends in your field. Her job is to acquire new and promising scholarship, not to produce academic research herself.

Two other groups of people will also read your book proposal. First, if you are proposing your book for a series, the series editor will read your book proposal. As I explain more in depth in my article comparing acquisitions editors and series editors, series editors, unlike acquisitions editors, are senior scholars in your field. Second, the university press’s editorial board–usually composed of scholars, but not necessarily in your field–will review your book’s case (of which the proposal will be one part).

Takeaway: Your book manuscript should be written for scholars in your academic discipline. Your book proposal, however,  should be accessible to three groups: 1) senior scholars in your field; 2) academics who do not specialize in your field; 3) intelligent non-academics who understand the basics of your field.

University Presses Need to Make Money

As several current and former acquisitions editors underscore, before the 1980s, university presses could rely on libraries purchasing most of their new publications. Since then, however, libraries’ budgets have steadily declined, meaning that university presses can no longer count on a book necessarily breaking even. Presses can sometimes offset risks on new books with their backlist–older books that continue to sell well.

Takeaway: In today’s university press publishing climate, you must show that there is an audience (beyond libraries) for your book. Your publisher will be seriously considering its market when considering whether to contract your book.

University Presses have Different Levels of Prestige Within Different Academic Disciplines

Not all university presses are created equal. The same university press, for instance, might be perceived as strong in Civil War history but mid-tier in 18th-century British literature.

Takeaway: Do you hope to publish your academic book for tenure and promotion? If so, you should target the most prestigious university presses possible in your field. So, as you are working on writing your book (or revising your dissertation), you should interview your senior colleagues and mentors in your field to assess press prestige.

Your Turn

How will the information about university presses above shape your book proposal? Or, what other questions do you have about university presses or that will help you publish your academic book? Ask them in the comments below or email me.

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