How to find a textbook publisher

Dr. Laura Taalman

Dr. Laura Taalman

If you have an idea for a new textbook a great way to start looking for a publisher is by attending your discipline’s annual meeting — which typically hosts book vendors — where you may be able to make some good contacts with publishing companies, said Dr. Laura Taalman, a mathematics professor at James Madison University.

“It is worth stopping by the exhibit booths of the publishers you are interested in; the editor you seek might be right there,” she said. “Sales reps can sometimes give you an idea if your book fits in with their company’s list. They also will often have contact information for the appropriate editors.”

When Taalman was looking for a publisher for her textbook, Integrated Calculus: Calculus With Precalculus and Algebra, (which was published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin) she shopped the idea around to sales reps at her university and at yearly math meetings. “The sales reps communicated with the math editors and someone turned out to be interested,” she said.

After she learned of their interest, Taalman sent a formal proposal using the Author Guideline on the Houghton Mifflin website (available here). Most publishers provide Author Guidelines for submitting proposals on their website. “I didn’t have to figure out what to send them because they spelled it out very clearly, and I just followed their outline,” she said.

Based only on discussions and a sample Table of Contents and chapter, they offered her a contract with a small sum of money, said Taalman: “I had to submit the formal proposal not for the editor, but for his superiors and to follow the proper procedure, so by the time I sent in the proposal I basically had a verbal contract, and we were just going through the negotiations and formalities.”

Kathleen Domenig, founder and publisher of Strata Publishing (www.stratapub.com) said that along with attending annual conferences and meeting with sales reps at your university, you can compile a list of publishers that might be interested in your textbook idea by visiting bookstores to look at which publishers are putting out books in your field.

“You can also look at the books on your own bookshelves to identify the publishers that publish books in your field,” said Domenig. “You should also find out who the editor is for the books in your field. That information might be on the publisher’s website, but it may be necessary to ask the sales reps or call the publisher. At a large house, a query letter or proposal that is not addressed to a specific person could bounce around for months.”

Many publishers, particularly smaller organizations, specialize in different areas. To make sure your textbook query fits a particular publisher’s focus, be sure to look for information on their website about which areas they specialize in. Strata Publishing, for example, specializes in the fields of communication and journalism, and publishes books for mid-level and advanced courses.

After you’ve made the proper connections, it’s time to write your query. “A query letter should explain what your textbook will offer that other available textbooks for the course do not,” Domenig said. She recommends that you answer the following questions in your proposal: “Why would professors drop the textbook that they are already using to use your textbook?” Domenig said. “How would your proposed book meet people’s teaching needs?”

Other key elements of a query letter (Strata Publishing, Inc. website):

• The working title of the book
• The usual titles of the course for which the book is intended
• A brief description of your general approach in the book
• The major competitors and/or the major books that people currently use in the course(s) for which your book is intended
• A list of the major features and characteristics that would distinguish your book from those books
• A table of contents and a copy of your curriculum vita

When you’re writing a query letter, think about what an early draft of advertising for the textbook would look like, with particular features of the textbook highlighted; and write your query in the positive, rather than in the negative, said Domenig: “Focus on what your book does, rather than on what it does not do or on what the competing books don’t do.”

Remember that you are addressing a publisher, not an academic, said Taalman: “You need to argue that you are filling a need in the market, not in academics or the discipline. If there are other books somewhat like yours that are successful, then a publisher can see there is a market. On the other hand, you need to point out where your book will differ and why that would be attractive to the market.”

You should also know the potentially competing – or supporting – books that comprise the particular publisher’s current list, she said: “When you are trying to get picked up by a publisher, you have to be convincing to them in their terms. If the editor is interested in your book, then they will have to make a business-model type of argument to the higher-ups in the company. Your book proposal will look more attractive to editors if you can provide some of these arguments.”

How long should your query letter be? “I’m fairly flexible, but one or two pages is long enough,” said Domenig. “If I’m interested in the query, I will ask the author to send a proposal.”

She usually responds to a query letter within two weeks.