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What is the best way to handle pre-contract communication with a prospective publisher?

TAA Member Kamalani Hurley from Leeward Community College asks: “What is normal in the timeline between an acquisitions editor expressing interest in publishing my material and the written contract?”

Textbook author Mike Kennamer, who is director of Workforce Development at Northeast Alabama Community College, and Julia Kostova, an acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press, share their advice:

Kennamer: “In my experience, the written contract has come within a few months of the expression of interest.

Mike KennamerI’ve found that the editor that signs you is the one with the most invested in you and your project. When another editor picks it up it may or may not be a priority for the new person.

For better or worse I ask a lot of questions and have learned a fair amount about publishing (from the publisher’s standpoint) by asking those questions. I think it is entirely reasonable to ask such questions as:

  • What is your timeline? (It is reasonable to get a timeline from the publisher so that you can see if the timeline is feasible with your schedule. This includes when you would receive the contract.)
  • How will I be credited for creating this material? (I’ve done a number of work for hire projects and even royalty projects in which the author of record was an association, but I made certain, especially early in my writing career, that my name would be listed as the author. At this point in my career this isn’t as important, but it was important when I was building an initial portfolio of work.)
  • What is the payment schedule? (I have never received an advance against royalties, but I have received a grant from the publisher at the outset of a project. For non-royalty projects, I ask about the payment schedule, which often includes payment upon signing the contract with future payments as various thresholds are met.)

I can certainly relate to your desire not to rock the boat or to be overly aggressive. However, it is perfectly okay for you to ask questions. If they drop you because you asked a question then they probably weren’t very serious anyway. With that said, I would recommend that you carefully craft your questions and review them so that they do not sound negative or confrontational. Then send a list of questions at once so that you aren’t hitting their in-box every day with a small issue or question.”

Julia KostovaKostova: “For scholarly projects (books, collections, etc.), the clock starts ticking when the editor has a solid proposal in hand, which isn’t necessarily the same as when she expresses interest in a project. The proposal should already include a detailed market evaluation.) The proposal (and the manuscript) would go out for review, which could take up to several months depending on a lot of variables (e.g., finding reviewers, their schedules, etc.). When the reports are stellar, the project would go through a series of internal approvals, which take about a month. So, barring any unforeseen problems, a typical timetable would be 6-9 months. This varies on a case-by-case and press-by-press basis.

The bigger and more important point underlining the writer’s question concerns the relationship between an editor and an author. I want to emphasize what Patrick Alexander and I already underscored in our TAA webinar presentation, “Ask the Editors: What Publishers Want and Why”, and that is that the relationship is a professional and a collaborative — and not an adversarial — one. The letter writer should absolutely have a conversation with the acquiring editor about timetable, next steps, expectations, logistics, etc. I think that it benefits both sides when everyone’s on the same page about what needs to happen.”