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Two academic editors share tips for getting published

Julia Kostova photo high res color (2)
Dr. Julia Kostova
Patrick Alexander color
Patrick Alexander

To have a successful career, faculty members must publish books or articles in keeping with their institution’s expectations. Unfortunately, many have received little training on navigating the publishing process. In a TAA webinar entitled “Ask the Editors: What Publishers Want and Why”, Dr. Julia Kostova, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Oxford University Press, and Patrick H. Alexander, Director of The Pennsylvania State University Press, provided strategies to help academic writers get published. The pair focused on the following four topics: identifying and approaching a publisher, writing a successful book proposal, turning a dissertation into a book, and publicizing your own work.

Here is a brief summation of Kostova’s and Alexander’s presentation:

Identifying and approaching a publisher

When thinking about tenure goals, you need to have a plan, be prepared, and maintain a sense of schedule and time throughout the entire process. In terms of getting published, this translates to being mindful of how much time you have to approach a publisher and when and where that fits within your tenure and promotion schedule.

Start your plan by identifying and focusing on the kinds of publications and the publishers that will carry the most weight for your career. Your department may or may not document this information, but ultimately it is up to you to find out what is of value in your discipline and to your department and then focus on finding the right medium.

Once you have identified the publisher that is the best match for your work and your career goals, check the publisher’s website to find out exactly how they want a manuscript to look and tailor your submission to those guidelines. Although most publishers follow a similar format for prospectus submissions, there are details that are unique to a particular press, and it is those details that can impact the success or failure of your submission.

Finally, keep in mind that publishers will be assessing certain qualities about you as a person in addition to your work. For example, publishers take into consideration whether a prospective author appears to be someone they can easily work with, who is a careful researcher and writer.

Writing a book proposal

Authors need to find a way to make their work and themselves stand out in their proposals. Publishers are looking for proposals that match the editorial direction of the publisher’s program, so be sure to state clearly why your proposal belongs with a certain publisher.

Make sure the prospectus you submit includes the following:

  1. Project description (or abstract) to summarize the project. This is a very significant part of the proposal and must be very polished as it is the first thing the publisher will see. Unlike a journal abstract, which tends to be very specialized, an abstract for a book proposal should be written so that even a non-expert can easily understand it. Emphasize the significance of the project, connecting the implications of your research to timely issues if possible, and clarify the fit with the particular publisher you chose to approach. Your writing should be accessible, comprehensible, and error-free.
  2. Outline and a draft of the table of contents.
  3. Discussion of related works as well as a description of how your work fits in the intellectual conversation.
  4. Assessment of the audience and market. In your assessment, it is very important to be realistic about who the readers for such a book would be. Consider the size of the field, the direction in which the field is evolving, and any courses that might be emerging in your field in which your book could be incorporated into the syllabi.
  5. Specifications. Include information about the length of your manuscript and any information about necessary illustrations and formatting so the publisher can confirm it is able to work with you and prepared to take on the project.

Turning a dissertation into a book

Although in the past dissertations were the first book of many scholars, turning a dissertation into a book requires a special and often difficult approach. Before engaging in this process, authors should carefully consider whether or not to pursue this possibility.

The first challenge stems from the fact that dissertations are quite different from books. For example, dissertations highlight methodology over argument, have a narrow scope and significance, are cautious and committee-focused, are written for a very knowledgeable audience, display notes and bibliography prominently to show the author’s knowledge, are read only by experts, and often downplay the importance of style.

In contrast, books focus on argument over methodology, have a much wider scope and significance, have a direct writing style, contain little to no jargon and fewer notes, are read by both specialists and laypeople, and must conform to style specifications.

These differences mean that turning a dissertation into a book requires switching genres, which can be difficult and time consuming for both the author and the publisher.

In addition, the market for scholarly monographs has shrunk dramatically in the last five years. Dissertations are often freely available in institutional repositories and are less marketable as revised books. In today’s market, revised dissertations from high-status schools have a better chance of being accepted.

Publicizing your work

The days when you just hand in your manuscript and forget about it until the reviews start rolling in are gone. Publishers expect to collaborate extensively with authors to publicize their work.

Once a book is finished, it’s time to start spreading the word. Publicity on the publisher’s end usually involves advance review copies, mailings, and outreach through traditional media, events, and conferences.

A key way that you as an author can help promote your own book is to increase your visibility, both off- and online. This means being an active voice for your topic and becoming one of the most visible experts in that field through going to conferences, giving talks or lectures, participating in face-to-face and virtual events, connecting with people about your research, and writing posts on relevant forums and blogs. It also means building your online platform by having an effective Amazon author page, keeping your faculty page up to date, and tailoring your social media profiles to showcase your work.

Being active in one’s discipline does not always come easily to scholars who may be more introverted, but it’s extremely important to become involved in your discipline because publishing is inherently social. It may not always feel comfortable for you to post something on social media about your forthcoming book, but it will be helpful.

Being actively involved in your discipline can also help forge relationships with publishers, and help you build even more connections in the publishing realm. Since many people in the publishing world have contacts at other publishing houses and want to help authors succeed, publishers sometimes pass along projects that don’t quite fit their list to other editors. This increases your odds of finding a forum for your work. This is more likely to happen if you have worked to elevate your profile in your field and taken the time to develop relationships with publishers.