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Reflections on seeking a publisher 1: Introduction

For most of this past year, I have been seeking a publisher for my book for graduate students about using scholarly literature. As I write this, my proposal is scheduled to be discussed at a publication meeting a few days from now, and by the time this blog post gets published, I will either have a contract offer or another rejection.

In this and the following posts, I reflect on some of the issues that have come up in my process—issues that might be of interest to writers who are not yet experienced in proposing books to publishers. Those with more experience might view my reflections as naive (and if so, feel free to comment), but those with less experience might at least find comfort in someone else struggling with similar issues, even if they don’t find useful suggestions.

I am not an entire neophyte to the publication process, but my early experiences with proposing a book were brief. The first time, I was second author of a book that sailed through the publication process on the strength of the first author. After that, I wrote a proposal for my first single-authored book—a book on dissertation writing—that I submitted to two publishers who both rejected it. Then, feeling frustrated by rejection and inspired by a friend who had self-published, I tried self-publishing—a process in which the publisher never rejects the manuscript. Self-publishing gave me an appreciation of the many things that publishers do, and of the good reasons to try to get published, despite the whole difficult proposal process. There is a huge amount of work between a complete manuscript and a published book, and then another huge effort in promotion. Publishers offer all this. And they also offer a certain prestige that self-publication does not carry: a respected publisher is sharing its reputation with the author. For these reasons, I set out to find a publisher.

In January 2018, to prepare for contacting publishers, I gave my completed manuscript to a copy editor to review. The manuscript was the culmination of several years of effort that had been started of the plan of self-publishing again. (This touches on one of the big issues I’ll discuss more: whether to write a proposal before or after a book is complete.)

The very first question in the process was intimidating: To whom would I propose? I had given some casual thought to this in the past, but I had never done any serious research into what criteria make a good publisher, and which publishers met those criteria. I had some personal familiarity with the books of different publishers who published books that I saw as aimed at the same market as mine, but I didn’t have any organized or systematic sense of all of the publishers who might have been interested, nor did I have any knowledge about differences between how publishers treat their authors. Just navigating the decision of where to send submissions was difficult as I felt overwhelmed by all that I didn’t know along with my doubts about how my work would be received by others.

For me, one of the greatest difficulties in writing is the anxiety about giving my work to others. For me, writing itself is difficult but rarely anxiety provoking when I’m focused on the ideas I want to communicate. But when I think about getting feedback, anxiety kicks in. When I was writing the book, I was thinking about scholars I had helped in the past, but when I’m writing an actual proposal and my audience is someone I can expect to be critical, the possibility of rejection is that much more prominent, and anxiety is more of an issue. Combine that anxiety of rejection with the myriad details of the publication process, and the whole can feel overwhelming. To whom do you propose? What publisher? How do you identify a good publisher? What does that publisher want in the proposal? Do you want to propose to one publisher or many? When I started looking at different publishers’ websites to see their proposal process, this anxiety kicked in, as I was suddenly comparing my book to the material from the various publishers and to the standards those publishers explicitly stated. For me, the difficulty was sufficient that I skipped some of what might be considered due diligence. I didn’t research which publisher treats their authors the best, or which does the best job of promoting books, both of which would be reasonable concerns for an author. For better or worse, I picked  a single specific target to whom to send a proposal and just started writing.

Now, nine+ months, and four unsuccessful proposals later, my fifth proposal has an editor who is to recommend it for publication to her publisher. To have reached this upcoming publication meeting, I have successfully passed through the editor’s initial review of my proposal as well as the reviews of two reviewers. The meeting offers hope that I will move on to the next stage—a contract—but also the peril of a return to the proposal process in which I revise my proposal for the next publisher. While I have no desire for the latter, I do feel that my experience has given me a better sense of how to proceed, and the process does feel less intimidating now that I’m in it. Proposing a book is fraught with the danger of rejection, but if you don’t try it, your ideas may never be heard. For many, it’s a risk worth taking.

This is the first in this series of posts. The second post discusses the lengthy nature of the process. The third post considers when to write a proposal: before or after you have written the book. The fourth post discusses writing a proposal. The final post considers the question of giving a publisher or agent sole consideration.

Dave HarrisDave Harris, Ph.D., editor and writing coach, helps writers break through writing blocks, develop effective writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010). His book The Concise Guide to Literature Review: Getting the Best of What You Read [working title] will be published in 2020 by Routledge. Dave can be found on the web at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.