Before we proceed, complete the following checklist:
I certify that I
- have tenure and/or in a field that requires books
- am a self-driven person who meets deadlines
- realize that my work is imperfect and will need revisions
- may not have a ton of control over some of the book’s aspects
- likely will not yield enough profit from this book to take a vacation or retire
- can wait 2-3 years to see the finished product
Okay, now that you’ve passed the test, we can continue onto the content. How do you get a book contract for an academic book? I’m assuming you already have a great idea and some of the manuscript written. You don’t need to have the whole book done, but write at least two sample chapters. You also need to understand the scope and target audience before you start seeking a publisher. How to write a book will need to be a separate post.
- Do your research, part 1. Talk to your mentor, friends, and other authors about their books. You can ask to see sample query letters and proposals. Find out which presses they used and if they had positive experiences.
- Do your research, part 2. Study presses that produce series or individual books related to your subject area. Think about the best fit for your book, as well as the ranking of the press. On each of the websites for the presses, look at submission guidelines and elements to include. I like to make a spreadsheet of potential presses, with contact information. At the same time, determine which presses NOT to submit your work. A publisher that only produces poetry is not going to start churning out books on 19th century carpentry just because you submit a proposal.
- Send a query email to the appropriate editor. Do not send a proposal without an editor requesting it first (unless the press website specifically says to do so). It is a waste of your time and theirs. Instead, create a query letter/email that states who you are, the tentative title, an abstract, why you think it would make a good fit and your proposed timeline. Identify the acquisitions editor at each press and address the email to that person. This is your first interaction with this press so keep it formal, confident and humble. You may send query emails to multiple presses at the same time.
Three things may happen:
- You never hear a response. It’s frustrating, but it’s life. Move on.
- You get a quick “thanks, but no thanks.” Do not take it personally. For all you know, the editor may have just signed a contract on a similar topic.
- An editor expresses interest and asks for a proposal [this is the response you want].
- Prepare your materials. Before you send queries or as you await responses, start writing a sample proposal. Each press has its own format/questions/section areas (which is why you wait to send proposals upon request). That said, for every prospective book, you’ll need to figure out the following components:
- A tentative title
- An abstract
- The scope of the project
- The audience(s) for your book
- A tentative Table of Contents and chapter summaries
- Possible courses for the book to be used as a text
- 3-4 potential reviewers
- A proposed timeline for completion. BE REALISTIC. If you are more than 1.5-2 years out, wait to send the query and work on the book. (Some presses do grant advanced contracts to established authors).
- 1-2 sample chapters. I always include the first chapter.
- Send in only the requested materials. DO NOT ADD ANYTHING ELSE.
- Wait patiently. Different presses have different processes/hierarchies for publication.
- Read the editor’s response (see above) and make your next move. If it’s a “no thanks,” query more presses. If you are given a contract, hooray! Contract negotiation is beyond the scope of this post, but read it carefully, ask questions, and have your mentor or another author also read it and give you advice.
Good luck! This is just the beginning—kind of like locating a hiking trail, parking your car next to it, and lacing up your boots before you head down the path.