Wednesday, June 03, 2020

How to Publish a Book in Philosophy: A Guide for the Perplexed (Part I)

A couple of weeks ago, I signed my fourth book contract (working title, The Weirdness of the World, Princeton University Press).  I thought I'd share my impressions on book publishing in academic philosophy since I haven't seen any good, detailed how-to guides (and to help others avoid my mistakes).

Seeking out and evaluating book contracts was especially puzzling to me, so that will be my focus.

I'm no expert, and I certainly-definitely-enthusiastically-appreciatively welcome contrary opinions and further advice in the comments.

Should You Publish a Book and When?

Yes, you should!  Who else is going to plunge into your wonderful ideas in such depth?  What better excuse is there to really think things through in detail and see how it all hangs together?

When?  Neither too early nor too late.

Not too early: First publish a few articles on the topic, which will give your ideas a few years to mature, build your reputation and credibility in the subfield, and bring valuable feedback from readers, referees, and conference audiences.  (Most dissertations should become articles first rather than being revised straightaway into a book.)

Not too late: After several years, your interests will probably drift and your perspective will probably change.  Hit the book project while you're still near the peak of your enthusiasm about the ideas.

If articles 1-4 on Topic Y appear in years X to X+3, ideally you should be working on your book proposal on Y in year X+3.  (Of course, rarely are things ideal.)  At this point, you've probably been working on the topic since at least year X-3.

Connect with Editors Early

I had zero clue about this as an Assistant Professor.

You know those book exhibits at the American Philosophical Association?  Their obvious function is to sell books, but they also have a second, less obvious function: They are a chance for acquisition editors to connect with potential authors.  If you're following my X+3 plan, you want to start connecting with editors in year X+2 or X+3.

Here's how I recommend doing it:

Early in the conference, visit the book exhibit.  (This could be an APA, but it could also be a subdisciplinary conference with a book exhibit.)  Notice which publishers have tables full of books of the sort you plan to publish.  Approach those tables and ask if an acquisition editor is around.  If one is, say something like this:

Hi, my name is [You Know What Goes Here].  I've published a few articles on [Your Favorite Topic] in [The Most Prestigious Venues You've Published in So Far], and I'm thinking about synthesizing my ideas into a book.  Would you be available to chat about this over coffee sometime today or tomorrow?

The editor might or might not agree.  Their schedules might already be full with other meetings (this is why you want to hit the book exhibit early), or they might be skeptical that you'd write a book of the type they want.  Or they might be willing to hear you out, but only standing there on the spot, which isn't nearly as a good as a dedicated meeting.

Consider doing some homework ahead of time, finding out which publishers will be at the meeting and what they emphasize in their recent catalogs, maybe even emailing acquisition editors beforehand. But if this sounds intimidating, don't worry. It's probably more typical, especially if you're new to this, to first try to get a sense of things by strolling around the book displays.

If the editor agrees to meet, you'll informally chat through your book idea with them.  The editor will likely think your book project needs some tweaking.  This is fine.  They might be right!  Work through broad ideas about how to frame the book and what to cover in it and what you imagine the audience to be.

Be prepared for the editor to push you toward making the book more popular or more suitable for classroom use than the small-audience scholarly monograph you might have been planning.  Publishers love big sellers, of course.  But academic presses also obviously also publish lots of small-audience scholarly monographs, so if that's what you aim to write, it's fine to stand your ground.

If your book idea seems not quite ready, or if the editor thinks it's not quite their thing, don't despair.  The best acquisition editors tend to play a long game, cultivating connections over several years.  Maybe next year you'll have a different angle that the publisher likes better (one reason to start in X+2 rather than X+3).  Or maybe in six years, your next book will be something they want.  Say hi once in a while and toss new ideas their direction.

If the editor likes your idea, follow up by sending a book proposal.

How to Write a Book Proposal

Stand warned: I can't say that my book proposals have been especially good.

Your book proposal might not be accepted, especially if you haven't previously published a book.  It's still a good idea to write one.  It will give you a chance to think about the general structure and aims of your book.  Share it with acquisition editors, since it might prompt useful feedback and pique their interest even if they can't commit to a contract.

There's no formula.  In my experience writing and reviewing them, book proposals run about five single-spaced pages and contain the following elements:

  • a working title;
  • an estimated word count (60,000 - 80,000 words might be the typical sweet spot, though some presses also love shorter books);
  • a summary of the main idea, anything from one short paragraph to two longer paragraphs;
  • a description of the intended audience, e.g., "intended primarily for graduate students and professors doing research in philosophy of mind", "intended for a broad audience of scholarly readers, including both specialists in philosophy of mind and non-specialists from other fields who have an interest in the nature of consciousness";
  • optionally, a list of 3-5 books with which it is comparable and how it will differ from them;
  • a paragraph-long description of your qualifications and/or a short c.v.;
  • probably a summary of the projected chapters, one by one, with one paragraph per chapter;
  • optionally, attach a sample chapter.

Some publishers also list proposal submission guidelines on their web pages. If so, you should presumably follow those guidelines.

Unless your format is sufficiently unusual that it's difficult to see what the book will look like without a sample chapter, I think it's generally better not to include a sample chapter.  Referees will pick at the sample chapter, and unless you've already written the book it probably won't be in polished book form yet.  Better to let the general vision and your track record as a researcher carry the proposal.

As an example, I attach the first version of my most recent book proposal here, along with some comments about how it was received by editors and reviewers (and thus some respects in which it is a negative example).

I have a weakness for making my book proposals look like I'm just stapling together previously published articles.  Let me warn you against this.  Publishers are much less interested in collections of articles than they are in freshly written, coherent books.  Although I think it's usually best first to work out your main ideas in published articles, it should be clear in your proposal that your book will be written fresh from the beginning as a unified treatment that goes well beyond your articles.

Send a cover letter along with your book proposal, reminding the editor of any previous discussions you've had and giving the title, main idea, and intended audience.

Where to Submit Your Proposal

One difference between publishing articles and publishing books is that although you shouldn't submit an article to more than one journal at a time you can and probably should submit a book proposal (or full book manuscript) to more than one publisher at a time.  I recommend targeting three to five publishers.  The key to doing this ethically and without hard feelings is to be open about it in your cover letter.

I recommend only three to five publishers for two reasons.  One is that you want to be able to honestly say that you are also sending your proposal to a few other select presses.  An acquisition editor at, say, Oxford will understand if you're also approaching Princeton and Cambridge.  But if they think you're spamming twenty presses with your proposal, they will probably look elsewhere.

The other reason is that you don't want to find yourself in the position of having to decide on a contract offer from a press that isn't among your top choices while you're still waiting to hear back from your preferred presses.

The reasons to approach more than one publisher are obvious: Since it can take weeks or months for a decision, a strictly serial approach could slow you down by a year (or even more, in some particularly bad cases I know about).  Also, if you're fortunate enough to have more than one interested press, that gives you leverage in negotiations.

If your proposal or manuscript is out for review at more than one press, you want to give the process time to play out at each press. After the first press makes you an offer, be sure to tell the other presses that are still considering your book that you have an offer from Press X (ideally, a competitor they respect) and that you are hoping to make a decision by such-and-such a time. Unless Press X is playing some strange hardball or the situation is unusual, Press X should be willing to wait at least a few weeks on a proposal and at least a couple of months on a full manuscript.

One exception to my multiple-submissions advice is this: Based on a conversation or a proposal, a publisher might ask for an exclusive look at your book manuscript. This is a sign of enthusiasm about the project. You might wish to agree, especially if they commit to moving quickly. If they don't quickly offer a contract, or if they respond with a contract you find disappointing, you can later re-open the possibility of approaching other presses.

Which presses in particular should you approach?  If you're writing a scholarly monograph for fellow philosophers, start by considering the publishers who have prominent book displays at the APA and at conferences in your subfield: These are the presses that are out there pushing to make their books visible in the circles you travel in.  You can also look at which presses are publishing books that you like and that are reviewed in journals you read.  And of course, if you followed my advice about connecting with editors in advance, you'll presumably want to send your proposal to editors who have already expressed interest in you or your book project.

According to statistics I recently compiled on book reviews in elite general philosophy venues, the most visible academic philosophy presses seem to currently be Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, Princeton, Routledge, and Harvard.  Some other presses are highly visible in particular subfields, such as Columbia in Asian philosophy.  I'm currently pitching an anthology of science fiction to MIT, Routledge, Wesleyan, and Wiley, based on the strengths of those presses, and I have another anthology in the works with Bloomsbury.  There are many presses, and fit with the vision and strengths of the press is probably at least as important as the overall visibility of the press.

If Your Proposal Is Rejected

... write the book anyway.

You don't need a book contract in advance.  If you write a good scholarly book, you will very likely find a publisher.  Although some people find this surprising, it is substantially easier (in terms of likelihood of acceptance, not in terms of amount of work) to publish a book at an elite academic press than it is to publish an article in a comparably elite philosophy journal.  Even if your book isn't accepted at one of the most visible presses, there are lots of other presses to try.

If you are capable of publishing research articles in mainstream journals, and if you pour your heart into a book of similar quality and scholarly rigor, it's very likely that some press will want your book.

Don't accept a book contract in advance from a publisher that isn't among the publishers you'd most like to work with.  If you don't get the contract you want beforehand, write an awesome book and try again for that contract.  (This advice applies only to scholarly books for specialist audiences.  Popular "trade" books should usually be contracted in advance, with plenty of editorial input up front.)

Responding to Feedback on Your Proposal or Manuscript

Once you've emailed your proposal, expect to receive a reply email within a week or so.  The editor might decline your proposal without seeking further input from reviewers, or the editor might be interested in your proposal.  If the editor is interested, they might send it straightaway to reviewers or to their colleagues for further evaluation, or they might suggest that you make some revisions to the proposal before they send it along.  You might or might not want to make those revisions.

For example, when I proposed A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, I imagined it as a collection of revised and updated short reflections from my blog and op-eds, on several themes (moral psychology, cosmology, philosophy of technology, and the sociology of philosophy).  Some editors thought it would be better as a unified book just on moral psychology, possibly quite short, and suggested that I revise my proposal accordingly.  I can imagine having done that, but in the end I chose to stick with my original vision, and fortunately MIT Press was enthusiastic.

In contrast, my proposal for The Weirdness of the World was of interest to three editors at leading presses, and two of them made substantial suggestions about how to improve my proposal.  I accepted about two-thirds of their suggestions, resulting in somewhat different proposals to different presses, and I do think the proposals were stronger as a result.

It doesn't take long to read a book proposal, so after it gets past the acquisition editor and sent out for further review, expect to hear something back within a few weeks -- hopefully not more than a couple of months.  Outside reviewers will make all kinds of suggestions.  You don't have to accept those suggestions!  Remember, at this point the acquisitions editor liked it enough to send it to reviewers.  What you need to do is respond to the reviewers' suggestions.  Write a response letter detailing your reaction to the suggestions and how you plan to accommodate them in the book; and if there are some suggestions that you would prefer not to implement, explain why.

If you sent a full manuscript without a signed contract in advance, it will probably take longer to receive reviews (a few months to hopefully not longer than half a year) and the editor may be more neutral about your project.  These reviews should be handled more like you would handle reviews on submitted articles, especially if some of them are tepid to negative about the manuscript.  In other words, make the requested changes if you can, and if you can't, explain yourself well without striking a defensive tone.  The revised manuscript might or might not be sent back out to those same reviewers again.

Negotiating a Contract

Yay, yay, yay!  You have a contract offer!

This is going to be hard if you're a newbie, but don't sign the offer right away.

A book contract is a legal document about ten pages long.  (I'd share an example, but I think my publishers would rather I kept the exact details confidential.)  Here's something you might not know that makes book contracts very different from the contracts you sign when you agree to let a journal publish an article: Many of the clauses are negotiable.  The contract can be changed.  Think of the initial contract you receive as an opening offer. It's not all boilerplate that you have to sign as-is. Also, you might still be waiting to hear back from other presses.

It will take some space for me to walk you through the details of book contracts, so I'll save that for Part II.


Update, June 4:
Please read the comments section for some further helpful ideas from authors and editors, especially pertaining to simultaneous vs. exclusive submission of full manuscripts.

[image source]


dbarack said...

Very helpful! A question: what do you recommend for getting in touch with / meeting editors outside of the context of a conference?

Unknown said...

This is incredibly helpful, thanks! One question:

As an example, I attach the first version of my most recent book proposal here, along with some comments about how it was received by editors and reviewers (and thus some respects in which it is a negative example).

Had you intended to insert a link to the actual book proposal? Or is it planned for a future post? Either way, I know I'd love to read it. Thanks for posting on this!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

dbarack: Most editors can be reached by email, though it can sometimes take some digging to find the right email addresses. If you can't meet in person, chatting by video, phone, or email is good (in that order). In my view, the more you give yourself and the editor space for back and forth and for paralinguistic communication, the better.

Unknown: Right, the link was left out of the post. Hopefully it's fixed now. Thanks for the catch!

David Chalmers said...

thanks, eric -- this is very useful. i agree with most of what you're said. just two qualifications from my experience editing a book series for OUP. of course all publishers are different and not everything in my experience will generalize.

(1) my sense is that publishers are much more open to a book proposal (as opposed to a book manuscript) from senior authors with a track record. it's harder to judge a 5-page proposal from authors with less of a track record. so junior authors are more likely to be asked for a full manuscript (or at least multiple chapters) before a contract decision.

(2) my sense is that it is fairly uncommon to submit book manuscripts (as opposed to book proposals) to multiple publishers at once. the reason is that reviewing a book manuscript takes a whole lot of time and work and few major publishers want to invest all that time and work only to lose the book. there may be exceptions, e.g. for people with tenure cases, high-profile books, or smaller publishers who are more willing to take a chance.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Dave, for those helpful comments! I'm inclined to agree with (1). I'm less clear about (2), based on my limited experience, and I'd be curious about others' senses about these issues.

The risk to authors of being overly conservative about multiple submission is that a strictly serial process could result in an extremely long delay if it requires several iterations and if some publishers are slow. In some cases, this might result in the book never being published, if it was really, for example, a great fit for University of Minnesota Press, while the author tried for three years at Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, etc., and eventually gave up hope and moved on to other projects. So even if a press would *prefer* an exclusive look, the advantage of simultaneous submission might be worth pushing for, if the press will tolerate it.

One compromise might be to approach your top choice press with a cover letter in which you say that you *intend* to submit the manuscript to a few other select presses unless the press asks for an exclusive look, and then if they do ask for an exclusive look, try to get some explicit commitment about a fairly quick time frame. Of course, the more desirable you are as an author, the more leverage you have for this sort of thing.

Tom Hurka said...

You don't mention the following, for more junior authors: have a more senior philosopher who knows your work and thinks well of it, e.g. your dissertation supervisor, and who's published with the press and has a relationship with the editor, put a word in with the editor about your idea in advance. Isn't that how a lot of first books get published?

Unknown said...

As an acquisitions editor in philosophy, I can confirm that at my press we do prefer full manuscripts from first-time authors as well as for edited volumes. That said, however, I always encourage authors who have full manuscripts to submit a proposal to a few preferred presses and only to grant exclusivity once an editor expresses interest and is ready to peer-review.

I can't overemphasize how important it is to do the due diligence in terms of which presses have strong lists in the area of the project and to make a strong pitch (what is the argument and why it is original and important) in your very first couple of paragraphs. In the pandemic universe the number of submissions I receive, always numerous, has increased exponentially--I often have 50 new inquiries each day. I simply don't have time to read several pages before I have any sense of what a book's topic is and whether it is relevant to what I'm looking for.

One last point: it can be helpful to have a recommendation from a senior scholar, but it has to mean something. Some people recommend far too many projects, often in unrelated subfields. There's no substitute for an outstanding project, pitched well, from an author who can write accessibly in a captivating narrative style.

David Thorstad said...

Thanks for writing this, Eric. This is really helpful for a perplexed junior scholar.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Tom: Thanks for making this suggestion. At worst, it can't hurt to have a senior scholar who has published there put in a good word for you. I don't myself know from experience how common this is or how much effect it has.

Unknown Jun 4: Thanks for those suggestions! I like the idea of simultaneous submission of proposal to a few places and then, for more junior scholars, exclusive look at the full manuscript if the press requests exclusivity and can at least informally commit to a reasonable turnaround time. What I think people *shouldn't* do is send the full manuscript exclusively to Their Favorite Press without some prior substantial indicator of interest by the acquisition editor. That way lies months-long waits and often feelings that one has been ignored and neglected, maybe even abandoning the project although it would have been a good fit for another press. Fifty inquiries a day!

David: Thanks for the kind words. :-)

Jeff Dean said...

This is great, Eric, thanks for taking the time to do it. Having been an editor at 5 different publishers across several decades, with experience in both commercial and university press contexts, I'd emphasize that while there's a lot in common between presses/editors, there are also varying preferences regarding "best practices". Even a particular press/editor may change such preferences over time or across different contexts. So I'd recommend, in addition to paying attention to what a given press publishes, guidelines for proposals, etc., making contact with an editor early on, even if only on an informal basis. Meeting with academics at conferences is great for this (or at least used to be, prior to the pandemic), but this can also happen over email, the phone, Skype, etc. Of course, this itself is a preference, and other editors may demur, but I think early contact can help head off misunderstandings, allow for the development of better proposals, and establish friendly contact before the more formal processes begin.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that comment, Jeff. Yes, I think it makes a lot of sense to start with those informal communications, if the editors are open to it.

Matt said...

This is very helpful, Eric. One question, in case you (or others reading here) know the answer: if there is a particular series at a press (like, say, Oxford Political Theory, or Oxford Political Philosophy, or Oxford Legal Philosophy, to pick three that are relevant to my areas of work), does it make sense to approach the editors of those series (who are often philosophers, and not press editors or employees) as opposed to the press philosophy acquisitions editor? Or, do you think it's better to approach the acquisitions editor first?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Matt: Right, that's an important subset of cases that I neglected to discuss. In that case, probably the series editor first. However, it can go either way. The series editor might want it and pitch it to the acquisition editor (probably more common), or the acquisition editor might like it and then suggest that it be included within an already existing series.

Matt said...

Thanks, Eric - I appreciate it. If others have relevant experience, I'm glad to hear that, too!

Anonymous said...

Greetings. Great piece. One question please: Do you have any recommendations for publishers of books on African philosophy? I am on a monograph pending publication as a newbie.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Aug 1: Unfortunately, I don't know enough about that subfield to have recommendations. Who has recently published books in the subarea that you like?