In the comments section of my post on John Turri's (illuminating) self-report data on papers he's published, Sam Duncan asked, "Could you guys ever run a post on publishing a book here?" Sam also asked several questions about book proposals, namely:
- Just what are the respectable presses in philosophy? (I know huge question and more than a little subjective too).
- How much of the book should you have written before you even shop the proposal?
- How long do presses take to get back to you?
- Is it acceptable to send out proposals to multiple presses at the same time? Is it a good idea? I know Leiter had a thread on this a while back and absolutely no one could agree.
- Is it a good idea to send informal emails asking about interest in the book before sending in a formal proposal?
Given that I went through the book proposal process for the first time a couple of years ago, and have been going through the book writing, revising, and publishing process ever since, I'm really glad Sam asked! I'm going to put together a new series of posts on book publishing, and hope readers find them informative.
Here, then, are my answers to Sam's specific questions:
1. Just what are the respectable presses in philosophy?
As Roman Altshuler pointed out in response to Sam's comment, Brian Leiter put together a helpful poll ranking philosophy book publishers several years ago. By my lights, just about all of the presses listed in the top-20 are considered respectable in the field. I had to choose between pursuing the equivalent of a revise-and-resubmit with Routledge (#4) and a contract-offer by Palgrave (#13), for instance, and everyone I asked said they were both good presses.
Still, things are not so simple. The kind of press you should go with depends on a lot of things: your personal aims, employment situation, visibility in the discipline, etc. Allow me to explain.
First, if you are working at an R1 school, or are looking to get a job at one, then you should presumably shoot as high as possible (since it plausibly matters to tenure and promotion committees there). On the other hand, if you are not at an R1 school, then aiming for something lower might make sense.
Second, which type of press you should go with plausibly depends on your visibility in the discipline. It is hard for me to imagine someone wanting to go through the process of writing an entire book only to see no one buy or read it. As such, if you have very little visibility in the field, publishing in a lower-ranked press might be a big risk (you might write a book that no one reads--a big bummer!). Publishing in a top-ranked press might be necessary for your book to make any impact. On the other hand, if you are a visible presence in the discipline--if your work is widely cited, people know who you are, etc.--then publishing in a lower-ranked probably won't run the same risk.
Finally, one thing I should probably also mention here is that I have heard (from a number of sources) that it can be very difficult to publish in a "top" press without an established reputation in the field as something of a research star. This is for one major reason. Book publishers are interested in sales and adding to/retaining their prestige. This is, among other things, why the book proposal and manuscript review processes are not anonymized (quite unlike peer-reviewed journals). Since books cost a lot to produce, publishing houses are looking for things that will sell--and a book by a "no name" is, unless it is absolutely extraordinary, unlikely to sell like a book from a "top name."
2. How much of the book should you have written before you even shop the proposal?
I have gotten the same answers to this by everyone I've consulted. If you are not a well-established, visible figure in the field (someone with a bunch of well-cited publications), you basically need to have an entire book drafted. This is for a very simple reason. Publishers will be willing to offer contracts to established authors after a proposal and (perhaps) review of a sample chapter or two. Publishers will not offer a contract to a less well-established person until after they put your entire manuscript under review and get good (enough) reviews on it. Thus, publishers will not bother with a book proposal from an unestablished person unless you have a full-manuscript to send them for review if they like the proposal (note: it is standard in actual book proposals to note precisely how much of the book you have drafted).
This is, among other things, what makes publishing a book a rather harrowing experience for a person who is not that well-established in the field. You do, quite literally, have to write an entire book before you even approach publishers with a proposal.
3. How long do presses take to get back to you?
There are two answers to this. The first time you approach a press, you typically send them a "query letter" (a cover letter telling them in a paragraph or two what your book is about) along with a "proposal." Many publishers have their own proposal form you need to fill out, though some do not--and for those who do not, I sent in a generic proposal in PDF (the contents of which I will talk about in a future post). In my experience, you tend to hear back on these initial queries really fast, in several weeks at most. Typically, your proposal will be rejected on the spot, or you will be invited sample chapters or (more likely) an entire manuscript for review. And this is the part that takes super long. I've heard presses taking well over a year to review a manuscript (yes, even rejections). Not only that. Many (but not all) presses will not review your manuscript while it is under review elsewhere--so basically, you can wait an entire year (or more) to hear that your manuscript has been rejected before you can even approach another publisher.
4. Is it acceptable to send out proposals to multiple presses at the same time? Is it a good idea? I know Leiter had a thread on this a while back and absolutely no one could agree.
I struggled (as Sam did) to find good answers to this online, but actually in my experience it has a very straightforward answer: each publisher has their own policies. Some publishers will not consider a proposal under review elsewhere, others will. The important thing is to be communicate clearly with whomever you are dealing with. In your query letter, for instance, you might say, "My proposal is currently under review at other presses." In many cases, editors simply sent me an email telling me to try again later. In other cases, they were happy to look at the proposal even if it were under review elsewhere.
Things are very different, however, when it comes to the review process for entire book manuscripts. In my experience, most (but not all) presses will not permit you to have your entire manuscript under review elsewhere while they are reviewing it. There is one exception to this I encountered myself, and which you might ask about. Some publishers will allow you to have your manuscript reviewed at other presses if you confer to them a "right of first-refusal"--which is basically a binding agreement that you will publish the book with them if they accept it, even if another (possibly better) press wants to offer you a contract. The editor at Routledge offered me this, and I was very thankful, since I was able to have my entire manuscript reviewed by multiple places simultaneously (many other presses would not review the manuscript while it was under review with Routledge, but some did!). This sped up the entire book publishing process for me immeasurably. I placed the entire manuscript under review with several presses all at the same time, and a few months later I heard from all three of them at roughly the same time.
5. Is it a good idea to send informal emails asking about interest in the book before sending in a formal proposal?
This one also has a straightforward answer. Typically, book publishers have a webpage telling you precisely what they want you to do!