Ashgate’s commissioning editors are often asked about how to get published. Here is some advice from Alison Kirk, Ashgate’s Publisher for Law and Legal Studies. We hope you find it useful – let us know!
How Does an Author Choose a Publisher?
Talk to others who have published in the same field as you. You want to get a range of views about publishers although you may find that opinions vary depending on different people’s experiences and expectations. It is likely that some senior academics will steer you towards a university press. Bear in mind their decision making processes are often longer than commercial publishers and so you might want to take that into account if you have a tight timeframe.
Peer reviewing: reputable commercial academic publishers should peer review as extensively as a university press. This is important as it will be a factor taken into consideration when assessing your publications record. If the publisher doesn’t appear to have had your proposal peer reviewed, check if they plan to review the final manuscript.
Similar books: look at books you feel are similar in style/market/subject to your book. It is likely that those publishers will be interested in seeing your proposal. For example, if you are writing a fairly specialized, research monograph, it is a waste of your time and theirs sending it to a textbook publisher. It also avoids giving the impression that you do not know your market.
Series: there’s probably a higher chance of success if you can submit a proposal for a particular series, especially if it looks like that series is growing and lots of titles are published/forthcoming. If you know the series editors, go direct to them as they have a big say on what gets published within a series.
Conferences: look at which publishers show up at the major conferences. Apart from anything else, it is an indicator of the effort they will put into marketing your book. Try to arrange in advance to meet the editor, you can talk about your ideas for the book and get some early feedback. This is likely to be more fruitful than emailing out of the blue.
International reach: try to find a publisher who has international reach, particularly with their own office in the US. Most good publishers do. The US is an important market for English language books and you want to be able to reach that market effectively. Some UK publishers don’t have US offices themselves but co-publish with an American publisher. The disadvantage of this may be that the US publisher chooses not to take on your title and so there is no guarantee of exposure over there. Clarify this before signing any contract.
If your book is based on research on a particular country or would appeal to a particular region, such as Latin America or Africa, check that the publisher will be able to reach that market. Also find out what they might do about selling foreign language rights if your book has particular appeal in a non-English language speaking region.
Once you have decided which publishers to contact, there are a few points about what to do before you approach them.
Follow guidelines: make sure you follow the proposal guidelines and prepare a proposal which covers everything any publisher would want to ask. This saves time, but more importantly shows you’ve thought everything through thoroughly. Be careful to tailor your approach email – it is off-putting to find another publisher’s name appearing in an email by mistake.
Accuracy: similarly, ensure that your work is accurate and grammatically correct as far as possible. Inaccuracies and general sloppiness in presentation do not inspire confidence and may lead to automatic rejection.
Draft material: ideally 1-2 sample chapters. It is not usually necessary to complete the entire text before approaching a publisher. In the current climate it is probably not a good idea to embark on writing a complete book without a contract in hand. The sample chapters ensure you and the publisher will get more substantial comments from the reviewers.
Again, don’t send in anything which you feel still needs more work as it will only attract negative reviews. Submitting some sample published work on the same topic would be more helpful.
Commercial considerations: try to be aware of these when deciding what your book will be about. Bear in mind that most publishers, even university presses, have a minimum sale they need to achieve to justify publishing a book and something which is very narrow, or too country-specific, will not make it past the publisher’s desk and out for review.
Print runs these days for a hardback monograph can be as low as 300 copies so we are not looking for very high sales, but with library budgets being cut year on year, those sales are no longer guaranteed.
Market accuracy: conversely, don’t feel that you have to write a bestseller, and don’t try to overplay the market potential for your book. If you are writing a research monograph, call it that because the publisher will certainly recognize it for what it is. Frankly, the publisher will have a fair idea of the size of the market for the book and if your expectations of sales appear too high, they will fear it will be difficult to manage those expectations. Of course if you are writing a proposal for a genuine textbook you do need to be able to provide an indication of the size of the potential student market for the text. However, again, a textbook publisher will already have a feel for the size of the market and will probably have already carried out market research in that area.
Thesis: some may consider re-writing their thesis for book publication, and whilst some publishers shy away from publishing theses, most will consider a heavily re-written version. Contrary to what you might think, it can help if you have published parts of the research in the thesis in journals or book chapters. If you have published a lot of it elsewhere the publisher may feel that the book won’t succeed when people can access much of the material from other sources. However, refereed journal publications are a signal of quality to most publishers and they’ll consider your proposal more seriously with a few publications already under your belt. The thesis will need to be re-written and it is a big advantage if you can show awareness of the need for re-writing and outline the proposed revisions in detail. It is also important not to refer to the original thesis in the actual book.
Submission: most publishers will assume that you have approached several publishers simultaneously. However, a few may have a policy on this so it is best to check in advance. If the publisher knows that other publishers are considering the proposal, they will do their best to turn it around as quickly as possible. You should also receive more feedback on the proposal which will be useful.
The exception to this is where a publisher contacts you directly with the specific idea of writing a particular type of book or a book on a particular subject. Under such circumstances, it would be considered poor form to then take that publisher’s idea to another publishing house.
If the publisher sends you a contract, there is probably a limited time you can expect them to wait for your decision. By issuing a contract quickly, the publisher hopes to gain a competitive advantage and they will be unlikely to wait indefinitely for a response. If you do accept a contract, it is courteous to inform any other publishers that you have done so. They will have invested time and money considering and reviewing the proposal – and you never know, you may want to publish with them in the future!
Completing the Proposal – What the publisher needs to know and why
Most commercial publishers broadly look for the same sort of information and have similar processes. The university presses have a slightly different way of working.
The title: the publisher may well suggest some seemingly boring alternatives to the clever title that you have proposed. There is a very good reason for wanting boring ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ type titles and it is to do with search engines. The search engine will assume that the key words that define the subject appear in the title and will thus give highest rating to those words. This is why it is essential to choose a clear, accurate title. Think about the search terms that readers are likely to use when looking for information on the same topic as yours, and help them by constructing your title to include those terms.
For obvious reasons, textbook publishers will normally ask that the title is as closely tied as possible to the title of courses in the area.
Detail: the proposal form is usually short but your answers should be as detailed as possible. Allow 1-2 paragraphs for the synopsis of each chapter, not just a few lines. Remember, that the proposal is what the commissioning editor will largely base their decision on as to whether to reject or send the proposal off for review. The clearer and more relevant information you can supply, the easier it is for them to make a decision. Authors sometimes feel that reviewers have misunderstood their work but it is important to remember that the reviewers have formed their opinions from the information you have supplied. If they have misunderstood it, then it is likely that others will as well.
Illustrations: we need to know about the number and type of illustrations because of costs. Bear in mind that illustrations should add to your argument and not just repeat what you have said in the text in a visual form.
Word extent: we are looking for around 80-120,000 words which translates to a book around 200-250 pages. A book under 100 pages would probably be too short and a book over 350 pages can be difficult to cost. The extent should also include the footnotes.
Delivery: be realistic about the estimated delivery date and allow yourself enough time to finish the book. In practice, most publishers are flexible about the delivery date and appreciate that circumstances can change in the course of writing. This is less true of textbooks where it is very important to publish at the agreed time so that the book makes it on to reading lists. Delaying a textbook can destroy its marketability.
Copyright: we ask whether there will be any material in copyright to a third party because there may be costs involved in clearing those copyright permissions and the publisher will want to discuss with you how those costs are going to be paid. Bear in mind you will need to clear copyright permission for both print and electronic editions of the book. It is best to clear permissions before delivery of the final manuscript in case of unforeseen problems.
CV: you are selling yourself as a serious researcher as much as the book itself. Books are sold largely on the basis of topic and name recognition so don’t undersell yourself as the author. Make sure your biographical information or your CV is completely up-to-date and includes any publications you have undertaken so far (even if work in progress).
Competition: we ask you to list competing publications and draw out the differences between your book and these publications so that we can be confident about the size of the market for the book. In effect, this is really more of an issue for textbook publishers who will themselves undertake a lot of market research. That said, for any book, good knowledge of the literature in the area indicates that you are well informed and your research is current.
Market: be realistic about the audience for your book. If it is only likely to appeal to postgraduates and scholars in your field, then be clear about this. Very few academic books are capable of appealing to everyone. Many people stress the practitioner market because they want to show that the book will appeal to a large number of people. In practice, academics and professionals generally look for different styles of book.
The Review and Decision-making Process
List fit: the first thing the commissioning editor will do is assess whether the book ‘fits’ in their existing list. This is important to ensure that the publisher is going to be able to market the book effectively without incurring unreasonable costs. That is why it is a good idea to look carefully at who publishes the largest lists in your field. A number of speculative proposals a publisher receives can be rejected outright on the basis that they just don’t fit in the existing list and they don’t offer a new direction they would want to explore.
Market: the second important element of assessment is how well the book will sell. Sales of previous books in the same area are always a good indicator and the commissioning editor will judge how this proposal might be similar or different to existing titles to work out whether sales might be comparable or not. Factors we have to bear in mind when assessing potential sales include the seniority of the author (a well published author is likely to attract higher sales) and the international appeal of the book. For a textbook, it will be the likely number of students, and the level of competition.
Quality: if the book seems to fit the list and looks likely to meet sales expectations, then an academic assessment of the value of the book is made, a judgment about the contribution it might make to the field. Usually this involves sending it off for independent peer review.
Series: there may be an obvious series which the proposed book can fit into and the commissioning editor will first run the proposal past the series editor for an initial review. If the series editor is positive, the commissioning editor may go straight ahead and put the proposal forward for the editorial board to approve a contract or, if the series editor has reservations or does not have time to comment, they may find other reviewers for the proposal to ensure that it meets the standard of the series. You may find that by submitting a proposal to a series, the process is quicker and more straightforward.
If your book does not fit in a series, the commissioning editor will send the proposal straight out to a number of reviewers and then forward the feedback to you, normally in anonymous form. Securing reviews is one of the most time-consuming parts of an editor’s job and the commissioning process. It is quite difficult for us to find good reviewers who can respond in a timely fashion. We are asking reviewers to respond to proposals with sample chapters in around four weeks, and longer for a full text review. We know that authors are anxious for a reply, and that other publishers might be considering the proposal at the same time, so we try to be as speedy as possible but do bear in mind that publishers are reliant on the reviewers getting back to them within the agreed time.
If the publisher is exceptionally busy it may take a month or more before they can read the proposal themselves and then another month for the reviews to come in, so do be patient but equally don’t let a publisher drag the process out for months and months on end.
If the reviews are universally negative the proposal will probably be rejected outright. If they are mixed, the publisher should indicate which changes they feel are most important and work with you on improving the proposal. You will probably have to resubmit a revised proposal which then goes back to the original reviewers. Bear in mind that even if negative, the reviewer’s intent is generally to be constructive. Try to be flexible without compromising the integrity of your original ideas. If the proposal is rejected, don’t give up and do try other publishers.
Once you have worked out any changes to the proposal with the editor, and submitted a revised version, this will go through to an editorial board at the press. At most publishers, the board consists of members of the sales and marketing team and the editorial director. Each will comment on the proposal and the editorial director will make the final decision as to whether to publish.
What Happens When a Publisher Accepts the Book?
Once the editorial board has accepted the book for publication, you will be contacted by the commissioning editor outlining the terms under which the book will be published, or they will just send you a contract. It is important that you go through the contract. Any decent commissioning editor will be happy to go through this with you or to discuss any aspect that concerns you. Some clauses may be non-negotiable; others may be able to be changed easily. The most common questions relate to:
- new editions
- gratis copies
Along with the contract you should receive a copy of the publisher’s style guide. Please do read and try to follow these. Disregarding them can cause problems and delays at delivery stage. In effect, most publishers will really only require that the layout is logical, and consistent. However, if you follow the housestyle as closely as possible, it helps avoid complications. This is particularly true regarding illustrations.
Writing and Delivery
Most commissioning editors will be happy to answer any queries that come up during writing. If these are quite technical, they should be able to put you in direct contact with one of the editorial team. If there is anything particularly unusual about the style or layout of your text, it is a good idea to send draft material for Editorial to check in advance.
For textbooks, the publisher will normally require you to submit in batches so that it can be sent out for market review during the actual writing process.
Delivery: on delivery the commissioning editor may send the manuscript out for final review, particularly, if it was contracted on the basis of a proposal or if it is the author’s first book. Likewise, if it is in a series it will almost certainly be sent to the series editor for final approval. The commissioning editor will forward any feedback to the author or, assuming that there are no major issues, it may be passed over to the Desk-editorial department. From then on, there should be no re-writing and the author’s role is primarily to answer copy-editor queries, check proofs and liaise with the marketing department. Approximately, 5-6 months after delivery of the typescript, you can look forward to finally seeing the book in print and start the whole process over again!