5 Ingredients to Get Your Scholarly Book Published

It’s no secret that venues for scholarly publication, especially in the humanities, have constricted in the last twenty years. When I published a 375-page collection of essays in 1985, I found it relatively easy, based upon a detailed prospectus, to secure a contract with a university press. Since then, however, fiscal pressures have compelled many academic institutions to retrench. The upshot has been a reduction of operating subsidies for journals, a mandated narrowing of monograph publishers’ editorial missions, and a concomitant increase of responsibility for prospective authors to document the marketability of their projects.

Many, perhaps most, scholars will find the last development an alien expectation, particularly when the average print run for a book is fewer than 1,000 copies. By dint of their vocational immersion in the world of ideas, academicians are unaccustomed to gauging the extrinsic worth of their work in terms of consumer demand. Now more than ever, however, those seeking publication are being called upon to validate why their manuscripts warrant the investment of institutionally limited capital. A new pragmatism has overtaken an earlier culture of scholarship for its own sake.

Given this shift in today’s publishing environment, I offer below some tips based upon my recent experience of negotiating a contract for an 85,000-word monograph on British espionage fiction. After I contacted a dozen carefully chosen university presses in the U.S. and abroad about the project, only two were receptive to considering it for refereed review. Rather than throw the dice and risk the lag of a delayed editorial commitment, I decided to approach a commercial firm that on its website profiles itself as “a leading independent publisher of academic and nonfiction books.” Because its extensive backlist of authors includes several prominent scholars, some of whom I knew personally, I decided to pursue this outlet.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that my decision would entail more extensive book editing and ongoing negotiation related to my work’s marketability. After securing a contract, I went back and forth many times with the publisher’s staff about the issue of what would “sell” my book. Their first concern was my proposed title. I had assumed that Covert Operations: British Espionage Fiction was fairly clever and elegantly simple, but it was pointed out to me that research libraries, which comprise the largest group of those purchasing academic releases, require greater specificity as well as precision in titles. After prolonged debate over various alternatives, mine eventually morphed into The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction: A Critical Study of Six Novelists. (Although I still find the compromise somewhat clunky, I can live with it.) The publisher and I also danced the same jig about what constitutes “fair-use” copyright law concerning quotations from primary texts, which despite fifteen years as the editor of a scholarly journal I since have learned is an incalculably slippery slope. Finally, I will be expected to play an active role in marketing my monograph by suggesting the names/addresses of contact persons for reviews and others with specialized interests (e.g., cohorts within the Modern Language Association of America) to whom it might be promoted.

How, then, can I sum up what I have discovered in these times of shrunken horizons for scholarly publication? Some bulleted points to consider as you investigate prospects in this field may prove helpful.

• Why should the publisher be interested in your submission? Tailor your cover letter tightly to the journal’s or press’s formal mission statement. Demonstrate, in other words, that it is the right “fit” for your piece.

• How will my submission complement or enhance the venue’s extant line of releases? This too is part of the marketing game. As in the preceding entry, show that you are thoroughly familiar with the targeted publisher’s past coverage.

• Given your response to the preceding point, how will your manuscript, if accepted, attract new readers to the venue’s backlist while also expanding its current clientele? (I use the last word intentionally.) Avoid generalities and bromides that carry little persuasive weight.

• What can you contribute to the successful marketing of your text? If it is appropriate for classroom adoption, say so. Otherwise demarcate, again in concrete terms, the reading demographic for which your work is intended.

• How, lastly, can you assist the prospective press in other ways of attracting attention to your monograph? Recommend, for example, review contacts in local/regional newspapers and journals with no-cost reciprocal arrangements for full-page advertisements.

All these considerations are secondary, of course, to your main channels of investigation and scholarly interest, but to one degree or another you will have to address them in today’s world of highly competitive publishing. The trick, if you will, is not to believe that your job is done once you have completed the artifact itself. Like it or not, we are all enlisted in promoting our individual efforts within a market-driven economy.