A (Not Entirely) Foolproof Guide to Getting Published for Academics: Part I

In a previous post Katya Covrett discussed the shortage of published works by female authors in biblical and theological studies. In this post she offers professional tips on how to get published. Covrett (MTS, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is Executive Editor at Zondervan Academic.

While there is no truly foolproof way to get published, with proper homework and preparation, one may greatly increase their chances. In the next two posts I will go over the basic steps of academic publishing with comments on each and a few “Pro Tips” along the way. At this point I am assuming several things: 1) you are a scholar seeking to publish academically; 2) you already have a desire and motivation to publish; 3) you have a book idea or at least an area of interest for publishing.[1]

I am grateful to my colleagues Nancy Erickson (Zondervan Academic), Stan Gundry (Zondervan Academic), Jim Kinney (Baker Academic), Robin Parry (Wipf and Stock), and Dan Reid (IVP Academic) for reviewing these posts and offering their critical and constructive feedback.

Put together a proposal

Most publishers make their publishing decisions based on a book proposal; most book proposals contain similar information. Here I will outline key elements of a book proposal.

Format

A book proposal should be its own document attachment, not the email itself. A simple Word document will do. (PDFs are acceptable for initial submission, but an editable version will likely be needed eventually.) Most typical formatting for an academic book proposal is single-spaced Times New Roman 12-point type font with headings that correspond to the following proposal elements (essentially the same for chapters, except double-spaced). No funky fonts, please, unless they are ancient languages of your specialty, such as Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Sindarin, Klingon, etc.

Pro Tip #1: Proofread your proposal and any included documents before you hit send. Typos and grammatical errors do not make a good first impression, especially on editors.

Proposed book title and subtitle

A title is the first exposure of readers to the book. Whatever your target audience is, the title has to connect with them. If coming up with creative titles is not your thing, do not worry; just give it your best shot. Keep in mind that at the proposal stage both title and subtitle are tentative. With most publishers, this is marketing territory and, if the book is accepted, marketing will collaborate with you and your editor on the best title/subtitle combination.

Feel free to include possible alternative titles/subtitles.

Your name, contact information, and a brief bio

Give your name as you would wish it to appear on the book—middle initial or not, etc.

The bio is meant to establish your credibility to write the book you are proposing, so give the relevant details. It should be no more than 300 words and include your degree(s), current position(s), past teaching or ministry background (if any), and published or forthcoming books or contributions. If you have a blog or a website, mention it here.

Please append a complete CV with the proposal.

Brief synopsis/thesis and description/abstract of the book

When writing these, remember that you are trying to sell the publisher on the idea. Give a realistic and positive description of what you propose.

As you might imagine, publishers are busy people. Publishing cycles never end; there is always more to do than there are hours in the day to do it; we are constantly bombarded with book ideas. So, please present your idea clearly and succinctly. An editor probably—if my own experience says anything about editors in general—does not have time to read a mini monograph when considering a book idea or to weed through long descriptions to grasp the gist of the book. Clarity and brevity are also likely to get you a faster response.

Pro Tip #2: The synopsis should be 3-5 sentences; the abstract no more than 300 words.

Target audience

One of the biggest pitfalls of book proposals from academics is overestimating who will read their book, and as a corollary to that, the level at which they are writing. Partly this is due to an occupational hazard. Since academics tend to circulate mostly in higher education circles, this affects their perception of who are “average laypersons” and what makes a “popular” book.[2]

Clearly identify 1-2 target audiences and the level you are writing for:

1. Christian laypersons (average or educated);
2. pastors or other leaders/professionals in Christian ministries;
3. students (lower division college, upper division college or seminary, advanced graduate);
4. professors/scholars.

Pro Tip #3: Audiences #1 and #4 above do not go together. With an academic work, #1 largely does not figure in.

If your book has realistic potential for primary textbook adoption or as a required supplemental text, identify for which courses and do some research on the institutions that offer them. The latter is especially important for potential textbooks outside core disciplines.

Projected length and proposed completion date

Length and date—the two perils of academic publishing. Most academic books come in longer, much longer, than projected; and most academics take longer, often much longer, to finish a book than they initially anticipate despite their best intentions.

When estimating length, please give your best projection of the number of words (not pages) for the manuscript as a whole as well as for each chapter. Keep in mind the target audience you wish to reach and the level/category of the book when you think about length, both overall and per chapter. If you want your work of theology to be accessible enough to your undergrad students or your pastor, then perhaps chapters of 15 or more thousand words would be counterproductive to that goal. Conversely, if you are trying to convince your academic peers of your latest and greatest new thesis, then you may need more than 15k words per chapter to develop a well argued and nuanced case.

When promising a completion date, please be realistic with yourself. If you are just beginning teaching, don’t overestimate how much you will be able to accomplish apart from course prep in your first two (or more) years. Publishing may be important, but it is not your day job. Certainly one cannot account for the unexpected, but give a realistic date to the best of your ability based on your current circumstances.

Competing/comparable titles

Here is where you need to spend a lot of time. Not only will solid competition research show the publisher you have done your homework, it will help you to fine-tune and distinguish your idea from other works on the market. It can certainly save face if you discover at this stage that someone else has already done it!

As you research, ask yourself: How does the competing work relate to what I want to say? How does it compare or contrast? How much has been said on my topic—too much, enough, not enough? How unique is my idea? Is it enough for a full-length book? Be honest.

If you cannot distinguish your book from competition and build a good case for why your book should be published, perhaps you should reconsider whether it is worth your time and effort to write it.

Pro Tip #4: Note the publishers of your competition. Does it help or hurt your case with any particular publisher?

Prospective endorsers

List names of those who may be suitable and willing to write an endorsement for your book. Please indicate if you have a relationship with any.

Pro Tip #5: Please refrain from putting down the name of the Most Eminent Luminary in Your Field unless you have valid reason to believe they will do it. Unless the Most Eminent Luminary in Your Field is your uncle, your BFF, or owes you a life debt, reconsider the validity of your reason for enlisting them.

Tentative table of contents

… or, better yet, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. For each chapter, briefly and clearly explain its contribution to the whole book.

A sample chapter or two

In most cases, but especially if this is your first book (at all or first book with the given publisher), we will need to see a writing sample. Note that when publishers say “writing sample,” we mean an actual piece of the proposed book, not just any sample of your writing. So, plan on having one or two chapters ready at the time of proposal submission.

The chapters should be (1) typical of the book as a whole, (2) especially critical to your argument, (3) potentially controversial, or (4) a good overview of the book.

At Zondervan Academic, we do not prefer receiving completed manuscripts. A representative chapter or two would be best.

Research publishers

Not all publishers are created equal. All of us have our strengths and weaknesses, areas we focus on and avoid. Before submitting your proposal, do some homework on the publishers who work in the area in which you want to write. Your competitor research will have given you a head start on this already.

Peruse publishers’ catalogs, websites, and conference exhibits to see what sorts of books they publish. Note not only the disciplines (biblical studies, theology, history, philosophy, etc.) but also the categories and levels of books they publish (monographs, textbooks, reference, commentaries, etc.), diversity of theological perspectives, diversity of authors.

To the best of your ability, decide what publisher has the potential to serve you and your book best. That may already be determined for you by your institution, if they require a certain kind of press for tenure or accreditation considerations; but, if the field is open, note how different presses go about their business of publishing and marketing books in a given category or discipline.

If you know published authors, ask them about their experiences with the publisher(s) in question.

***

Check out Part II as Katya Covrett continues her helpful discussion on academic publishing.

_______________________

[1] If your answer to one or more of these assumptions is “no,” seek editorial attention immediately.

[2] Now, as I said earlier, I am here focusing on academic publishing. Trade book publishing has its own set of guidelines and challenges. Besides, what academics mean by “popular book” is not what publishers mean by it.

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4 Responses to A (Not Entirely) Foolproof Guide to Getting Published for Academics: Part I

  1. Pingback: A (Not Entirely) Foolproof Guide to Getting Published for Academics: Part I — Women Biblical Scholars | Talmidimblogging

  2. Pingback: How to get published—advice from Katya Covrett of Zondervan | Acts and More

  3. Gail Wallace says:

    Thank you so much for the practical information in this post! It is very helpful to those of us who dream about writing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Recommended Reading: June 4 | Pursuing Veritas

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