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

In this post Katya Covrett continues her discussion on how to become a published author. Be sure to check out Part I as well. Covrett (MTS, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is Executive Editor at Zondervan Academic.

Find an editor

An acquisitions editor (also called acquiring or commissioning editor) is the one who seeks out authors and books for a publisher. Some academic acquisitions editors have a focus in a particular discipline, like theology or the Old Testament or biblical studies in general, or in a particular category, such as textbooks or reference books; others are generalists and acquire broadly across the publisher’s spectrum.

What acquisitions editors are looking for

I can’t speak for my peers at other presses, so I will only speak here for myself.

I am looking for passion for your book, a burning desire to get your idea out and making an impact upon your readers. Related to that, I am looking for you to convince me why your book must be published. Publishers receive thousands of proposals each year; yet only a handful of them see the light of publication. Even otherwise publishable ideas get declined because publishers have limits to what they can do. Why is yours the one? Your case must compel me to advocate for you and your book to my team. If you cannot cast an honestly compelling vision, why then are you writing it?

I am looking for why you think this publisher is the right publisher for your book. Under pressure of “publish or perish,” too many authors submit proposals with no clue why or even if the book fits with a publisher. Have you done your homework?

I am looking for authors who are willing to work with me, to listen to good editorial guidance, and to collaborate with our team.

Pro Tip #6: Refrain from asking an editor, “So, what specific book ideas are you looking for?” I suspect every editor is allergic to this question. It releases spores of desperation: “I will write anything a publisher will give me a contract for.” If I am looking for a specific book, chances are I already have a list of prospective authors in mind.

Making initial contact

Seek and we may be found. Most academic acquisitions editors are accessible via email. Often our emails are included in publishers’ catalogs or on websites. In these days of social media, making online contact is also relatively easy through “mutual friends.”

Ask the editor if it is okay to send them a proposal and if they have submission or proposal guidelines. Chances are they do. Most such guidelines require the basics we’ve covered above, but it is a good idea to check if a given publisher requires more or less. Publishers may also have a separate email address for submissions, which is monitored by an editorial assistant. It is not ideal and is mostly for those who are otherwise unable to find an editor.

The best ways to get an in with an editor are (1) a personal meeting or (2) a recommendation/introduction. Acquisitions editors are people persons. We have to be. Our profession is a relational business and most of us thrive on personal interaction with our authors. All acquiring editors travel to conferences and campuses. If a professional conference is coming up, acquisitions editors are likely to be there. Reach out and ask for a meeting.

Pro Tip #7: When trying to schedule a meeting with an editor at a convention, do so at least several weeks in advance. Speaking for myself, I am generally booked well before a conference (for AAR/SBL, usually two months in advance).

In lieu of a personal meeting, a recommendation or introduction from a published author will do the trick.

Pro Tip #8: brought to you by Robin Parry of Wipf and Stock: “If you are a new author, an accompanying recommendation for publication from a well-known and established scholar in the relevant field can be helpful, though not required. Some proposals can look a little quirky at first glance and such a recommendation can elevate them from the status of ‘possibly insane’ to that of ‘worth taking seriously.’”

Submission process

Submit your proposal, CV, and sample chapters as email attachments using the email itself as a brief cover letter. Try not to call because it’s been a WHOLE HOUR and you haven’t heard ANYTHING back. An editor will usually acknowledge receipt, but it may take even several days depending on our workload and travel.

And now you wait.

Waiting is hard. So hard you feel like it has been forever. As hard as it is, please resist the urge to call or email every day. Most publishers’ review process takes 60-90 days from receipt of final proposal. If you haven’t heard within that timeframe, then please follow up.

Pro Tip #9: Refrain from resending “updated” version(s) of a proposal unless it is significantly revised from the original submission, you have had a career changing event, or have been invited to discuss your book on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Receiving feedback

A response from the editor could be one of three things: no, yes but, or yes.

Here is a reality check: you are more likely to be declined than accepted. Rejections are part and parcel of trying to get published. The vast majority of authors have been declined at one time or another. Though I realize rejection can feel very personal, it is not personal; it is just the reality of publishing. Every publisher has their idiosyncrasies and preferences. And no single publisher can accept everything. The most painful part of my job is having to decline a book I think is worth publishing.

Don’t give up. The better you do your homework, the better your chances will be even if it takes a few tries. Be prepared to resubmit your proposal to another publisher. I am often asked whether simultaneous submissions (submitting the same proposal to several publishers at the same time) are acceptable. While I am not opposed to simultaneous submissions as such, I will admit that subjectively they may not incline me positively toward a proposal. If you care not what publisher your book goes to, then by all means go for it; however, if you know you want this publisher, then we have foundation for a relationship. Publishing is a two-way street; as much as we choose an author, the author has to choose us too.

Pro Tip #10: brought to you by Dan Reid of IVP Academic: “When shopping book proposals to publishers, be sure to delete the name of the last editor/publisher you tried. No matter how prestigious they are.”

Second, you may receive an expression of interest that is contingent on changing something about the book. The editor will offer you feedback on what would make the book more publishable for them. It will be up to you then to decide whether you are willing to follow it or seek another publisher. If you choose to follow the editorial direction and go back to the drawing board to revise your proposal and/or sample chapters, the key is: listen to your editor.

Pro Tip #11: brought to you by Stephen King’s On Writing: “One rule of the road not directly stated elsewhere in this book: ‘The editor is always right.’ The corollary is that no writer will take all of his or her editor’s advice; for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.”

The third possible and rarer response is a yes. But don’t go out celebrating with your friends and family just yet. A yes at this stage does not necessarily constitute final approval. It may only be an intention on the editor’s part to take the proposal through the publisher’s internal approval process. The editor will make that clear and explain the next steps.

Concluding thoughts

There is a lot more that could be said here. In fact, what was originally intended as a single post has grown enough to be split into two. (Editor, heal thyself, etc.) I hope you will find here a few navigational markers for your publishing quest. And if they get you closer to your destination of becoming a published author, at least part of my goal is accomplished. I won’t say my work here is done.

In academic publishing, an editor’s work with an author is rarely ever “done.” An academic author and her editor are often yoked together for the long haul. My nearly fifteen years in academic publishing can be aptly described as fifteen years of relationships—ever growing, ever deepening, ever expanding. From the first conversation to the next, year after year, my relationships with authors are my most treasured professional possessions.

So consider this an invitation—an invitation to that first conversation, which, who knows, may lead to a lifelong author-editor relationship.

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