This blog entry is going to focus on academic book publishing. There will be another one that will focus on trade publishing, which is the term the publishing industry uses for commercial titles.
Academic book publishing works a good deal like the process for publishing articles in journals with some notable exceptions. There are presses that specialize in certain disciplines and in certain fields of history—if they have an interest in history at all. You should do a little research in looking at the previous titles they have published to make sure that press has an interest in publishing your type of scholarship. Sending a proposal to a press that has no interest in history is a waste of your time and theirs. Then you should put together a short proposal for your book. How short is short? No, more than 10 pages, but five or six would be better. The proposal should include a short synopsis of the book, its focus and argument. There should be another section which describes your professional credentials to write this study. Another section should describe the competition for the book, and another should describe the market of this title and ways that it can be marketed. Some academic books are never going to be sold to anything other than libraries; others can and will be used in classrooms. There are any number of books out there that you can find in the self-help sections of book stores that describe this process at greater length. One of my favorites, is Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get it Published. This book focuses on trade publishing, but it offers a number insights that can help in the academic publishing process be it books or even academic journal articles.
The thing to note about your proposal is that it is not an intellectual document, it is a marketing document. Academic publishers are intellectuals, but they have to worry about bottom lines far more than faculty members. These days it is not uncommon for editors at presses to pass on intellectually important projects, even those in which they are interested, for commercial reasons. Editors at academic presses have little expectation of overseeing monster bestsellers, but these days they need to make sure that they at least break even.
When you send your proposal off, it is perfectly acceptable to send it to more than one press. Some presses, will send you back a short letter of rejection. One or two will express interest. Generally, editors want to have your manuscript under exclusive consideration. The reason: they are going to contact two or three peer reviewers and ask them to read the manuscript for them. This process is much the same as in submitting a paper to a journal. There is one big difference—the reviewers get paid. The amount is never huge—usually a few hundred dollars in cash or a slightly larger amount in books. But—and this is important—the editors do not want to send a manuscript out and pay their reviewers (they get paid regardless of the direction of their assessment) if someone else is also looking at the thing and there is a chance they might end up with nothing to show for all their effort and money.
One big difference between article and book manuscripts is that the author rarely stays anonymous. There is too much in the manuscript, including the introduction, that will tip off the reviewer. On the other hand, the reviewer probably will stay anonymous.
After the book has been accepted by the press, a lot of important stuff starts that is quite important, and actually is far more time consuming and expensive than the peer review process. Maps, photos, and illustrations need to be prepared. More and more, this is an obligation placed on the author. Lining up images for the book is an issue that authors often overlook. While you are doing your research, it is wise to invest sometime in photo archives. The last thing in the world you want to do, is to have to go back to libraries and archives just to get a few images for your book. Actually, the last thing you want is to have no images at all in your book.
Maps are an even more difficult issue. Few presses have cartographers on staff. These days with computers anyone with the right program can produce a map, supposedly. The problem is that the images that these programs produce really are not as good as maps drawn by hand by people who know what they are doing. As a result, the quality of maps in academic books has gone down since the mid 1980s.
Jacket design, indexing, and copy editing are also important activities. Authors should pay particular attention to copy editing, since this effort can alter the text in subtle but extremely important ways. If not done well, it can make you look like an idiot. It is also time consuming. Pay attention, no matter how good you are, there are mistakes in what you have done.
An index is hardly sexy or exciting, but it is extremely important for a scholarly study. Many, many people will use this part of the book. So a lot of care and attention needs to go into it. It is also a time intensive project and as a result, many writers hire someone else to do the work. The thing is, no one knows the book as well as the author. As a result, I have done the index work for each of my books. You should strongly consider doing the same.
Another effort that is on the author is marketing. This is generally the case regardless of it being fiction or non-fiction, academic or commercial. Only a few of the biggest academic publishers have real resources in this area. Most presses have small marketing staffs, and—this is quite important—the press has another eighty or ninety books to worry about selling. Add to that fact that no one understands the book better than the author, and it is no surprise that the author is expected to lead the marketing effort. Selling the book is important and is a topic that many authors tend to dismiss. How well your book is sold will affect both the number of reviews it receives and how many times it is cited. Every author thinks his book is the greatest thing since the invention of the printing press. Some are; most are not. You need to be aggressive, but realistic.
For an academic book, one of the most important things is getting the book reviewed in the right forums. Right now (2009) this area is where academic publishing has commercial publishing beat. Most magazines and newspapers are getting out of the book review business, which is a real problem for the big New York publishing firms: how do they spread the word about their authors. Generally speaking, academic journals are not cutting back in book reviews. The press that publishes your book will ask for a list of places to send the book for review. This listing is important because the worst thing in the world is not a bad review but no review at all.
The press will want other information: at what conferences should they try to sell the book; names of people that might use the book in a course; prizes for which they should nominate the book, etc. This is important information and the author should take it seriously. If they do not, the press certainly will not.
A word of warning is in order at this point. The staff at a presses tends to regard the author as rather insignificant—on my second book, I learned about the design of the book only after accidentally stumbling upon it while I was surfing the internet—and it is important that an author be proactive on this matter, offering suggestions and ideas.