Initiating Contact

Ilana Gershon asked seven editors for their insights on questions that authors commonly ask. Five are press editors (Berghahn, Chicago, Indiana, Princeton, Stanford) and two are series editors. This month’s column explores the following question:

How advanced should a project be before discussing it with a press or series editor?

Fred Appel: If you are working on your doctoral dissertation, the first order of business is to finish the dissertation before approaching scholarly book publishers. You can start thinking about developing a prospectus for your first book after the dissertation is done. If you’re engaged in fieldwork or other research in connection with a second or third book, you could and perhaps should begin thinking about a publishing home for it at an early stage.

Jennika Baines: This depends on what the conversation will be. If you’d like to talk through an idea for a manuscript or an edited collection to see if it sounds like it could make an interesting book, this conversation can happen at any stage and probably the earlier in the process the better. That way the editor can provide some input into what shape the work might take and how it could respond to trends in the field.

If, however, the discussion will be about a manuscript you’re working on, I personally would prefer to receive a proposal when you’re three or four months away from being able to send the full manuscript. Other editors I know will be willing to receive proposals even a year away from being able to see a full manuscript. But I’d suggest being closer to being able to submit for a few reasons. First, series can change in their focus and aims. If you’re months or years away from being able to submit a manuscript, you run the risk of submitting your manuscript to a series that looks different from the one to which you sent your proposal. Second, manuscripts can change in the process of writing. If you propose work you haven’t written yet, will the manuscript you submit be the same one you proposed? Finally, staff can change at university presses. If you propose a manuscript to an acquiring editor but don’t submit a manuscript until two years later, you can’t be guaranteed that the same editor will be on hand to receive it. Will that new editor be as interested in the work?

Berghahn Books: We are happy to speak informally about a project at any stage of the process—conferences, for instance, are a good opportunity to have a more general discussion about fit and interest, as well as to introduce yourself. However, given the specialty of the fields in which we publish, we do not feel qualified to dig in too much (even if we do have advanced degrees in the subject). The fields are too dynamic to realistically keep up. As such, the manuscript should be as polished as possible by the time it is submitted in full. This will ensure that the peer reviews are the most constructive they can be to make the final book the strongest it can be.

Dominic Boyer: The bigger picture question here is how fast a young scholar should try to convert their dissertation into a first-book manuscript. My advice is to let the dissertation sit for at least two years before returning to it in any serious way. And if you let it sit five years, that’s OK too, everyone is different. What you should be doing in the interim is to write as many article-length manuscripts for journals as you can, getting them sent out for peer review, engaging the reviews seriously and letting that whole process help inform you as to what aspects of your project seem most intriguing and compelling to a wider audience. Dissertations are not first draft monographs, they are like edited volumes in which you author all the chapters. Some of those chapter-level arguments will be auditioning to be the argument for your first book. Peer review will help you to understand which are the strongest candidates to be that argument. Given how long the whole process takes, you’ll be glad you did in retrospect.

Books, contrary to popular belief, do not make you that much more attractive on the job market. Articles in top journals get you jobs, books get you tenure. Also, be mindful that if your first book is published before a tenure clock is running, your colleagues will, fairly or not, expect something approximating a second book near completion. So by publishing a book very early you essentially double the production expectations for tenure. Publish articles instead. It’s the best choice both intellectually and pragmatically. And then send someone like me your revised manuscript in the first or second year of your tenure-track job.

Alessandro Duranti: I might be the exception but as the editor of a series (the Oxford University Press Series in the Anthropology of Language), I like to talk with authors early on. Especially for first-time authors, I want them to tell me what kind of book they want to write, what story they want to tell, why they think it will be a contribution and to which fields. I want to help them avoid some common mistakes and explain what an introduction is supposed to accomplish. For example, in anthropology authors think they need to start with an anecdote. That might work for an article, which usually has an abstract to orient the reader, but for a book one needs to tell readers as fast as possible what the book is about and why someone should keep going beyond the first couple of sentences. The anecdote might work but it has to be done skillfully and quickly in order to get to the point of the book. For more experienced authors, I would not need or want to get into this discussion. They usually have enough confidence to complete their manuscript before showing it to anyone, and I am just happy if they decide to send it to me to consider it.

It is different when one works as a member of the Editorial Committee of a press and comes into a project in the last phase, which is my experience now that I am on the Board of the University of California Press. In this context, I usually come into a project when the completed manuscript has already gone to reviewers and the author has had a chance to respond to their suggestions and in some cases he or she might have already made the suggested changes. In this scenario, I am evaluating how well the author has followed the reviewers’ suggestions, and I think about whether there is something else that I can add to help get the book in the best possible shape, and with a good title (by which I mean a title that is captivating and, more importantly, tells potential readers what the book is about).

Michelle Lipinski: You should be able, at the very least, to articulate and explain the book itself, what the book’s potential contributions are, and who will be interested in reading it. I want to help guide you as you develop the project, but I can’t steer a directionless ship.

If the project draws from research originally gathered for your dissertation, my preference is that you have done the vital work of reevaluating the material, wholesale. It’s usually best to have a proposal available that includes the manuscript’s main arguments, themes, and significance, an annotated table of contents, an assessment of the fit within existing literature and comparison with other published books on the topic, a discussion of the intended audiences, and a statement on the planned length.

Priya Nelson: I am happy to talk to authors early on in their drafting process, and sometimes an existing relationship with an author means you work together to frame a project when it still may be only an idea. But, for first time authors, it is wise to have a firm sense of what is exciting about a manuscript before “shopping it around.” Editors usually want a clear answer to questions such as “what is the work is about” and “why must it be written.” If you can’t provide that, don’t lose time trying to interest publishers. Spend that time thinking about the work itself.

Fred Appel is executive editor and acquisitions editor for anthropology and religion at Princeton University Press.

Jennika Baines is an acquisitions editor at Indiana University Press, who acquires books in global and international studies, anthropology, Middle East studies, and Russian and East European studies.

Berghahn Books—answers were co-authored by Miriam Berghahn, Vivian Berghahn, and Chris Chappell, all press editors at Berghahn.

Dominic Boyer is a professor at Rice University and edits a series for Cornell University Press,  Expertise: Cultures and Technologies of Knowledge.

Alessandro Duranti is a professor at UCLA and the series editor for the Oxford Series in the Anthropology of Language.

Michelle Lipinski is an editor at Stanford University Press who acquires books for their anthropology and law lists.

Priya Nelson is an editor at the University of Chicago Press where she acquires books in anthropology and history.

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana. 2019. “Initiating Contact.” Anthropology News website, April 25, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1153

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