Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Question from the mailbag

Anyone is welcome to ask questions and have them answered on the blog. You can be identified by first name, or kept anonymous. Today's question:

Q: Is there a rule of thumb within the political science field regarding the simultaneous submission of a book manuscript to university presses? Is it common practice, or is it frowned upon?

A: This is a particularly timely question now, because many university presses are in transition, moving from more traditional scholarly practices to ones that resemble practices at trade houses. My answer to you is based on what UP editors have told me (I've personally visited Chicago, Northwestern, Arizona, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Oxford, and NYU, plus the academic division of trade houses Alfred A. Knopf and W. W. Norton; my publisher was Farrar, Straus & Giroux). I also ran this answer by a roomful of university press staff, including editors at places like Yale and MIT, at the Association of American University Presses conference last spring, and it received a 100% positive response.

You may send a prospectus and sample chapter anywhere. To a university press, a submission is an entire manuscript sent to an editor in the hope of triggering the peer review process, so a prospectus and a sample chapter alone do not a full submission make. Just to be sure that the editor understands this, however, I also include a very brief cover note with this package that says clearly "This is an inquiry only, not a full submission." In other words, you're just trying to gauge interest, and that's perfectly fair. You may send as many of these as you wish, as long as that "inquiry only" language is up front.

My recommendation is that you research presses respected in your field (especially important if you are up for tenure or full professor), study their catalogues, and identify books in your field you admire. From this industry-based research, make a list of 3-4 editors who might be appropriate for your work, and send this inquiry package to all of them. Once the yeses and nos come back, rank the yes responses and then submit your full manuscript to them one at a time as per the traditional approach. Everyone will feel that you played fair with them. Two good rules to follow are to only inquire at a press where you would actually want to be published, and to be transparent whenever possible so that an editor does not mistakenly think she or he has a lock on your book.

This process is a huge blessing for academic authors who want to be able to weed out the no responses early, and get on to the potential yeses. This can save months if not years of time.

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