Over at Brian Leiter’s blog, there is a discussion about publishing books. The initial questions are asked by a philosopher, but they are fairly generic for humanities/social sciences. My response to the questions would be something like this. I’ve included enough to make sense of the answers without having to go to the original source:-
1. Yes, it obviously helps if you’re asked to do something or submit something by a publisher, but it’s not essential. Do a bit of research before contacting the publisher – find out if they have a series that would be suitable; check if they have a list that your book would fit in; find out the name of the relevant editor; ask friends and colleagues about their experience of the press, etc.
2. You need to be able to convince a publisher that you are a good person to write the book you are writing. If you’ve never published on this topic before why should they trust you are? There may be a good reason, but you need to do the work to convince them.
3. I can’t answer the question of what to do with a manuscript that doesn’t get published – I’ve found publishers for all my books. I would say, however, that edited books have been the hardest to place. I’ve usually had a publisher interested in the book before I’ve committed huge amounts of time to it as a book (as opposed to the papers and talks that were the basis for the ideas) – only one book was almost completely finished before I contacted a publisher.
4. I’m slightly puzzled that someone in a discipline that largely works on the basis of books (philosophy) has got tenure and is in mid career without having written a book! Perhaps this is an analytic/continental divide…
The other points/questions are in response to ones raised in comments –
5. Don’t publish too little of your future book (i.e. see point 2 above), but don’t publish too much. One of the comments points to publishers not wanting books of previously published material. You can get away with this if you are a major name, but not otherwise. There needs to be substantial new material in a book. In addition, I’d especially encourage giving talks on the material, both to try out ideas and see what feedback they get, but also because this helps to make contact with publishers (who go to conferences too). One of the other comments about making an appointment to speak to a publisher at a conference is a very good one.
6. Yes, getting colleagues or peers to do an introduction to a publisher can be a good thing. But at best it will make them look a bit more carefully at your proposal. The proposal has to be good enough on its own terms. Get advice on this – I’ve reviewed some dreadful proposals for what might eventually become good books.
7. Publishers work in different ways in terms of how much they want written before they will give you a contract. I’ve had contracts simply on the basis of a proposal, but US university presses, for example, tend to make that contract an ‘advance contract’ which is entirely conditional on the final reader reports. Most presses work on the basis of reader reports at proposal stage and some want them for the full ms. too. And with US university presses my sense is that bad or indifferent reports on a full ms. can mean that a book even with an advance contract gets turned back.
8. A book proposal, unlike a journal article, can be submitted to more than one place at once. But I think it’s very good practice to keep the publishers informed. If you tell them it is under consideration elsewhere it might make them move a bit quicker, if they want it. And it will certainly prevent them from being quite so upset if you take it elsewhere. Some publishers will only review – i.e. send to external readers – if you agree to them having exclusive rights to do so. The reason for that is simple – most publishers pay/provide books to their reviewers, so they are investing in it. So you should take that as a good sign of serious interest. This may also mean you stagger your approaches to publishers – if you have three potential presses in mind, and X is significantly lower down your list than Y and Z, don’t submit to all at the same time. If X gets back quickly and asks for exclusive review you have a difficult situation. Keep X in reserve if the others don’t bite.
9. Online publishing and open access – this has been discussed here before. See, for example, the post from Paul Ashton of Re.Press. The response immediately below the question on this topic gives an interesting ballpark figure of $40-50k for producing a book.
[update: do take a look at the comments to the Leiter post – the philosophy editors at Oxford UP have offered some very interesting reflections on their practices.]