How to publish an academic book

book-publishingAs I look over my final proofs and await the release date of my book Hip-Hop Authenticity and the London Scene, I’ve been reflecting on the process of writing and publishing an academic book. As a first-time monograph author, this has all been new to me so I thought I’d outline the entire process and share the insights I’ve gained so others can learn from my mistakes.

  1. Choose your publisher carefully
    • This is the single most important aspect about publishing your monograph. Research carefully different publishers, which presses you cite most, and the publishers that leading researchers use in your field.
    • I, for some reason, decided on Routledge as my first choice (mainly because lots of my favourite books have been published by Routledge). This was despite being advised to go for a more prestigious press such as Oxford University Press or American university presses. With hindsight, I wish I had gone with another publisher because a) the prestige factor still matters in academia b) the more distinguished presses have more money so spend more time on promotion and marketing and care about you as an author c) they are more likely to sell your book at a reasonable price and not at the outrageous fees of monographs.
    • I was advised to pitch my book as part of a series, which although probably did help make my book ‘fit’ with the publisher, meant that it was only later on I realised I didn’t have any say about the book cover design as the entire series has to be identical.
    • To be safe, choose a back-up second or third choice in case the first publisher rejects your proposal.
  2. Write your book proposal
    • Depending on which publisher you go for, look up their proposal guidelines on their website. Follow this strictly, don’t send the same proposal to different publishers.
    • Change the title from your PhD thesis! Publishers tend to like something broad (key words) but informative and snappy.
    • Ask as many colleagues, supervisors, and friends possible for copies of their book proposals. It’s super helpful seeing the tone and style it is written in (i.e. massively bigging yourself up and making grandiose claims about impact to the field, potential readership, international reach etc.). Make sure it doesn’t sound like a hesitant PhD thesis.
    • You don’t need to submit sample chapters at this stage – they usually only ask for these later on if they’re interested.
  3. Send your proposal to the correct commissioning editor
    • Do some research on your prospective publisher’s website to make sure you send your proposal to the right person – it is usually divided by discipline.
    • In your ‘cover letter’ email keep it short and sweet stating who you are, how your book is a great fit for the publisher, and a two sentence synopsis of your book (no CV, sample chapters, journal articles etc.). Also, include an ultimatum along the lines of: “I’m giving you first refusal to this book but if I don’t hear back within two weeks, I’ll start approaching other publishers.”
  4. Send a follow-up email two weeks later
    • Editors are super busy people and receive hundreds of proposals so send a friendly reminder if you haven’t heard anything. Hopefully they’ll respond saying they’re potentially interested but would like to read 1-2 sample chapters. My commissioning editor asked specifically for chapters 1 and 5 so although it’s a good idea to start preparing your manuscript asap, be aware that you won’t necessarily be working on it chronologically.
  5. The commissioning editor gets your proposal reviewed
    • If the editor is interested in your proposal s/he will send it and the sample chapters to two people in your field to review. The review covers the strength of the topic, the content and structure of the book, you as a scholar and writer, and whether there’s a market for the monograph.
    • You are then sent the reviewers’ and your editor’s comments and asked to write a response about how, or if, you will address their concerns.
  6. The commissioning editor backs your book proposal to the editorial board
    • If your editor likes your proposed project, s/he will need to make the case to the decision-making editorial board (my editor gave me a date of when this meeting takes place so I knew how long I’d be waiting for). They approve or reject the project.
  7. Offer of a contract 
    • If you’re a first time author, you’re usually ecstatic to be offered a contract so sign and send it off immediately. Big mistake! I really wish I’d taken the time to read it properly and ask friends more au fait with law talk to look over it. Nearly every single point on the contract is negotiable. The aspects you’re probably most interested in is the royalties percentage (for academic books anything between 3-10% is the norm), the number of free copies you get, the price of the book, and when/if the book will be released in paperback.
  8. Write the manuscript
    • If your book is basically your PhD thesis, the chances are you are going to need to do some significant re-writing. With hindsight, I wish I’d dedicated more time to the re-writes and really thinking about how I envisaged the complete volume, the style of writing, and even delving back into my fieldwork notes to find exciting examples to bring the book to life. Try and savour the writing process if possible.
    • Get friends and colleagues to read your chapters or any new material to receive feedback.
  9. Manuscript is peer-reviewed
    • Your editor will send your book off to be peer-reviewed. Unfortunately this can result in months and months of waiting. Eventually, you’ll receive a couple of pages of comments and also some feedback from your editor who will have read the entire manuscript too.
    • My anonymous peer-reviewer was incredibly nice and gave some really helpful and detailed feedback. Luckily, there were no substantial changes so I was able to progress with these edits quickly.
  10. The book goes into ‘production’
    • Your book gets sent to the copyeditor, followed by the typesetters, and then the printers.
    • The copyeditor reads your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and sends a long list of queries about spelling, names, footnotes, references, and punctuation being in the right place, which you address.
    • The typesetters set your text to how it will look in the book. You’ll get sent the final proofs to look over and correct any last (small) errors.
    • Indexing: I was asked by my editor early on whether I’d like to do the indexing myself or pay (£200-300) for their indexer to do it (outrageous they don’t provide it for free, I know!). I stupidly believed I had no idea how to index, wouldn’t know where to start, and couldn’t commit to giving up potentially weeks of my time to it. Big mistake! When I received the index that I will now have to pay for, it was atrocious – really basic with key concepts missing. I ended up having to do my index myself anyway. Luckily, it didn’t take that long because by this stage you’re so familiar with your book you know it inside out, the electronic proofs make it really easy to identify key words, ideas, and page numbers, and they take about a day or two to complete. In short: save money and do your own index!

The main point to take away from all this is that the entire process is an extremely long and complex one. It is now two years since I first emailed my proposal to Routledge to my book being in press. There can be months of seemingly nothing happening and then suddenly an email arrives with a demanding deadline. What can be frustrating is always meeting your various deadlines and then silence for ages the other end. Your editor, peer-reviewers, copy-editors, and type-setters are busy behind the scenes but if you don’t know how publishing works, it can seem like the project isn’t moving forward. Unfortunately my book release date has been pushed back three times now despite my punctual meeting of deadlines so be prepared for potential delays and setbacks and don’t advertise your ‘release date’ too prematurely as it might change.

Another point to bear in mind that I didn’t realise is the extent of what you do yourself in academic publishing: writing the copy that will be used to sell the book, composing the index, organising your own book launch if you’re having one, and promoting and flogging the volume yourself. I’ve really struggled with the self-promotion because I’m so embarrassed my book has a hefty price tag of £90. You have to get over this pretty quickly as a first-time author if you want your book to be widely read.

The publishing process can vary substantially from publisher to publisher but the above is based on my experience. I’ve found these articles on academic publishing provide useful perspectives too: