Anthony Hayes has a lot of interesting thoughts and advice to offer on the world of publishing and books more generally but in particular this post in a series on book proposals is especially fine. Thanks Anthony.
As an academic publisher, I deal with all of our authors directly from the outset, often face to face (say, at a conference). There are no intermediaries (except for the occasional referral). As such, the world of literary agents and the mega-dollar book deals they are so often associated with are foreign territory for me.
Most scholarly books are aimed at a quite narrow academic market (though often with related professionals also in mind – journalists, policy makers, NGOs, businesses and the like). However, some scholars (but pitifully few) are interested in and capable of writing for, and reaching, a much broader audience (TV historians being a good example). Handled rightly, their books can sell in the tens of thousands, or more, instead in the low hundreds (as typical for many scholarly books).
If you have such a book in mind, there is probably little point in contacting me or indeed most academic publishers. You need to look elsewhere – and that is where literary agents are important.
Sure, there are exceptions (for instance, the massive bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, was published in English by Harvard University Press). But in general such non-fiction bestsellers are not published by academic presses but by trade presses whose target audience is the general public rather than academics or professionals.
This is a glitzy, high-stakes world where the minimum acceptable print run may be 5,000 or 10,000 copies – a very different world from that of scholarly publishing. And in that world a vital role is performed by literary agents in finding and fostering new talent, in finding the right publisher, negotiating the best deal and (not least) supporting long-lasting and successful writing careers.
This is a dark art, little understood by outsiders.
Every so often I am asked by a writer about how to approach a literary agent. I shrug and point them in the direction of publications like the Literary Marketplace. Really, I have few clues if I am honest.
Today, I have learnt much more simply by reading a short post by Juliet Mushens in The Bookseller. Packed full of ideas and links to outside resources, it is an eye-opener.
I hope her business booms as a result.
Nowadays, it is rare that an academic book is seen in an actual bookstore (and, if it is, not for long). Price is a factor here (see below). There are exceptions, of course, one of them for NIAS Press being Chris Hudson’s Beyond Singapore Girl, which continues to resonate (and sell) especially in the Singaporean society it analyses.
But as discussed elsewhere the brutal reality for most books found in any bookstore is to appear spine-out – as can be seen in this line of books recently photographed in a Kinokuniya bookstore in Singapore.
The same goes for books found on library bookshelves.
Very few books are displayed cover-out in all their glory. In bookstores, normally full-frontal display is reserved for bestsellers or those other titles being heavily promoted (sometimes publishers pay booksellers for such special treatment, not least a premium location inside the store).
Since academic books rarely appear in bookstores, do covers matter then?
Arguably, yes. Bookstores and libraries are not the only places where books are visible. Physically they also will appear in conference exhibits, on display at the author’s home institute and certainly in her own office. But in a host of other places, a book’s cover is visible – in marketing material (catalogues, flyers, etc.), newsletters and (not least) face-out on the virtual bookshelves of all of the online bookstores.
Compare the listings on Amazon.com of the same book by Chris Hudson with a book from a different gender series from another publisher. Personally, I know which book I would rather show my colleagues, friends and family.
We’ll say nothing about the price (though obviously this matters, especially if the book buyer is an ordinary person with limited funds).
If you are someone who has organised a conference and is now being urged to edit the ‘conference volume’, you need to be wary of what you are getting yourself into.
Overcoming the prejudice against edited volumes means that the progression from conference programme to printed book is not simple; it is more than a matter of polishing the papers presented.
- The volume must be given a focus (more of a focus than the conference had, perhaps).
- Papers need to be selected that generally match this focus.
- Inevitably, some papers presented at the conference will have to be excluded; no matter how good they are, their subject lies far beyond the volume’s focus and they cannot be adapted to it.
- Ideally, other papers should be solicited that fit the subject but are missing from the original line-up.
- All papers must then edited to conform with the overarching focus of the volume.
And that’s just the outline. Within this process are a mass of issues, not least those of managing a complex project, handling many authors (some with experience, reputations and egos vastly greater than yours and no doubt all with many other demands on their working time), performing in the delicate role as first-line peer reviewer and dealing with a publisher. And perhaps worst of all, editors are often given little academic credit for such a difficult and delicate task.
Given the prejudice against edited volumes and the demanding requirements to produce something that brings you credit, not opprobrium, it may be that another outcome for the conference is best. Perhaps your best course of action, then, is to suggest publishing the conference papers online, essentially as a cluster of working papers.
Unfortunately, your bosses may think it makes perfect institutional sense to publish a volume based on the conference programme and this year it’s your turn.
Of course, you may not be forced into the role of volume editor; there are indeed a number of good reasons to offer yourself as editor. Editing a book could be a way for you to build your academic network and gain name recognition in a wider circle. You might feel that your field needs a collaborative volume on a particular subject, and that there is nobody else who can make it happen, or happen well. Perhaps you have to offer a route to publication in order to attract good contributions to a workshop or conference you are convening.
But, whatever your reasons, be aware what you are getting yourself into.
There is a widespread prejudice against edited volumes in the scholarly world, the idea being they are collections of unedited conference papers with a cover slapped on. In a few cases this is true, the culprits even found among the published lists of certain eminent academic presses.
Such blatant inferiority is not the case for most edited volumes but many do have their issues. A commonly perceived fault is that some editing has been done but not enough; the editors have started with a disparate collection of whatever papers came to hand (papers from a conference being the most common source) and not done enough to bring these bits and pieces together into an integrated whole.
As a result, the mere mention of ‘edited volume’ can prompt many people and the majority of publishers to blindly reach for their nose.
But this judgement is unfair, the charge they are rough and raw is far from the truth for most edited volumes. They may have their flaws but many are actually focused and subtle works. Moreover, often these volumes are the earliest channel for new scholars to bring fresh insights in their field to a wider readership. As a result, a few such edited volumes – especially those that can truly focus many minds together (often from different disciplines) on a single subject – can actually be path-breaking works.
Of course, edited volumes require contributors and editors. As can be seen in my next post, authors may have other ideas. Moreover, the role of the volume editor is not utterly joyful (as seen in my subsequent post).