Serious book proposals (6): ‘competing’ books

25 August 2017

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.


Publishers routinely ask prospective authors for information about what the former call competing books.

The paradigm case occurs in textbook publishing. Each academic or professional course is likely to adopt only one textbook as its primary reference. Thus textbooks exist in a state of genuine competition: typically several books are available, but only one will be preferred.

It makes good sense in this case to provide detailed analysis and evaluation of each competitor and to provide explicit comparison and contrast to bring out what makes the proposed book distinctive and what advantages it offers.

With other types of books, it is less certain that they are in competition. Take, for example, a book on how to write a novel. Some wannabe novelists may indeed be prepared to buy just one book. Thus there is competition. But some may buy more than one – it’s not uncommon for readers in the…

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Coping with rejection

22 March 2011

It’s been months since you submitted your book proposal and the mail you received today is almost a relief after all the silence. No. The press to which you offered your book (and in which you invested hopes and dreams) says ‘no’; they do not want to publish your book. No solid reasons given. You are not sure they even looked properly at the darn thing (but they do say ‘sorry’ in a nice way).

It takes more than time to write a book. It also takes courage, stamina and self-belief, all of which may leach away in the face of (constant) rejection. And, let’s be clear, rejection is the norm. The spurn rate is much higher with journal articles (many journals rejecting as many as 95% of the articles submitted) but the norm is rejection for a book manuscript, too. Luckily, there is (or should be) more than one press or journal to offer your work to.

How then to react to rejection, and to move on positively?

Is it actually ‘no’?

Of course, ‘no’ can come in different shades of black. Sometimes the rejection will not be outright; you may be invited to ‘revise and resubmit’. If so, you may enter a process of ‘acceptance creep’, a period of dialogue during which you revise your work to meet the publisher’s requirements. In essence, you have a tiny toe in the door and over time you can work and wiggle to get first a foot in the door, then a leg and finally all of you – of your book – through to the sunny side of publishing.

However, if you have received a blunt ‘no’, then you need to move on; there is little point arguing with the publisher. Rather, be pleased if the publisher chooses to tell you in any detail why your book has been rejected; such feedback is invaluable. On the basis of the knowledge of the industry, some publishers also helpfully suggest alternative presses which they think might be interested in your work.

Where now?

If that publisher’s rejection is final, pause a moment. Do not immediately rush off and submit your manuscript to the next publisher on your list. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected.

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? If not, what can you learn from this?
  • Was there a problem with the peer review process? It is not unknown that a scholar’s work ends up being judged by a bitter enemy, for instance, or one approaching the topic from an entirely different standpoint than the author’s. Knowing this won’t improve that reader’s report but it will help you face others in the future.
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? On a sliding scale of fixability, common problems are shoddy presentation/spelling, bad writing and poor scholarship.
  • Is the big problem financial rather than content? For instance, is the readership/market judged to be too small or will your book be too expensive to produce?
  • Or is it (simply, sadly) that you personally are the problem, your authorship isn’t believed in?

Only if you take this time to ask the cruel questions – asking exactly what went wrong – can you move on and do something effective about it. Otherwise in all likelihood you are condemning yourself to another round of rejection.


How ever much the rejection hurts (and you may want to shrug the whole thing off as a bad dream), for the sake of your writing career you need to be decisive in response. You have several choices, depending in part on what the original problem was.

  • You can abandon the whole thing. This is clean and simple but a drastic, wasteful decision if you have spent months or years working on the book. At the very least, salvage something from the wreckage (the makings of a couple of journal articles, for instance).
  • You can simply resubmit/argue the merits of your proposal to the same publisher. People have succeeded here but personally I think it is a waste of your time and of your creative/emotional energies.
  • More productive instead is to find/approach another publisher. If so, however, then you need to find out in what ways the new publisher is different from the first. What effect will these differences have on your revised proposal? In other words, will you ‘sell’ your proposal to the new publisher any differently? At the same time, you should ask yourself how generally might your proposal be improved, no matter which press you approach?
  • But a quick response may not be possible; you may need to rework the book (or at least rewrite the book concept). In this work, any critical feedback you receive from earlier rejections (e.g. from readers reports) can be worth gold.
  • Improving the economic prospects for the book might be all that is required, of course. Publishers invariably say that subventions don’t affect their decision-making but that is nonsense; of course they do – at least in instances where there is no issue with the scholarship but rather the likely production costs are too high (say, with a book full of colour pictures) or expected sales are too low (the market is too small). In such instances, a publication grant can make all the difference. Indeed, let’s be clear: there are some publishers whose entire business plan depends on such funding (and here I don’t mean vanity presses, either).
  • Finally, you may decide to self-publish. Received wisdom denies any place for self-published academic works (let alone recognition in job and funding applications) because of the lack of peer review. However, the ground is shifting here; we are seeing experiments with ‘soft peer review’, the rise of collaborative writing based on the Creative Commons approach, and other developments resulting from the rise of the internet. That said, self-publishing is not something to venture into lightly. There are many issues and considerable costs or extra work involved, as can be seen in my series of posts dealing with this issue.

In short, you need to gather as much hard information as possible and then do some hard thinking. But, hey, you are a researcher. Isn’t that precisely what you have been trained to do?

Good luck!

New review in Learned Publishing

4 June 2010

Our book gets the thumbs up from Anna Marie Roos (University of Oxford) in the latest issue of Learned Publishing (vol. 23-2, April 2010). Dr Roos begins by referring to the dire state of academic publishing:

‘Publish or perish’ is the mantra for academics wishing to get a job, to get tenured, to get promoted, or to secure that plum grant or university position. As competition for academic posts becomes increasingly stiff, growing numbers of new PhDs and DPhils are submitting modified versions of their doctoral dissertations to academic publishers, who themselves are facing market recession and competition from electronic media.

However, all is not doom and gloom; she continues:

But all is not lost. Editor-in-Chief Gerald Jackson and his colleague Marie Lenstrup, who directs ASBS Netherlands, a book publishing consultancy, have written a clear and accessible new guide to getting published for the academic author in the humanities and social sciences. What makes this volume different from comparable titles on the market is that it is written by industry insiders, who are familiar with guiding academic authors through the publication process.

Their guide, designed for ready reference, covers the practicalities of academic publishing in a clear and accessible manner. Jackson and Lenstrup begin with a description of the roles of the staff behind the scenes at the publishing house, going on to discuss the interplay between the expectations of author, publisher, and reader for different types of academic books, ranging from monographs to successful cross-over books for the general market. They also cover one of the most important, yet usually overlooked, topics in academic publishing: how to choose a great title.

There is much more that Dr Roos likes about the book (and nothing she dislikes), for instance singling out something that took me quite some time to prepare:

The authors’ chart covering the main differences between a thesis and a monograph is one of the best I have seen; it should be a large-scale poster put on every new faculty member’s door.

Thereafter, Dr Roos picks up on a point made by several people reviewing our book, its rarely heard advice to authors to get out there and promote their book (and offering tools to do so):

There follows a very well-considered chapter on promoting one’s own book – something that introverted academic authors often neglect. As publishers quickly lose interest in new titles after they have been out for six months, the authors remind us that it is really up to the author to get his or her book out there.

Dr Roos concludes by writing ‘Getting Published is well organized, clearly written, and reasonably priced; it should be on the academic author’s bookshelf.’ I’d have liked her to write ‘it should be on every academic author’s bookshelf’ but we cannot have everything now, can we?

Review of ‘Getting Published’ just received

9 December 2009

Today, I was gratified and embarrassed to read a lengthy review of our book recently published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

There was much to be pleased about in this review by Steven E. Gump, not least this comment about our introduction:

The opening chapter offers a behind-the-scenes look at the various players in the publishing industry and a brief but particularly fascinating section on the state of the global academic book industry (15–9). This chapter should be required reading for all aspiring academic authors.

and this about the importance of (self-) promotion:

One way in which this book stands out from other academic writing guides is that it describes how academic authors can themselves add value by actively promoting their books (chapter 10): ‘you should not leave everything to the unseen multitudes in the [publisher’s] marketing department who are working hard to push your book to the market. As an author, you should get actively involved by creating a corresponding pull ’ (160, original emphases). True, such ideas are not new; but I am pleased to find them receiving such in-depth coverage and attention in a book for academic authors.

But Steven E. Gump is also known for being a stickler for consistency. Here, sadly, he detailed far too many instances in which a word was spelt this way here, that way elsewhere, commas wandered a bit, etc., etc. He’s right; these errors shouldn’t have slipped through. Like all authors, I wanted a perfect book and (as usual) we didn’t quite get there. The final comment, then, is probably fair:

Textual inconsistencies aside, though, I recommend this book for academic authors, especially those in the humanities or social sciences, wanting an insider’s view of academic book publishing in the early twenty-first century. For first-time authors, reading this book will clarify a complicated, lengthy process that is only beginning when the manuscript is finished. Authors will be reminded, too, that, despite hurdles encountered along the way, ‘everyone in the academic book industry … is there for the express purpose of making the most’ of their manuscripts–of making each book accepted for publication a success (19). Just be sure to do as the authors say, not necessarily as they do.

Quite. And I’m quite sure that – given how most of my posts seem to be written before dawn – Steven E. Gump would find many more errors strewn through this blog, too.

Why do publishers hate edited volumes?

2 October 2009

Not all publishers hate edited volumes; I don’t. But there are compelling reasons why publishers are reluctant to consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

Number 1 reason: the conference proceedings.

In the ‘good old days’, it was common to produce a proceedings volume as a tangible result of a conference (otherwise an ephemeral event) but generally the number of copies were limited, often only going to the participants. As part of the hyping up of the academic world that we have witnessed these last few decades, there has been a push to give these proceedings (and their conferences) more weight by their publication as ‘real books’.

For a while publishers were happy to produce and libraries to buy almost anything that moved. But then came the collapse of the library market (described elsewhere), a growing global rash of conferences and a glut of often incoherent volumes edited by hapless conference organizers with few clues about editing books.

And the result? There are a few publishers whole entire raison d’être seems to be to publish tarted-up conference proceedings, and they look to do well in this line of business. But, today, many publishers will not touch edited volumes even with a barge pole, while a lot of others are deeply mistrustful of any multi-author volumes offered and will run a mile if mention is made of an originating conference.

Which is a great pity, actually, because there are also compelling reasons why publishers should consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

All too often – because the barriers to getting a journal article or monograph published are much higher (and usually it takes longer, too) – an edited volume is the first publication in which new, innovative research from young scholars arriving in their field is make known. From hearsay, I understand that some often mediocre volumes sell well because of the attractions of maybe only two or three of their chapters. (With the increased possibility of buying e-chapters, however, I would expect such a halo effect to diminish and the decline in sales of edited volumes to worsen.)

Moreover, edited volumes can offer cross-disciplinary insights that a single author would struggle to find. There are, indeed, examples of excellent collections where the collaboration of many minds on a single subject, perhaps from different disciplines, brings about real breakthroughs. Such outstanding works often suffer, though, from the general taint attached to edited volumes.

In other words, do not despair if you are being pressured by the departmental mandarins to edit a ‘book of the conference’ in order to justify their funding priorities and events programme. The experience need not be bad. Indeed, there may be very 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. Or maybe it is just simply your turn.

But, if your editing experience is to be positive (even an outstanding success), then you do need to approach the task in certain ways to maximize such success. How? That is the subject of a later post (or read these pointers now in Chapter 4 of our book).

Happy editing!

What do publishers want?

25 September 2009

Like everyone else (and especially like their authors), publishers want to be successful. Just how they get there is another matter, one that baffles some authors and leaves others enraged.

Perhaps the best way to approach this, then, is to understand where publishers are coming from and where they are going to.


I have described the woeful state of academic book publishing earlier (and no doubt shall do so again) and also pondered on the very survival of publishing but here are a few quick points:

  • There has been a dramatic decline in library sales, the bread and butter of academic publishing, in part due to rising periodical subscription charges and IT costs swallowing bigger chunks of libraries’ budgets.
  • Sales to individual scholars have also fallen, in part because too much is being published (thus hard for scholars to maintain comprehensive, personal libraries).
  • No significant new source of income has yet been tapped.
  • Falling sales have prompted publishers to raise prices causing further falls in sales.
  • The recent global recession has seen universities cutting back on their funding for their presses (indeed, some university presses have been closed or sold off in recent years).
  • New print-on-demand (POD) technology is allowing single-copy printing but, though this is excellent for reprints, it is not cost-effective for quantities over 300 copies (and for most books an initial printrun under this amount is not commercially viable).
  • The POD revolution may lead to on-demand ordering/printing for consumers (e.g. using the Book Expresso machine described here), leading to the death of the traditional bookshop and end of the current global book supply chain.
  • There is a proliferation of e-book readers, none of them particularly good yet in terms of reading for extended periods of time but the likelihood is high of an ‘iPod moment’ in e-publishing within the next five years.
  • Hopes of new income from electronic sales are driving massive investment in e-publishing but economic returns to date have been negligible (and, worse, this development undercuts the status of the printed book, currently the prime revenue earner).
  • Demands from funding agencies for Open Access is pushing publishers into offering free electronic content but a viable business model for this is not yet in place.
  • Copyright, the bedrock of the publishing business model, is under attack from several quarters, not least because it is seen as incompatible with the internet and e-publishing revolutions.

Some of these developments will have a huge impact on the future shape of publishing and already today they shape publishers’ perceptions and expectations.

Which publisher?

Another key point – but one that many people lose sight of – is that (unless you are dealing with a really small press) ‘the publisher’ is more than one person.* Each has their own personality, interests and agenda. Over and above that, an author will encounter at least three faces of a publishing house:

  • editorial (focused more on scholarly content)
  • production (focused on costs and deadlines), and
  • marketing (focused on financial returns).

These divergent interests interact, not always coherently, nor to the benefit, comprehension or sanity of the author.

(*Note: Actually, in any publishing house, the publisher is often one person but here we are taking about ‘publisher’ in another sense.)


OK, so these are some of the places where academic publishers are coming from but what effect has this environment (and recent changes to it) had on publishers’ expectations and behaviour? The main effect is that today academic publishers are taking a more hard-nosed, commercial approach to the books they publish than was the case a decade ago. In concrete terms, the key changes are:

  • Increased commercial behaviour.
  • Cost cutting, outsourcing of especially production work to outsiders, and increased workloads and stress for remaining in-house staff.
  • The rising power of marketing departments and corresponding decline in the power of editorial staff to decide what is published.
  • Editors must take the bottom line into consideration when signing up a new title.
  • Each new book project must stand or fall on its own merits (far less cross-subsidization).
  • Demands for author subventions are more common.
  • Greater aversion to financial risk, hence to taking on book projects that look commercially unpromising or expensive to produce.
  • A far greater proportion of book proposals and manuscripts are rejected.
  • A big increase in the number of ‘crossover’ titles (of interest beyond an academic readership) and interdisciplinary titles.
  • Greater willingness to publish purely commercial titles (aimed at the general public) with little or no scholarly value.
  • Reluctance to publish highly specialized studies.
  • Reluctance to publish edited or multi-author volumes (more about this in a latter post).
  • More ‘fad’ and ‘me-too’ publishing as publishers seek to emulate the successes of their competitors.

Hit list

Although these developments have wrought great changes in publishers’ expectations and behaviour, what publishers want from their authors is not all that different than before (though there may be far less flexibility and room for compromise than there was in the past). Here are some of these wants and desires:

  • Publishers want to publish only books that will succeed. This has important implications for what book projects are viable, and hence for how you formulate and develop your book project, find its ‘right’ publisher(s), and pitch it to them.
  • Once a book proposal *is* accepted, the publisher wants the book to succeed. This requires full commitment from publisher and author, and no half measures from either side.
  • Your publisher expects you to deliver the manuscript that was agreed upon (and contacted). If different, make sure that the manuscript is far better than promised (and accept that this is not something for you alone to judge).
  • Your publisher requires you to be a team player working your butt off to achieve the book’s final publication; tasks assigned will be finalized swiftly and efficiently (and without any comment or criticism of the publisher’s own delays and failures!)
  • At all time (not just after publication), the publisher wants you to tirelessly promote your book to its widest possible readership, especially by utilizing channels and contacts not available to the publisher.

All the rest is detail.

But coming later …

That said, a detailed ‘bitch list’ is something that I shall prepare one day soon, possibly together with my assistant, Samantha, who yesterday reeled off a screed of pet hates – top of the list: ‘Don’t inundate me with lots of tiny corrections. Why not instead just send me your manuscript when it’s finished.’

Answering rejection with self-publication

2 September 2009

So here you are, having just received the third publisher rejection of your manuscript – yes, the one that was going to get you tenure and make you famous to boot. (Does no one realize how significant your study is?) And someone comments, ‘Looks like you’re going to have to go out and do it yourself. That’ll show them. Have you heard of’

No, you hadn’t heard of but, as you investigate this and the other internet-based services that help authors publish themselves, you start wondering, ‘why not?’

Hold it a moment! Before you commit to the self-publishing route, think very carefully about your options.

‘No’ need not be final

Most book proposals are rejected, especially those received in their thousands by the big and/or prestigious publishing houses. Likewise, the rejection rate among the top journals is 95% or higher. But while rejection rates can be high, a quality manuscript that is appropriate to that press/journal and presented in a viable and convincing proposal has a good chance of being accepted. No matter that you are a newcomer from an obscure institution, the prospects for publication need not be dismal. As we spend a whole chapter explaining in our book, acceptance depends to a large extent on how much forethought and effort that beforehand you have put into both your proposal and the actual work itself.

That said, in pure statistical terms, it is likely that the answer to your proposal is ‘no’. Nonetheless, there is more than one publisher or journal at play here; persistence and perception can dramatically improve your chances of publication.

Re-evaluate your situation

As such, now is not the time to throw yourself into a huge self-publication project – or impulsively into the unwary arms of the next publisher/journal on your list. So pause a moment. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected. You might ask yourself the following (substitute ‘journal’ for ‘publisher’ and ‘article’ for ‘book’ as appropriate):

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? (Pitching projects to publishers is an art form – more about that in a later post.)
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? (This need not be the content per se; it could just as well be that its length is wrong, its subject inappropriate, or the likely cost of producing it far too high.)
  • If so, exactly what is wrong, and what can you do about it? (Sometimes, for instance, a subvention can make all the difference.)
  • In what ways does the next publisher on your list differ from the first?
  • What effect will this choice have on your revised proposal?
  • How could your proposal be improved generally?
  • Would you pitch this proposal to the new publisher any differently?

Look at the alternatives

Is the answer indeed to approach the next publisher/journal on your list? What other alternatives are there? Three that immediately spring to mind are:

  • Rethinking and reworking your manuscript before approaching anyone.
  • In the case of a rejected book manuscript, chopping it up into several journal articles.
  • Bowing to the inevitable and abandoning all ideas of getting this work published.

Then there is the option of self-publishing, to which now you may want to start giving serious consideration.

If the work rejected is a journal article, then let’s not muck about. The quick and easy solution is to post it on your institutional website as a working paper. This is self-publishing, done and dusted, within a day. It isn’t going to win you any prizes but your scholarship is up there on display with little fuss.

But if we are talking about a book to be self-published, then a working paper isn’t really the answer; the work should merit more than that. The rest of this post focuses on the self-publishing of books (as do those posts following in this thread) though authors looking to self-publish an article will glean useful information, too.

Reassess your manuscript

Now is the time, then, to take another cool, hard look at your manuscript.

If your text has been rejected by publisher after publisher, there is a reason, and you need to identify it. Scholarly publishing is quite unlike fiction publishing where (rare) gems can go unrecognized by dozens of publishers. Stories abound of authors being discovered and achieving fame only after they have died, sad and unpublished. Academic publishing is quite different; it is more mechanical in its application of two sets of well-defined selection criteria: the peer review process to determine scholarly value, and the publisher’s experience to estimate commercial value.

Your text could have been rejected on the basis of either one, or of both, sets of criteria. It is very important that you are ruthlessly honest with yourself when you ask which situation is likely to apply in your case. If the work was rejected for both scholarly and commercial reasons, the best advice anyone can give you is to drop it and move on. If it was rejected for scholarly reasons but not for commercial ones, maybe you have been looking in the wrong place for a publisher; you might instead find it worthwhile investigating which serious trade presses to approach instead. But if, as is increasingly common, the work is fine from a scholarly point of view but was rejected as being not commercially viable, then it is a candidate for self-publishing.

Finally, you need to deepen this macro analysis into a micro one. Essentially, this is editorial work, which is described in a later post. If you have received copies of peer review reports from those publishers who have rejected your book, read the reports as advice on editorial changes. Otherwise (or additionally), ask respected colleagues to read and comment on your work. Let’s be clear: only the rare colleague will give you honest and useful feedback (and family members are even more reluctant to give a bad assessment), but getting such advice is still worth pursuing.

On the basis of outside assessments, friendly feedback and your own cool analysis of the text, you will have an idea what changes to the text need to be done.

The way ahead is getting clearer.

Working towards a decision

But the thinking and analysis is not over yet. First, you need to look at your self-publishing options (between printed and digital publication). Then you need to consider what you can manage and afford (there a shocking number of things you will need to do – or pay someone else to do it – if you are to self-publish your book). Finally, you need to clarify your motives (and consequential measures of success). Only then can you clearly judge if all the effort/costs involved are likely to be worth it.