August 2022, Sawsan Khuri and Tamsin Kilner.
Think you might/should/could maybe one day write a book?
Intimidated by the publishing process?
Feel you could write the book on writer’s block?
We did, and here is what we did about it.
We launched this initiative at the ExeBiblio Symposium, where we invited academic authors and publishers to share their perspectives. Four authors from diverse disciplines and representatives from McGraw Hill, Open University Press, SAGE, as well as smaller publishing houses Pelagic Publishing and the University of Exeter Press gave valuable insights. Here is what we learned:
Identifying a publisher
Make a note of who publishes the books on your bookshelf or the books in the domain in which you wish to write. Look up their website and carefully read the scope within which they publish, and the audiences they reach. The advice from our panelists was to approach the publishers one at a time, starting with the one which has the closest alignment to your idea.
Approaching a publisher
It all starts with a conversation. Rumour has it that you need to have a first draft of your book or at least one complete chapter before you contact a publisher: not true. All publishers urged authors to talk to them as soon as they have developed the idea for their book, and more importantly, their perceived audience for it.
We were reminded that publishing houses are commercial enterprises who are in the business of selling books. With this in mind, they want to know both what the book is about, and who will read it. Knowing that there is an audience out there, and that the publishing house you approach can reach that audience, is a crucial first step.
Publishing houses will have a list of editors on their website. Identify the editor whose remit falls within your topic of interest (e.g. anthropology, education, medical science) and simply send them an email asking for a meeting. In that email, you need to state the idea for your book, who will want to read it and why it will be of interest to that audience. If your idea turns out more relevant to another editor, they should let you know and may even connect you with their colleague.
When you have the meeting, ask them about their publishing priorities. These are market-driven topics for which publishers can see a healthy appetite. Publishers will be actively looking for books on these priority topics, so if your book is a good fit, there is a higher chance of a commission. Remember that publishers’ priorities will determine your success with that publisher to a large degree, so a rejection isn’t necessarily an indication that your book isn’t publishable, rather that it isn’t a good fit for that publisher. This is another reason to do your homework before you submit a proposal.
Non-fiction books fall into several categories. Trade books are non-academic books written in a journalistic style that often sell in large numbers to the wider public. Academic books include textbooks used by lecturers as recommended reading for classes, monographs usually taking the form of shorter books on specialist topics, and various formats that lie in between. The main hurdle for the “in-between” books is demonstrating to prospective publishers the existence of a sufficiently large potential audience.
Book proposal forms
Most large publishing houses will have a book proposal form linked from their website. Take a look at this before contacting the publishing editor to get a sense of the information they will need from you. Ideally, draft answers to some of these questions, have an informal conversation with an editor who will help you gain new perspectives, and then refine your answers before submitting your final proposal.
What happens next?
The larger the publishing house, the more steps there are between your proposal submission and a final decision. The editor with whom you speak will often conduct their own research on your expected audience, and take your proposal to a committee for discussion, which will make a decision as to whether or not to your book is suitable for commission. At smaller publishers, sometimes the decision is at the discretion of the directors and that puts even more importance on that initial conversation you have with them.
The editor will work with you to shape and structure your book, identifying a realistic timeline that will help you to deliver on time. At the end of the process, they will send your book to a set of trusted people in the field for review, and you will be expected to take the feedback on board for the final version. It is very rare for intellectual property to be compromised through this process: the publisher and reviewers often have non-disclosure agreements to help protect your ideas.
The premier advice from authors was to join the Society for Authors as soon as you have a contract to sign. They will help you iron out issues around copyright for images, who funds the indexing (not to be underestimated!), and royalties.
There is no way around the fact that you need to make and protect time for concentrated writing spells. We are not under any illusions about how difficult this is in academic roles, and this is the single most challenging obstacle for academics writing books. In between the research, the teaching and the admin responsibilities, time needs to be squeezed to get those chapters written up. Along these same lines, advice was captured about being realistic about your schedule and not pushing yourself to write too fast as this can be difficult to sustain long-term. Our authors also noted that it’s important to write about a topic you love, as this too has a part to play in helping you maintain momentum.
How ExeBiblio can help
ExeBiblio is a writing intervention aimed at encouraging academic and professional services staff in Higher Education to write books. The pilot programme was funded by and delivered at the University of Exeter. The ExeBiblio Symposium was held at the Exeter Phoenix on the 8th July 2022, facilitated by Sawsan Khuri and Tamsin Kilner.
ExeBiblio comprises three components:
- Discover Your Book sessions to help identify the topic and audience.
- Craft Your Proposal workshops to prepare initial draft proposals ahead of meetings with a publisher, and/or to finalise proposals for submission.
- Protected Writing Time sessions to provide structured writing time, including identifying specific goals and the uninterrupted time to make progress on achieving them.
Along the way, we develop a sustainable peer support network for writers.
You get to write the book you have always wanted to write.
We get to see you become published authors.
To know more, email us at