Choosing a Press for Your First Book

by | Nov 7, 2017

Academic book publishing is enormously rewarding but also challenging. It takes a lot of work (and time) to research and write the thing in the first place, not to mention edit it, write the book proposal, incorporate peer reviewer advice, and figure out a marketing strategy to get it into the hands of the audiences you want to reach.

Working with the right publisher—especially for your first book—can make all the difference though. So how do you know which publisher is the best fit for your first book? Here is some guidance on how to identify the presses that can best help your scholarly book to shine.

What are your goals for your book?

Books, like all objects, are tools. Authors, publishers, and readers use them to do things in the world—first books in particular. So what are your authorial needs and desires for your book? Do you want to reach diverse audiences, including non-academic ones? Do you need your book to count for tenure and promotion? Are you aiming to shake up specific academic fields? Are you hoping the book will get you job interviews in particular industries or scholarly fields? Do you want professors to assign your book in classes?

The first step to finding the right publisher is getting clear about your book’s purpose. Then use that purpose to guide which publishers (and, relatedly, which marketing tactics) will help you meet those goals.

For example, if you need your first book to count for tenure and promotion, you should pitch it to publishers that are highly valued by people in your tenure field—including people on your tenure committee or who are likely to be external tenure letter writers. This may mean only pitching your book to university presses instead of commercial academic presses, or only courting presses of a certain type.

Or if you want to reach diverse, crossover (academic and non-academic) audiences, you should pitch your book to publishers with trade imprints or strong reputations for crossover titles. They have the editorial, marketing, sales, and design experience and resources necessary to sell to those audiences, while more traditional academic presses do not.

Every publisher has its own strengths—match your purpose to the publisher.

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Who are your book’s audiences?

Once you know what you want your first book to do, you can figure out who you want to reach to achieve that goal. This is where audience comes in.

Who will actually buy your book? Now you might be tempted to answer with “all people interested in the book’s topic” or “all people in X field,” but those are not real publishing audiences (not everyone interested in your book’s niche topic or broader fields will buy it, unfortunately).

Get specific and base this on actual data, not just your assumptions. Which specific types of people in which specific fields or industries doing which specific things will pay money to get this book and do specific things in the world with it? What evidence do you have for the claim that those audiences will buy the book—how have they demonstrated this to you? This is information you’ll need to include in your book proposal anyway, so getting clear on it early on in the publishing process can be very helpful.

For instance, feasible publishing audiences for Ideas on Fire author Aymar Jean Christian’s fantastic book Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television, which traces how the internet transformed television and allowed queer and women artists of color to revolutionize how television is made and consumed, might include:

1. University instructors teaching

  • intro-level undergraduate courses on television history; media studies; the history of the internet; or technology and culture
  • mid-level undergraduate courses on feminist, queer, cultural, and/or general media studies methodologies; media industry studies; fan studies; media production; crowdfunding; or the racial, gender, and sexual politics of representation
  • upper-division undergraduate and graduate seminars on queer, feminist, Black, and/or Latinx web series; capitalism and creative industries; the limits of representation; and the rise of the “prosumer”

2. Independent media creators (including those profiled in the book), who can learn best practices for developing independent media in the contemporary market.

3. Scholars in the fields of cultural studies, media industry studies, gender studies, queer studies, communication, film and media studies, internet studies, television studies, critical race studies, and branding, who can use the book to create their own scholarship (this can be further broken down as well).

4. Activists and advocates for independent media, who can use the book to contextualize the current industry and create new policies, practices, and resources to ensure greater industry diversity

5. Journalists seeking background on web TV series and the history of the internet

6. Fans of the specific TV shows and artists discussed in the text, who can learn more about how those shows came to be and the role of their fandom in the process

And what’s the concrete evidence for these as marketable audiences for Open TV? A ten-year cultivation of artists and activists who have read and engaged with Christian’s previous scholarship on the topic (also evidencing crossover potential), recognition of this research at scholarly associations and in journals in those fields, multiple grants and fellowships awarded for this work, syllabi of courses that include previous versions of this work, multiple journalism pieces quoting him on these topics, and social media followings of scholars, artists, and activists who actively engage with this research on a regular basis.

Look back at your own history of audience engagement with your research to figure out the specific audiences your book hails.

Find publishers who speak to your audience

Now that you know what your book needs to do and who it needs to reach, find the publishers that already do those things and that have already cultivated those audiences. You’re looking for publishers with strong, active lists in your audiences’ fields, publishers who regularly participate in the communities you want to reach.

One easy way to do this is to look at the books you already have on your bookshelves—who published them? Which publishers put out most of the books listed in your bibliography? Which presses published the texts your audiences are talking about right now? (If you’re like me, your Facebook and Instagram feeds are often filled with photos of the books people are teaching or reading—who published them?)

Which publishers attend conferences in your book’s fields? Which publishers are active in your audiences’ social media communities? Which presses published the books that win your professional associations’ book prizes or are honored in Author Meets Critics sessions at conferences? How about the publishers who put out the books that get reviewed in your fields’ scholarly journals? Those are good leads to research.

Research publisher lists

One you have identified several key leads, do some research to figure out which ones have lists your book would fit well in. The categories that presses publish books in are called “lists.” Each list has an acquisitions editor in charge of acquiring books in that area and shepherding them through the publication process.

To find out if a publisher has a strong, active list in a particular field, check out their website. Look at the lists (sometimes called categories) on their website and also look at their new and forthcoming books. If a publisher’s lists don’t include a field your book fits in, or uses a different kind of language than you do for it, chances are they aren’t a good fit.

Similarly, if they have a list in your field but don’t have any forthcoming books in it, and the last one listed is from several years ago, they don’t actively publish in that field and would not be a good fit (presses introduce and retire lists for many reasons, not only because of interest).

For example, if your book is an intersectional feminist analysis of Indigenous environmental activism, but the press you’re looking at lists their few books that deal with gender under “sociology” and separate them from their few books that deal with colonialism, that press isn’t a good fit for your book.

On the other hand, if you find a publisher with strong cross-referenced gender studies, environmental studies, and Indigenous studies lists that include several of the texts you cite in your own work, that press would be a great option for you.

Emphasize fit in your proposal

Once you’ve identified several publishers that would be a great fit for your book, use your book proposal to show how.

Use your audience research to explain which classes your book can be taught in, which scholarly associations have a ready-made audience for the book, and how the book taps into current debates and conversations. In addition to helping you find the best-fit presses, your publisher research also can help you craft a compelling book proposal to convince acquisition editors at those presses that your book is a great fit for their employer’s goals, audiences, and lists.

Finding the right publisher for your scholarly book can mean a fantastic publishing experience. In particular, your first book is a big deal both personally and professionally. You deserve to work with a press that really gets the book and can help it succeed. With these tips you’re well on your way to finding a publisher that can help get your awesome book into the hands of the communities you want to reach and make a big impact in the world.

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Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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