Limbo University Press

A writer under contract ponders the publisher's long silences

Justin Renteria for The Chronicle

October 21, 2013

"You can't push on a rope" is a bit of folk wisdom from my rural upbringing. The phrase is about feeling powerless over a process in which you think of yourself as an equal, indispensable partner. Your end of the rope is firmly in your grasp; the other end has gone slack.

It's an apt description of what it's like to have a manuscript accepted for publication, the contract offered and signed, a proper final edit completed, the final product delivered for typesetting, and then ... nothing.

For more than a year, I've been holding the rope and waiting for someone to tug back on the other end.

At this point, two groups of readers may not sympathize much with my plight. The well-published veteran scholars have experienced their share of delays, knowing that the end eventually comes. Relax, they might tell me dismissively. The unpublished, meanwhile, might tell me to consider myself lucky to have such a problem. I once stood in their place and gazed enviously across the same divide.

But knowing how lucky I am doesn't make Limbo an easier place to reside.

If my tenure case had been resting on this book, it would have been doomed. Thankfully I had published enough articles that, after winning promotion, I was free to pursue a book project without any real time pressure on the completion date. When the manuscript was nearly done, I started querying publishers.

Since there was no hurry, it seemed reasonable to start at the top of the list of most-desirable presses and work my way down. In the early stages, the responses came promptly. E-mail a short query and get invited to submit a proposal, often on the same day. Mail the packet, and usually within a month or so, receive a reply. Those could be curt, bordering on derision. Sometimes the reply was more polite ("great proposal, but it's not right for our lineup; have you tried Equally Desirable University Press?"), which salves the ego but solves nothing.

The intervals grew longer with each back and forth. In one case a publisher responded enthusiastically to my initial query and then to my proposal. "We want to have this peer-reviewed," came the message, so I sent in the manuscript by August. Then all went quiet. I reassured myself that, if nothing else, I would at least be able to get an update by the holiday season, from their display table at the annual national conference.

I flew across the country to attend the meeting, eager to get some news at long last. In the hotel lobby, an old acquaintance asked how things were going. "My manuscript's being peer-reviewed by Top Ten Press," I said confidently, although a sharp pang of doubt prompted me to confirm my status before repeating that remark to anyone else.

The editor smiled as I approached his booth. We had corresponded but never met, so I had to introduce myself. As I explained who I was, he became suddenly unable to return my gaze, his attention drawn to the corners of the room, as if sizing up escape routes.

"Right, yeah," he faltered. "We're not going ahead with that. We just didn't think we could sell the book."

It was a kick in the teeth. And I had spent a lot of money just to get it in person.

The most obvious question was: "When were you going to let me know?" But I was too flabbergasted to ask. He mumbled something conciliatory about other presses' possibly being interested, and urged me to take the opportunity to talk to the editors in other booths.

Going to conferences to pitch a book requires a certain mind-set. I had come with a completely different mind-set, and found it hard to switch on sudden notice. I crawled into bed early that night and had a hard time getting up the next day.

When the ball is in someone else's court and doesn't come back, you start guessing what the proper response should be. Contact the editor or not? Too much, and you become a pest; too little, and you get forgotten. Does the squeaky wheel get the grease? Do nice guys finish last? Do prima donnas get blacklisted?

I had played nice and gotten burned for it, so I vowed to be more assertive and less of a doormat the next time around.

Things moved steadily along with the next publisher: the query, the invite, the proposal, the green light, the manuscript for peer review, six months of suspense, the glowing endorsement with suggested revisions, the contract, three months of revisions, the manuscript delivered, and then—another wait. This time it's been more than a year.

At national conferences for two years running, my editor at the new press has assured me that all is well, just taking a little longer than expected.

What do you do when there is nothing else you can do?

I got busy with the next project, which in some ways follows from the first one. But I need the first work "out there" for credibility in pitching the second, so I am left trying to push on a rope.

The current draft of the second project awaits the next round of revisions, but I put that off months ago, when my editor assured me that my first book would soon be ready, possibly as early as June. It certainly seemed ideal to be able to use the summer to correct final proofs. Then nothing.

Several scholars have expressed a desire to use my book in their courses, and they want to know as soon as it's published. For the publisher, every sale counts, so I was encouraged to drum up preorders by letting others know it would be available for course adoption. My question was: When? Book orders for the fall were due in the spring, or summer at the latest, and book orders for spring will be due by midfall. The window to preview the book before adoption is closing as I write this.

And I'm still waiting to see proofs, not to mention a timetable for going to press.

On another front, a network of descendants and interested parties, whose permissions were required for various parts of the work, are eagerly awaiting its arrival. They contact me from time to time, asking where the book is and whether I might have forgotten to tell them when it came out. I have to plead for their understanding, despite being unable to offer any explanation that might help them understand.

The matriarch of the living descendants wants to buy dozens of copies, presumably to give as gifts. Gift-giving season will soon be upon us. If it is not ready in time for this year, I hope she hangs on for another Christmas. As if that's not enough, I secured a spot on a panel at this year's national conference, where I hoped to promote a book ready for purchase at the book table. Will we hand out rain checks instead?

Meanwhile, the prognosis for academic publishers remains grim, with too many books vying for too few buyers. The consequences of this cannot be held off forever. A contract, the bedrock of my hopes, counts for nothing if the press folds. Will my manuscript be stuck in the pipeline if they shut down the works?

There was no such worry when I started the project. But every day with no word from my editor, it grows.

Actually I sympathize with my editor, who holds the same terminal degree as I do, from a more prestigious university, yet lacks tenure and seems to get new projects dumped in his lap every week. All in all, I would not trade places with him.

But when so much time has gone by, without any news, that I feel compelled to ask for an update, then to repeat the request at regular intervals when no reply is forthcoming, it begins to seem that my editor has precious little sympathy for me.

I'm left feeling like a stalker, or maybe a ghost, in the movies, who clamors for attention and is ignored. Does that make me a "ghost writer"? Is this leading up to a dramatic conclusion in which some kid with the sixth sense informs me that I ceased to exist without realizing it?

Probably not, but still, I clutch my end of the rope like a lifeline, in eager anticipation of some future moment when the slack on the other end draws tight.

John Lemuel is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the social sciences at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.