A few years ago I was desperately seeking a book contract. Things weren’t going well on the project I’d spent years working on, and I wanted a quick fix. In a frenzy I put together a crappy proposal for an advice book for graduate students and professors on writing and publishing and sent it to an editor I didn’t know at Harvard University Press.
Five days later, Elizabeth Knoll responded by telling me she was already publishing a how-to-write-better book for academics, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword (it’s excellent). Then she conveyed in the kindest way something I already knew: What I had proposed wasn’t a book. I had merely submitted a bunch of prose framing a table of contents for a collection of my Chronicle columns. She suggested we brainstorm an idea for a real book.
We had a warm and frequently funny correspondence about scholarly publishing, academic writing, issues and problems in higher education, growing up as children of academics, college admissions, mutual friends, and many other things. I went back to my original book project but still hoped that someday I would be able to publish a book with Elizabeth. Recently I found I had lost my chance. She’d left the press to become assistant provost for faculty appointments at Harvard. So I jumped on the opportunity to ask Elizabeth to reflect about her time in publishing, and to offer some advice on book publishing to Chronicle readers.
Elizabeth went into the family business. Her father was a professor of English at the University of Nebraska; her mother had been one of her father’s most talented students. "I got my Ph.D. in the history of science," she said. "Basically I was—and am—always curious about what counts as knowledge in different times and places." After working at the Journal of the American Medical Association, Elizabeth got a job as an editor at the University of California Press in 1988, then at W.H. Freeman in 1994. She moved to Harvard Press in 1997.
Myths about publishing
Back when I was a book editor at Duke University Press, I’d had to explain to authors that "standing orders" from libraries were a thing of a distant past. Surely, I said to Elizabeth, writers don’t believe that anymore. Wrong. She said some authors still labor under the idea that library sales will be enough to justify the publication of a book: "That might have been true 40 years ago, but no more. The biggest new myth is that publishing e-books is easy and cheap because publishers aren’t printing, binding, and shipping physical books."
Part of this misapprehension comes from authors not understanding the roles and importance of the many other people who work at a press besides the editors. For instance, Elizabeth said, although authors should speak up if a proposed jacket design misrepresents their book, "In defense of the unsung heroes and heroines of publishing, I have never, ever met an author who knows more about how to design a book jacket than a professional jacket designer!"
The editor’s role
Printing and binding are only a part of the cost of publishing a book; the value in publishing with a traditional house is in its intellectual capital—starting with the editor. What kind of person becomes a university-press editor? "Acquisitions editors almost have to be very sociable types to learn about what’s going on, what the big tough current problems are, who are the people and places to watch."
Editors also have to be good listeners. "What’s really important to taking on an author or a book," she said, "is not so much the talking as the listening—to how authors describe their research and writing, how they’re framing a problem and making an argument, why they care about it, and how they think it links to what other people in their community care about. The editors can help you with all of that, all the more because they themselves aren’t embedded in the minutiae of the debates, and have to keep pulling you back to the big picture. At their best, editors help you figure out what it is that you have to say, and help you to say it so that you can be heard."
Surviving the wait
A few months ago I wrote about a friend’s long publishing odyssey (update: two years after submitting his manuscript he finally got a contract). What should an author do if an editor doesn’t respond in a reasonable amount of time?
"If you don’t hear anything within a month, ask—in a short, direct, polite email," Elizabeth said. "The longer you wait, the more annoyed you will feel, and the more mortified the editor will feel. Editors get overloaded, like everyone else, and that’s the most probable reason for a nonresponse."
What if you still don’t hear anything? "If you don’t get a response to that email within a few days, or you get a response and then hear nothing for another month or two, you should probably write another short, direct, polite email saying that you are moving along with other options," Elizabeth said. "And you should do what you can, starting out, to have other options. It’s quite acceptable to submit your prospectus/inquiry to a few publishers at the same time, as long as you make it clear that that’s what you’re doing. But choose those few thoughtfully, based on books they have published in the last several years, in your field, in whose academic company you’d like your book to be."
Boosting your odds
The most important thing authors can do to help their chances of getting a manuscript published is to be able to make a quick, clear, compelling case for it. "Know what you want to say and to whom. ‘Everyone who reads The New York Times and cares about the future of X’ is almost certainly way too broad," Elizabeth said. "Know why what you have to say is new and important, and is a sufficiently complex argument that it has to be a 100,000-word book and not an article, or a set of articles. Then be able to say all of that crisply and persuasively, to a smart and sympathetic person who is not an expert in your subfield—an editor, for instance, or someone in a department across campus. What compelling story are you telling? What significant problem are you solving? What difference does it make to how we see the world, or how we live in the world, if you’re right?"
The editing process
One of things that writers love to complain about is not getting enough attention for their manuscript from their editor. What is reasonable to expect in terms of editing? "The acquisitions editor will not line-edit your entire manuscript," Elizabeth said. "There just isn’t time—especially not when every publisher is trying to publish more books on faster schedules than they were 10 years ago. But she will work with you on its organization, length, clarity, and focus. She will tell you when you’ve buried a great story that could introduce a chapter, or when you’ve strayed off your main topic into a swamp of side issues. She will understand enough of what you are trying to do to choose reviewers who can give both you and the publisher useful feedback, and help you figure out how to handle the feedback when you get it."
What’s negotiable? Do you need your brother-in-law the lawyer to vet it? Elizabeth said, "For most academic books, it may not be worth getting into a long back-and-forth about the contract terms. You have put your blood and sweat into your manuscript, but the publisher is putting in a substantial amount of money, to shape, review, edit, produce, promote, and sell the book."
By all means, she said, ask questions if you can’t figure out some wording in the contract. "If something makes you nervous—an over-optimistic delivery date, perhaps—say so, and you and your editor can compromise," she said. "But it will be a lot easier on your nerves, and on the future of what’s going to be a longish relationship, to assume good faith and good sense on all sides. Sad to say, it’s extremely unlikely that your book is going to make you or your publisher any real money. A freak best seller like Piketty comes along slightly less often than Halley’s Comet. You can probably make more money having a first-class yard sale."
What makes for a "good" author?
When publishing peeps get together, like any beleaguered group, they tend to gossip about the pains in the butt. It’s fun to gripe about bad authors. Here’s what Elizabeth said she and other editors liked to see in the "good" ones: "Honesty, responsiveness, practicality, meeting deadlines—or being frank in advance if the deadline can’t be met. Being willing to negotiate to solve problems. A sense of the absurd."
And don’t be rude. "You will earn immeasurable points with everyone at the publisher—and be much more likely to get them to go the extra mile for you—if you are cordial and straightforward to the acquisitions editor, the editorial assistant, the manuscript editor, the production coordinator, the jacket designer, the publicist, and the sales manager," she said. "One of the joys for me of being in university-press publishing was that I worked with such wonderful people—smart, responsible, funny. Unbelievable patience. Kind to dogs and children. And they really, really love books!"
Dumb mistakes authors should avoid
"Please, please don’t phone up editors out of the blue," Elizabeth said. "And if you do, please don’t leave a voicemail that asks them to call you back so that you can tell them about your book. A two- or three-paragraph email inquiry gives you a much better chance to present yourself and your work, and gives much more information."
When I was an editor I always told authors that if it felt like things were taking too long, they should nag me. But they rarely took me at my word. I asked Elizabeth, What are some things you wished authors knew/believed/understood about the process?
Elizabeth said she felt authors should realize how interactive the process is, "How much back and forth there can be. Publishers are not technicians and printers, but they aren’t autocrats and dragons either. Editors in particular are enthusiasts by temperament. Nothing delights them more than the chance to publish a really good book (except maybe terrific sales of that really good book). They go to work every day hoping for a good new lead. While they can never care about your book quite as much as you do, because they will work on hundreds of books over the course of a career, they can care about your book quite a lot. And because they have worked on a lot of good and successful books, and some of the others too, means that they have a perspective that you don’t have and might learn from."
Given the years I spent in scholarly publishing and all the good people I met, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Elizabeth responded so generously to me when I sent in a half-baked proposal. She had the editor’s imaginative vision to see not just what was there but what could be there. Now she’ll bring that to her post in the provost’s office.