1. Do your research
What books will yours compete with or sit alongside and who publishes them? Whose publications do you like and use yourself? Crucially look at whether the Press publishes books for the market you are trying to reach. If the work is intended for a practitioner or policy audience make sure the Press you are approaching has a strong history of being able to reach that market. Routes to market vary considerably for different book types - be they textbooks, academic monographs or guides for practice - and you need to find a publisher who has the knowledge and experience to make sure your book gets into the right hands. Look at similar books the Press publishes and find out how the Sales and Marketing team made sure it reached the right readers.
It’s helpful to have a shortlist of publishers you would like to approach and get initial feedback on whether they would be keen to see a proposal. Once you have an expression of interest from one publisher it’s best to work solely with them, until you have a final decision, rather than sending your proposal out to several publishers at the same time.
Academic, educational or professional publishers will often attend academic/practitioner conferences, with the aim of building their own networks and making connections with potential authors. Most will be happy to meet with you or have an informal chat at the bookstand to talk through your ideas with you. With publishers unable to get out at the moment, meetings have gone online and again, many will be happy to respond to an unsolicited email - or approach via social media - and welcome the opportunity to speak to a potential author, especially one who has done their research and is making a considered approach.
Commissioning Editors can provide you with a wealth of helpful information. You can find out the focus of their list, what types of books are they looking to commission, what gaps are they looking to fill on their programmes. Even if your project isn’t right for their list it’s helpful to understand why (is it something you could change or adapt?) or ask for their recommendations for alternate publishers you could approach (publishers will be keenly aware of what their closest rivals are doing and can be very helpful in suggesting others you could approach if your book isn’t right for them).
3. Understand how each publisher works
Publishers will include information on their website about their submission process and it’s best to tailor your submission to their particular requests - e.g. whether they would like to see sample material from you or whether a proposal alone will suffice. Adapt the proposal and your approach so that it is targeted at each individual Press - what are books at the Press yours is similar to, or builds on? Why have you approached this particular Press over others - what makes you think your book is right for them? It is rather dispiriting as an Editor to receive a proposal clearly meant for another Publisher - and also very pleasing to receive an approach where the author has put thought into why a particular publisher is right for them.
4. Think about your pitch
The Commissioning Editor is the first person at the Press you as an author needs to pitch your project to and persuade that it is a much-needed publication and good fit for their list. They in turn will need to pitch to their colleagues, and possibly Advisory Boards too. Giving them the tools to do this – the arguments they should be making to colleagues – can help them in making the case inhouse.
A memorable pitch an author once gave me involved demonstrating how her book would fill a clear gap on my own list - how it would sit between a highly theoretical book and a highly practical one. She had even brought the books in question along with her, just to make her point even clearer! The book wasn’t necessarily an obvious project for the Press but the way the author persuaded me was, in turn, invaluable in helping me make the case to colleagues.
Your Editor is your champion within the Press, the one who will be persuading colleagues this is a project everyone from Production Editors to Marketing Executives should want to spend their time working on - enthuse them and that will help them in enthusing others.
5. Help your Editor negotiate ‘risk’
Publishing is an inexact science and it always carries an element of risk. In making publishing decisions, Editors and decision-makers at a Press are essentially weighing up the risk involved in publishing the book and considering whether it is one they are willing to take.
A key way risk is assessed is in analysing sales and/or reviews of similar titles the Press has already published or that other Presses have published. Stating that your book is one of a kind and there is nothing like it on the market alarms publishers, suggesting it could be a huge risk for them to take. It’s more helpful to clearly position your book in relation to previously published titles and show how it builds upon this body of work, furthers debates or fills a gap.
If the work is attempting to do something that might be deemed ‘risky’ then help publishers see why they need to make this leap - does the book combine elements of previously published work in new ways? Why is the market ready for this radical approach? What’s the wider context the book is publishing in that points to the need for a book that does things differently?
6. Don’t oversell your project, but don’t undersell it either
As discussed above, to get published your book doesn’t necessarily need to be doing something radically new and different. It needs to have a clear point of differentiation against competing titles, but this need not be wildly dramatic - if that was the case then cookbook publishing wouldn’t be the multi-million pound industry it is! If you have found the right Publisher, they will understand well the specific market they are commissioning for and how your book will fit. If persuading the publisher feels like hard work it could be that they are simply not the right fit for your book project.
On the other hand, don’t understate the contribution your book might make, or the impact you hope it will have. Make sure you can provide evidence of this, build your case, and be confident in how your work can make a contribution to your field. Focus in on the core market you want the book to reach, and be realistic about the size of the market, and what the book can achieve within it. It’s also useful to share with the Publisher how you as an author will help them reach that audience - through your own networks, through social media, at conferences etc.
While some books do break out beyond their core market, most work well because they have a very clear sense of who their readership will be.
7. Ensure your proposal tells a coherent story and builds a clear argument
Every part of the book proposal needs to work together to tell a coherent story about the project, and make a solid argument about why it should be published. For example, it’s not helpful to claim your book will be widely adopted on courses if you cannot provide any evidence of courses that it will be used on, make claims about how it will influence practice if you cannot clearly articulate the changes you would hope to see, or that there will be a broad international market when it focuses in on a very localised case study.
Think about the purpose of the book and what it will help others do - understand a problem better, teach more effectively, provide clarity on a specific issue, educate a non-expert audience on a topic and so on. Write a short 1-2 sentence ‘purpose’ of the project and make sure every part of the proposal speaks to and builds on that objective.
8. The peer review process
If your proposal will be sent out for peer review, think about how you can ward off obvious criticisms. One of the most common is that there isn’t enough information provided about the project for the reviewer to have a strong sense of it as a book. Ensure your proposal leads the reviewer carefully through your book’s argument, step by step, and that chapter outlines are detailed enough to give a clear sense of how the book will develop. Consider asking colleagues for informal feedback for a trial run and to flush out any obvious concerns/questions that could be addressed before the more formal process takes place.
9. Responding to negative reviews
The peer review process can be a hugely helpful process - strengthening your project, ironing out problems and providing useful advice. It can also, on occasion, be a thoroughly unpleasant experience, with reviewers seemingly misunderstanding the project and its aims, being negative without providing constructive advice, or simply disliking your ideas. Publishers like Policy Press will solicit about three reviews for each project and view negative reports in a wider context of the feedback overall. But they will want to see how an author engages with such feedback - could the project be adapted to - as one author of mine put it - ‘innoculate’ the project against similar criticism in future? You might be asked to provide a response that will be shared with reviewers, so think carefully about the tone of your response, staying professional at all times, no matter how provocative (or wrong in your view!) the reviewer might be.
10. Further resources
There are a growing number of resources on how to get published and I would particularly recommend the following:
William Germano was Editor-In-Chief at Columbia University Press and Publishing Director at Routledge. He has several books on publishing including Getting It Published and From Dissertation to Book
Laura Portwood-Stacer is an academic-turned-publishing consultant and her website has a wealth of resources. She is author of The Book Proposal Book
Katelyn Knox is also a scholar, with experience of publishing, who provides advice to authors via her website:
Helen Kara’s blog and Twitter feed provide a wealth of advice on many aspects of research and publishing and she has recently covered topics such as Ten Top Tips for Editing A Collection, Five Top Tips for Managing Deadlines and Sole author, co-author or edited collection?
Publishers also often have useful advice on their own websites or social media sites - see for example https://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/from-phd-to-book-the-basics/
And other interesting online resources I’ve found recently include: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/09/11/two-university-press-editors-offer-advice-aspiring-book-authors-opinion and https://writeusefulbooks.com/
Of all these tips I would see 1 and 2 as crucially important. Different publishers have different audiences, priorities and strategic aims and it often truly is a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ when a project is rejected. Finding a publisher who supports the kind of work you want to publish, is able to reach the right readers and who shares your values and aims is a vital step in getting your work published. Taking an interest in and understanding how publishing as an industry operates are vital first steps in seeing your own publication on the shelves. Good luck!
Biography: Philippa Grand is an academic book publisher with nearly 20 years’ experience in the industry. After completing her PhD at University of Manchester, she has worked at leading publishers such as Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan and Manchester University Press. At Bristol University Press/Policy Press she commissions in International Development and Research Methods & Practices, and is passionate about Open Access, epistemic justice and the value of inter/transdisciplinary research.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Helen Kara for asking me to write this blog, for her input and most of all patience!