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Academic Coaching & Writing

IV. Etiquette for Academic Book Authors: How to Avoid Common Mistakes

Sep 01, 2013 by Amy Benson Brown

Authors sometimes worry about unintentionally offending academic editors or committing some faux pas. The following suggestions address the concerns I hear most often from authors about how to initiate contact with editors and build a strong working relationship.

Query Letters Can Open the Door

A “query letter” is simply a brief letter that asks if the editor may be interested in considering your project. Since this letter conveys a first impression of you and your project, take the time to do some research before writing.

Some query letters, unfortunately, begin something like this:

Dear Editor: I hope you will consider the enclosed five hundred-page manuscript for publication with your press.

Not finding out the name of the appropriate acquisition editor implies a lack of initiative and interest. How would you feel, after all, about receiving a letter from a stranger that begins with “Dear Professor” or “Dear Teacher”? Chances are this 500-page manuscript is headed straight for the recycling bin.

Be sure your own letter uses the current acquisition editor’s name for the press you are contacting. You can locate the names of editors and their fields of interest on most publishers’ websites. If you have trouble finding the appropriate editor’s name, call the press’s general phone number and ask.

Seek Out Editors at Professional Meetings

Conferences provide another way you can establish initial contact with an editor. When you approach an editor in the book display area, don’t make the mistake of presenting a thick portfolio of material about your project or your vita.

Instead, take a few minutes to introduce yourself and ask about what ideas or trends that editor is most interested in now. Usually, editors will ask about your own work too. This is a golden opportunity to briefly describe your topic and what’s most intriguing to you about it. You may get an invitation, then, to send a fuller description. Many editors welcome an email from authors at this point. Keep it simple and succinct. For example:

Dear Robert,
It was a pleasure to talk with you at last week’s AAR conference in Atlanta. Thanks so much for expressing interest in my project. I am attaching the five-page project description, sample chapter, and copy of my CV that you requested. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts about my project.

If you’re not lucky enough to have such an encounter at a professional gathering, contacting editors out of the blue is perfectly acceptable too. Just do your research and send only the documents requested by that press for an initial submission.

Use Professional Connections

Colleagues can help open the door too. Often, editors pay particular attention to unexpected queries if the author mentions a mutual connection. Do you have colleagues or friends who have published with that press or are simply very well known in your field? Consider asking them if they would recommend that you talk with a specific editor. If they do, mention very early in your query letter that you are getting in touch on the suggestion of that person.

Communicate Candidly, Clearly, and Politely

If several editors express interest in your book, you may be tempted to make what is called “simultaneous submissions.” This is tricky territory, so let’s break it down.

It’s perfectly acceptable (and often wise) to send out multiple query letters to gauge interest in your project; but, when a press sends your manuscript out for peer review, the situation changes. The press is investing resources in seriously considering your work. If you are under a deadline to get a book contact for the job market or for promotion, having your manuscript in peer review at several presses may seem especially appealing. Publishers, though, resent this move, especially if you have led them to believe you are working only with them.

Here’s the bottom line. If two or more presses ask to send your manuscript out for peer review, count your blessings. Then, decide which press is your top choice, and communicate clearly and politely with all the editors involved. They will probably appreciate your frankness. Plus, it can increase your top press’s interest in your project because it may look more like a “hot commodity.” Clear communication between authors and editors, however, is a two-way street. You should always feel free to ask questions about specifics related to your book.

Ask for Specifics on Your Role and the Publisher’s Role

If any part of the publishing process seems murky to you, ask your editor to walk you through the typical steps to publication at that press. Editors, in general, don’t intend to keep authors in the dark. But they are busy and may not ponder what you know and don’t know about the process.

The bottom line here is that it’s your right to ask for clarification about what happens at each stage of the publishing process—from peer review, contract, copy-editing, and marketing. Ask about electronic versions of your book as well as print versions, in particular. After all, you can help your press produce a successful book on time only if you thoroughly understand what you will be called upon to do and when.

Respond to Copy-Editing Queries

Finally, the need for good etiquette in communicating with publishers does not end when you receive a contract. Carol Fisher Saller in her book The Subversive Copy Editor and on her website offer practical suggestions that can help you get the most out of copyediting—a stage of the publishing process that many authors dread. Saller reminds us that the relationship between academic authors and academic presses is a partnership essential to the success of both.Authors sometimes worry about unintentionally offending academic editors or committing some faux pas. The following suggestions address the concerns I hear most often from authors about how to initiate contact with editors and build a strong working relationship.

Ultimately, you and your publisher both want a successful book launch. Viewing your relationship with your publisher as a partnership and looking for win-win solutions to any challenges that arise will help you sail more smoothly through the whole publishing process.

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