Submitting Book Proposals to Multiple Presses at Once


A reader writes in with a question about book publishing:

What are the norms in academia regarding submitting book proposals to multiple publishers at once? Is it is done? Should it be allowed (or encouraged)? And, if it is done, does one (should one) let the publishers know you’re doing it? Does it make a difference whether it is a mere proposal being submitted or a whole manuscript? Does it make a difference whether the proposal is being submitted to academic or non-academic presses?

Editors, please let us know your views. If you’re an author who has simultaneously submitted book proposals to multiple presses, or looked into it, please share what you’ve learned. Thanks!

Also, readers may be interested in this post from 2015: “Answers from Academic Publishers.” While the foregoing questions are not addressed in it, many other book publishing questions are.

Nasreen Mohamedi, untitled

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Desiderio Lopez Guante
Desiderio Lopez Guante
3 years ago

I think whether it is a 3-page proposal or a whole manuscript makes a huge difference. Although academic presses pay their book referees, the sum they pay is merely nominal and referees do it not for the money but as a service to the profession. Therefore, submitting whole manuscripts simultaneously is a waste of our colleagues’ time. It should be discouraged. Report

Clement
Clement
3 years ago

Most (all?) publishers in philosophy do not want a manuscript prior to a proposal or short description of the project.
Editors receive proposals all the time, so you want yours to stand out. It is hard to write a proposal that works well for more than one publisher. You should be able to state explicitly in your proposal why you want to publish with a particular press, giving explicit reasons, and then demonstrating familiarity with the publisher’s list by stating how your volume might match with one of the publisher’s series, or how it aligns with other recent books that the publisher has issued. For my two single-authored books, I was able to state in my proposal that I wrote the manuscript with the publisher in mind, and that the manuscript had never been under review elsewhere.
However, if were on the tenure track, the above strategy might not be best. I once sent in a proposal for a new collection of essays on a philosopher, and after six months I received a rejection of the proposal. The time from proposal to published books can take years.
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Desiderio Lopez Guante
Desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  Clement
3 years ago

Like you, I have published two-single authored books. But I never submitted a proposal — always the whole manuscript and, from the publishers’ reaction, it did not seem that I was doing something they did not like. So, I am not sure that in general publishers in philosophy do not want a manuscript prior to a proposal or short description. But, of course, my experience could have been anomalous. Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
3 years ago

My experience is that academic publishers want whole books not proposals while trade publishers want proposals not whole books (though they like the proposals to be quite detailed).Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I just got a contract with a trade press and it was proposal only, including sample chapters. It had been shipped to a half dozen or so publishers.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Sorry: that should read “shopped to a half dozen or so…”Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
3 years ago

There are two questions here: (1) what to submit to a press, and (2) whether to submit such materials to more than one press simultaneously. The OP was about (2), and the answer to (2) has nothing to do with the answer to (1). Here’s the answer to (1): unless an editor has explicitly asked you to submit a complete manuscript, don’t do it.

Now to (2). If you’re interested in publishing with a press, either send an email describing your project and ask whether the editor would like to see a proposal, or just send a proposal. You can send this to as many editors as you want, though you should do your homework and contact presses who publish the kind of work you do. (The Peters at OUP have huge lists and publish throughout philosophy, but even they don’t cover everything. Rob Tempio at Princeton seems to focus on history of philosophy, ethics and political philosophy, and big idea books for general readers. Lindsay Waters at Harvard clearly has particular philosophical tastes that align with the kind of work done at Pitt and Chicago. Wiley/Blackwell mostly publishes textbooks and other books for classes. Etc.)

Here’s what you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t have materials (proposal, sample chapters, full manuscript, etc) under review at multiple presses simultaneously without clearing it with all of the presses. Getting reviews is a significant investment for both presses and readers (pace comment 1 above), and a press should have the option to opt out of a competitive situation with other presses if they don’t want to compete for a project. It is often the case that presses don’t want to compete like this, so presses generally ask for exclusive review of materials. This doesn’t mean that you can’t go under review at more than one place simultaneously, but you should ask first.

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Peter Ohlin
3 years ago

Speaking as a university press editor, I second Matt’s very accurate description. I don’t think any editor would object to an initial approach being made to multiple editors. Once an editor expresses interest in evaluating a proposal or manuscript more seriously, including peer review, that is when an explicit discussion should take place about multiple submissions and whether another press is also reviewing it. Just as Matt says, the time and energy of an editor, and particularly the efforts of peer reviewers, are finite resources, and many editors won’t want to invest them if they are competing with another press. The takeaway is just ask, and always be transparent.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  Peter Ohlin
3 years ago

Perhaps I should have mentioned that I, too, am a university press editor, though not in philosophy. Report

J. Edward Hackett
J. Edward Hackett
3 years ago

There should also be a distinction drawn about what type of press you are applying to. I’ll give you a concrete example. Places like Lexington give preliminary contracts after they receive a book proposal to lock in the manuscript, but it’s not a guarantee at that point since they outsource review of the submitted manuscript once it’s done to a special reviewer. Then, they finalize the agreement…even though they issued you a contract. Their contract even says something along the lines of “Just so you know we have the right to reject this manuscript upon external review of it.” By contrast, acquisition and series editors at SUNY and Penn State Press told me that they liked my idea. However, they only want to see the finished manuscript. They also have academic/acquisition editors overseeing the series, which places like Lexington do not possess–they have to rely upon external expert reviewers. These are two very different models. For university presses, these are outlets for knowledge production, and the business-owned publishers like Lexington regard the book as a commercial product (you can even track this distinction about how each publisher interprets fair use in copyright law). So the OP asks a question that is problematic since the answer is context-sensitive to each publisher in question, and the assumptions internal to that publishing organization. Report

Rob Tempio
Rob Tempio
3 years ago

This is the question I get asked most frequently as a scholarly book publisher. Of course, what lies behind the question is an assumption that book submissions are like journal submissions. They are not. Unlike journals which almost always require exclusive submission, It is largely fine to make queries of several publishers at the same time to gauge potential interest in your project. When doing so, you should follow Matt’s sage advice above in terms of how to go about that. I can think of very few instances in which I wouldn’t want a prospective author to provide at least a rudimentary proposal for a project that they are asking the Press to consider. Even if they have a completed manuscript. Such proposals can and should be important tools for expressing what the key hook, argument(s), and general contours of your manuscript or proposed book will look like. They will also situate the book in relation to other books on the topic or lack thereof. They will also tell the press about yourself as an author and your qualifications for writing the book. And other details, like length, planned completion date, etc. Preparing a proposal will not be time wasted as it will provide a useful guide to all the various people and departments at a press who will mix their labor, so to speak, with your project–from the editor, to the marketing and sales dept., to the production and design team. Most publisher have guidelines for proposals on their website and you should check there to see if they require anything specific. The good news is that these documents are fairly portable among presses in terms of what they are asking for. So doing this once will, with perhaps some minor changes, be usable across presses. But for goodness sake, be sure and change the editor’s name when you are sending it to multiple presses. I’m sure Peter Ohlin doesn’t like getting proposals addressed “Dear Rob Tempio” as much as I don’t like the reverse (it’s more chuckle or eye-roll than anger inducing; but do take the time to get this right).

There is one very important respect in which book publishing is unlike journal publishing. Most book publishers will almost always tell you of their interest and that they plan to send out for review. Because of the aforementioned resource and time constraints, it’s much harder for publishers to send out for review more than a small-percentage of what’s submitted to them unlike journals which can have a much higher percentage of papers peer reviewed. So, do not assume that while you are awaiting a reply from publisher to an initial query, it is because they have it out for review. That is almost certainly not the case. Rather it more likely because they are inundated and haven’t paid your project proper attention yet. It’s also why publishers will often “desk reject” without peer review projects that don’t “fit” with their lists (in the ways Matt outlined above). But if you do get interest from another publisher, that would be a good point to follow-up with the other press to see if they are interested and\or let them know another press wants to send out for review. As Peter said, transparency is always appreciated.

Two final thoughts:

1. If you have a strongly preferred press, you might wish to submit exclusively to them first. If you submit to them and to another press simultaneously and your second choice expresses interest first, you could end up in a slightly awkward position when your preferred press gets back to you and asks for an exclusive.

2. A eminent philosophy professor often counseled assistant profs against relying on a book for tenure. This is something philosophers, almost alone among humanists, could possibly consider. The thinking went that you could have different articles under review or published by several different journals whereas with a book you were putting all your eggs in one basket. Review process and time to publication can take a long time for a manuscript\book, so there is some truth to that. If a press requires exclusive, then you are you are trusting your one basket to one Easter Bunny. If that review process doesn’t go well, then you have to find another Easter Bunny (my metaphor posits the existence of multiple Easter Bunnies). I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t agree to exclusive submission (you may just have to for a press of your choice), but it does mean you may want to plan accordingly tenure clock-wise to allow for that possibility, though infrequent occurrence.

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Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
3 years ago

A secondary question has appeared on this thread regarding whether it is normal for authors A) to first write a proposal, receive a contract, and then write the book, or B) to first write an entire manuscript, and then submit the book to a press. I don’t know which is more common (for successful submissions, for unsuccessful submissions, etc.)

I’d be interested in hearing the editors here (Matt, Peter, Rob) comment on that. My possibly mistaken sense is that writing a book without a contract in hand is a risky proposition for untenured faculty, unless you can easily turn parts of it into articles along the way.

Anecdotally, the people I personally know who write lots of books tend to do A, not B. As for me, I’ve got 10 books either out or in press, with 2 books under contract. Of those 12, only once have I first written the book and then secured a contract; the other 11 times, I got a contract first and then wrote the book. I am probably less risk averse than average, too. Report

Peter
Peter
Reply to  Jason Brennan
3 years ago

Hi Jason,

Thanks so much for this–it comes as something of a surprise to me. I am in the final processes of publishing my first book (editing, preparing an index). I wrote the book first then looked around for publishers (and was lucky enough to find a good one that was interested). To be honest, it didn’t even occur to me to do otherwise, given my current stature in the field. Perhaps for future books, I will go the route you often take. Out of curiosity, was the very first book you wrote the one that you completed without a contract in hand?Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Peter
3 years ago

Thanks, Peter. The first one I wrote without a contract in hand was *When All Else Fails*, coming out with Princeton this fall.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
3 years ago

Like Peter, I also wrote a draft of my first book before sending out proposals. This was a good thing, as the presses that were interested wanted the whole manuscript immediately. Since you mentioned this Jason, I should also add that I did this before obtaining a TT job. It was a risk as you note, but getting a book contract appeared to serve me very well on the TT job market.Report

Rob Tempio
Rob Tempio
3 years ago

I think for most first book authors, the book they are writing will likely be derived in part or “heavily-revised” whole from their dissertation, so the risk, in a sense, was made when they chose to write on what they did. Very, very few people start from scratch on a new topic for their first book such that they could change track at this point. Plus, mos will do some articles derived from or that will feed into the eventual manuscript. So, my experience is that the vast majority of first books are in fact written before a contract is issued. I’m not sure it should be any different, but it does pose the risk Jason raise. My sense is that even for those editors willing to offer advance contracts for first book they want to know that substantial progress has been made towards completion. I think more important considerations to an editor for a first book are who is the author, where did they get their degree from (good program?), where are they now (tenure track postion? top notch post-Doc?), do they come highly recommended, what’s their publishing track record so far etc. These are the kind of pre-vetting an editor might look at and which could be decisive. And of course, how interesting is the topic, how well does it fit with our list, etc. Report

ejrd
ejrd
3 years ago

Another question for the university press editors in the thread:

Are there any general rules (even rough and ready ones) about how much of a manuscript (or proposal) can/should be based on already published work? Report

Dale E Miller
3 years ago

In the not too recent past I’ve had the experience of a publisher asking for exclusive consideration of a proposal, after a preliminary inquiry went to several publishers. My co-editor and I agreed to this, but we said that we didn’t want to have the proposal tied up with a single publisher for too long and would like an answer within a specific timeframe. We weren’t sure how well this would go over, but the publisher had no objection.Report