Saturday, April 21, 2012

How to Publish an Academic Book – Why Choosing a Publisher is Important and How to Choose One

Like many aspects of academic publishing, where you publish is often as important as what you publish. Thus, the decision of where to publish your academic book is a crucial one. It could make a tremendous difference in your career whether you publish your first book with Harvard University Press or VDM- Verlag.

If you are in a field such as History or Literature, where book publishing is essential, the prestige of the press is particularly important. If this is your first book, and the primary purpose of writing the book is to secure tenure, in most cases, you should first try to publish your book with a university press.

Harper memorial library - mark your seat and your favorite book with a note!

A university press is a publishing house associated with a university, such as Cambridge, Duke, or the University of California. University presses are ranked by prestige, and, in most cases, the prestige of the press is directly related to the prestige of the university. However, there is some nuance here, and presses are often known for specializing in certain subfields. For example, if you are publishing a book on Spanish literature, it may be better for you to publish with Bucknell than MIT. So, how do you figure all of this out?

Which University Press Should I Publish In?

Because university presses vary both in terms of prestige and the areas in which they publish, it is important to choose the right press. Here are three strategies you can use to help you figure out which publishers could be right for your project.

Look at your bookshelf. What books are you reading? Where are they published? Pay special attention to books you are reading and citing that have been published in the past five years, as presses change their focus over time. Are there any presses that stand out on your bookshelf?

Ask around. Ask people who are familiar with your work, who have read part of your dissertation or other papers, which presses they think are most appropriate for your work. Ask senior colleagues in your field which presses are known for publishing in your subfield. For example, if your field is Latin American Literature, ask colleagues in that field which presses have the best lists in that field. Also ask around your department so that you get a sense of which presses are most respected in your discipline in general.

Visit book booths at conferences and try to find books similar to your own. Pay attention to which books are on the front display, as those are the books the publisher is highlighting. You also can ask the representatives at the conference booth if they publish in your area. Be prepared to ask a concise question such as: I am writing a book on discourses of race and racism in Peru. Is that an area in which your press might be interested? Usually, the representative can tell you pretty quickly whether or not they are building a list in your field. If they are very interested, they may ask you for more information, so be prepared to tell them a bit more about your work.

University, Trade Academic, Trade, and Vanity Presses: What’s the difference?

What about publishing with a non-university press? In addition to university presses, there are trade academic presses such as Routledge, Rowman and Littlefield, Palgrave MacMillan, Lynne Rienner, and Paradigm Publishers. Whether or not you should publish in these presses depends a lot on your field and your department. In some departments, these presses are seen as not as prestigious as the university presses, and any university press would be better. However, in other fields, it does not make a difference, and a book with one of these presses is perfectly fine.

I published my first book with a university press because my mentor told me explicitly that a university press was the best bet to ensure tenure. Thus, although two trade academic presses solicited my manuscript, I never sent them my materials. Trade academic presses also seem to be a bit more likely to solicit manuscripts from junior scholars.

I am not at all against publishing with trade academic presses, but I do think that you should be aware that there is a hierarchy, and that these things matter in academia. Whether or not they should matter is a different question.

I decided to publish my second and third books with academic trade presses. I never even discussed my second book with an academic press. I made that decision because I figured Paradigm Publishers, an academic trade press, would give me more editorial leeway on a controversial topic, because their current list includes a wide variety of controversial topics. My third book was invited by a series editor at Routledge, and they promised (and delivered) a very quick turnaround, making this an excellent choice.

I am happy with my decision to publish with trade academic presses. However, I did not publish these books in a quest to secure tenure – I had my university press book as well as several articles for that purpose. I am currently writing another book, and I have not yet decided which kind of press I will shoot for.

In addition to academic trade presses and university presses, there are trade presses such as Simon & Schuster, W.W. Norton, and Viking. Publishing in trade presses is a whole different ballgame, and generally requires an agent and a marketing scheme. If and when I figure out how that works, I will write a separate post on trade presses.

I should note that there are also vanity presses, which may email you asking you to submit your manuscript. A notable one is VDM, which routinely sends out emails asking if you would like to publish with them. If you do not need a book for your career, and would like something to give your mother, this is a good option. Otherwise, steer clear of vanity presses or any press that does not send your book out for peer review.

If you are not sure whether or not a particular press is an academic press, in addition to asking your colleagues, you can also ask the press if they send the manuscript out for review and if they copy-edit the manuscript. Any press that does not do those two things is not an academic press.


  1. This is great advice, and completely demystified the process of publishing a book for me. Is Paradigm a trade press or a trade academic press? That's not so clear above.

    1. Plaidbag: Paradigm is a trade academic press - they publish books written by academics. I clarified above - thanks!

  2. What about timing? I'm currently collecting qualitative data for my dissertation, and my topic is very appropriate for a book. Should I seek out publishers when I'm done collecting data? When I'm further into the writing process? I would love to go on the job market, next year, with a book contract.

    1. Check out this post about from diss to book:

      In my field, it is very rare for people to have a book contract with a good press before they defend. I can think of exactly two cases - and both of them were "stars."

    2. Well does that mean that I'm a "star", lol? I just got a book contract from Lexington Books /Rowman & Littlefield for inclusion in one of their series (Critical Television/Cultural Studies). It was based upon a proposal for a revised version of my dissertation (American Studies). But while I am happy about this news, I now have two questions that I hope that you can answer.

      First, does having a book with a Trade Academic publisher help on today's competitive job market (in lieu of a University Press)?

      Second, should I hold out for a University Press instead of the contract that I have in hand (but haven't signed yet)? The Series Editor is a fairly "big name" in the field of television/popular culture, but it isn't a UP.


    3. Hello! If it's not too late, I suggest you ask at least three people - one senior person in your department, your diss advisor, and one other scholar in your field.

      Congrats on the interest from Lexington, but it might make sense to hold out for a UP. That depends on your department. If you are in an AMS department at an R1, for example, I suspect you will want to hold out.

  3. iUniverse has helped more than 35,000 authors publish their books professionally and affordably. Since 1999, we have crafted a reputation for breaking records and blazing new trails in the self-publishing industry.

    1. Thanks, but, self-publishing still doesn't get you tenure in academia.

  4. Thanks Tanya, this has been the best advice I have seen on getting getting published after completing doctoral research on the net. My question is that are the top university presses as partial towards their own faculty and graduates as certain top peer-review journals are? Cheers.

    1. Not that I am aware of. However, I do suspect that if you are at a prestigious university, it might be easier to get published with a university press than if you don't have an institutional affiliation or if you are at a less prestigious institution.

  5. Hi Tanya,

    If a publisher has sent a manuscript out for review (after seeing the proposal), what does that mean in terms of the probability of final publication with that press? Also, typically how many months review time should one expect? And how exactly is the book revision process different from the article 'revise and resubmit' process?

    1. I'd say it is pretty likely, but books can be rejected after a review. Often, the reviews take 6 to 12 months.

      The revision process is pretty similar to the R&R process, except you often can get a contract before completing the revisions.

  6. Very helpful discussion. There are some unreliable rankings floating around (See the SENSE ranking of academic publishers which can't even get the names of universities or their presses right and have some very misleading rankings.) In general, it's always better, at any level, to go with a University Press. There is a great variety and disparity in the way non-academic presses review manuscripts, and this makes it very difficult for committees, deans, and provosts to judge the books they publish. Also, for most of them, their mission is to make money, and potential sales and revenue are rarely good criteria for judging academic quality.

    You can't go wrong with Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on. Things get iffy with Routledge and Palgrave/Macmillan. People often make the case that these publishers are good in their sub-sub-fields, but the case has to be made. Often such publishers will land a good book in some area, or get someone prestigious to start a series, and this will help the case.

    I'd go to 2nd rank US university presses next, a relatively large group with a more mixed quality list. Still, a sure bet for tenure or promotion. California, Stanford, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and so on.

    The next step down is a little risky if you're at a higher prestige institution, but if you find someone to make your case, go for it. Some of these publishers may have good books in your sub-sub-field, though they will also have a fair number of unremarkable books. It's a matter of someone making the case for you. Here there is SUNY, South Carolina, Florida, and so on. Small and more unknown publishers like Fordham, University Press of New England, and so on increase the risk. Again, if you can, find an important book they've published in your field and get someone to to associate your work with that.

    Another risky ventures: University Presses from other countries, to which one goes only if one has exhausted the US possibilities. Still, there are arguments to made. Associate your work with work done by well-known international scholars who have published where you will. Or make the case that since you're writing on Scottish history the Edinburgh University Press is the place for you.

    There's always a case to be made for wherever you publish, if you can find people to support that case. If the quality of a press is not judged too highly, then change the focus to sales or citation numbers or some other data in terms of which which your publisher is ranked highly. Find any awards their books have won. And so on. It's easier to go with a first-rate press ranked that way for academic quality, but it's not the only way.

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks! This is a very useful comment. I am thinking of where to publish my next book and am weighing all of these concerns.

    2. Sigh.... American academia is so parochial!
      There are many, many excellent presses beyond US borders. The problem now is that with global university rankings, even scholars outside of the US (Britain, Asia etc) are expected to publish with top US journals and publishers, irrespective of geographical, social and political relevance and focus. Crazy.

    3. Good point. Of course, Oxford and Cambridge are well-regarded in the US, as are some Canadian presses. Here in the US, we are also expected to gain international standing, and then tends to mean recognition in Europe....

  7. A couple of considerations. First, local departmental politics/allies/friendships is very important. I've sat on university-wide committees, and I've seen some pretty ordinary and sometimes even shaky files with ordinary and sometimes shaky publications/publishers pass through for P&T. They candidates had, however, the solid support of the department committee and of the chair.

    I've also seem some genuinely brilliant work get minimal notice from a department. I've even checked the salaries relative to quality of work in a few departments and in more than one they were noticeably out of balance by any reasonable measure.

    It's not always enough to do quality work and publish something of quality by a prestigious publisher. You MUST persuade the powers in your department to take notice. And they must agree that the focus of your work has value. And they must be PERSUADED that your publisher is a good one. Lobby for yourself and do the necessary schmoozing beforehand, and make sure that your work is not original in the sense that its quality or importance will not be recognized by many of the folks in your department. If i is, you have some explaining to do--and maybe some lunches and other events to set up. You need "friends."

    Second, the corporatization of universities and the adoption of business models for all aspects of higher ed are beginning to have a real impact on how publications are evaluated. Find out how your university is using the for-profit metrics/analytical tools for judging productivity. Especially: try to discover whether the metrics are filtering down to the college or departmental level.

    If you think that politicking through the small-mindedness that takes hold in some departments is difficult, think again. The mindlessness built into the new analytics will put a more serious damper on innovation and originality and true basic research than even clubby departments.

    But don't despair. Through all the institutionalized foibles of human beings and their processes, people pursue original ideas and persevere through the troubles to write and produce and to add to human understanding. There are prices to pay, but a sound understanding of how the processes work will minimize your frustration and help you focus your time and efforts wisely--so you can get on with the important work.

  8. Thanks a lot Tanya!