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.
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.