How to Approach a University Press with Your Book Idea

Former Cambridge University Press acquisitions and desk editor and Flatpage team member Dr. Maartje Scheltens has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in book proposals. In this post, she shares her tips and insights about what to think about when preparing to contact a publisher.
A side view of a full table at a book fair with lots of books to choose amongst.

After years of research, writing, blood, sweat, and tears, you’re finally getting ready to find a university press for your academic monograph. But first, ask yourself:

Am I ready to approach an acquisitions editor?

The peer review process, and the press’s processes before your book is contracted, can take a lot of time, so approach an editor as early as possible—especially if you’re faced with a tenure deadline. However, before you take the first step, you should consider the following:

  • Are you clear about your book’s unique selling point and contribution to your field?
  • Can you explain how the project fits into the publisher’s book list?
  • Have you honed the proposal to the publisher’s requirements?
  • Do you have the full manuscript ready to be sent out for peer review or do you have a realistic timeframe for when it will be available?

Your approach to an editor is (probably) your first contact with the book market. Like it or not, your research is about to hit the cold commercial world out there, and you’ll need to make sure it’s ready.

How do I choose an acquisitions editor?

University presses are the most prestigious type of academic publishing house for those pursuing a career in academia, but there are a number of other options available for scholarly publication. 

Check your bibliography and bookshelf to identify the top five publishers of books in your field and start there. Research each press—What do they publish? Do they have a dedicated acquisitions editor in your field?

Academic conferences or campus visits by publishers are a great way to meet editors and get to know university presses’ lists, but the effects of the pandemic are still hampering those opportunities. Do as much online research as you can, read presses’ websites and catalogs closely, and ask colleagues in your field or your academic advisor about editors they may have worked with. 

A relationship with your acquisitions editor might be one that lasts for many years or a large part of your career; often, authors work with the same editor on several monographs and may be asked to edit a volume of essays, coursebook or reference work, or get involved with peer review for the publisher.

Write to one editor per press at a time. If you’re not sure which editor to approach at a certain press, perhaps because your project is interdisciplinary, don’t approach all the editors who might be relevant. Pick the one that is in your main discipline and explain the nature of the project, so they can refer you to a colleague if necessary.  

Initially, you can approach several presses, but as soon as one decides to have the whole manuscript reviewed, don’t send it to others. If another shows interest in seeing the full text, explain that it is currently under review at Press X.

Remember: You are asking the editor to invest their time in assessing your proposal and lining up reviewers (which can be tricky in a small field), and they don’t want to hear someone else has beaten them to the punch after they’ve already moved your proposal to the next stage.

Your editor is your first customer. 

Acquisitions editors are busy people and receive many proposals. You need to grab their attention in your covering email even before they’ll read the whole proposal. They’re looking as much at the academic credentials of your project as at its potential in the market. Sure, your study makes an impact in your field. But will it sell?

If your book makes it through the review process, your acquisitions editor will be the first person to sell your book—to their editorial board and their sales team. Check out this post to find out what acquisitions editors look for.

Before you even start writing the proposal, start by talking about your book project to people outside of your field. Can you explain your idea to them in a few sentences? Work on your “elevator pitch”: What’s the book’s unique selling point? Who’s the target audience?

Use a title that’s descriptive, for now. Your editor will want input in this decision and it’s not a great idea to get too wedded to a clever or witty title at this early stage.

If your book is based on your thesis, there are a few extra steps to undertake before you are ready to approach a press. For resources on turning your thesis into a book, start with this advice.

What should I send?

Most academic publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. You must approach an acquisitions editor with a detailed proposal first.

Make sure you have reviewed the submission guidelines for your chosen press and follow them exactly.

Some presses use a proposal form that you can submit through their website. Otherwise, your first approach to an editor will be an email in which you should:

  • Introduce yourself and briefly state your credentials
  • Give the “elevator pitch” of your book
  • Explain what type of book this is: monograph, edited volume, textbook; its projected length; and the current state (complete manuscript available for review, or the date when it will be available)
  • Show you have done research on their press. Explain why you think your book fits into their list and mention successful titles they’ve published in your field, or similar works in other (sub)fields
  • Attach the book proposal, which of course covers the above in more detail
  • Check whether your chosen press requests an academic CV and/or sample chapter at this stage
  • Be ready to send a sample chapter or the whole book manuscript if you get a positive response

How do I prepare a proposal?

Each press’s website offers guidelines for how proposals should be put together. In a future blog post we’ll go into a bit more detail about what this crucial document should contain, but in the meantime you might consider getting help from a professional editor with polishing and developing it. Flatpage has a team of specialists dedicated to refining your proposal.

You should also consider hiring an experienced professional copy-editor, like those at Flatpage, to help you prepare a professional manuscript with the best chance of progressing to the next stage of the publishing process.

About the author

Former Cambridge University Press acquisitions and desk editor and Flatpage team member Dr. Maartje Scheltens has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in book proposals. She knows the publishing process inside out and understands exactly what your academic publisher is looking for.

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