If you’re working on a scholarly book manuscript, you will need, at some point, to reach out to an editor. That may mean pitching your project at a conference or submitting a proposal “over the transom.” In writing my own monograph, I agonized, as many do, over how best to “sell” my book project. I was working full-time outside of academe and simultaneously applying to the few remaining tenure-track jobs in (or vaguely near) my field. Continually packaging and repackaging your work for people who may or may not hire you or publish your book is exhausting, to say the least.

Now, as a book editor, I have a much better appreciation for the role that “fit” plays in finding a publisher. And for the simple but sometimes hard to absorb fact that editors are people, too — in this case, people who, like scholars, tend to be bookish and prone to geek out while also having good days and bad days and generally doing our best to keep up.

My goal here is to alleviate at least some of the potential stress of approaching an editor by shedding light on what you, as an author, should do (read up on presses), what you can but don’t need to do (talk with editors), and what you will have to do to get published (send a proposal). In the process, I’ll also try to answer that perennial writers’ question: What do editors at scholarly presses do?

What should you do before approaching an editor? In graduate school, we’re trained to find a “hole” in the scholarship and assert the novelty of our claims and contributions. But what I and other editors look for — and the terms we use most often to describe it — are “fit,” “idea,” and “topic.” What makes an idea or a topic a strong “fit” for a particular editor is shaped by many factors:
  • Our areas of acquisition and the series we oversee.
  • The established strengths of the press and the manuscripts we’ve inherited from predecessors.
  • Our sense of a book’s market and of how well-poised the author and press are to reach it.
  • The projects we already have on our plates.
  • Our particular perspectives and goals for our lists.

Fit is mutual. Before approaching editors, the first step is to do some research to identify publishers that you think might be a good match for you and your manuscript. The Association of University Presses offers a subject-area grid indicating the different fields in which its member presses publish, along with some other resources. In addition, to get a more detailed picture of their various strengths and foci, it’s always good to spend time on their websites, perusing new and recent titles. Some also include editor bios or vision statements to let you know what they’re looking for.

While perusing a publisher’s website, check if it lists specific guidelines for book proposals, as my press does. Proposal components are pretty standard — an overarching description; a table of contents with chapter descriptions; some discussion of the potential market for your book, and comparable (or “competing”) titles; your timeline and other specs. But it’s always good to play it safe and follow any directions provided.

Spend some time in the exhibit hall during your field’s annual conference, but you can also find plenty of insights close to home, too. Revisit your own bookshelves and bibliographies with an eye toward which press has published what. Talk to colleagues about their experiences working with different presses and editors. Your professional needs are paramount, so do consult with mentors in your field and at your institution about their expectations. Your advisers may also be willing to introduce you to an editor or put in a good word for you.

"Relationships are the lifeblood of this business. Recognizing their importance doesn’t need to mean reinforcing an elitist prestige economy."

Do you need to have a connection to approach an editor? Before you get too nervous, let me emphasize: You do not. I routinely invite writers to send me full manuscripts based on proposals I’ve received “cold.” Your ideas are what matter most, not whom you know.

That said, if you have a name to drop — “I’m reaching out at the suggestion of …” — drop it. And, colleagues and advisers, if you know of someone doing smart work that resonates with our lists, let us know.

Relationships are the lifeblood of this business. Recognizing their importance doesn’t need to mean reinforcing an elitist prestige economy. To wit: I get excited when I recognize the names of people I “know” from Twitter (now X) in my inbox, whatever their career stage or institution. Those, too, are “connections.” Capitalizing on your connections is not bad. What troubles me is their treatment as scarce goods that only a few people have and deserve. If anything, what we need is less of the up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that still pervades academe — especially in the humanities, shockingly — and lots more mutual support to expand and enrich the conversations that enable our collective work.

I personally submitted my book proposal to two presses. In each case, a mentor sent a note of support under separate cover. One publisher never got back to me (which, I should say, is fine and par for the course). The other expressed interest after I followed up to confirm receipt. So, yes, I had a connection. Would the editor have expressed interest without it? I have no idea. Either way, it went through the same review and vetting process before getting published.

As an editor, I now understand how valuable referrals are from the point of view of the press. Word of mouth and reputation count for a ton. I’m always honored and grateful when “my” authors send friends and emerging scholars my way — less because it serves as some kind of seal of approval on their work than because it tells me they had a good experience working with me. A familiar name also gets my attention and cuts through the volume. Editors are cast as gatekeepers — and understandably so. Nevertheless, the toughest “gate” that writers need to push through is the one blocked by the amount of email in our inboxes and of manuscripts on our plates.

Not every project will be a good fit. But when it comes to editorial attention, potential authors aren’t competing with one another so much as they’re competing with the countless other small tasks that pull editors in different directions. One of my biggest challenges as an editor is carving out time to focus on proposals even just to decide — and let authors know in a timely fashion, “yes, I’d like to invite this for peer review” or “no, it’s not a fit” — to say nothing of the further developmental feedback I’d love to have time to give.

So what do we do? Often called “acquisitions” or “commissioning” editors, we manage and mediate the publishing process — from an academic’s initial pitch or proposal, through peer review and editorial-board review, to a manuscript’s transmittal to production for publication. But our relationships with authors don’t stop there. We may reach out to ask you to serve as peer reviewers on other projects, and peer reviewers may, in turn, pitch projects to us. We often aid in promotion and, in general, serve as the public face of a press and scholars’ primary point of contact there.

Editing can thus involve far less of what some scholars might imagine when they think of the job — e.g., reading manuscripts from beginning to end, red pencil in hand, or what’s generally called developmental editing — and far more communication. We are reading constantly, though often more quickly than we’d like and not always from start to finish. We are curators, collaborators, cheerleaders, and, at times, critics — ideally constructive ones, but I’d be the first to admit there have been times when I wish I’d handled a project differently. I suspect we all do.

When — and where — should you approach an editor? It’s best to reach out — say, to schedule a meetup at a conference — when you feel confident talking about your book project. You should be able to briefly describe it and answer the “so what?” question — that is, to explain its significance or stakes. These conference conversations are also an opportunity for you to learn about the press and its processes so you can gauge if it’s a fit for you. Do feel free — and empowered — to ask questions.

I am generally glad to meet with scholars at all different stages of the writing process, including graduate students, assuming their work generally falls within my areas of acquisition and, of course, time-permitting. (That said, if you are a graduate student, I will inevitably go into mentor mode and encourage you to focus on finishing the dissertation, while trying to provide helpful information about next steps.) Some editors might ask you to send a brief description in advance to determine if it bears meeting in person.

If you’re going to a conference, you can also stop by a publisher’s booth in the exhibit hall in hopes of pitching your project. Be forewarned: The appropriate editor may not be readily available. It’s fine to chance it; just know there are no guarantees. You can always reach out via email afterward.

When I meet with scholars, I typically end by asking them to send me a book proposal when they’re ready. Sometimes I know on the spot if something isn’t a fit, and can say as much. More often than not, I need a proposal in hand — and, in many cases, to share it with series editors — to make a definitive decision.

Do you have to meet with editors? Gosh, no! I love talking to writers, whether in person or virtually. It’s one of my favorite parts of this job. I’m also a big proponent of open, candid communication between scholars and publishers generally. But conferences can be financially prohibitive for many scholars (and publishers) and not everyone feels comfortable pitching their work in that way. It’s OK to know yourself and play to your strengths.

I never pitched my book project at conferences. I’m not even sure it occurred to me that I could or should. I approached an editor the way most scholars do: by sending a book proposal via email. Some scholars start with an initial letter of inquiry to gauge an editor’s interest in reading a full proposal, but it’s common — and entirely acceptable, unless otherwise indicated on a publisher’s website — to send your book proposal unsolicited, and to send it to more than one press at a time.

Inevitably, you will meet a scholar who says they never had to write a book proposal. That may be. However, most editors, including me, require a proposal, however established the scholar. The point of a proposal is not to make you jump through excessive hoops. It’s a democratizing document — a way of ensuring that we get the same information from everyone.

"Editors don’t always know what we find exciting until presented with it."

In reading proposals, like many editors, I tend to know within a few sentences if a project is likely to be of interest. That we have a sense of a book’s fit so quickly doesn’t mean the proposal is superfluous. I do need and learn from all of the information in it. Typos and infelicities (say, overestimating your book’s likely appeal to a general audience) are not dealbreakers. As Laura Portwood-Stacer, developmental editor and author of The Book Proposal Book, has also underscored, your proposal need not be perfect in order to hit “send.” Best to let it go.

As for when to send your book proposal to publishers, I’ve heard some editors say it’s best to wait until you have a full manuscript more or less ready to go (the rationale being that if an editor is excited about the project, best to strike while the iron is hot). Nevertheless, it’s common to reach out earlier, whether six months or a year before you anticipate having a full manuscript ready, sometimes even earlier. However far out you are from finishing, it’s good to have at least one or two sample chapters on hand — unless you’re seeking a publisher for an edited volume. Then it’s common to submit a proposal well in advance of completion, possibly while you’re still securing contributors. And in that case, I don’t expect a sample chapter or a table of contents but basically as much info as you can provide — an overarching description, a list of possible contributors, discussion of the market, and some basic specs (e.g., timeline, length).

Should you approach a series editor? I manage about 20 book series on various topics. Each has its own out-of-house editor or editors — scholars who may approach prospective authors and who provide feedback and guidance to the in-house editor. The series editor alerts me to book proposals that look interesting and names of possible peer reviewers.

If you know a professor who edits a book series, and think your manuscript would be a good fit, you can certainly reach out to them directly to express interest. Just bear in mind that it’s the in-house editor (i.e. me) who will handle your project. After an initial conversation, or upon receiving a book proposal, a series editor will share the materials with me; we will discuss next steps (i.e., whether or not to invite the writer to send in the manuscript); and I will take it from there. By the same token, I am constantly forwarding proposals to series editors — sometimes because a prospective writer has explicitly indicated that they would like their book to be considered for a series or sometimes because I think it might be a fit.

If it turns out that your book project is not a good fit for a particular series, that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Some editors may consider the project for their general list, too.

How can you know what an editor is looking for? About five years ago, Andrew Berzanskis, now the editorial director of the University of Oklahoma Press, posted on Twitter that, when it comes to book proposals, “messy but exciting” is preferable to “polished but boring.” How, you might wonder, can you possibly know which topics or ideas are going to be exciting to a particular editor?

Simply put, you can’t. Which is why it is important to:
  • Do a little research to assess how well your book would fit a particular list.
  • Take some care in polishing your proposal and tailoring it to the press’s requirements. (The exception: If you’ve already met an editor in person or via email, and we tell you to just send in your book proposal as is, then do so. I and other editors do this all the time — and we mean it!).
  • Bear in mind that there is not necessarily one ideal publisher for your project. More likely, there are a handful of presses where you and your book would be well-served and supported, but not all of them may meet your needs and circumstances.

Fit, it bears repeating, is mutual and a lot can happen in the unpredictable space of exchange between a prospective author and a book editor. In chatting with you or reading your proposal, I might point out some insight that I find especially compelling. My doing so may feel like an encouraging gesture of recognition (“Yay, she gets it!”) or a helpful nudge (“Should I emphasize that more?”). Or it may feel like a deviation from your vision in ways that will help you determine if my press is a good fit for your book.

Editors don’t always know what we find exciting until presented with it. Scholars’ enthusiasm can be contagious. Editors help shape fields and bring our proclivities, aims, and assumptions to bear on your work, but we are also hungrily and eagerly learning from you about where fields are, where they’re going, and what fresh insights and ideas you’re introducing. However formidable some editors may seem, we want to be excited about your project.

Remember, too, that it is quite literally our job to acquire books. We all have quotas — a certain number of titles we’re supposed to sign each year. That number may be 15 or 40, or more. It can vary dramatically. Some editors may also have revenue goals (i.e., a certain amount their books are expected to make in sales). We also have varying degrees of staff support and resources that shape how we do our work, our response times, and so on.

Despite these disparities, we all get more pitches and proposals than we can possibly pursue and have to make a lot of decisions — some straightforward and some much tougher. Moreover, just as authors may worry about needing to “sell” editors on their ideas, editors often need to sell ourselves and our presses as we compete with one another for projects. We, too, are often working hard to excite you.