By Gwen Walker, Editorial Director
In the weeks preceding an academic conference, many acquisitions editors comb the program for titles or abstracts of papers on topics of possible interest for their lists. To learn more, editors may Google an author’s name for a sense of his or her work. Is the author working on a book? Does s/he write well? Is the manuscript already committed to another press, or might the project still be available?
To help editors discover you, I suggest that you title your conference papers, write your abstracts, and fashion your online identity in a way that’s likely to attract the right publishers. Make sure that the bio on your departmental webpage summarizes your current book project and includes your email address. (For an example of a model webpage, see here.) Provide links to any open-access pieces that you have published, so that prospecting editors can sample your prose (but do not post other articles or book chapters without permission from the journals or presses that published them).
Before the conference, seek appointments with acquiring editors at presses that publish books in your area. To find out which editor covers your subject area, go to the publisher’s website and look for a page that says “For Authors,” “Submission Guidelines,” or something similar. Unless the submission guidelines say otherwise, it’s usually okay to contact an editor by email before a conference. In your introductory message you should include a brief description of your book. Limit that description to a paragraph or two, ideally to include the book’s thesis. (For more on what a thesis is, see this page on my personal website.) If you have a proposal ready to share, ask the editor if s/he would like to see it.
If an editor agrees to meet with you, think carefully about how to make the best use of the interaction. Be able to articulate your book’s thesis (or, if you’re at an earlier stage, its hypothesis) and to describe its audience. Be prepared to give a rough estimate of the final word count, including notes, bibliography, and any other matter to be set in type. Try to speak naturally, but realize that even if you are nervous, what matters most to publishers is what and how you write.
Presses often send only the editor to a conference, with no backup staff. So your meeting may have to happen in the press’s booth in the exhibit hall, and the editor may need to interrupt the conversation from time to time to sell books or answer questions. In neighboring booths, editors from other presses—including, perhaps, someone you just met with about the same project—may well overhear snatches of your conversation. The editors will probably take it all in stride; it’s normal to meet with multiple editors when you’re just beginning to explore your publishing options. And try to get over any awkwardness you might feel about discussing your future book in a semi-public setting. After all, by the time you approach editors to measure their interest in a proposed book, you should be able to articulate its contribution to people in your field, and ideally beyond it.
While you’re in the exhibit hall, stroll around the book exhibit hall and meet with as many editors as possible at presses that publish in your field. Remember that the person in the booth where you stop could be anyone at that press: an editor, an editor’s assistant, the marketing manager, the sales manager, an intern, or even the director. Be prepared to provide as much information about your project as the person seems to want. Measure their interest, and see what questions they have. But don’t read too much into these interactions. An editor might be quite intrigued by your project but too busy to discuss it in depth at that moment. Or an editor may not be very interested at all but may feel compelled, under the circumstances, to ask a few polite questions.
If an editor expresses interest, ask the next step. Would s/he like to read your book proposal? Often editors will decline your offer of a printed copy at the conference, as they fear losing it–or simply don’t want to carry all that paper home in their luggage. Others may agree to accept a short printed proposal on the spot. In that case, however, I strongly suggest that you also follow up immediately after the conference and send the proposal to the editor according to the specifications on that publisher’s website, just in case your proposal gets lost in post-conference transit.
While you are in the booth, check out the publisher’s recent releases to decide if your book would be in good company there. Note their prices and production values. When the press seems like a possible fit, ask whatever questions you might have about the publication process. Remember, this is a two-way process. Both sides, you and the editor, are looking for the right fit between project and publisher.