Getting your first book contract

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The publication of an academic book, especially a monograph, is still regarded as the ‘gold standard’ in British academia, especially in the humanities.  The first book is most often based on your Ph.D. thesis, although this may not always be the case.  Compiling an edited collection with a colleague is also an option that some choose to pursue. Nevertheless, the process by which you get your book contract is largely the same.  The whole process can be time-consuming and appear daunting, but persistence pays off. Below are some of my experiences as I tried to navigate the complexities of the process. 

What ‘category’ or ‘theme’ would you assign to your work?

Some publishers use specific series within which books are published.  If you feel that your work fits into this area, this may be a good area to target initially.  From the publishers’ perspective, your book could then be marketed as part of an already successful series, which could be potentially attractive for them, particularly if they are looking for work to fit a gap within a current theme. 

Meet the commissioning editors at conferences

If you are attending a conference, and know that some publishers will be there, you can email them in advance to request a meeting, and also give a brief outline of your work.  Getting to know the publisher in advance can provide a more personal dimension to your contact, and also give you a feel of whether that particular publisher is someone you would like to work with.  In the same way, it will also give you an initial feeling on whether the publisher is interested in your work and give you a wider sense of your other publications options, whether it is with other publishers, or through the revision of your work into journal articles.

Choosing a publisher

This can be a very important decision and one that you must not take lightly.  Publication, especially for young academics, is often a strategic decision. If you need a particular publication in order to secure a permanent post, it is vital to ensure that you are aware of what your university is seeking.  For example, one debate within the humanities has focused on the perceived ‘value’ of a publication based on who (and where) it is published.  For journal articles, there are metrics on which this can be judged, such as where a journal is indexed.  However, the demarcation for academic books is not so clear.  Some universities favour publications that are published with a traditional university press – an assumption that is based on the traditional belief that this work is subject to higher academic standards and rigour.  However, more recently, commercial publishers have also developed an academic section of their publication remit.  Many commercial publishers also ensure that submissions are subjected to the same standard of academic rigour (through peer review at every stage) as that of a university press.  Thus, the ideas of your university are essential to glean before pursuing book publication options, as the assessment of impact and perceived ‘value’ of books is much harder to measure than with journal articles.

Write a detailed proposal, and also include a sample chapter, if possible

For academic monographs, your proposal will first be read by the commissioning editor.  It is important that you put as much information as possible in your proposal so that it gives the strongest impression possible to your commissioning editor about your credentials and ability to produce an excellent monograph.  Typical proposals will include: a Rationale, explaining why a book on the topic is necessary and what new insights you could provide; the outline of the current condition of the field, including demonstrating an awareness of the seminal scholarship in the field, thus outlining what contribution you could make to the current research (and thus why your book is necessary); the potential readers of this work (will the book be for students, the general reader or specialists?); an outline of the book’s proposed length and how many illustrations (if any) you propose to use; a table of contents with, if possible the abstracts of each chapter; and a proposed timeline of how long it will take to complete the project.   You could also list some people in your field who could be the readers of the proposal or your completed manuscript as experts who could provide peer review.  Together with your proposal, it would be advisable to include your CV as a statement of your previous academic achievements.  Furthermore, many publishers will ask for at least one sample chapter as part of the peer review.

The standard procedure

Each publisher has their own procedures, but generally speaking, if the commissioning editor who reads your proposal believes that the work is interesting and feasible, they will then forward your proposal and related materials to experts in your field for detailed peer review.  This will normally be 2 anonymous readers, but it may be more.  The proposal will then be critiqued by the reviewers, and then returned to you with comments.  More often than not, there are suggestions that are made concerning how the proposed book could be improved.  Reviewers will be asked whether they recommend for the book to be pursued as an option for future publication.  In the case where one reviewer supports the publication and the other does not, the commissioning editor will normally have the deciding vote.  In some cases, the commissioning editor will ask you to revise your proposal to satisfy the concerns of the reviewer who did not recommend the project for future publication.  These revisions are then sent back to the press for a final reconsideration before an ultimate decision is reached.  If successful, you will be issued with your contract.

What if I am rejected?

Sadly, rejection is part of the game in academia.  Indeed, the rejection rate is often significantly higher than the success rate.  It is also important to remember that everyone has experienced rejection – even the scholars who are now world-famous in their field.  Rejection is extremely difficult to deal with, and every time I receive a rejection, it normally dampens the euphoric feeling that I may have received a few days previously from an acceptance.  While it is difficult not to take rejection personally, it is important to remember that rejections are almost always not about you.  If your proposal is rejected, you can use it as a chance to refine and improve it, and you will probably end up getting it published in a place that is better-suited to your area. 


Then, the day that you receive your book contract, it will be a cause for celebration.  Remember to keep in regular contact with your commissioning editor about the progress of your work, and to apply in plenty of time for permissions and copyright to reproduce images (if you have any), and also prepare to pay what can sometimes be very high costs for this.  In the meantime, try to work consistently on your work, and to enjoy the process of writing your first book!

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