Today’s post is a Special Request for many, many readers who have written over the past year asking how to pitch their book to potential editors while at disciplinary conferences.
I confess, I’ve been kind of avoiding writing this post. I’m always happiest when I can be dogmatic and dictatorial (in what has been lovingly called my “knee-jerk prescriptivism”), and grow less happy as my level of uncertainty increases.
And pitching a book at a conference is an awkward and uncertain process indeed. The fact is, unless you’re Professor Famous-Pants on your third book, you’re really a bit of an imposition in the editor’s extremely busy schedule. That does NOT mean you shouldn’t do it! It just means that if you feel weird and awkward…well, that’s natural.
I felt uncertain enough about this topic that, for the first time in TPII history, before sitting down to write a post, I actually asked for advice from an expert in the field, an actual editor. To be specific: the Editorial Director of Duke University Press, Ken Wissoker, who has been an associate, collaborator, and friend for a number of years.
I’m going to begin the post by writing what I consider the rules (“rules” is really an overstatement here; these are more considerations and recommendations) to keep in mind when deciding when and how to pitch your book.
After that I will share Ken’s brief remarks (by Twitter DM! Yay Twitter!).
The first thing to do when planning to pitch your book at a conference is first off, to think carefully about which editors you want to meet. Do homework to familiarize yourself with the major presses in your field. These are not always the highest status presses in general. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they may be relatively small presses with a firm specialization in precisely your area. Look carefully at the current catalogues of the presses and ask yourself whether your book fits in with what you understand to be the agenda and mission of the press at that time. You must look at current publications from the last 2-3 years primarily, because press agendas and missions evolve, as different individuals take over editorial positions.
Always (and this IS a rule!) aim for the highest status press that you can accomplish. Many, far too many, of you have been allowed to believe that all books count equally. They do not. There are top tier presses–the major university presses and Routledge and a few others—and then there are second tier presses (I’m not going to name these in a blog post just yet. I don’t feel well enough educated on this point to feel confident of my judgment). And then there are third tier presses and below. Beware of ANY press that pursues YOU, if it is positioned below the list of top-tier presses. The fact is, top tier presses do not typically chase young, first-time authors. Second tier presses sometimes do. And third tier presses usually do. Be dazzled and seduced by the interest of an editor who follows you after your paper at the conference and eagerly urges you to submit your mss. to XYZ press that you’ve never heard of, and you’re setting yourself up for a book that does you precisely nothing on the job market. And a bucketload of bitterness when you finally figure this out a few years down the line. The status of the press matters.
A related issue is the geographical location of the press. If your goal is a tenure track job in the United States, then make sure that your book is contracted to a U.S.-based academic press, OR Oxford or Cambridge University Press. OK, I acknowledge, I’m not an expert on British and European presses, so there may be a few more presses over there besides Oxford or Cambridge that you can safely publish with and still be competitive for a U.S. job (and please keep in mind that this is entirely field dependent—Classics, for example, being a field where the U.K. press imprimatur counts for a great deal). But in general, sorry, our world is parochial and U.S. search committees respect familiar U.S. university press publications.
You should treat the encounter with the editor exactly the same as you would encounters with influential scholars in your field. As I explain in excruciating detail in this post, your greatest ace in the hole is advance planning. Get in touch ahead of time. And when I say ahead of time, I don’t mean 3 days. I mean three months or three weeks. The fact is, famous and influential people (and editors at major university presses fall into this category) tightly pack their conferences with a dense series of appointments and meetings with old friends from graduate school, former students, current collaborators, shmooze-objects, and people who are looking them over for job offers, in addition to an often packed schedule of panels and talks, and executive board meetings for a range of subdisciplinary associations and units. These people have no time to spare. In the case of editors, they will be doing some or all of these things, and in addition will be intensively running around the conference attending targeted talks and panels that they feel may yield future books. In many cases, the only way that you, a person with virtually no capital or status, can claim the time of someone this influential and busy, is if you get on their schedule VERY VERY early, before they have had their conference slots reserved by everyone else.
You should be asking for a 20-30 minute time slot. As a first time author, you don’t really get more than that. I know that you think your book needs an hour to fully describe. Tough. You get 20-30 minutes. When you’re famous, you’ll get more.
You will want to do your best to have an actual “location” for the chat. What often happens at conferences is that you find yourself trotting along after Ms. Editor as she races from one panel to another while being flamboyantly greeted and shmoozed on by 15 other eager writers on the way, while you breathlessly try to summarize ten years of research. This is frustrating and humiliating. If you can avoid it by establishing a plan to sit down in an out of the way corner, do that.
If you have failed to make an advance plan, and see an editor standing there at the booth whom you’d like to approach, then use a mini-version (like 2 sentences) of the pitch I describe below to introduce yourself and sketch in the briefest and most intriguing (yet factual!) terms your project, and ask for an appointment to discuss at greater length. I strongly urge you not to launch into a comprehensive pitch right there at the booth, with no warning, because the editor very likely has other appointments scheduled and will be distracted and annoyed while you are talking.
Now, once you are in your scheduled meeting, you need a pitch. The pitch, like all professional pitches for the job market and everywhere else, has to be efficient, concise, and well organized. Here’s what it must not sound like:
“I wrote my dissertation on how more and more Japanese women are studying abroad and living abroad, and also even in some cases marrying Western men, and I did a couple years of fieldwork, starting with my masters thesis, including in Hawaii and also in Japan—especially Tokyo– in which I looked at this from different perspectives, and it touches on themes like transnationalism and globalization and also gender and race, and things that are really important in anthropology right now, and I know that I haven’t yet really finished everything I need to do in terms of fieldwork, because I really need to get back to Japan to do some updated research, and to focus more on popular media depictions of this phenomenon, but basically I defended last year and so right now I’m just trying to figure out how to turn this into a book….. ad nauseum.”
What is wrong with this rendition? First, it starts in the past, with the dissertation. You are not pitching a dissertation, you are pitching a book. Second, it has no title. Titles focus and clarify, and indeed “sell” the project. Third, it devolves into a discussion of the research process, rather than the intellectual project as finished product. Fourth, it talks about themes that it (loathesome word) “touches on,” instead of articulating a clear and focused central argument and the intervention that argument makes in basic assumptions or orthodoxies of a field. Fifth, it collapses into graduate student excuse-making about what it *doesn’t* do and what *isn’t* finished, instead of being a confident statement of its achievements and contribution. Sixth, it states a “desire” for a book without articulating a clear plan for a book, and a timeline for completion. Seventh, it’s disorganized and boring and a depressing run-on, instead of a tightly organized statement of a scholarly project.
A proper book pitch will look something like the following. I give it here in one chunk, but obviously a pitch is a CONVERSATION, so these are all elements that will emerge organically in dialogue, not monologue, form.
“I am currently writing a book manuscript which I’m calling “Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams.”*** It is based on my dissertation, which I defended last year in the Anthropology department at the University of Hawai’i, where I worked with Takie Lebra and Geoffrey White. I am currently a tenure-track assistant professor in Anthropology and Asian Studies at the University of Oregon.
“The book, which will be my tenure book, examines a recent phenomenon of young Japanese women studying English, traveling abroad, and in some cases seeking to marry Western men. It is based on two years of fieldwork on the subject in Hawai’i and Tokyo. Specifically, the book uses popular media discourses about this subject, which have been escalating in both news media and also an emergent genre of women’s memoirs, and ethnographic fieldwork findings with the women themselves, as well as the Western men with whom they interact personally and professionally, to construct an interdisciplinary study of women’s motivations, the reactions they are inspiring in Japan, and their on-the-ground experiences in their evolving encounters with the West.
“My core argument is that women pursue these avenues as a critique of Japanese patriarchy in general, and Japanese men in particular, but at the same time, find themselves enmeshed in a transnational racialized economy of desire, fed by international media such as Hollywood, that privileges white men as desirable objects, and places women and men of other races in varying positions of subordination to them. This economy of desire produces consequences that play out in women’s experiences in international workplaces and relationships in unanticipated and evolving ways. The topic intervenes in current debates in anthropology about race and global mobility, and participates in an emergent anthropology of sexuality.
“I have already published two journal articles on this subject, and presented it widely at Asian Studies and Anthro meetings. It garners a great deal of attention, and I believe the book will be highly marketable. I am writing it with an eye to being appropriate as an assigned ethnography for the globalization or sexuality thematics of large Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses, but because I engage with current theory, I also anticipate that it will be used in a wide range of more advanced anthro courses, as well as Asian Studies and Women’s Studies/Gender Studies courses.
“The manuscript will be 6 chapters long, and it is about 50% complete. I intend to revise the five dissertation chapters over the coming year, to do 4 weeks of fresh fieldwork next summer, and to draft one entirely new chapter based on that fieldwork next year. I have a junior sabbatical in my third year which I”ll devote to the book, and I am also currently applying for fellowships for writing leave. I anticipate the manuscript being complete in Fall of 20xx. I am interested in publishing with XXX Press because I think the book fits in well with your series “xxxx” and your overall recent emphasis on books dealing with globalization and sexuality, and of course race and cultural studies.”
I realize this looks like a lot, but I read it aloud and timed it, and it’s about 4 minutes of text. Divided into the natural give and take of a dialogue, it is an efficient, concise, and well-organized statement of a project that answers most of the questions that an editor will have.
What are those questions? Here is a partial list, which you can see are answered in the summary example I gave above:
Who are you and are you a legitimate scholar? (Should I even be listening to you?)
What field are you in?
Are you aligned with people I have heard of in that field?
Do you have a position that supports the writing of this book with financial resources and leave time? (Can I expect this thing to actually get done?)
How badly do you need this book done (Is tenure the great motivator?)
Am I intrigued by the title? Will others be intrigued?
Do I “get” your topic?
Is the topic interesting? To me? To undergraduates?
Is the topic important in your discipline or fields? Why or why not?
Have you asked whether it’s important in your discipline or fields? Do you care?
Have you tested out this topic in public venues and gotten good responses?
Do you have a core argument that you can actually articulate? Is it persuasive?
Do you have evidence that supports that argument?
Is your evidence interesting?
Is your argument and evidence new and emergent?
Is your argument and evidence accessible to a wide range of undergraduate and educated lay readers?
Is your argument and evidence sophisticated enough to appeal to serious scholars?
Is this book appropriate for my Press?
Does this book fit into a current series that we’re marketing?
Will people buy this book?
Who will buy this book?
What classes will this book be assigned in?
How long will this book be? Is it a reasonable length?
When will you be finished with this book?
Do you have a feasible plan for writing this book?
Do you seem like a reasonable person or a drama queen?
Can I work with you or are you going to make my life a living hell?
I have never been an editor, so I am actually surmising that these are the questions that editors are asking themselves and you as this conversation proceeds, based on my experience of publishing a book, and helping other young scholars publish theirs. Actual editors, I would appreciate your thoughts in the comment stream.
I will stop here, and now share the Tweets of wisdom of Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director of Duke University Press. What he said is:
- Get in touch ahead of time and make a plan to meet.
- I hate being ambushed in the booth between appointments – but I know some editors like talking that way. Find out; don’t presume.
- Explaining your argument to an editor is not like explaining it to someone in the field. Don’t get lost in the details!
With regard to this last point: you’ll notice in the pitch I gave above based on my book, I did not go into chapter summaries or much detail at all about specific theories I was engaging with in the field. If asked, you would certainly be prepared for equally concise and well-organized responses. But don’t lead with those. Let the editor ask for more information, and pursue his or her own lines of inquiry.
***Full disclosure—Although I’m using my own book for an example here, this is not precisely how my book contract came about. I didn’t pitch my book cold at a conference. I also didn’t have this title decided on prior to writing the book—it actually came about through extensive discussions with my editor, Reynolds Smith, at the tail end of the process. Reynolds, if you’re reading this, you know how this all went down!