James Chapman, University of Leicester
14 December 2018
OK, so you’ve been awarded your PhD (congratulations, by the way!), and now you’re in a position to start applying for academic posts. One thing you’ll need to do is to build up your publications profile – and that probably means looking to publish your first book. In Science subjects, it’s generally the case that journal articles are the gold standard, and that books are usually textbooks. That’s not so in Arts, Humanities and some Social Science subjects, however, where the scholarly monograph still carries an intellectual premium.
So how do you go about it? In the spirit of my previous IAMHIST advice blog on best practice for publishing journal articles, here are my ‘top ten tips’ for those looking to pitch their first book to a publisher.
1. Do your research
You should have a good sense of who the leading publishers in your field are from your doctoral research – and these are the most likely to be interested in your book. Obviously there’s little point in offering a film or television history monograph to a publisher who does not have a ‘list’ in this area. Also don’t send a proposal for a research monograph to a publisher who specialises in text books. So look at catalogues and websites. It’s always a good idea to talk to your colleagues and peers: have they had good (or bad) experiences with particular publishers?
The major academic publishers for film and media in the UK include (in no particular order) Palgrave, Routledge, Manchester University Press, Edinburgh University Press, Intellect, Bloomsbury Academic and Exeter University Press. BFI Publishing and I. B. Tauris are now within the orbit of Bloomsbury, while Wallflower Press is part of New-York based Columbia University Press. Amsterdam University Press publishes in English, and there are several dozen US university presses with extensive film and media lists.
One point to consider is that publishers are often less concerned about potential overlap with other titles than authors think they are. In fact they’ll be interested in titles that complement their existing list. If they already have a book on, say, the films of Powell and Pressburger, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be interested in another if the approach and arguments are different. Another tip is to look for series into which your project might fit. There was a time, for example, when I. B. Tauris had cornered the market in Doctor Who publishing. Palgrave has a series on ‘Adaptation and Visual Culture’, Routledge publishes ‘Remapping World Cinema’, Manchester UP has a long-standing series ‘Studies in Popular Culture’, etc.
THE INSIDE TRACK. Conferences are a good way of making contact with publishers. The lonely-looking person sitting at the stand all day is probably a commissioning editor or assistant editor. They’re at the conference to meet potential authors as well as to publicise their wares. So say hello and have a chat – they’ll be only too happy to talk. And even if the project you’re working on right now isn’t quite their thing, they might be able to suggest other publishers who might be interested, or it might be that the idea you have for your next book is more in their line.
2. Writing the proposal
Once you’ve got your short list of favoured publishers, then you need to write an outline. Have a look on the publishers’ websites for specific guidelines: e.g. do they insist on using their own pro forma, do they specify a word or page length, do they want a sample chapter or not? As with submitting articles to journals, follow the publishers’ guidelines in preparing your outline.
In general, though, book proposals should include the following information:
- A Title. It’s useful to have one, even if it’s only a working title. The shorter and punchier the better: publishers will want something that’s easily recognisable and will turn up on Google searches. Think of the keywords you would use if you were searching for a book on this subject and make sure they’re in the title or subtitle. Don’t get wedded to ‘clever’ titles or sentence-length subtitles: these are the Kiss of Death. Have you ever wondered why there are so many books called Film and History? I’ve even written one myself! It’s a dull title to be sure – but it does what it says on the cover.
- Summary. A paragraph stating clearly what the subject of the book is – rather like the abstract of your thesis. This should be up front in the proposal. If it doesn’t ‘grab’ the commissioning editor at the outset, they might not bother reading any further.
- Rationale. An explanation of why we need this book: what will it contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the subject? This is not the place to write a review of the other books on the same or similar subjects. Instead you should focus on your book and its distinctive characteristics. Some publishers might ask for a list of ‘USPs’ (unique selling points): e.g. the first study of the films of ABC for ten/twenty/however many years, based on new and previously unavailable archival sources, combining both textual and contextual analysis, including case studies that could be adopted for teaching, etc.
- Contents list and chapter breakdown. The publisher will want some indication of the substantive content. At the very least you should have a provisional list of contents, and preferably a short paragraph outlining each chapter. Think of the sort of structure and chapter length you would look for in recommending reading material to your students. You’ve recently been a student yourself so you know the sort of chapter length that works from a reader’s perspective. As a rule of thumb try to avoid over-long chapters: some e-book sales these days are by chapter (i.e. a particular chapter rather than the whole book is adopted as a set reading for a course).
- Readership and market. Who (as in which groups) do you expect to read your book? Most monographs will be for upper level undergraduate/postgraduate students and lecturers: it’s useful to be able to identify some courses and modules at different universities where your book might be ‘recommended reading’. Be more specific than ‘the expanding market for film and media studies’ because (a) the market isn’t expanding any more, and (b) most students don’t buy books any more, just libraries. A little bit of time spent looking at degree structures and module outlines online will pay dividends: what are the books that people are recommending for courses on, say, New Hollywood or Chinese cinema or South American women film-makers, and how is yours different?
- Competitive texts. This is where you can talk about the other work in the field. Focus on how your book builds upon what’s gone before rather than what’s wrong with everyone else’s work. Remember that publishers will commission readers’ reports on your proposal to help assess the value of the proposal and how well you know your stuff, so don’t say anything too rude about someone who might end up acting as a reader for your proposal! You don’t really need to spend much space talking about anything over 20 years old – publishers won’t regard this as current. It’s titles in the last decade or so that are the main competition, so explain how your book is different from those.
- Length. The usual monograph length is between 80,000 and 100,000 words – and most publishers will probably prefer something towards the lower end of that range. The publisher needs a reasonably accurate estimate of length to work out paper costs and to price your book accordingly. Some publishers are more lenient than others in enforcing word lengths – but if you’re significantly over length, don’t be too surprised if the publisher insists you cut your manuscript down to length. (Anyone who knows me will of course recognise this as a case of ‘Do as I say rather than as I do’!)
- Delivery date. Give the publisher a REALISTIC delivery date for delivery of the manuscript. Unless you’ve already written the book, the delivery date is likely to be a minimum of twelve months from signature of contract – and in all likelihood more.
Like academic journals, most publishers will stipulate that the proposal should not be under consideration elsewhere. The last thing a commissioning editor wants is to invest time in soliciting (and chasing up) readers’ reports on a proposal, and paying for the same, only to hear back from the author that they’ve accepted an offer from another publisher.
THE INSIDE TRACK. Don’t bother suggesting that in addition to the academic readership, your book will find a secondary market among the ‘interested general reader’. The interested general reader is like the Urban Spaceman – he doesn’t exist. Certainly not for a book that’s going to be published as a £60+ hardback. (Most academic publishers focus on library sales for monographs: there’s a better margin on a couple of hundred hardback sales than on three times as many paperbacks at a lower price.) Nobody expects your study of the films of Ida Lupino or William Beaudine to be a runaway best-seller. That’s why it’s likely to be priced for library sales.
3. Drop the literature review
The literature review is an essential part of most PhD theses: your scholarly overview of the existing critical and historical literature in your field that positions your own work within it. It also shouts loudly: ‘This is a PhD thesis’. You can drop it for your monograph – or at the very least you can do it much more succinctly. Include your thesis in your bibliography and refer readers to your literature review there: academic readers can access your thesis online.
THE INSIDE TRACK. I once dealt with a manuscript that was basically a ‘Book of the PhD Thesis’. It was clearly an excellent thesis. The publisher had commissioned it expecting it to be a study of a particular production cycle. Instead what they got was 30,000 words detailing the critical historiography of the genre and previous production cycles before getting down to the ostensible subject matter. That’s about three-eighths of the book gone before it got to the actual content. Needless to say the publisher sent it back and asked the author to revise it. This meant it took another year for the author to get their book published.
4. Patience is a virtue
Getting from submission of proposal to issue of an offer letter for your book can take a long time. And I mean a L-O-O-O-O-NG time. You thought it took a long enough time to get confirmation of acceptance of your article for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, but that’s nothing compared to the time that a publisher might sit on your book proposal. The main reason is that they’ll have to solicit readers’ reports – usually two, sometimes more. This takes time because the publisher is dealing with human beings, and humans are often not very reliable. They promise a report by the end of next month but Something Else crops up and then they forget … Most academics are very busy, and reading your proposal in return for a packet of peanuts might only be the 27th most urgent thing on their ‘to do’ list this week. After that the publisher will need to work out the ‘costings’ (length, paper cost, print run, price), a mysterious and opaque process which almost always results in the same standard offer.
A polite enquiry after three months is acceptable, but under no circumstances should you chase up a commissioning editor sooner than that. And every three months thereafter. If you email a commissioning editor saying ‘Unless I have a definitive decision by DATE, then I will offer the book elsewhere’, don’t be too surprised if the reply is ‘Okay – thanks and good luck.’
THE INSIDE TRACK. At some point, once you’re a published author, you’ll find that you get asked to act as a reader for book proposals. And that’s when you’ll find yourself on the other end of the process: you’ve agreed in good faith to do it by the end of next month but Something Else crops up and the commissioning editor is now chasing you … Incidentally publishers will usually offer either a cash fee (around £50-60 for reading a proposal, maybe £100 for reading a full manuscript) or twice that amount in kind (i.e. books). The latter is a great way to build up your book collection – and taking the books option means you don’t have to pay income tax.
5. The contract
Most academic publishing contracts are fairly standard. The key points to pay attention to are:
- Royalty. The remuneration for your book (if any) will be in the form of a royalty paid as a percentage of the publisher’s net receipts (i.e. not a percentage of the actual purchase price per book). The royalty is usually on a sliding scale starting at 5 per cent and increasing incrementally once sales pass a certain mark (typically 2000 copies though it varies). Do not expect to get rich: if you’re lucky the royalty might nearly cover the permission fees you’ve paid for images.
- Advance. This means an advance against royalties, usually paid either on acceptance of the manuscript and/or on publication. Typically it might be in the region of a couple of hundred pounds for a monograph, more for a text book. Many academic publishers won’t offer one.
- Subvention Funds. This means ‘pay to publish’: i.e. the publisher is expecting you to contribute towards the production costs of your book. It also means that you’re probably dealing with a smaller publisher who will print about a hundred copies and will not send out many review copies. There are a few funders who will consider applications for subvention grants such as the Paul Mellon Centre (http://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk), which supports research into British art and architecture. But usually you’d need to find the funds yourself: a ballpark figure might be in the region of £300-£500. Needless to say this is generally not a preferred route.
- Camera Ready Copy. This refers to the final state of the publication before it is sent for printing: originally it meant that the manuscript was ready to be photographed and turned into printing plates. These days it means printing directly from the electronic version. In essence it means doing your own copy-editing. It’s basically a way in which publishers push some of the costs of production onto authors. Unless you are experienced at this, my advice would be to pay a professional copy editor: your publisher should be able to suggest some. Again £300-£500.
- Permissions. You’ll be expected to pay fees for any third-party copyrighted materials included in the book (i.e. anything to which neither you nor the publisher owns the copyright). For film-related books, this most often means images, such as frame enlargements or production stills (see Section 6 below).
- Indemnity Clause. There ain’t no Sanity Clause in a publishing contract but there’s almost certainly an Indemnity Clause. This means that you’ll indemnify the publisher against any complaint or action arising from the contents: i.e. it’s on your head if it breaches copyright or includes libellous or offensive material.
- Indexing. You’ll usually be expected to compile your own index, or to pay for a professional indexer to compile it for you. Save your money: do the index yourself. And it gives you a second opportunity to proof read the manuscript. Decide at the start whether it’s a basic names, organisations and film titles index, or whether you’re including thematic headings – as it’s your book you should know what these are. I’d say that it takes two full days to compile a names/titles index for a monograph of around 80,000 words: maybe more if you’re doing it for the first time. And I mean ‘full days’ (9 am-9 pm)!
THE INSIDE TRACK. Some publishers will include an option clause in contracts: i.e. that you agree to offer your next (non-fiction) work to the publisher. Some people worry about this and think it’s restrictive. My advice is not to bother about it. Sign the contract and ignore it. It’s probably legally unenforceable anyway. But if the clause bothers you, simply offer them an unpublishable project they’re bound to reject after you’ve submitted your first manuscript and the clause is fulfilled: e.g. your 500,000-word monograph entitled A Formal Analysis of the Reconstruction of the Cricket Match in Ashutosh Gowariker’s ‘Lagaan: (Once Upon a Time in India)’ and its Relationship to the History of Legside-dominant Batting in Northern Subcontinental Conditions. (Actually, I’d be willing to act as a reader for that one …)
6. Illustrative matter
If you’re writing on a visual medium such as film or television, the odds are that you’ll want to include some images from film/television texts. The publisher will expect you to clear the permissions for any illustrative matter. This is something of a grey area. Some publishers will insist on seeing an agreement letter from the copyright holder assigning permission to use the image: the publisher usually has a standard pro forma letter template for requesting permissions. Others (often the smaller publishers) might turn a blind eye to it on the assumption (usually correct) that academic publishing is below the radar of major global media corporations.
A lot of publications use production stills sourced from an archive such as the British Film Institute Stills, Posters and Designs collection (this is a lot less user-friendly than it used to be as you can no longer make an appointment to look at stills yourselves and have to depend on what they have online, which is only a fraction of the actual collection). £50 per still is a ballpark figure for the archive or stills library providing the image but this does not cover permission to reproduce it: this has to be negotiated separately with the copyright holder.
However, you can save money by sourcing the images yourself: most publishers today will accept DVD ‘grabs’. Check with your editor for the technical requirements: 300 dpi is the usual standard required for a half-page black and white illustration (even if the original is in colour). Guidelines on ‘Fair Use’ and ‘Fair Dealing’ conventions in the UK have been published by the Intellectual Property Office: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/exceptions-to-copyright Most publishers now interpret this to mean that you can use DVD grabs/frame enlargements provided that (a) the image is used to demonstrate an analytical point you make in the text rather than being included as visual ‘wallpaper’ and (b) it is included in the book at the point where you are making the point rather than in a separate plates section. There’s no strict ‘rule’ on how many images you can use from an individual film: up to three seems acceptable if it’s a chapter-length case study, just one if you only have a couple of pages on the film.
You should of course always consult your publisher about including images. Again there are some funding sources that support reproduction fees. And universities sometimes have (modest) internal funds for this purpose.
THE INSIDE TRACK. As dispiriting as it is, your scholarly academic tome probably IS under the radar of big media groups and their rapacious lawyers. The older it is the safer you are: the copyright holders of some British films of the 1930s might not even know they do own the copyright. But I would advise thinking twice about putting the latest Avengers or Spider-Man film on your cover. On the one occasion I’ve had to cough up after the event (for British Comics: A Cultural History) the copyright holder in question proved reasonable in offering a reduced rate and the publisher agreed to go halves. (If I’m wrong about this, I’ll probably see you seeking refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy or on a flight to a country without an extradition treaty …)
7. Allow more time than you think you need
It ALWAYS takes longer to write than you think it will. Even if you think it won’t, it will. ALWAYS. So add at least six months to the proposed delivery date for your monograph. Then add another six months for safety. It might be that you submit it earlier than the contracted date. It might also be that pigs will fly in formation over the White Cliffs of Dover, that the Green Party will form a majority government, and that I’ll score a Test Match century at Lord’s. Ain’t gonna happen. Because it ALWAYS takes longer to write than you think it will.
A common mistake that early career academics can make (we’ve all been there by the way!) is that they’ll proceed at the same pace as their PhD. And since their book is arising out of their PhD, they don’t have much additional research to do. But it doesn’t work like that. Your PhD was a halcyon period: you had a lot more time for research and writing then than you do now. You weren’t having to spend time writing job applications and you probably weren’t doing nearly as much sessional teaching as you are now just to make ends meet. And if you are in post – because the university took a punt on your forthcoming monograph being published in time for the next REF – you’ll have all those administrative responsibilities that so often (and wrongly in my view) get dumped on new members of staff: the open days, convening the student-staff liaison committee, departmental library representative and social media co-ordinator. And that’s in addition to convening ‘Film History 101’, teaching your options and supervising dissertations. You can all too easily find you’ve gone three months without writing a word of your book. And three soon becomes six which becomes twelve …
THE INSIDE TRACK. You know how quickly, or slowly, you write when you have a clear day. It doesn’t matter whether your average is 500 words a day or 2500 words. Look in your diary and work out how many clear days you have over the next year. Assume that half of those days will get filled up with other stuff. And work it out from there. So if your average is 1000 words a day and you have 30 clear days which you can ring-fence, that’s 30,000 words. If your contract is for a manuscript of 80,000 words, you’d better suggest a later delivery date than next May.
8. Don’t worry about the competition
You’re a well-connected scholar, you’re involved in numerous professional networks, and you keep your ear to the ground. So at some point you’ll hear – either formally or informally – that Someone Else is writing a book on The Same Subject. I’ve heard stories of people abandoning projects because they’ve heard that Someone Else is writing a book on The Same Subject. Just one word of advice: DON’T!
There are three reasons why you should NEVER worry about the competition: (a) two books on the same subject at the same time significantly increases the likelihood of both books getting reviewed; (b) the other person’s book will be different from yours and yours will be different from theirs; and (c) in any event there’s at least a fifty-fifty chance that the other person either won’t deliver (see Section 9 below) or will deliver later than you (see Section 7 above).
THE INSIDE TRACK. In 1998 I was researching and writing my second book: Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. I was in the BFI Library one day to look at some shooting scripts. I happened to bump into an acquaintance who asked what I was looking at and mentioned that he knew someone who was ‘thinking about writing a book on the Bond movies’. I didn’t ask who (I still don’t know). I wasn’t unduly worried because ‘thinking about writing a book’ didn’t suggest they’d actually started writing it, so I was pretty sure I’d be able to get there first unless I was up against the academic equivalent of Michael Slater on Prozac. Nevertheless it spurred me to get on with the writing … A couple of years later, after Licence had been published, I ran into my acquaintance again: I asked about the Other Book and he told me that ‘they’re still thinking about it’. As far as I know they might still be thinking about it.
9. Keep in touch
Keep your commissioning editor appraised of your progress: no need to send weekly updates but they’ll appreciate a short email every now and again to let them know where you are with the book. In particular let them know as early as possible if you foresee any difficulty in meeting your contracted delivery date. In my experience publishers are generally very tolerant and understand that research plans can change, or that you might have had to pick up additional work that’s left you with less time for research and writing. As long as they know, they’ll be okay with extending the delivery date. But they don’t appreciate authors who drop out of contact: word gets around and you might find it more difficult to get a publisher for your next book.
THE INSIDE TRACK. Here’s a cautionary tale. There was once a scholar – let’s call them Slartibartfast because they had nothing to do with designing fjords – who had a contract to publish a book entitled Decoding the Semiotics of Diana Rigg: From Mrs Peel to Mrs Bradley. The book was in the publisher’s catalogue listed for ‘next year’ back in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 … Once a year the commissioning editor would write to Slartibartfast and enquire whether the manuscript was going to be delivered this year – and every year Slartibartfast would reply ‘about this time next year’. Of course the book never materialised, so after about a decade the publisher cancelled the contract. This was not very good news for Slartibartfast, who had already been granted two periods of sabbatical leave by their university to write the book but for whatever reason hadn’t quite managed to get around to finishing it. They were due to apply for another sabbatical, but the university committee that approves these things insisted on having a publishing contract. So Slartibartfast offered the book to another publisher. However, the commissioning editor had been at a conference a few years before, where they had sunk a few Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Slartibartfast’s previous commissioning editor … Needless to say, Decoding the Semiotics of Diana Rigg remains unpublished to this day.
10. The Next Book
Your first book is special. Rather like a batsman’s first century or an athlete’s first marathon. You might write better books in the future. In theory we should all write better books in the future as we should be improving and maturing as scholars all the time. I guarantee that in twenty years’ time you’ll look back and think you could do it so much better now. Maybe that’s so. But it’s still a great milestone to publish that first book – and hopefully this blog will have provided a few pointers to getting there.
But it’s often the second book that defines you as a scholar. For most (not all – but most) early career academics, your first book will have been closely related to the subject of your PhD thesis. Your second book will be a new project – and probably the first you’ve undertaken without the comfort blanket of a supervisor to offer advice, tea and biscuits, or Château Dillon ’85. The question you’ll have to decide for yourself (there’s no right or wrong answer) is whether to do something that’s similar to and builds upon your first book, or whether to follow the advice of Monty Python (‘And here’s for something completely different …’). I don’t mean that you’ll suddenly switch from Media History to Quantum Physics: but it might mean going from textual analysis to reception studies or from British cinema history to American cinema history.
THE INSIDE TRACK. My first book (The British at War) was the book of my PhD: expanded and broadened out but essentially based on the same research. (Yes, I do think I could do a much better job of it now …). Towards the end of the writing process I’d started sketching out a book that would explore the representation of national identity in the British historical film: something that grew out of the first book but expanded the time period. Over lunch with my commissioning editor we happened to get chatting about the James Bond movies and she persuaded me to put aside what became Past and Present and write Licence To Thrill next instead. For some time I’d had in mind writing a book on the Bond movies but I was saving it for when I was ‘ready’ (whatever that means). Anyway, this was the best publishing advice I ever had, and I’m thankful I took it, as it meant that Licence was published before the expansion of Bond scholarship a decade later and became a point of reference leading to other offers, keynote invitations, media commissions, etc. I duly published the historical films book a few years later: total sales are a fraction of those for the Bond book. The moral of the story is to listen to publishers: they know the market better than you do.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.
Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.