Hotshot Harry in Tucumcari has happy problems

Because that last letter in the mailbag was such a buzzkill (but thanks very much for all of the supportive comments!), here’s a very polite someone with very nice problems.  Hotshot Harry (who is a historian) has a question about juggling prospective publishers:

Howdy Historiann,

I sent my book proposal out recently, and I now have two presses interested in my book project.  I had sent the proposal to one, hadn’t heard back for a short while, then sent it along to another colleague for review.  This other colleague forwarded it to his editor.  In the meantime, press #1 got back to me with a “we’re interested, but could you clarify a few things?” so I did.  No sooner did I ship the proposal off to press #1 did press #2 contact me to express interest.  What to do?  I want/need the thing off my desk (for sanity and extended contract purposes), so I don’t want push one off only to risk losing the other “upon further review.”

I normally wouldn’t lose to much sleep over this, except for the fact that friends helped make contacts with each of the presses.



It seems to me that Harry’s problem is really two:  how to juggle interested prospective editors, and how to manage the friends who generously helped Harry make contacts with both presses.  First, the easy problem:  have a glass of wine before bed and stop losing sleep!  You’re lucky to have such helpful and supportive friends, Harry, and I don’t think that they’ll really be disappointed when you go with one press over the other.  They will understand that only one press can publish your book, and they should be pleased (and not to mention impressed) that two presses are interested in your project.  That fact alone will ratify their judgment that you are a worthy scholar and friend–and most sensible people realize that different presses are better for some projects than for others.

Secondly, the slightly-less-easy “problem” of how to manage two editors who have signaled interest in publishing your book.  At this stage, Harry, it’s just a proposal, and I think that editors and presses know and understand that savvy authors will be talking to and circulating their proposals among more than one press.  Signaling their interest in your book proposal is just an invitation to a second date, not a marriage proposal (or book contract!  As you suggest, they can change their minds at any point, too.)  While most authors end up making their decision about which press to go with at the point they send out their manuscript, I’ve heard that it’s OK to send your manuscript out to two presses at the same time so long as you notify them that you’re doing so.  (In other words, you don’t want Obnoxious University Press to ask someone to review your manuscript, only to have that reviewer inform them that she’s already reviewing the same manuscript for the University of Pretension Press.  That would definitely be bad form.) 

But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in lo these many, many years in academia, it’s that no two people’s paths to book publication are the same.  And, I’ve only submitted one manuscript to one press and published one book, so what the heck do I know?  Not much.  I’m eager to hear what my erudite and accomplished readers think, especially those of you with more publication experience, those of you who work (or have worked) in publishing, and those of you who have recently submitted book manuscripts (I’m thinking of you, Notorious Ph.D. and Bittersweet Girl, in particular.)  Readers:  can you advise Harry how to handle his happy problems?

0 thoughts on “Hotshot Harry in Tucumcari has happy problems

  1. My first question would be, what does Harry mean by a “short while”? While it’s certainly great to have two presses interested in you, it seems to me the choice is clear. He’s already invested time in answering the questions of press #1 so he should pursue that one for now. If he wants to pursue both at once then the ethical thing to do is to notify both that this is going on.


  2. I would say that if he’s circulating *proposals*, he can safely and even ethically send around as many as he wants. It’s not a whole lot more in the way of a commitment–and/or a burden on the recipient presses–than working the book exhibit at a big conference and talking to a variety of reps about possible projects. The day may well come when even circulating *manuscripts* simultaneously will be a reality that academic presses just have to live with. It certainly smacks more of monopoly than the free marketplace of ideas when the rules of the process are made as part of a one-way street. That said, transparency in most kinds of transactional processes is probably the reasonable way to go. I agree with Historiann on the friends part. All you can do is call out the picks and distribute the ball and hope that something good happens to/for your friends in the business. If somebody else gets the assist, that should be no big deal. p.s. I think the difference between OUP and UPP is maybe you have your AGENT talk to the former!:}


  3. WIth my first book, I sent a proposal and (I think) three chapters out to three presses simultaneously. I told them all that this was what was happening. I went with the press that responded first.

    With the second book, I sent a proposal to various places, and then the ms. itself to two presses that expressed an interest. I did not end up playing the presses off against each other, but it was good to feel as if there were options.


  4. Susan’s right that there’s a difference between a first book, where you’re an unknown quantity, and a subsequent book where you’re someone with a track record. And everyone who says that more than one proposal out at a time is standard practice. In my cover letter at this stage, I put in a generic sentence about “sending this out to interested publishers” with a very casual use of the plural. Even with a sample chapter or two, multiple submissions are very much the norm at this stage.

    Should Harry be fortunate enough to get two publishers who want to review the whole manuscript, he will probably need to make a choice. It doesn’t hurt to ask about multiple submissions, but for a first book, you’ve generally got to pick a first choice.

    Harry can learn from one of my mistakes: don’t tip your hand too early. I told dream publishers A & B that I’d have a MS ready for review by August. Come September, dream publisher B wanted to know if and when I was sending the MS, and I was forced to tell them that I had given right of first refusal to publisher A. If Harry has an almost-done MS and two interested publishers, he should tell them that there will be a reviewable MS in Semester X. Send it to first choice at the beginning of that period, giving them time to get back to him without worrying that publisher B expected the MS in January, and now it’s March and they haven’t heard, so it must be somewhere else.

    IN general: be vague where you can, but never dishonest. Academic publishing is a small world.


  5. I can’t speak to this delightful dilemma from experience, but I have received good advice from my adviser which, overall, conforms to the above comments about being forthcoming with the publishers. This advice also leaves me with one questions and one comment for Harry. First, does either press excel (or is it known for) a certain kind of history – like regional, immigration, colonial, theoretical, etc.? Would publishing with one press over the other associate Harry with this type of history (and would Henry want this)?

    Second, having two presses may give Harry more control over what the ultimate book looks like. For example, my adviser reviewed a manuscript of PathBreaking Work for Publisher A and recommended adding another chapter to the manuscript that would allow PathBreaking Work to fully supplant one other Major Work (in the field in which it was path breaking). Manuscript Author thought the project was done and didn’t want to add this chapter. Author had already sent the manuscript to Publisher B and it wanted to publish without major additions/revisions. The presses were basically equal in other respects and she went with Publisher B. So, Harry should keep both options open and see which one best fits with his goals.


  6. As someone who knows something about this situation from the publisher’s point of view, I would say that sending a proposal to more than one press is not a problem. What will seriously annoy a publisher is if you send them the full manuscript, they send it to readers, favorable readers’ reports come back, and then you say “Sorry, I’ve decided to go with another press.” To use Historiann’s dating metaphor, when the press sends out your MS to readers, that is not yet a marriage proposal, but it is an acknowledgment that you and the press are an “item,” and at that point it is cheating for you to see other people. It could reflect badly on the person who referred you to the press.

    Unless, of course, you tell the press that you are multiple-submitting, and they say OK, which they may well do. Most editors are very understanding of the situation in which you are on a tenure clock and can’t afford to wait for one press to come back with an answer before sending it out to another. In that case, they might say “Fine,” or they might say “Give us a 30-day exclusive; we’ll try to get our readers’ reports back and a contract offer out to you in that time. If we don’t meet that deadline, then go ahead and send it to another press.” (That’s a very quick deadline; presses usually ask the readers for reports in six weeks to two months, and readers often take longer.)


  7. I’ve always understood that there is an informal (and formal, in the case of some presses) rule that you can’t simultaneously submit to more than one UP. However, I’ve also heard that you can sometimes do precisely that if you are up front with the editors at both UPs: tell them who else has it, what the time frame for reviews is, etc.

    In any case, I recommend that Harry (who is one lucky fella to have two UPs biting at once!) be very clear and direct with both presses. The one thing I’ve learned through my own arduous and still incomplete publication phase is that UP editors are overworked and underappreciated like the rest of us academics and really appreciate knowing what’s at stake with the work they are putting into a manuscript.

    (Thanks for thinking of me, Historiann!)


  8. Thanks, everyone, for your advice. I hope Harry is even happier now in the knowledge that he can pursue both presses for now, and even perhaps when he submits a manuscript for review so long as everyone is OK with that. Indyanna is correct in saying that “it certainly smacks more of monopoly than the free marketplace of ideas when the rules of the process are made as part of a one-way street,” but I like the point that The Bittersweet Girl makes about editors being overworked, to which I might add, and university presses being strapped and under pressure to make money (or at least not to lose it.) Historians are fortunate that someone wants to publish our odd little books.

    Ruth, thanks for stopping by to comment from “the inside” of publishing. (It’s amazing how often the metaphors of love and romance come up when talking about the job market and the publishing market, isn’t it?) So, take it from Ruth: if you’re sending in a manuscript, then editors think you’re “going steady,” not still “dating around.”


  9. Just a little correction there Historiann–it’s the point at which the editor sends your MS to reviewers that s/he will think you’re “going steady” — unless you have specifically agreed on an “open relationship.”


  10. Thanks for the clarification, Ruth–I assumed that anyone who sends a completed ms. was doing so so that it could be sent out to readers, but of course there are cases where an editor may offer to do an initial read-through and offer advice, etc.


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