What to Know When You Approach Book Editors at a Conference

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One of the best and most efficient ways to understand the landscape of scholarly publishing is to go to an academic conference and spend some time in the book exhibit. You can learn what’s being published, see which presses are doing work in your field, and even pitch your book to an acquisitions editor. It’s that last bit that terrifies many a writer.

With academic conference season underway, I approached a handful of editors to ask how they feel about being approached and what’s on their minds at these annual meetings. Publishing folk tend to be intellectual magpies — always on the lookout for the next shiny new thing. And they’re almost always happy to talk to prospective writers.

The wrinkle, of course, is that would-be authors are presenting their work to someone who must necessarily say no to most things. "It’s a harrowing interaction, especially as a cold ask in a book exhibit," acknowledges Greg Britton, editorial director at the Johns Hopkins University Press. "These interactions bring back nightmares of junior high prom. It also can trigger that impostor syndrome that hits nontraditional scholars and those from underrepresented groups especially hard."

Learning how to mask those fears and forge ahead becomes, for many academics, a regular practice throughout their careers. But at conferences, overcoming your impostor syndrome and reaching out can have unforeseen payoffs for both editor and writer. Britton likens his appearance at a book exhibit to a professor holding office hours: It’s "a time when anyone can drop by for advice, say hello, or just brainstorm."

Most editors tend to greet academics with the same question: What are you working on?

"Even if the scholar isn’t ready to talk about a book project," Britton said, "I don’t mind the conversation. I once had a grad student say that she was trying to decide between two dissertation topics and asked which I thought more publishable. It was a brilliant question that more students should ask up front."

Some scholars are great at describing their projects in ways that are clear and compelling. Others, not so much. If the pitch turns rambling, Britton will ask the writer for a one-sentence description, which he then repeats back. "Even if it isn’t a book for me," he said, "I want them to leave with a better pitch than they came in with."

Something else would-be authors might not have realized: Editors have their own agendas at these meetings. Academics are talking "about their project," Britton said, "but I’m also collecting information: What are they teaching? What are they reading? Have they seen any remarkable sessions at the conference? I collect a ton of intelligence during those conversations." Scholarly meetings give everyone a chance to survey trends in the field.

Just as it is for faculty members, an annual conference is an opportunity for editors to catch up with old friends and colleagues, too. Editors struggle to juggle appointments, go to panels, see people. They also may have to staff the booth themselves — answering questions about forthcoming titles, recommending texts, hearing complaints, taking orders, selling books — especially if they are from a small press or are attending a regional meeting. In short, they are busy.

And often heavily scheduled. So if there’s a particular press and editor you’re interested in, try to set up an appointment in advance to meet during the conference.

"At big flagship conferences," said Susan Ferber, executive editor of Oxford University Press, "I book appointments for the entire meeting so as to organize my time and ensure I see people I need to see. I make appointments in advance, including some with scholars I do not know who have emailed with proposals that I find interesting."

I’ve heard academics express concern that if their name tag doesn’t boast an affiliation with a fancy-pants university, editors may be less interested in them and their work. Is that, I asked these editors, a reasonable assumption?

However much they try to guard against the instinct to follow pedigree, sometimes it does play a role, especially in hectic moments. Editors at a conference "are barraged from all sides — it’s hard to have a coherent conversation with anyone at a certain point," said Naomi Schneider, who publishes her own imprint at the University of California Press. But honestly, she said, "In those contexts, sometimes pedigree does count: If someone is affiliated with a prestigious university, I might be more tuned in to what they are saying."

It’s a difficult truth to acknowledge. "We hate to admit this," Britton said, "but higher education is a prestige economy and that always works in favor of some institutions and against others. In those first seconds, editors are looking for signs: Is this person serious? Are they in my field? Are they a senior scholar or new to the game? Are they worth my time right this minute? Editors carry all the biases that other humans do. Unless checked, that bias allows the academic prestige economy to replicate itself."

Elizabeth Branch Dyson, senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, pointed out some of the ways that affiliation can matter. For instance, when she meets academics from extremely hierarchical fields, she said, "I know someone who has graduated from a top program in that field will have had excellent training. In that case, I’ll pay more attention to their Ph.D. institution than their current job placement."

And there are pragmatic considerations. She added: "I also know their book will get more attention if they’re at an institution with a lot of support — money for subsidies, manuscript workshops, paid travel to give book talks, time off to give those talks, opportunities to talk about the book on campus, funding to travel to conferences and increase the author’s profile, etc. — and those institutions tend to be the more prestigious ones."

Yet it’s more complicated than that, since institutional affiliations on name badges can, and do, change from year to year.

"In the case of first-time authors especially, where someone is when a project is submitted is virtually never the same as when the book is published," said Oxford’s Susan Ferber. "Many postdocs at major research institutions are there temporarily and may land (if they are lucky) jobs at institutions they never imagined they’d work for, and that were nothing like where they studied. Plenty of visiting assistant professors have an affiliation one year and someplace different the next, so I’d be judging someone based on a temporary employment affiliation, not the quality of the work if I stopped at the place on a name badge."

If you feel that you’ve gotten a cold shoulder from an editor in the book exhibit, try to keep in mind: It may or may not be related to your institutional affiliation. It also could be because the editor is late for another meeting, exhausted at the end of a bunch of long days, or freezing in that state-fair-sized convention hall. While editors may seem like all-powerful beings, try to approach them as fellow humans. Have a conversation. Ask questions: What new books have they published in your subfield? Have they been to any great panels? How did they fare during the recent hurricane/snowstorm/heat wave in their city? Make a connection.

When it comes to getting a book contract, what I heard from all the editors I spoke with is that sometimes institutional affiliation can give academics a leg up — and sometimes it doesn’t matter at all.

"For me," Britton says, it’s the right book from the right author at the right time. Given the state of the academic job market, we all know absolutely brilliant scholars who are working at institutions that are not Harvard. If the person has a demonstrated expertise and has a project in my field, I want to talk to them."

"I hope I’m really open to lots of diverse voices," said Schneider of the UC Press. "Just this year one of my authors won one of the two most prestigious awards in sociology: This first-book author didn’t go to a top grad school, she is a woman of color, and she also didn’t have any mentors pushing her forward."

If you’re worried that your institutional pedigree is lacking, you can put yourself in a better position to approach editors by having an "author platform" — the means (usually involving social media) by which you will reach your intended readers.

Just as academics need to think long-term about their careers, so do presses. Publishing is a business — one that requires authors to be promoters of their own work. "The world of social media and its relevance to author platforms has worked to democratize platforms even more," says Christie Henry, director of Princeton University Press.

To some, that may signal the end of academic civilization — the barbarians at the professorial gates tweeting away — but to editors who depend on sales numbers, it’s an essential part of life. Greg Britton recently tweeted: "As a university press editor, I am looking specifically for authors with a platform. Those willing to talk openly about their research are the best. Please don’t hold back. If you don’t profess your work, no one else will."

You don’t have to be super high tech, however, to get their attention. Britton mentioned something endearingly old school that works for him: "I love when young scholars have business cards. It gives me something to take notes on. I have a correct email address, and when I get back to my office, it’s a reminder of our conversation. It’s also a reminder that I need to follow up. Some departments make cards for students, but if not, there are many inexpensive services online for making these."

In terms of the substance of proposing a book, Naomi Schneider said something that was echoed by all of these editors: "I do think it’s often more effective for book authors to write a professional letter — over email, of course — to a particular book editor."

Many projects sound wonderful and then die on the page. How to craft that email pitch is something I’ll cover, with more suggestions from these editors, in the next column.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane, and a former acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press. Her website is Racheltoor.com

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