What to Say (and Not to Say) in Query Letters to Book Editors

Full vitae query letters to book editors

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Even the greenest of graduate students have heard "publish or perish," but rarely are they instructed on exactly how to accomplish that or even where to start. The world of publishing can feel intimidating to those who’ve already pumped out a few books, let alone the uninitiated.

To find your way into this world, you must gain access to the gatekeepers — that is, get your idea in front of book editors. How you do that depends on whether you are approaching an academic press or a commercial "trade" publisher. I’ll focus here on university and other scholarly presses because that is the most common path to publication for Ph.D.s.

While first contact with a trade-press editor comes via an agent, academic publishers are a whole lot more democratic. Anyone with a book idea can pitch to a scholarly press editor and get a fair hearing. But, as with anything, if you hope to convince a book editor, you have to make it easy for them to say yes.

That starts with a good letter of inquiry. The editorial process is fairly standard from press to press, but editors have varying preferences and personalities. I asked a handful of veteran publishers to discuss what they like to see — and what irritates them — in the email pitches they get from hopeful authors.

Be succinct. Greg Britton, editorial director of the Johns Hopkins University Press, acknowledges that "there can be a lot of anxiety around how to approach an editor." Mostly he just wants you to get to the point quickly: "I want an author — either in person or by email — to say simply, ‘Here’s what I’m working on and what I hope to do with it. Does that sound like a book that would fit your program?’"

But simple and direct doesn’t mean superficial. "I can tell right off when the author has done a little homework first," he says. "If it’s a pitch for a book in a field that we haven’t published in for years — say, political science — I know this author doesn’t know much about our current publishing program."

Customize your query letter. "’Dear Editor’ or ‘Dear Oxford University Press’ is not the way to open your query letter," says Susan Ferber, executive editor of American and world history at Oxford press. Given how easy it is now to find editors’ names on university press websites, she says, "Show that you have looked into the person to whom you are submitting."

And pay attention to the editor’s actual name. "At least twice a year I get queries addressed to ‘Ms. Bryson,’" says Elizabeth Branch Dyson, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press. "While I can’t support the combining of my double last name (as entertaining as that is), I’d rather that than ‘Dear Editor’ or ‘Greetings’ or ‘Dear Sir.’"

Err on the side of formality. Used to the casual nature of communication on social media, some graduate students and early-career scholars assume an informal tone in their pitch. That’s a mistake since you can’t know whether the editor will welcome that tone or be irritated by it.

Naomi Schneider, who has her own imprint at the University of California Press, falls into the latter camp. "One common mistake is to assume too much familiarity and start the letter, ‘Dear Naomi,’" she says. "I’m not overly formal, but if I don’t know you, please address it to ‘Dear Naomi Schneider.’"

She explains: "The letter is a way of establishing communication with an editor and beginning a relationship. So craft it carefully and, without being obsequious or overly deferential, write it in the voice of one professional contacting another professional."

Be professional. That should go without saying. Yet editors receive a lot of sloppy, typo-laden letters that are missing basic information. "Take the trouble to proofread — and proofread again," says Alex Holzman, a retired director of Temple University Press. "If I get to the third or fourth typo in an introductory letter, I start to wonder just how careful this particular scholar really is in their research and scholarly writing."

Ilene Kalish, the executive editor at New York University Press, provides another reminder that should be obvious but is often overlooked: "For the love of God, put your title, email address, and phone number in your signature line. Signing off with, ‘Many thanks, Robert’ is not helpful. It should never be hard to find your contact information." (Note: If you check your email infrequently, make sure you highlight the way you prefer to be contacted.)

Make your pitch current. Why are you proposing this idea now? Is there a particular time element or angle the editor should know about? Make sure to note it in your email, Ferber says, "if the timing of publication is critical or time-sensitive — that is, a major anniversary coming up or a tenure-timetable deadline is relatively close."

Be able to answer, Why this press? Think about the authorial company you hope to be keeping and then mention other academics whose work the press has published. In the query letter, "Say, ‘You’ve published X, Y, and Z, and my book would be a great complement to their work,’" advises Kalish of NYU press. "Sometimes potential authors can sell me on their book by selling me on my books — showing me how they are working together."

Editors like to know that you’re serious about publishing your book with their particular press. "I really love it if the letter says this press is the author’s top choice," Branch Dyson says. "It makes me sit up and take notice and respond more quickly."

Touch on the marketing. These days even authors of scholarly books must think about sales. "I want to know who you conceive of as your audience and the market for the book," says Schneider of the University of California Press. "If you have a big public or social-media presence, please mention this as well. Increasingly publishers ally with authors to promote books online, so an author’s ability to reach out to a constituency is important."

Consider this query letter template. So how do you do all that in an initial letter? And how long should it be?

One page, says Schneider, who offers a useful template:

  • Paragraph No. 1: "Situate the book project broadly, and clearly outline the subject and thesis. You need to state what is new, original, and exciting about this project as well. In this context it would be helpful to get your view of the potential market and whether comparative books already exist. Of course, tell me how your book differs from them."
  • Paragraph No. 2: "Go into a bit more detail about the ins and outs of the study and when the manuscript might be completed."
  • Paragraph No. 3: "Talk about who you are and give me the highlights of your professional credentials."
  • Closing: "End with an action item. Tell me that you can send a full book proposal and a sample chapter, for instance. End with a particular ‘ask’ so I know how to follow up."

Some editors only want you to send the letter itself; others are happy to get a limited amount of supplemental material. You probably won’t go wrong if you send that additional material in clearly labeled attachments. Kalish, for example, says she prefers it when writers send a pitch letter with all of their materials attached: CV and sample chapters.

"But not a full manuscript," she added. "No one ever wants a full manuscript. And don’t even think about sending your dissertation. Worst idea ever. But I like getting the pitch letter, looking over the attached material and then letting people know if their work would fit on my list."

Most editors will want at least a CV. One minefield to avoid, Kalish cautions: "Never put on your vitae that your project is ‘under review’ at the press to which you are sending it!" And yes, that happens. She adds: "Sending me a project to consider is not the same as entering the review process."

For most editors, the review process starts with a commitment to send a manuscript out to external peer reviewers. Just because you’ve shipped something off to a publisher doesn’t mean it’s "under review" — or that even putting "under review" on your CV is particularly meaningful.

Remember: While editors are accessible, your letter must intrigue them enough to click on your supporting documents. The good news is that people who go into publishing tend to default to being interested, especially in projects that are clearly in their topic areas. And many are generous with their time and their advice.

"I want to encourage people who might feel shy to write to me," Schneider says, "because I’m accessible and give informal feedback."

As someone whose early career was spent in publishing and who has contributed columns to The Chronicle since 1997 about writing, I think Schneider’s sentiment is shared by most book editors.

The reality, however, is that they’re also swamped. For every rejection they send that gives an author specific suggestions for revision or recommends another press to submit the manuscript to, they have sent many, many more along the lines of: "We read your proposal with interest, but it isn’t quite right for our current publishing program, and so we must decline the opportunity to pursue it further."

Those "form rejects" are usually the result of a mismatch between publisher and topic — more likely due to your failure to find the right press for your subject than to a pronouncement on the value of the work.

Take the time to craft a good letter. Have other people read it over for you. Do they understand what the project is, why it’s important, and why you’re the right person to write it? Address your letter to an actual person (who still works at that press). Refer to other books on its list. Make sure the editors know how to contact you. Proofread.

You only need one contract for your project. Make it as easy as possible for the press to say yes.

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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