Getting A First Book Published: A Walk-through of the Process

image for getting published blog post

I’ve digested the publication process from finishing a manuscript to release, for new scholars who haven’t gone through it yet, or for anyone who’s just idly curious. My experience with Brill was nearly perfect, so I wouldn’t expect it to get much better than this.

I submitted my dissertation in February 2017. I knew I wanted to write a book based on it, but that the book would be more than a revision and expansion of it. I gave myself two years to do the research, write the book, and get a contract. The best possible circumstances under which to do that are far and away under the relatively lucrative umbrella of a postdoctoral fellowship, which is analogous to a residency. For either one year or two (two if you can get it), you are paid enough to live on while you work on the book project. Most, but not quite all, are tied to a specific institution; you are required to be in residence there. Some have a light teaching load attached. Since we were not going to be relocating, those were out. I applied for the rest, and got none of them. They are of course ridiculously competitive. Humanities and social science funding in this country is not exactly a national priority. Fortunately, I have a spouse who is happy doing something that makes her a good living. My only direct financial assistance was a $400 grant from the Society for Nautical Research in the UK which allowed me to hire a capable researcher to do some in-person work at the National Archives and the Bristol Archives, which was most valuable.

I had the manuscript close enough to finished to begin querying publishers in the fall of 2018. That requires writing a book proposal. I got some help from someone I knew who had been through this on how to do that, and also looked it up on more than one potential publisher’s website. I first submitted to ****** UP because they had just launched a series that I thought could be a good fit. They quickly informed me otherwise. Next, I went to the UP of X that publishes one of our primary journals and the monograph series that goes with it—both of which were co-founded by one of my mentors, who sat on their editorial board. Alas, he had died in the meantime. They rejected it too, which surprised me, but there is absolutely no point in dwelling on that for five minutes (as is true for applications to schools and for grants).

At the same time (December 2018), I had submitted to Brill, when I realized that they had a series of monographs in the history of technology that seemed an obvious fit. Also, the series editors were, unbeknownst to me at the time, two scholars with whom I had worked to put together a conference panel that fall. One of those had actually presented a paper in the panel I had organized, and we had chatted quite a lot at the conference. So, they knew me and knew my work. Brill’s acquisitions editor responded while the UP of X still had the proposal and said he was interested. I put out a panic query to people who had been through this, who were kind enough to advise me to put Brill off nicely while I waited for UP of X. Most fortunately, Brill was still interested after UP of X passed, and so the proposal went from their acquisitions editor to the series editors—the ones I knew. Lesson: while simultaneous  submissions are not forbidden in book publishing, as they are with journal articles, I don’t think I would do it again. Too potentially awkward and stressful. More Important Lesson: presenting at conferences can be worth far more than it might cost, and far more than you might realize at the time.

An aside is in order here. The acquisitions editor works for the publisher. He’s basically a buyer, though he can be as involved in the editorial process as he wants. In this case, given that there were two series editors and an editorial assistant, he was not involved at all past the acquisition, so far as I can tell. Series editors do not work for the publisher. They are scholars in the specialty who probably conceived the series themselves, and are primarily responsible for approving new titles and overseeing the editorial process once a title is acquired for the series. The acquisitions editor cannot accept a book for such a series without their consent. By the way, the only people here who are getting paid are the publisher’s employees—the acquisitions editor and the editorial assistant.

By 18 January, the series editors had approved the acquisition, and within a week or so, I had submitted the complete manuscript to Brill. The next step is to send it out for anonymous peer review. This entails the publisher’s asking two (usually) scholars in the field to read the manuscript and opine whether or not the publisher should publish it, and if so, with what revisions. It can take time to find the reviewers and it takes some time for them to review the manuscript. I was fortunate; Brill was prompt in doing this, and the reviewers were prompt in getting it back to them. Also, in this time period, the series editors will make their editorial recommendations for revisions.

It was late July before I knew for certain that the book was going forward, based on the submission of the external reviews and the series editors’ reactions to those. With so many cooks in the kitchen at this stage, it may be necessary to do a little polite inquiring as to status, as the line might get cut between one or more of the parties. This proved necessary for me. I had a back-and-forth with one of the series editors, who rode point through the process, and we got exactly on the same page with what revisions were going to happen. The series editors have full latitude to do what they want with the external reviews. Ours were mostly helpful, but the series editors did not want to follow every single suggestion. (External reviewers can be grumpy, even if they basically approve of the work.) While I was working on the revisions, I was also working on acquiring suitable images and permissions to use those images. This is a Royal Pain in the Ass and I Am Not Lying, but there’s no getting around it. Fortunately, the publisher had given me a handbook that treated in detail all aspects of getting the revision ready, including this aspect, and the editorial assistant was there to help if I needed her. She and the series editors had definite opinions about the illustrations and captions, and I welcomed that. None of their suggestions were objectionable to me. Keep in mind that the publisher will dictate what types of, and how many, illustrations you may use. Much of that has to do with cost. Brill was perfectly happy with lots of color plates, but then again, my book costs $153.00. Publishers who want to sell books more cheaply, let alone put them out in paperback, will generally not allow such extravagance.

I object to it for more than one reason, but repositories will charge you big money for the rights to reproduce images from their collections. The more widely they think the publication will be distributed, the more money they want. This can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars. My main series editor knew from experience that German archives and museums don’t do this, so he advised using them. In the end, I found that the same was true of the Swedish Museum of History in Stockholm, which owns the originals of most of the technical drawings I wanted to use. This was a godsend. In the U.S. and UK, however, forget it. The ed. asst. decided she really wanted a certain image in there that’s owned by The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. It cost £50, which Brill paid. The publisher might be willing to pay modest costs here; they will stipulate that in your agreement.

You have to have a permission form signed by the copyright holder of every image you want to use, and those forms have to be transmitted to the publisher, as they are potentially liable for any copyright infringements (although they stipulate in your contract that you are ultimately responsible for making sure you are not violating copyright).

Also, at this point, I filled out an Author Questionnaire for them, which compiles the information necessary for marketing. You select the key words for search engines, you write a short abstract, tell them who you think the readership will be, and you tell them about specific journals you think they should submit the book to for review, and specific awards for which the book might qualify.

I submitted the revision and all the permission forms late November 2019. So, ten months since initial acceptance. The series editors then have to read and comment on the revision. If they approve it, then at that point you will get a contract. The publisher will not formally commit to publishing the book until they have the requested revision in their hands and have approved it. I signed a contract on 19 November and they had received it by 6 December. (They’re in the Netherlands.) Finalizing images and permissions must be completed before the book can go into production. This required some back-and-forth up to Christmas 2019.

The contract spells out the respective obligations of author and publisher. Basically, the author commits to completing revisions and other work stipulated by the publisher in a certain time frame, and the publisher commits to publishing and marketing the work in a certain time frame, provided the author has satisfied their stipulations. It spells out who has copyright and what use may be made of copyrighted material by the author. These terms, in my case at least, are quite generous toward the author. The contract will also specify number of author copies, percentage of author discount on additional copies and on other books, and how royalty distribution works. (In general, one does not realize royalties on academic books.) I found the contract easy to read and, while my impression was that there might be some wiggle room for negotiation, the terms were fine with me as initially offered.

The book went into production 6 February 2020, and at this point I was working with a production editor. Her job was to see the book through the production process and, ultimately, send it to the printer. Meanwhile, she would be working with me, on the one hand, and a typesetter on the other. The typesetter isn’t really a typesetter anymore, but someone who takes the files and converts them into final form for publication. The files they are given are already damn close; you have used the font they asked for (their house font, which you download), you have formatted everything exactly as stipulated, and you have copy-edited the crap out of the manuscript (if you’re good, you’ll still miss a few things; I’m good, and I did).

Somewhere in here, the book will go up on the publisher’s website as a forthcoming title. This same page will be where buyers can order it when it is out. In our case, there was also a PDF flyer that could be distributed.

The series editors and the production editor commented on the submitted revision, and we made a few minor tweaks. Then she sent it to the typesetter for conversion into proofs—the final-layout form that I would then proofread, correct, and send back. Meanwhile, I had to compile the index, minus page numbers, as those would only be available once the proofs were done—and even then, only valid if the pagination didn’t change during the correction process. (The index took me two weeks of full-time work, in two separate stages. I’d never done one, so of course I looked up formatting rules in the Chicago manual. If you were using MLA or whatever, you’d look it up in theirs.) I submitted corrections to the first proofs on 13 March. All of the errors I found were mine, not theirs. Fortunately, none of them were major enough to mess up the pagination of the proofs, so I was able to paginate the index too. It’s important to note here that the publisher expects a clean copy of that revision to send to the typesetter the first time. They have to pay the typesetter and they do not want you coming back wanting major edits that mean the typesetter has lots of work to do to re-work the proofs. In fact, they reserve the right to charge you for it if you do. You are only allowed to correct typos. You cannot decide that you want to re-phrase your assessment of Smith’s book on spinning wheels.

By 31 March, they had sent me the final proofs to check and I had let them know they were fine. By 10 April, the book had gone to the printer. The e-book was published on 14 April and the hardback on the 16th –two weeks earlier than the final publication date on the website. So, the entire publication process from acceptance to publication was about sixteen months. At this point, they will be selling it to academic libraries, primarily.

The process is, I’m sure, somewhat different for established scholars, let alone distinguished ones. I hope this is a helpful walk-through for other first-timers or aspiring academic authors.





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