A Template for Your Response to Reader Reports

In the last edition of this newsletter, I talked about responding to reader reports and some misconceptions that trip authors up. Above all, it’s crucial to understand the purpose of your response in the context of the publication process. Essentially, the response letter is your chance to make a final case to the publisher’s decision makers that your book is worth investing in. They will have access to your submission materials and to the actual peer reviews, but the response to the reader reports is where you pull it all together, reminding those decision makers what’s so great about your project and demonstrating how capable you are of bringing the project to its full potential.

As with all my templates, I need to share my caveat that there is no one right way to write a response to reader reports and that many different kinds of responses can be effective. Some people go through the reports point by point and address everything. I personally think that’s overkill—and that it’s more effective to address the feedback in terms of big picture categories of revision, as I’ve advised below—but I don’t honestly think it matters much to your chances of success what format you choose. The important thing is to keep the overall purpose in mind: making the case for your book and your potential to bring the manuscript to fruition successfully. As long as you don’t lose sight of that purpose in your letter, you’ll be good.

Although your editor will likely frame this letter as a response to the reader reports (and that’s what I’m calling it here), I think it’s more helpful to think of it as a “revision plan in light of reader reports.” Your job here isn’t to rebut the points the reviewers made or prove that your submission materials were perfect all along; your job is to show that you will use the reports to strengthen your project into something that represents a good (i.e. non-risky) investment for the publisher. Your publisher needs to know that if they offer you a contract for this book, you will submit a sound piece of scholarship that meets all their standards for publication. In other words, the people who decide whether to publish your book should come away from reading your response convinced that you’re a good bet. Providing them with a concrete, reasonable plan for revision—without coming off as defensive or ego-driven—is the way to convince them.

So, here’s how you do that.

The first step, obviously, is to read the reports. Maybe just skim them quickly to get an overall gist. Give yourself a day or two to think things over and get some distance from the comments.

Then, after you’ve sat with the feelings you need to sit with for a few days, return to the reports with an eye to making a revision plan. Print them out if you can, and go through them with a pen in hand. Underline anything that feels significant. When you see something that looks like a suggestion for revision, make a note in the margin recapping the suggestion in a few words. When you see something that looks like a nice summary of what you were trying to achieve with the manuscript, draw a little smiley face (or something less cutesy, it’s up to you, but do mark them because these summaries are one of the most valuable aspects of peer reviews). You can also mark examples of praise that you may want to quote in your response.

Some people make spreadsheets where they keep track of all the comments made by the reviewers and all the revisions they plan to make. If that works for you, go for it. You can also just jump straight from your notes on the reports to a draft of your response and use the writing of the response letter itself to organize all the feedback and your plans for revision. If you’re not at all sure what the letter should look like, you can use this template as a starting point:

  1. Salutation (“Dear [Editor’s Name] and colleagues,”)

  2. An opening statement of gratitude to the editor, publisher, and reviewers for their engagement with your project. Just a couple sentences, tops.

  3. A recap of the project and the reviewers’ major positive takeaways. Restate what the reviewers saw as the main contribution(s) of your book; you can quote them directly if you like. (You can refer to the reviewers as Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, etc.) You’ll also want to recap the book’s overall project to remind everyone of your primary vision for the book. Ideally one of your reviewers will have given a particularly apt summary of the book’s project and you can quote that here as well.

  4. A summary statement of the major areas of revision you will undertake in light of the reviewers’ feedback. (You’ll be addressing each of them in more detail as the letter proceeds.)

  5. Several paragraphs, one or two per each major area of revision. For each major area of revision, summarize the recommendations of the reviewers and lay out concretely how you will execute the revisions in light of the recommendations. (More detail on how to do this below.)

  6. An optional paragraph to address miscellaneous items from the reader reports if there’s anything else you want to say about them.

  7. Another optional paragraph outlining any other major aspects of your planned revision that aren’t in direct response to the reader reports and thus haven’t come up yet in this letter.

  8. A timeline for your revisions. You don’t need to get too specific here, but give enough detail to satisfy everyone that your plan is realistic and reasonable.

  9. Closing.

Let’s spend a little more time on how to talk about the major areas of revision. After you’ve marked up the reader reports and made your margin summaries of the suggestions for revision, you’ll hopefully start to see that the reviewers’ comments can be grouped together into broad categories. Some common categories of comments I tend to see in my clients’ reader reports concern the need for: engagement with existing scholarship, refinement/clarification of the argument, additional supporting evidence or analysis, restructuring of the narrative, and stylistic revision. You may spot different patterns in your feedback, and that’s fine. But do try to spot patterns; if only one reviewer commented on something and it feels like it came out of left field, you don’t necessarily have to address it (either here in your letter or in your revisions at all).

For each major area, write a paragraph that summarizes the main thrust of the reviewers’ comments and then lays out concretely how you plan to incorporate the recommendation into your revision plan. Your revision plan may even include items not called for specifically by the reviewers, but you can go ahead and lay those out here too. The paragraph might look something like this:

“Two of the reviewers recommended that I draw out connections to other scholarship across the manuscript, and I agree that this will improve the book’s use value for academic readers. Following Reviewer 3’s suggestion to add references on topic X in the introduction, I plan to insert a discussion of Scholar A, Scholar B, and Scholar C’s work in the second section of the introduction chapter. Following Reviewer 2’s suggestion, I will include additional discussion of previous research on Y in the introduction to Chapter 3 and in the fourth section of Chapter 4. I am also planning to weave some discussion of broader scholarly conversations about X and Y in the Conclusion, which will further solidify the connections identified by the reviewers.”

You’ll want a paragraph for each major area of revision you plan to undertake. If you need more than one paragraph to address everything you want to say about each area of revision, that’s ok, but try to be concise. Remember that you want to convince the people who read this letter that you have a clear, executable plan in place, and going too far into minutia here could raise doubts about that.

What if you don’t agree with the reviewers’ advice, or the reviewers contradict each other? You still focus on your own plan for revision, but strategically incorporate the reviewers’ comments in a way that shows that you’ve respectfully considered them as you formulated your plan. For example:

“I also plan to somewhat alter the structure of the manuscript in order to address the matter of narrative flow. While Reviewer 1 felt that Chapter 6 (on topic X) should be moved up earlier in the table of contents so that readers would be exposed to the information on X before they get to Chapter 3 (on topic Y), I believe that Chapter 6 builds organically on the information in Chapters 4 and 5, and thus should remain after them. However, I agree with Reviewer 1 that some information on X would be helpful earlier in the book, and so I intend to insert a few paragraphs of background on X in the Introduction and possibly in the first couple pages of Chapter 3. Reviewer 1 praised Chapter 2 for its engagement with existing theoretical frameworks, yet Reviewer 3 noted that Chapter 2 slows down the momentum of the book by dwelling too long on secondary sources. In my revision, I plan to condense the in-text discussion of secondary sources so that my original analysis will make up the bulk of this chapter. I will retain the references to scholarly conversations appreciated by Reviewer 1, but will weave them more organically into the presentation of my original analysis. I may move some of the discussion of secondary sources into footnotes in order to preserve the narrative flow of the main text.”

What if a reviewer gives you a huge revision suggestion and you’re not sure you want to take it? For instance, let’s say you’ve written a history that stops at a particular year and the reviewer insists that you must extend the narrative an additional 30 years, necessitating months of additional research and writing. This is where you have to return to your vision for the book. Would the suggested change advance that vision? Do you have time and access to the necessary research materials to execute the revision? If you’re not sure, you may want to have a frank conversation with your editor about how necessary they think the revision is. If the reviewer says the book is unpublishable without the change, and you ultimately decide it’s not a change you’re willing or able to make, you can still engage with the suggestion respectfully in your response, laying out convincingly how you can achieve a successful manuscript without doing exactly what the reviewer suggested. Perhaps you can come up with a compromise that allows you to acknowledge and address the spirit of the reviewer’s suggestion without altering your vision for the book. Remember that you need to convince your editor and publisher—not necessarily the reviewer—that your plan is sound.

Some reviewers may give you very minute suggestions, even identifying copyediting errors with specific page numbers. You can certainly take any of these suggestions that feel helpful to you, but you don’t necessarily need to address them in your response. The exception might be if the tiny points could be grouped together and addressed collectively because they represent a pattern across the manuscript. For example, you might say something like, “Reviewer 4 generously identified several points of fact that should be double-checked or clarified; I will carefully attend to these as I revise the manuscript.”

When it comes to laying out the timeline, you might detail the order in which you will tackle the major areas of revision across the manuscript and how long you expect each area to take, or you might lay out a month-by-month/chapter-by-chapter plan. Paint it in broad strokes; a couple sentences should do it. Then give a hard date by which you’ll have the full manuscript complete and ready to submit for further review (this may just be internal review by your editor if the original reader reports were positive enough). This is the date that will probably make it into your contract, so make sure it’s something you can realistically stick to.

And there you have it. If you have any uncertainty about what your editor expects at this stage, you should feel free to ask them questions. Remember that they’re on your team and you getting your response right helps them do their job (so they should want to help you help them). Editors deal with peer reviews and reader reports on a daily basis so they sometimes forget that authors may have little to no experience with these things. It’s ok if you need to nudge them for some guidance. And of course I’m here too, if you need additional support!

I’m currently enrolling participants in the January session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator. In the space of a month, I’ll walk you through how to produce a book proposal draft that you can feel confident talking to publishers about. We’ll also have live Q&As (via Zoom) and an online forum where you can ask questions and meet fellow scholars in the same boat. For more info and enrollment instructions, check out this page.

Responding to Reader Reports

4 Misconceptions that Trip Authors Up

One of the scariest parts of scholarly publishing is waiting for the peer reviewers’ reports to come back, culminating in that suspenseful moment when your acquisitions editor sends you the reports and you get to see what the experts honestly thought of your work. Some editors will provide helpful commentary to frame the reports for you, while others will give only cryptically gesture at what they think of the reports, and others will just send a terse “see attached” email, leaving you totally in the dark as to the path forward. If the reports are so doubtful about the project that the editor isn’t comfortable moving forward with you, I hope they’ll tell you that directly. In all other cases, you can assume that you will be expected to write up a response to the reports. Don’t assume that negative feedback—even with no softening from the editor—means the press won’t publish your book! If your editor is giving you an opportunity to respond to the reports—even if that opportunity just looks like them sending you the reports and providing no further guidance—that means they do see the potential in your book. Your response is your chance to make the case that you can rise to that potential. Your editor may even be testing you a little bit to see how you respond to criticism and whether you can put ego aside to produce the best book possible. So what do you need to know in order to craft a compelling response?

Way back in my first blog post about academic publishing, I mentioned that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to responding to the reader reports on the proposal for my first book. This is a problem first-time authors commonly face, because you’re expected to write a document—a response letter—that you may have never seen an example of in your life! If you have friends who have been through the book publishing process before, see if they’ll share their response letters with you so you can see a model or two that worked out. (In my next newsletter, I’ll give you a template you can use as a starting point for your own response letter when the time comes.) I’m also going to share with you here four misconceptions about reader reports that trip authors up when it comes to writing their responses:

Misconception #1: Peer reviewers decide your book’s fate with the publisher.
Peer review is a significant aspect of the scholarly publishing process. It’s what sets university presses and other academic publishers apart from the rest of the publishing world. So the input of experts in your field does matter to the decision of whether or not a press wants to take on the publication of your manuscript. However, the word of the peer reviewers is not final. For one thing, your editor will be gathering reviews from at least two different scholars, and if their assessments contradict each other or are otherwise ambiguous, the editor will probably get at least one additional reviewer to come on board, maybe more. So the negative opinion of one reviewer is not a death knell for your project. Even if all the reviewers agree in their criticism of the submitted materials, that doesn’t mean your project is doomed. Keep in mind that peer reviewers are asked to make recommendations about publication, not decisions. Decisions are made internally at the press. Your editor will take your submission materials, along with the reader reports and your response, to their press’s publications committee (or similar body—different publishers call it different things), and make the case for publication to the people who actually do get to decide. If your response helps your editor demonstrate convincingly that you have the ability to satisfactorily address the concerns voiced by the reviewers, that can go a long way toward keeping your project in play.

Misconception #2: Your response has to show why your peer reviewers’ negative feedback is wrong.
Notice in my previous point that I said your editor needs to believe you can address the reviewers’ concerns if they have them. That’s a very different thing than “your editor needs to believe the reviewers are mistaken in their concerns.” Authors are often tempted to treat the response to reader reports as a rebuttal, but that’s not the right move here. You will be much more effective if you use your response to demonstrate that you can use the reader reports strategically to improve your manuscript. You can overcome even a pretty negative report if you craft your response well! This is also an opportunity to show your editor and their colleagues that you are a willing collaborator who can make and execute a revision plan. When you write up your response, select a few of the reviewers’ criticisms that you think may actually have been merited and explain, in concrete terms, how you will revise the manuscript to address those criticisms. Say things like, “I will expand the middle section of Chapter 2 to fulfill Reviewer 1’s suggestion that I include more information on X,” to show that you have given real, practical thought to how you will execute the revisions. Include a specific timeline that shows just how doable the revisions will be for you.

If there are big issues brought up by the reviewers that you just don’t agree with, you can respond to those as well. But again, be strategic in your approach. It’s not about belaboring how wrong they are, but rather about acknowledging the reviewer’s position respectfully and showing how your vision for the book will result in something successful even if it doesn’t totally match theirs. Remember, again, that it’s not the reviewer you need to convince.

Misconception #3: You have to do everything the reviewers tell you to.
Hey, remember when I said that reviewers don’t get to make decisions about your book, just recommendations? That doesn’t just apply to the decision whether to publish, it also applies to the specific feedback they give you about the book’s content. To paraphrase Cher Horowitz, reader reports are just “a jumping off point to start negotiations.” By that I mean that you can usually pick and choose which of the reviewer’s suggestions you will take on board and which you’ll respectfully decline. Even if you entirely disagree with a reviewer’s understanding of your project, you can probably find something to spin into a constructive direction for revision. Say, for instance, that Reviewer 2 says that your research methods are questionable and the study in its current form is entirely unpublishable. Rather than believing that this means you need to redesign your entire study, you can respond with something like “I appreciate Reviewer 2’s comments about method, and I believe they indicate that I need to clarify the methodological underpinnings of my research and why they are appropriate to the research questions at hand. I will add several paragraphs on this matter in the introduction chapter.” Remember that you are an expert, and lean on your own expertise when deciding what changes should be made to the manuscript.

Misconception #4: You have to have an answer for everything the reviewers say.
When your editor asks you to write a response to the reader reports, they’re probably not looking for a 10-page itemized breakdown of every little piece of feedback the reviewers gave you. You can ask your editor what they expect, just to be sure, but in all likelihood, they’re looking for you to outline your revision plan in the space of two to three pages, max. You can focus on big picture matters—changes to the chapter order, chunks of content that you plan to insert or remove, broad stylistic revisions—without getting into the minutia of the phrasing Reviewer 3 wants you to change on p. 156.

Hopefully you now feel a bit less mystified about how to approach your response to your reader reports. If you want a pair of experienced eyes on your reports or on your response, please feel free to get in touch! I’m here to help you make a revision plan or to help you draft your response if you’re lost.

Did you notice that there was no newsletter last week? I’m transitioning the frequency of the Manuscript Works newsletter to once-every-two-weeks for now, but I’ve got some good stuff planned for the coming months (like that template for the response to reader reports), so I hope you won’t mind a less cluttered inbox for the time being.

You can sign up for the January session of the Manuscript Works Book Proposal Accelerator here. If you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get your book proposal drafted soon but just haven’t been able to make the time yet, this session will pull you through the entire process in a single month. Even if you don’t end up with a perfectly polished proposal at the end, you’ll definitely have enough to start talking with acquisitions editors and get the ball rolling on your next book! May I suggest signing up with a friend so you’ll have an accountability buddy?

Questions? Ask me here or over on Twitter!

Finally, congrats to my client Morgan G. Ames, whose book The Charisma Machine is now out from MIT Press in their Infrastructures series (which also features another fascinating client book, Documenting Aftermath by Megan Finn). Ames’s book is a timely takedown of the kind of technological utopianism that presumes tech is up to the task of solving deeper social problems like poverty and inequality, told through a historical and ethnographic tracing of the One Laptop per Child program. Well worth a read!

Pep Talks for Authors

What to tell yourself while you're on submission

Careful readers of this newsletter will know that I have been in the process of pitching a book of my own—a handbook for scholars on how to write a book proposal—since this summer. While that pitching process has a happy ending (or should have one very shortly, once the contract terms are worked out), I still found most of it utterly miserable and anxiety-provoking. Ok, maybe not “most” of it, but there were a few intense weeks that made me vow never to pitch another book again. Let me be clear: the anxiety was all of my own making. Nothing terrible happened to me, I got constructive feedback on my project from multiple sources, and (almost) everyone involved behaved professionally and fairly. But I still tied my stomach in knots about sending my project out and responding to the reviews of the proposal.

Inspired by literary agent Kate McKean’s subscribers-only post about handling feedback (subscribe to her Agents & Books newsletter—it’s worth it!), I wanted to share how I tried to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty while I was waiting to find out if anyone would be interested enough in my book to make an offer on it. I’m a believer in affirming self-talk as a needed countermeasure against my natural tendency to talk myself out of shooting my professional shot due to self-doubt. So I tried to come up with some true statements that I really believed, which I could repeat to myself when I started to worry about finding a publisher for my book. The really believe thing is key, because you can’t just con yourself into feeling good about your book or its chances of getting published. What you can do is remind yourself why you’re putting yourself through this ordeal in the first place so that you can focus on what really matters, not on the little anxiety and ego trips that will make you wish you’d never even tried.

I came up with three true things I could tell myself. I wrote them down and put them on a sticky note that I stuck to my second monitor, where I would see it every time I sat at my desk. They’re pretty generic, so they might work for you too if you find yourself in a similar situation! Here they are:

  • “It’s my book.”
    I had the idea to write this book, and I decided what I wanted to put in it. If it ultimately gets published, my name will be on it. So no matter what other people think of it or what changes they suggest I make to it, this is still my project. This pep talk helped me when I felt pulled in different directions by editors’ or reviewers’ comments or when I started to spin out on all the changes I imagined I would have to promise to make in order to get an offer. While I made sure to remain open to helpful suggestions (some reviewers really did have great ideas!), I also knew it was important to maintain confidence in my own voice and vision. I knew from my previous experiences with publishing that it’s excruciating to finish a book manuscript when you aren’t passionate about the project or too focused on what you think other people want you to say. So I knew that if I was going to accept an offer on this, my second book, it would have to be in a form that I felt complete ownership over and commitment to. In other words, it would still have to feel like my book.

    This pep talk will work for you even if you’re working on a research monograph (perhaps even more so). No one knows your data or your archive better than you do. And even if they did, no one else would have quite the same take on it or passion for the ultimate takeaway that you’ve landed on in your project. Remaining open to constructive feedback is necessary to make your book the best it can be, and sometimes you have to jump through some hoops to reach your professional goals, but don’t forget that you get to decide what this thing will ultimately be.

  • “I know my audience better than anyone, because I already speak to them every day.”
    This was the pep talk I used to quiet any doubts that I should be the one to write this book and to push back against a few reviewer suggestions that missed the point of what my book is aiming to do. While there are a lot of people out there who have experience and expertise in scholarly book publishing, my literal job is to translate information about scholarly book publishing for people who are actually right now today working on getting their books published. I’ve also learned how to explain to those prospective authors—in concrete, nuts-and-bolts terms—exactly how to shape their book proposals and manuscripts so they have the best chance of reaching editors, reviewers, and readers. And the evidence shows that I’ve been pretty effective at it, considering the books my clients have gotten published and the presses they’ve landed contracts with. So I was able to remind myself that I have a ton of personal knowledge about what connects with the kinds of people I’d be trying to reach with this book.

    If you’re writing a book based on your scholarly research, you too probably know your audience as well as anyone, though you may not yet have thought much about audience when it comes to your book. But if you take some time to figure out who you really want to speak to—scholars who attend the same conferences or read the same journals/books you do? students who take classes like the ones you teach? professionals or community members who move in similar circles to you?—and then make sure you’re actually speaking to and with those people in your daily life, you’ll be the expert not only on your subject matter and argument but also on how to make that argument land with your target readers. Again, you may get helpful suggestions from others that are worth taking, but you can maintain confidence in yourself as the arbiter of what is actually productive for reaching your audience and what is just distraction from what you’re really trying to do.

  • “I’m not looking for approval; I’m looking for the right partner for my book.”
    This is a tough one to internalize, because I think a lot of scholars and writers (and other people who self-identify closely with their occupation) are conditioned to want/need praise for their work to validate their own self-worth. But I had to remember that, ultimately, it did not matter whether a given editor or reviewer liked my project or thought it was super terrific. I mean, that might matter to me on a personal level, but in terms of my professional goal—which was to get this book published and into the hands of lots and lots of scholars working on their own book proposals—the important thing was to find an editor/press who understood what I was trying to do and had their own vision of how they could collaborate with me to do that thing.

    I’m always saying that you should revisit your professional goals for your book, and I’ll say that again here. If your goal is to get tenure, then you need to find a publisher who will be respected by senior colleagues in your field, who will subject your book to rigorous standards of peer review, and who will help you make sure your book’s publication is registered by enough people that it effectively enhances your scholarly reputation as the expert on your topic. If your goal is to have a crossover book that puts your ideas in front of a broader public, you might be looking for a different kind of publishing partner. If your goal is to get a book out that students and researchers can find in university libraries and that you can maybe send a copy of to your mom, you might be looking for a different kind of publisher still. Revisiting your own goals—beyond just “get a book published by any means necessary”—is empowering, because it helps you to keep in mind that you’re evaluating publishers just as much as they’re evaluating your project. They should be demonstrating throughout the submission and review process that they can and will do what is necessary to publish the book you want to publish, whatever that happens to be.

Maybe you have your own author self-pep-talks or want to come up with some alternative ones that make more sense for your particular alchemy of anxiety and insecurity. Please share them with me, if you do. Maybe you’re just lucky and the submission and review process doesn’t bother you at all. If that’s you, I envy you and I think you should start your own newsletter and let the rest of us know how you do it. For everybody else, I hope seeing my personal pep talks helps you feel a little better about your own journey to publication, which can be emotionally difficult even in the best of circumstances.

If you’re working on a scholarly book proposal of your own right now and could use some help (or a pep talk!), get in touch! I’m currently offering Quick Proposal Evals and Book Proposal Brainstorm Sessions to new clients. And there’s another session of my Book Proposal Accelerator starting up in January, if you’re ready to start from scratch and finish a draft in one month’s time!

To Mention Your Dissertation or Not

Here’s a question that comes up frequently among scholarly authors who are preparing to pitch first books: should I mention the dissertation in my book proposal or not? I think the confusion around this arises from the fact that as an early career scholar you are constantly being told that publishers don’t want dissertations, yet at the same time it seems as if all the people you went to grad school with are publishing books based on their dissertations. With good presses too. So what’s the deal? Will you tank your chances with a press if you reveal that your project was once a dissertation? Are all your grad school buddies somehow concealing this fact from their editors in order to land their book contracts?

The deal is that publishers aren’t interested in unrevised dissertations. Is this because editors are unfairly prejudiced against dissertations? Maybe, but it also has to do with a project’s audience, scope, and tone. In order to make economic sense for publishers, scholarly books have to reach audiences far larger than 3–5 people, whereas your dissertation really only had to make sense to your committee. In order to reach larger audiences, a book needs to have a bigger takeaway than dissertations often do. And it needs to be written with the reading and learning experience of the audience in mind. Dissertations are rarely written stylishly, and that’s fine, because their purpose is thoroughly utilitarian. Some people write beautiful, engaging dissertations, and good for them, but most of us were probably just happy to get the thing fully typed and submitted.

So, ok, let’s say you’ve taken a hard look at your dissertation and determined that you can revise it into a book manuscript that will appeal to an audience of hundreds or thousands of readers. You’ve zeroed in on a pretty good idea of just who those readers are and you’ve figured out how to reach them. You’ve expanded or refined the central argument, you’ve come up with a through-line that connects all the chapters, and you’ve arranged the material into a compelling narrative arc. You’ve done away with all the jargon and literature review and minutia of methodology. You have a book manuscript on your hands now, not a dissertation anymore.

But the question is still there: should you mention your dissertation in your book proposal? There are a few different ways to approach this! One way is to not bring up the dissertation at all. Let the proposal for the book stand on its own terms and see if an acquisitions editor wants it in its current form. Now, a savvy acquisitions editor is going to look at your CV and probably do some internet research about you, and they will likely discover that you wrote a dissertation on a similar topic to your proposed book. Will you be in trouble if they find this out without your telling them? If they liked the book you described in your proposal, I don’t see why they should have a problem with finding out it’s based on your dissertation. But, in the interest of transparency, you might go the other way and reveal the project’s origins in your dissertation up front. I have heard some acquisitions editors even suggest that the prospective author include a few paragraphs in their proposal explicitly describing how they have revised (or plan to revise) the manuscript so that it no longer looks like a dissertation. Including this material gives you a chance to really assure an editor that you won’t be turning in a dissertation when it comes time to have the manuscript reviewed.

I usually recommend a middle way between these two approaches. In my opinion, if you do a good job in the proposal of showing that your project has a clear central argument, that it makes a substantial contribution to scholarship in a given field, and that it has a well-defined audience, you’ve already provided implicit proof that you are not submitting an unrevised dissertation (or that your dissertation was much more book-like than most). In other words, if your book proposal does what it needs to do, your editor won’t even be worried about your dissertation looming in the background. You can then mention passingly (perhaps in the section of your prospectus where you talk about previous publication of any material to be included in the book) that the project began as your doctoral dissertation but has been revised substantially for publication as a book. The rest of your proposal will inspire confidence that this is true, and if the editor has more questions they can discuss them with you as needed.

Ultimately my answer to the question of whether you should mention your dissertation in your book proposal is that I don’t think it’s going to make or break your chances of getting an editor interested either way. If you think that writing a paragraph or two about how you have transformed your dissertation into a book would help to establish your authority and the viability of your project, go for it. If you don’t have a lot to say about the revisions (or you haven’t undertaken them yet), maybe don’t mention the dissertation for now, or just do so briefly.

This is also a good question to run by acquisitions editors in advance, if you have the opportunity to chat with them before you submit your proposal. Tastes vary (sometimes in seemingly arbitrary ways), so it’s always a good idea to find out your target editor’s preferences ahead of time, if you can. But again, I say, don’t stress too much about this detail. Get your project description, working title, and readership right, and you’ll get editors interested regardless of whether you’re working from a dissertation or not.

A brief reminder that I will be in Honolulu at the same time as the American Studies Association conference next month, and I’m setting up in-person Quick Proposal Evals while I’m there. This service includes me reading your proposal draft in advance and then having an hour-long meeting where we go over what you’re doing well and what you might want to tweak before you shop the proposal to presses. We can also talk submission strategy or anything else you have questions about regarding the scholarly book publishing process. If you’re planning to meet with acquiring editors while at the conference, a Quick Proposal Eval can be a good way to get a boost of confidence before you go into those meetings. I have just a couple spots left for the afternoon of November 8th, so please reach out if you’d like to get on my schedule!

Prefaces and Introductions

Does your book need them?

What’s the difference between a preface and an introduction? Does your book manuscript really need both?

In scholarly books, a preface is often a kind of meta commentary on the book’s content. It might include a story about how the author came to write the book or some personal information that situates the author in relation to the research. It’s just a few pages long and it doesn’t have to be read in order to absorb and appreciate the rest of the book’s scholarly contribution. It’s like a little bonus chapter before the rest of the text. Not all scholarly books have prefaces. In fact, the great majority of the books I work on as a developmental editor don’t have them.

An introduction is, conversely, an indispensable chapter in most scholarly books. The introduction must accomplish a few things: get the reader interested in the book’s subject matter, present the book’s major thesis and contribution, establish the stakes of the research and findings, offer contextual information that readers will need in order to understand the book’s content, lay out the book’s theoretical framework and approach, and (briefly) describe the methods used in undertaking the research for the book. Some authors include an outline of the book’s content (i.e. chapter summaries) in the introduction as well. (For another post on crafting your book’s introduction, click here.)

How do you know if your book should have a preface or not? I think the main question you should ask yourself is, “Do I care if my reader actually reads the stuff I want to put in the preface?” If the answer is yes, then I suggest that you figure out a way to weave that stuff into the Introduction. Let me give you a couple examples of books that have successful prefaces, and one example of a book that could have had a preface but didn’t:

  • Sarah Banet-Weiser’s book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018) is about the recent explosion in popularity of feminist values in mainstream media and culture and the concomitant response in the form of white male misogyny and violence. The book examines a variety of media case studies, and takes a fairly distant tone with respect to the content. By that I mean that while Banet-Weiser’s feminist political commitments are clear throughout, we don’t see her personal opinions or experiences woven into the text. That’s what she uses the preface for, to good effect! The preface talks about Banet-Weiser’s own experiences and feelings as she wrote the book amidst the 2016 presidential election and the difficulties she had in both writing the book and seeing the issues chronicled within it play out in front of her teenaged daughter. Very personal, very effective, not necessary reading in order to appreciate the rest of the book.

  • Renee Sentilles’ American Tomboys, 1850–1915 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018) is another book that uses the preface to share the author’s own personal experience with matters related to the book’s topic. While the book is a cultural history of tomboys in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the preface talks about Sentilles’ own identification with the figure of the tomboy in a much later historical period. Sentilles’ preface also offers some metacommentary on how the book’s material has been received by audiences prior to the book’s publication (everyone wants to talk to her about how they too were or knew a tomboy!) and some context that situates the book’s subject matter in present-day conversations about trans identities. Again, personal, effective, and outside the scope of the book’s actual project.

  • Lilly Irani’s Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton University Press, 2019) does not include a preface. This is not to say that her research was any less meaningful to her on a personal level. In fact, she talks in the book about her own background (professional, national, and linguistic), how that shaped her investments in the project, and how it both united and separated her from the people she studied in her ethnography. Irani certainly could have put this information in a preface, but she included it in the book’s introduction, because, as a feminist ethnographer, she felt it was absolutely necessary for the reader to understand in order to take in everything else that followed.

So you can see that prefaces can be used in different ways and sometimes you can dispense with them altogether. As with most aspects of scholarly writing and publishing, there’s no single correct answer as to whether your book should have a preface or not. I hope these three examples prove inspiring, whatever you decide for your own manuscript. (I am proud to have worked with all three of these authors on their book manuscripts, but of course they deserve all credit for the effectiveness of their prefaces or lack thereof.)

Speaking of Chasing Innovation, I’m so pleased to share that Lilly was awarded the 2019 Diana Forsythe Prize (for the best book of feminist anthropological research on work, science, or technology) by the American Anthropological Association. As I noted on Twitter the other day, Lilly is a model scholar-writer-activist who does not shy away from difficult work, which her beautiful book is a clear testament to. I know I’m biased, but it’s definitely well worth a read!

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