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!

What to look for in a developmental editor

A couple years ago, I published a Medium post outlining 8 Signs You Need a Developmental Editor for Your Academic Book. At the end of that post, I promised a future post that would cover what else to look for in a good developmental editor and how to find one who’s right for your project. Well, it took me a while, but here’s that post!

The profile of scholarly developmental editing has risen a lot over the past several years. Many more scholars are aware that developmental editing is a thing, and I’m happy to see many authors sharing that they have worked with developmental editors on their books. Once you’re sold on the idea of hiring a developmental editor to push your book manuscript (or book proposal or journal article) forward, you then have to find the actual person who is going to be a good match for your specific needs. There’s no central directory of all academic developmental editors (though you might try the Editorial Freelancers Association to see if anyone registered there appeals to you). My first tip, then, is to start asking around in your networks about which editors people have worked with or heard good things about. You’ll probably shake out at least a few names that way.

If you have never worked with a developmental editor before, you may not be sure how to evaluate an editor you’re considering. My first stop would be the editor’s website, but you may also want to make an appointment to speak with the editor directly before you make a decision. Many editors offer free initial consultations, so you shouldn’t be shy about setting one up. Every author’s criteria will be personal, but I’ve got a few questions you can ask yourself as you research editors:

Do they have experience with manuscripts like the one you want to produce?
If you’re working on a book, you want an editor who knows how books are structured and how to solve common problems in book manuscripts. Ditto for journal articles and book proposals. The field you’re writing in matters as well; because writing and publishing conventions differ across academic fields, you’ll want someone who is intimately familiar with what is expected in your field.

“Experience” with manuscripts may come in a few forms. An editor might have a long track record of working with clients on similar manuscripts to the one you’re writing. Or they may have published books or articles of their own. Or they may have an advanced degree in your field, which would point to, at the very least, their having read a lot of published work of the kind you want to produce. Many developmental editors will tick all three of these boxes.

Do they have a track record of helping authors get published?
Not all editors publicize the projects they’ve worked on (I do because I’m very proud of them and my clients are cool with it), but they should at least be able to assure you that they know what it takes to get published at the kinds of places you want to get published. If you want to publish with a university press or academic journal, you may want to find an editor who has worked on the publishing side with one of those entities in the past.

Can they accommodate your timeline?
Many experienced developmental editors book up months in advance, especially for long projects like book manuscripts. If you need help now, you may want to narrow your search to people who are more flexible in their availability. Some editors will take jobs on short notice but charge a rush rate, which, if you have the money to throw at the problem, is a great way to get on someone’s schedule right away.

Can you afford them?
Developmental editors are professionals who charge for their time and expertise. So they don’t always come cheap. If you are on a tight budget, you may want to look for editors who are just starting out and hoping to build a portfolio (hopefully they have other kinds of experience that cause you to trust their advice). Not all editors post their rates publicly, but that’s something you should be able to ascertain with an email or initial consultation. While you may not be able to find out exactly how much your job will cost when it’s all said and done, the editor should at least be able to give you an estimate or range based on what your needs are. If you find an editor you love but you have budget concerns, you can mention what you’re working with to the editor. If I really want to work on a particular project, I will often find a way to alter the scope of my work or offer a different service that will align with the funds a client has available.

Do you like their vibe?
Editors have different personal styles (we’re human, so duh) and you might need to check out a few before you find one who just feels like the right fit. Some editors are very professional and direct, some are more warm and nurturing, some are quirky and awkward (just like a lot of writers out there). Because sharing your unpolished work with someone can put in you in a vulnerable emotional spot, you need to feel safe and with your editor. For some people, “safe” means “won’t sugarcoat their feedback,” while for others it means “will make sure to encourage me and keep my morale up” or “won’t judge me for being quirky and awkward myself.” No one style is better than another, it’s just a question of what you’re most comfortable with.

If you’re talking with an editor who doesn’t seem like quite the right fit, that’s ok. You can thank them for their time and move on. Many editors will be happy to provide referrals to their colleagues as well. If I can’t accommodate a prospective client’s timeline, budget, or disciplinary needs, I’m always eager to suggest an editor friend or two who I think might be a better match.

If think you may want to look for a developmental editor but you’re not sure when you’ll need them, my advice is to start looking now. The editor you want may need several months’ notice to get you on their schedule. This post may help you too: When to Bring in a Developmental Editor on Your Academic Book Project.

Any questions about finding a developmental editor that I didn’t answer here? Shoot me an email and I’ll try to help!


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. I have a couple spots left for the afternoon of November 8th, so please reach out if you’d like to get on the schedule!

Some Manuscript Works Housekeeping

Today’s newsletter is more of a year-in-review and housekeeping update than an advice post, but I hope you won’t mind one of these every once in a while. 2019 has so far been an unexpectedly busy year for me and Manuscript Works. One of my goals for the year was to diversify my editorial and consulting activities and I’ve managed to accomplish that: in addition to the one-on-one developmental editing work I’ve always done, this year I’ve added my book proposal accelerator, a webinar and online course for academic editors, much more consulting work on book proposals, and, of course, this newsletter.

A challenge I’ve faced as my editorial business has grown is that there’s only one of me and only so much time I can spend working with authors one-on-one. The accelerator and this newsletter have helped me reach more people when my editing schedule is full and, I hope, given many more authors the tools to develop their scholarly book projects and pitch them with confidence. Those have also been the aims of my Quick Proposal Eval service, which has allowed me to assist several authors on short notice with a speedy shot of feedback, encouragement, and strategic planning. Some of those clients have even seen results within a matter of days: a scholar I did an eval session with last week already has bites from two excellent presses. You love to see it!

My other major project this year has been a book manuscript that I conceived this spring and pitched to a handful of publishers this summer. It’s a handbook on scholarly book proposals, and I should soon be able to tell you who is publishing it and approximately when. I hope to have a full draft of that manuscript complete by early spring 2020, but in order for me to meet that deadline, my scheduling books will unfortunately continue to be closed to new clients. The one exception will be the Quick Proposal Evals, which I’ll still be scheduling all through this fall and winter. Watch this space early next year for updates on when my editing schedule will be fully open again. And definitely watch this space for updates about the handbook because you know I will not miss a chance to give you an insider peek into how books get written, edited, and published.

And hey, one more thing! I will be in Honolulu in November for a much-anticipated break from my one-year-old and four-year-old (they’re lovely but I really need a vacation). My trip will coincide with the first few days of the American Studies Association conference; if you will be there too and want to schedule an in-person Quick Proposal Eval, please hit me up.

The 4 Basic Audiences for Scholarly Books

If you’re planning to pitch your book for publication, one of the things you’ll definitely be asked about is the book’s intended audience. Why do publishers care about this? For one thing, a book with a clearly defined audience is usually just written better than one where the author wasn’t quite sure who they were trying to reach with their message. But really, as far as the publisher is concerned, the question of audience is a question of marketing and distribution. A publisher needs to know whether the kinds of people you want your book to reach are the kinds of people the publisher has the ability and know-how to reach. The publisher will also take cues from your proposal in thinking about how to present your book to the people who might buy it. If the acquisitions editor, in concert with publicity and marketing staff, can see a clear path to putting your book in front of the right potential buyers with the right sales appeal, that makes it easier for them to see your manuscript as a good investment for their press. So, to put it another way, the question of audience is also a question of “fit”—you know, that thing that acquisitions editors are always saying they’re looking for when they find out about a new book project.

When you submit a scholarly book proposal to an acquisitions editor, they may have some of their own ideas about who will want to read your book and how to reach those people. But your thoughts about this question also matter, because it’s important that your vision for your book is compatible with that of your publisher. There are many different ways you could articulate the audiences you envision for your book, and, as usual, there’s no single “correct” answer. That said, you will want to define your audiences in ways that will be legible to a non-expert on your subject matter, so you don’t want to think too narrowly or with too much academic nuance when you’re describing the people who might buy the book.

So let me make this easy for you. I’ve seen a lot of scholarly book proposals and book manuscripts, and there are basically four different audiences such books get written for. These audiences are not mutually exclusive, but readers may respond in different ways to different styles of presentation, so you’ll want to think about which audiences you are prioritizing as you craft your pitch (and the manuscript itself). My standard disclaimer: you don’t necessarily have to articulate your audiences in this way in order to have a successful book proposal. I just broke down these four categories based on what I’ve seen work for my clients and because I think this schema helps bring order to what can feel like a hazy aspect of pitching a book for writers who don’t have much experience with the publishing side. So here they are, the four basic audiences for scholarly books:

Other scholars. If your purpose for writing the book is to make an original contribution to the scholarship in your field—to produce and disseminate new knowledge that others will cite and build on with their own original contributions—then your primary audience is other scholars. This includes people with PhDs as well as advanced graduate students doing specialized research. If you need a book for tenure, the book usually has to address this type of scholarly audience. If this is an audience you will be naming in your proposal, you can also mention the specific field(s) of the scholars you are writing for.

Students. If your purpose for the writing the book is to shape how a particular subject or concept is understood by people who are not necessarily looking to become experts, then your book may have good potential to reach undergraduate students (and the scholars who assign reading to them). Such books can also be appealing to advanced scholars from outside your field who may need a primer or introduction to your topic in the course of producing their own scholarship. In your proposal, you can mention what types of courses and what level (e.g. introductory, upper-level undergraduate, etc.) the book could be adopted in.

Practitioners. I use this term as an umbrella that covers readers like activists, advocates, journalists, policy-makers, public educators, and others who have a strong connection to your subject matter and a practical need to learn from your scholarship in the course of their daily work. If you want your book to help these types of readers, then it’s important to emphasize the practical stakes of your findings and how your research can be applied to the everyday situations these readers encounter. In your proposal, you can mention which specific types of practitioners will find your work useful. It will also help to offer some evidence that such readers are in the habit of seeking out scholarly research on your topic or that you have a platform for reaching these readers directly.

General readers. If your scholarly book tells a great story on a broadly interesting topic, then you might have the potential to “crossover” and appeal to readers who don’t normally buy academic or scholarly books. Chances are those readers can be described more specifically than just “general readers,” though, because they are actually united by an interest in birds and wildlife, or Black women’s history, or technology and society, or whatever your topic happens to be. In your proposal, you should give this more specific description of the non-academic readers who will find your book interesting and, ideally, demonstrate that you already have a platform among these readers.

As I said above, your scholarly book can target more than one of these audiences. It’s rare that a single book appeals to all four of them, but it can be and has been done. My recommendation as a developmental editor is to choose the one or two target audiences that are most important to you and to keep those audiences in mind as you write (and pitch) the book. When it comes time to tell an acquisitions editor who the readership for your book is—most publishers’ submission guidelines will ask you to talk about audience in your proposal—you can mention any or all of these types of readers. It may help to prioritize them in order of importance, however, because that will help the publicity and marketing staff understand where they should concentrate their efforts. And remember that there’s no need to oversell the “general reader” or even non-academic practitioners if your main concern is that your book is received well among academics. A book with a small but clearly defined audience can be easier to sell, and may even sell more copies, than one where no prospective reader is quite sure whether the book is for them or not.


I’ve been giving this audience spiel with some frequency lately, because I’ve been doing a lot of quick proposal evals for authors who are getting ready to submit book proposals this fall. If you’d like some objective eyes on your proposal and some prompt advice on how you can make an even better pitch for your project, get in touch!

The Quick Proposal Eval is the only service I’m currently offering to new clients right now. You can also enroll in the next session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator, which runs January 3rd–31st, 2020. If you are hoping to schedule another service with me, like a full book manuscript assessment, keep an eye on this space. I’ll have an update to share about my 2020 schedule soon, I hope!

A Cringe-Worthy Author Faux Pas

Last week, I talked in this newsletter about how simultaneous submission is one of those things many scholarly book publishers take for granted, while many authors don’t even know it’s a thing. While there are some publishers and editors who won’t consider manuscripts that are also under consideration at other presses, the default assumption (in my experience anyway) is that simultaneous submission is fair game. If a publisher requires exclusivity at any stage—especially submission—I think they ought to make this clear and explicit to all submitting authors. But then there are a lot of unstated expectations in scholarly publishing that I think ought to be more clear and explicit to authors. It’s why I write this newsletter (and why I’m working on a guide to book proposals).

Just a day after I posted that newsletter, I received an email from a person I don’t know asking for my advice. Coincidentally, their question also had to do with simultaneous submission (I don’t think they’d read the newsletter, because they referenced a different blog post I’d written when explaining why they were writing to me). When I read this person’s story and question, I thought, “oh no, this is how things go really wrong when people don’t understand the expectations in publishing and publishers don’t make their expectations explicit.” Without giving enough identifying information to expose this author, here was their situation:

The author had submitted their scholarly book proposal simultaneously to two publishers, one a commercial academic house and another a university press. Both ultimately responded positively, but the commercial house moved faster. They got reader reports based on the submitted proposal and offered the author a contract. The university press was also interested, but they moved more slowly. They also got positive reader reports, and offered the author a contract, but they took several months to do so. The process took so long that the author had already signed the contract offered by the first press by the time the UP came through with an offer. The sad part of the story is that the author had major regrets and really wanted to publish with the university press now. They were writing to me to ask if I thought they could get out of the first contract so that they could now sign with the UP.

My answer: uh, no. I mean, first of all, a book contract is a legally binding document. Everyone is bound to fulfill the terms of the agreement; on the author’s end that means furnishing a manuscript and on the publisher’s end that means bringing that manuscript to print. But even if the author could get the first publisher to release them from the contract, that probably wasn’t the author’s biggest problem. If the second publisher became aware that the author had allowed them to continue with peer review and drawing up an offer after that author had already signed a contract with another publisher? Well, that would be pretty bad. Because at that point, the author would be perceived to be operating in bad faith with the second publisher, who was putting time and resources into a project that, legally, was already promised to someone else. Perhaps it’s possible that the second press was aware from the start that the book was under review at multiple publishers (because this happens frequently, and is often ok with everyone), but I very much doubt they would have continued on with peer review and the offer had the author promptly told them the result of their dealing with Press #1.

I wished I had better news to give the advice-asker. I really cringed for them, because I’m sure they had no idea that they had committed a huge faux pas by not being transparent with both publishers and by letting things get so far along with Press #2 after things were settled with Press #1. I feel for them, because probably no one—including their editors at both presses—had made clear to them what was expected of them in this situation. I hope they end up happy with the first press, and I kind of hope no one at Press #2 ever realizes what happened, so this (I think innocent) author can save some face.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I could easily have found myself in the same position as this author because I had no idea this was even a thing,” then I completely understand and empathize. You might even be wondering if you’ve done anything cringe-worthy as an author without even being aware of it to this day! I’ve been there too! An episode like this just reminds me why it’s so important to spell out all the unwritten rules of this game, particularly when those rules seem obvious to people on the inside. Even when I posted my newsletter last week, I got mixed responses, with some people chiming in on Twitter to disagree with my claim that simultaneous submission is an ok thing to do. If people who work on the publishing side can’t even agree on what the norms are (and they often can’t), how can authors be expected to intuit and navigate expectations?

I think the takeaway here is that publishers should post their submission policies publicly and make them easy to find for authors. And perhaps editors can take an extra beat to make sure authors are aware of those policies from the very beginning, to save everyone some headache and heartache down the road. Authors: try to learn as much as you can about scholarly publishing before you jump into the process. I know that can be a haphazard process, and you still probably won’t be able to avoid every misstep, but I (and others) are here to help.

If you’re feeling mystified by some aspect of getting your scholarly book published, you can reply to this newsletter and your question will come straight to my inbox. Maybe I’ll answer it next week!


Two more pieces of Manuscript Works news this week:

First, this newsletter got a nice shout-out in an Inside Higher Ed column by @theJuniorProf. You can go read the article for some additional insider wisdom on first-time book authorship from Duke University Press’s Elizabeth Ault and University of Texas Press’s Jim Burr.

And second, I had the distinct pleasure of finding and purchasing my client Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze “in the wild” at a Barnes & Noble store this weekend! It’s somewhat rare for new scholarly books to be stocked in a big retail store like this, and it’s a real compliment to the author that both her press and B&N thought casual book shoppers would want to pick up her book after seeing it on the shelf. I couldn’t be happier for Liz!

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