What’s the Best Publisher for Your Book?

Abel Polese suggests four variables to consider when choosing where to send your manuscript.

November 5, 2019

If you are in the humanities or social sciences, you may regard a monograph or book, especially your first one, as a milestone in your career. Let’s assume that you have patiently collected and processed your data, interpreted them and found good theoretical paradigms to engage with. Now it’s time to write a proposal and choose a publisher to approach.

How to choose one? Well, it is usually a matter of trial and error. Send your proposal here and there, get a few rejections, and eventually stumble into a publisher interested in your book. Submit and enter academic adulthood.

Often your choice of a publisher will be based on the answer to “Who is the first publisher available?” rather than “Who is the best publisher for my work at this stage?” Once published, you will start reflecting on whether what you got was what you needed or deserved. The more you publish after that, the better you will understand your priorities and career necessities.

All that said, however, choosing one publisher over another for your first book could have a major impact on your early career. A vanity press will be a spot on your CV difficult to wash off, but a too-demanding publisher will take some of the time and effort you need to devote to other things to get your first job. If you are trying to identify the best publisher for your work, as a starting point, I suggest you consider your position with regard to four variables: pricing policy, prestige, speed and marketing.

Price. What is the average price of the books you ordered from the library in the past 12 months? Academics have been domesticated to think that $135 for a book is somehow acceptable. After all, companies have lots of fixed costs to cover, along with layout, proofreading, marketing and more. That said, some publishers manage to keep prices low and survive by publishing at $25 to $35. Others shoot high but then print a fairly priced paperback after some time.

Would you agree to publish and then ask people to buy “the book of your life” at $135? Your colleagues might congratulate you but not be able to afford to open it.

My take: If you want to be widely read and present in libraries, be sure you agree with the price policy of your potential publisher.

Prestige. Academe rests on an economy of prestige rather than money. Early careers are particularly vulnerable to that, and people exchange hours, and their social life, for unpaid and often unrecognized extra lines on their CV. Accordingly, the question when choosing a publisher is not “How much I can make?” but “How much prestige, credit and visibility can I claim?”

Many of us are likely to think that the content of a book published with a major publisher is better than the one published with a half-anonymous one. We could, in fact, define prestige as the percentage of people who will blindly think that your book is better than another one simply because it’s with that publisher.

Prestige will impact the number of “points” you receive at your home university when applying for a promotion, as well as your reputation with national and international communities. Obviously, waving a Cambridge University Press book at an event will bring more people to admire -- or envy -- you than one by a less coveted publisher.

But prestige has a price in terms of time and efforts. The more prestigious the press, the more difficult -- and slower -- it will be to be published by it.

My take: The more prestigious the publisher, the harder it will work to ensure your book meets its standards. Although it might take several years, a book with Oxford University Press might be a boost to your career. It will be hard to satisfy the reviewers, but it will be an excellent growth opportunity.

But do you have the time, energy and enthusiasm to go through this process? If your job-hunting strategy includes having a manuscript on your CV, you might want to prefer something less prestigious but more quickly “affordable” in the short run.

At the same time, if all your books are with less prestigious publishers, some people might question your capacity to produce quality research. If you do not manage to build up a reputation so that people read your work just because it’s you, it might be worth at some point of your career to have a book with a major publisher as a way to claim “It is my choice to go for publishers that are less well-known. I publish wherever I want.”

Speed. This often correlates to the prestige of the publisher for two reasons. First, more academics target a prestigious publisher. That means that publisher receives a high number of proposals and cannot process them all quickly.

Second, if it has a reputation, chances are that it has earned it, at least to some extent. Top university publishers usually have a two-stage peer-review mechanism. First, the editors review your proposal and then ask you to send the whole manuscript for peer review. Think how long the peer review of your last 10,000-word article took and try to guess how long it will take a peer review of a 100,000-word manuscript. Depending on how the peer review is organized, publication of your manuscript will take between one year (a very optimistic forecast) and around five years. The longest time I’ve waited to see a book published was eight years.

In contrast, many midrange publishers peer review your book proposal but not the book itself -- which is only screened by a commissioning editor or someone with experience -- thus taking less time. And commercial publishers, in some cases, might be more concerned about the saleability of a title than its top quality, so they may move your book along much faster.

My take: If your work is empirical, it makes sense to publish it quickly -- before it moves from current events to history. Once the empirics are out, you might want to take some time to reflect on their theoretical relevance to produce a book that will remain as a reference. In such a case, a “slow” book might be a long-term investment for your career.

Marketing strategy. Publishing a book is not the end but rather its beginning. You have cooked your raw data into something that people can read. Now you must get them to read it.

How effective is your publisher’s marketing strategy? Do they attend major conferences that your potential audiences attend? Do they use distribution tools such as book trailers, contacts with media, social media accounts? Ultimately, your career depends on your visibility, so if you do not have 100,000 followers on Twitter, you might need a publisher to reach a large audience.

My take: The more you are visible on social media, the less you need help from the publisher. But if you are a media guru or an influencer, chances are that your book will be widely visible even with zero support from the publisher.

There may be no perfect publisher for your book, but you can definitely identify a publisher that suits your objectives at your current career stage. There is also no guarantee that publisher will match your expectations on each of the four variables above, but having in mind your priorities will help you to negotiate a deal you can live with.


Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser, currently based at Dublin City University in Ireland. He is the author of The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.


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