Advice for Would-be Book Authors

Industry leaders share perspectives on working with academic and trade presses

Ed Balleisen, Julia Reidhead and Dean Smith discuss the business of books.
Ed Balleisen, Julia Reidhead and Dean Smith discussed the changing book publishing industry in a recent talk at Rubenstein Library. Photo by Aaron Welborn.

Part of the role of a university press is to help authors identify the right publishing home for their work, even if that means “losing” the project to another press, Duke University Press Director Dean Smith told an audience of Duke faculty members, staff and students last week.

Smith’s comments were part of a conversation that also featured Julia Reidhead, president of W. W. Norton & Company, that provided advice for both prospective authors and students considering careers in publishing.

Moderator Ed Balleisen, Duke’s vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, prompted Reidhead and Smith to outline key distinctions between trade and academic presses. The two acknowledged that both industries consider a range of books, and that it may not always be obvious where a project is a better fit.

Reidhead and Smith’s tips on crafting effective book proposals: 1. “Foreground the argument” in the introduction to a book proposal, Smith said. Academic authors frequently try to address peer review comments in the proposal introduction. Instead, they should workshop the introduction and have a mentor review it as well. Then authors should “re-write it, trash it, and write it again.” 2. In addition to an introduction and sample chapter, a book proposal should include a sense for where the book fits within the canon, and what the author believes the book will add to the field. 3. Provide an assessment of the book’s market potential, as well as ways your platform and reach can help promote the book. If you are active on Twitter, or use other platforms for engagement, include that information in the proposal. The potential market for a book is a leading consideration for publishers like W.W. Norton, Reidhead said.  The company wants “to publish lasting, distinguished books, and often academics are the ones doing deeply researched, thoughtful narratives,” she said. A book that has the potential for strong initial sales in the trade market, as well as for longer-term sales as part of college reading programs or as course material, is something Reidhead would consider a strong candidate for publication.  

Each publisher has a distinctive culture, and it’s important to understand where your book might fit within a publisher’s offerings, Reidhead said.  Authors typically come to Norton or other trade presses through an agent. That’s not the case for academic presses, where most authors generally approach presses directly. Smith suggested that authors reach out to a university press editor in their discipline to gauge initial interest in their intended topic, and seek advice on the project early in the book planning process.

“How can you get my book on ‘Oprah’?” was a question he used to hear on a regular basis, Smith said.  Today, authors and publishers need to work together to calibrate expectations for a book project from the outset.  A book intended to support the author’s tenure candidacy requires a different editing and marketing approach than a book intended for a broad audience.

One area not worth debating with your publisher, according to Smith: cover design. “Trust the professionals here,” he advised.

“English majors apply here”

When she was a Yale University senior considering a graduate program in literature, Reidhead’s adviser Richard Brodhead, who would later serve as president of Duke, encouraged her to “get out into the world” first and see if she felt “called” back to the Ph.D. program.

Reidhead’s first job was a sales position at W.W. Norton. “I was really clueless. I wanted to talk to professors about books. And that naivete was a blessing, because you have to learn what it means to be a salesperson.

“Publishing is a business, but it’s a business about words,” she said. “If you’re a book person, reading and words are like glue. They give you a sense of shared purpose with other word people trying to reach readers and other idea people. I had to learn how to be in the business, and every year we have to reinvent the business.”

“English majors apply here,” Reidhead exhorted, noting that a humanistic background is perfect preparation for a career in publishing.

Smith noted that when assessing entry level candidates, he considers their oral and written presentation skills and their ability to manage projects and present ideas clearly.

Support your local indie bookstore

One issue in publishing that “keeps Reidhead up at night” is the consolidation of book distribution channels, which can make it difficult for readers to discover new books.

On channels such as Amazon, sales algorithms determine which books customers see, she said. By contrast, independent bookstores can hand-curate books and highlight personal favorites, helping readers find titles they might otherwise miss. And after stormy times, many independent stores are faring better these days, Reidhead said. Many have re-invented themselves and have found new ways to stay relevant, with cafés, author readings, and meeting spaces for book clubs. 

“We love the indies,” Reidhead said. “They punch above their weight. They can make a book.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Duke Libraries, Duke University Communications, the Publishing Humanities Initiative of the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Duke Faculty Write Program, and Duke University Press.