How to get started writing a book and getting published is an opaque process. What makes for a good book? How do you even contact a press, find an editor, and pitch them? What does a pitch or book proposal even look like? Massive spoke with Miranda Martin, editor at Columbia University Press — specializing in neuroscience, paleontology, and earth and climate — to talk through the details of the process.
Dan Samorodnitsky: Can you give us an overview of how an author pitches a press?
Miranda Martin: So there's a couple of different ways that you can go about this, and it depends a little bit on what kind of book you're working on. You can look for a literary agent. In general, you don't have to, unless if you're trying to work with one of the big trade publishers (the word “trade” just means like the big popular ones, like Penguin Random House is the biggest one right now). A lot of those places won't look at proposals that come into them without an agent.
But smaller places, and university presses absolutely will. I think in university presses the majority of projects are just coming from authors directly. I would say the the two main ways to do it are seek out a literary agent, or just to query a publisher.
Does that mean emailing a person like you directly or is it just going to the publisher website and emailing their general contact email?
The best thing to do would be to find the editor who does the subject that you're working in. Really just try to find the editor who is working in your subject area.
I think a lot of university presses list who their editors are and what they acquire, somewhere on the website, so you can just kind of poke around. In my career I have worked at MIT Press, and at the University of Chicago Press, and I know both of those presses lists their editors and what they do.
Also, editors travel to conferences. So, for example, the standard conferences that I attend are the American Geophysical Union, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, and the Society for Neuroscience. So, if you go to a big or even a small conference, you can go to the exhibit hall and see, are there publishers? If they're selling their books, go up, you can go to the booth and, potentially, the person working the booth is the acquiring editor, and you can just talk to them kind of informally to get their business card. And if it's not the editor, they should be able to direct you to the editor so you can cold email.
And I try to network with people, too. So, sometimes I'll cold email people and just be like, Hey, can you tell me what you're working on? I think it seems really cool.
So let's say I've made contact with an editor. What does a pitch look like? How's the pitch formatted? How much detail is appropriate?
I do get cold emails with a pitch fairly often. And I'm always happy to get them. If they're not a good fit, subject wise, or we don't really publish in that area, I'll say that.
You don't need to have a whole bunch written. I would say it's okay if you aren't 100% sure of everything. Even to just reach out and say, “here's who I am. I am working on this book idea. Here's what it's about and why I'm qualified to write it.” It can be, you know, even just a couple paragraphs, to find out if the press that you're contacting would be interested in doing it.
If the publisher has a page that says on their website somewhere that says what they want, you can just follow that. But, for me, personally, I have no problem receiving even somewhat informal emails that say, I have this idea and here's why I'm qualified. “Is this something that would be relevant or interesting to you before I put more work in it?” And I will tell you, if I think it's a good fit, or if I know right off the top of my head that like, “Oh, that sounds like a great fit for this other editor.” I know I don't mind sharing that.
If you want to do a whole proposal, right off the bat, which you might want to do, you definitely can. And most publishers, I think, will have some kind of guidelines about what they're looking for in a full book proposal, which is more like a whole description of the book. [A proposal contains] a little bio about who the author is, why they’re qualified, a tentative chapter outline, annotated, with descriptions about what's going to be in each chapter. That, for me, as an editor, really gives me a full picture.
Who’s the audience? Is it mainly for scientists? Is it a book for coursework? Are you trying to do a popular science book that will reach general readers or somewhere inbetween? Our guidelines also asked for a little bit of market analysis. So like what books already exist [in this genre]?
I actually have a lot of opinions about the way people think about the market analysis part of a book proposal.
Please share them.
Most proposal guidelines are gonna ask you: what are the competitive books, like what kinds of books are already on the market? You might be tempted to prove that this exact book that you have an idea for hasn't already been written yet, which is a fine thing to do. But that's not really the point of the question. You don't need to say, “there's zero other books like this on the market,” what you really want to do is come up with some books that are kind of similar, that have something in common, whether it's a tangentially related topic or very closely related topic, or it's for the same audience written at the same level.
We want to know that you're aware of what the landscape is, you're aware of what the other books are. And you're aware of how your book idea fits in with those, how it's different, how it's similar, what kinds of readers are you going for. We can get a general idea of what kinds of readers are interested in books that are already published. And in some cases, we can get a general idea of how well those books sold, which for us isn't necessarily going to be like, “Oh, we know that book didn't sell well. So we're not interested in your book.” We don't really work that way. But some publishers might.
How much intervention should a writer expect from an editor about the overall direction of the book, and at what stage?
I think that varies a lot across like different presses, different editors, even different editors at the same publisher. Some editors don't actually do that much hands-on editing, they sort of let authors do their thing. But some editors get really hands on with tons of things. If you're having a conversation with an editor, and it's important to you to get a lot of internal guidance, it's totally fine to ask how they work.
I'm generally getting the sense that [first time book] authors have this preconceived notion that they have to have everything about a book figured out, or they have to know how to write a book, before they ever write a book.
I think you should be able to talk to your editor, before you even sign a contract with with a publisher. Ideally, you'll feel comfortable talking to them and asking questions and taking guidance. A lot of publishers like it when authors are willing to take feedback and suggestions and are open to being edited. Because even sales and marketing departments have opinions about what might be most appealing in some way for them to sell and market the book, and the editor will report that back.
All of my colleagues are happy to know when authors are open to that kind of feedback, although at the same time, we're not going to strictly dictate what you do. You're not necessarily on your own. It's hard work writing a book, I'm not gonna say that it's not, but we approach it, I think in a really collaborative sort of way.
Once an author submits a proposal, what happens then?
At the very least, there's going to be some kind of editorial meeting where there's approval by a group of people before there's a contract offered. At many university presses, we will send the proposal and probably a sample chapter out for peer review. It's a much more big picture review than what you are probably used to with scientific journal peer reviews. The questions that we ask peer reviewers are like, “You tell us in your own words, what this book is. Is the author qualified? Who's the audience? Should it be cut or lengthened? What are your general suggestions and do you recommend that we offer a contract?
We also have a faculty board that approves everything before we even offer a contract. I will ask authors for a response to the peer reviews, just to give them the last word, to explain, contextualize, agree, disagree, whatever. And then once we have approval from [the faculty board], then yes, then we can offer a contract. The contract will specify when the full manuscript is due. And you can talk to the editor about how much contact you want or not. Often, it'll be like, okay, now you owe us this manuscript, in a year, or whatever, and you can go off and, and write it. And that's what you get.
How does a press decide that a writer has the credentials to write the book that they're proposing?
I think it varies a little bit by field. For me, I publish a lot of popular science books, [a genre] which has kind of a wide range of people who are qualified to write in it. Because there are people who have science backgrounds, but then they transition into science communication. Or there are people who have journalism backgrounds, who then become science journalists, or science writers who don't have science backgrounds, but are basically professional writers. All of that is valid.
So someone needs to have a background, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a formal background.
You don't have to have a PhD to write a science book. A lot of people do have PhDs, you don't have to. You just have to have some kind reason why you're an appropriate person to write the book you want to write. And that can be a lot of different things.
I guess my last question is: how does an author discern what makes a good and reliable publisher from a bad publisher?
This is a really important question. That is not something I personally think about very often, but I'm glad that someone asked, f you end up with a literary agent, and then [the publisher is] untrustworthy, your agent can tell you, if you're not working with an agent, which is totally valid and fine, you should do a little bit of research yourself. One thing is, if it's a university press, it’s probably fine. You should be able to look and see if they're a member of the , which should tell you that it's fine.
The big commercial publishers where you already know their names, and you own a bunch of books published by them, probably fine. You know, Bloomsbury, etc. If you can look at their website and see other books that you have heard of, that seemed familiar, that seemed like legitimate books, probably okay.
If they asked you for money, like upfront to look at anything, that’s a big no. You don't want that. That's the main red flag, you should never have to pay a fee just to have something you're working on considered. That's a no.
All publishers are different, and they sort of focus on different things, and they have different strengths and weaknesses. You can look at a publisher’s website, at their latest catalog, and see what they focus on, see what books they publish, what seemed like the strongest [books], and use that to determine who you're reaching out to when you want to pitch a book. See what genres they publish in. If you are working on, like, a sci fi book, that's great. I love that genre as a reader, but I don't really I don't get to publish in that.
But it really is just a matter of like, this isn't the kind of book that we do. And this isn't really the subject area that we do, we can't do everything. You can't do every genre. But there are a lot of different publishers who do a lot of different things. That doesn't mean it's not good or that it won't be published. It just means I'm not the right editor for it, Columbia's not the right press for it. Hopefully, another editor will love it, and it'll be a great fit, often it is a great fit for another publisher. And I have actually benefited from that, of authors coming to me and saying, you know, this editor recommended you, they said it wasn't a good fit for their press, but maybe you would want to do it and I totally do.
For inquiries, Miranda Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.