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Fearless Academic Publishing with Susan Ferber

For the humanities, the monograph is the gold standard, but getting a book published can feel like running a decathlon. There are hurdles aplenty, sprints to finish, and a lot of heavy (intellectual) lifting. What many authors want is a coach with insider knowledge of the sport, and that’s where Susan Ferber steps in.

On April 11, Susan Ferber, executive editor for American and World history at Oxford University Press, sat down with a roomful of Ph.D. candidates and early-career professors to demystify the details of academic publishing. She shared what she’s learned in two decades at Oxford, and what she wants her prospective authors to know.

I have a dissertation, and I want to turn it into a book. Where do I start?

You can start anytime by going to conference exhibit halls. Academic publishers aren’t just there for you to buy our books: you can use all of our booths as research material. Wander around and look at not just what is on display, but what’s not on display too. Publishers usually fall into a few niches, so getting to know what the our strengths and weaknesses are is the most important thing you can do. Even if you have only a broad idea of your project, you can see what publishers might fit: are they archivally-driven? Are they highly theoretical? What new series are starting? What’s their trajectory over time; what have they published in the last 5-10 years?

At smaller, niche conferences, series editors may scout new, up-and-coming work to include in their series. I highly recommend having conversations with those people, and be honest about the stage you’re at, whether you’re finishing a dissertation or have revised two chapters. It may be that you don’t end up publishing with those people, but the more that you can learn, you can start thinking about where you want to place your work.

And don’t discount oral histories. You can learn a lot by talking about people about their publishing histories. Talk to the people in the cohort ahead of you in publishing; talk to people who have done first books recently.

How long should I spend researching, and when’s the right time to do it?

I truly believe that the best time to pitch a project is not before you finish your dissertation. In the course of finishinging your dissertation, you’ve probably come across many ideas that you didn’t have a chance to put into the project. It’s hard to know what a dissertation may turn into, so getting some distance from the project and thinking about your dissertation as the first draft of your manuscript is the healthiest thing that you can do.

What’s in a book proposal?

A proposal is essentially your “calling card” to publishers, to pique their interest so they ask for more. Parts of this proposal can be recycled for job applications, fellowship applications, job talks, anything that allows you to introduce your work to non-specialists.

Begin with an overview, and be honest about your status. I do not think of first books as negative–they are among some of the most highly researched, methodologically innovative books I work with.

The proposal should include a description of your book in which you lay out the argument and arc of your book. Your discursive section should look like an introduction to your book, so write it in the style you hope to write the book in. Talk about the specific contributions to the field you want to make, and what’s important about the book. You might try the “cocktail party test”: what are non-specialists most excited about when they hear your project?

Your annotated table of contents show me your narrative and interpretive style. Here I’m looking for the architecture of your book: Is this a series of case studies? Does it take a rise-and-fall format or chronological flow? Make sure your working chapter titles are really clear (I don’t recommend an experimental style here) and provide a few sentences about their contents and sources.

Discuss your audience and a list of comparable/competitive books, and then talk about what I call the “nuts and bolts.” Tell us how many words your manuscript is or the length you’re aiming for, including notes. (We know that you can play around with font because we do it too.) Also tell us if you work with images, tables and graphs, or other inclusions.

How long is a typical proposal?

Most projects are about 95,000 – 115,000 words long, but shorter isn’t bad. Nobody has more time to read than they used to! The whole proposal often runs 10-20 pages, you want to show off the idealized version of your project. You may not have already created the entire manuscript this way, but the proposal can be a chance to create the book you want to write.


Where does my book fit, and how do I know before I publish it?

Knowing yourself, and by extension, your audience for this project is really important. It’s hard to speak to undergraduates, graduates, scholars of the field, and general readers all at once. I’m not sure there is a thing as the mythical general reader, but there are buffs and armchair readers. Most books fit one or more academic sub-discipline, so you’ll want to make that clear, especially if it brings together disciplines that aren’t typically together.

Thinking about comparable and competitive titles is hard when you’re pitching a unique project. However, think of it on a library shelf: there will be something on the left and right of the book. You can refer to your intellectual tradition in this section, and I’d suggest keeping it to the last 5 years. What other books ask similar questions, or different questions of the same period, or the same questions of a different country? This is a place to tell us what company you keep, and what company you’d like to keep.

I can only send out my proposal to one publisher at a time, right?

Not necessarily. 25 years ago, there weren’t as many options, and it was absolutely verboten to send something to more than one place at the same time. That’s not as true anymore, but different presses have different policies about multiple submissions. Be clear about the policies, and follow them: editors have really long memories, and you do not want to be remembered as the person who crossed an editor.

When you send out a proposal, note if it’s a solo or a multiple submission. You might say something like, “You’re the publisher of X,Y, and Z books, and so I’m sending this to you first as a solo submission and I will wait to hear back from you before speaking to another publisher.” You may also end a letter by saying something along the lines of, “As this is my first book, I’m trying to gauge interest from a very select number of publishers, and I’m interested in yours because X, Y, and Z.” Whatever you do, be open and honest with us. (And be extremely careful to you identify the editors correctly!)

Audience question: I’m a late-stage ABD heading to a conference in about a month–what’s the best use of my time in the book exhibit hall?

If you haven’t written to publishers already, now is a good time to email 2 or 3 publishers you’ve been eyeing and see if they have any time left to meet with you. I would collect all their information that you need so you can approach them after the conference, when we’re less frazzled and more able to hear. The research you can do by looking at the offerings is also a really valuable use of your time. And you can make an appointment with editors to meet at the next conference, so you can send them a short topic description.

Audience question: When turning a dissertation into a book, what proportion of the research can be published as articles and then appear in a book?

We look at this as a matter of degree, and the process of working with editors at a journal is great training for working with book publishers. We want to see things that have been published in top journals, and then we look at the degree of work that’s already appeared. It’s common for us to see 1-2 pieces of the book that have been adapted into articles. At the same time, we don’t want people cannibalizing the book project by publishing too many articles. We look for balance, and it depends on how many chapters you write and what venues you publish in, especially if you’re working in multiple subfields and using articles as platform-building.

This event was sponsored by the Department of History and the Davis Humanities Institute.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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