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Ask an Editor: What Should You Ask an Editor

Ilana Gershon asked seven editors for their insights on questions that authors commonly ask. Five are press editors (Berghahn, Chicago, Indiana, Princeton, Stanford) and two are series editors. This month’s column explores the following question:

What sorts of questions should first authors be asking presses early on that they often don’t?

Fred Appel: Don’t be shy to ask questions about time frames. If you’ve agreed to grant an editor at a scholarly book publisher an exclusive—that is, if this publisher is the only one assessing your book project—you are right to expect the publisher to make a decision about it in an expeditious manner.

More generally, no question is a dumb question, so ask whatever comes to mind.

Jennika Baines: This depends on what the conversation will be. If you’d like to talk through an idea for a manuscript or an edited collection to see if it sounds like it could make an interesting book, this conversation can happen at any stage, and probably the earlier in the process the better. That way the editor can provide some input into what shape the work might take and how it could respond to trends in the field.

If, however, the discussion will be about a manuscript you’re working on, I personally would prefer to receive a proposal when you’re three or four months away from being able to send the full manuscript. Other editors I know will be willing to receive proposals even a year away from being able to see a full manuscript. But I’d suggest being closer to being able to submit for a few reasons. First, series can change in their focus and aims. If you’re months or years away from being able to submit a manuscript, you run the risk of submitting your manuscript to a series which looks different from the one to which you sent your proposal. Second, manuscripts can change in the process of writing. If you propose work you haven’t written yet, will the manuscript you submit be the same one you proposed? Finally, staff can change at university presses. If you propose a manuscript to an acquiring editor but don’t submit a manuscript until two years later, you can’t be guaranteed that the same editor will be on hand to receive it. Will that new editor be as interested in the work?

Berghahn Books: Permissions—find out permission policies and make sure your permissions are in order, especially if you have revised chapters from previous works where permission policies of the publisher require substantial rewrites or for you to pull the chapter completely, thereby having to revise your entire manuscript.

Dominic Boyer: What first authors should be doing above all is talking to other scholars who have published with these presses recently about what their experience was like with the press. Were the editors and editorial assistants responsive? Did they feel that their project was given the respect and attention it was due?

Alessandro Duranti: They can ask questions about the time-line of the review process (this will give them a sense of when to write to have an update). I also always ask which books are selling well. There is a lot to learn from successful authors, regardless of whether one likes what they do or would like to write the same kind of books. Writing is an art form that is partly independent of the material that one writes about.

Michelle Lipinski: Ask your editor to walk you through the review, approval, and publication process, and provide a rough sketch of the timeline. Some authors find it a bit shocking when they realize how far out they have to plan—working on a book with an editor and press is a long-term relationship!

Ask your editor how they see the book positioned within their list.

Ask your editor who they foresee realistically as the audience for your manuscript.

Ask your editor about how they will help you develop the manuscript.

I’d also kick this question back to the author and tell them to ask trusted friends and colleagues who have published books within the last two or three years about what they wished they had asked.

Priya Nelson: The quality of an imprint is made by the books that carry it. Just as a press’s investment in a book is a long-term commitment to an author, the author’s commitment to publish with a press is, ideally, the beginning of a long-term relationship with the press. Look at the network of relationships an editor has. Think about whether the community is one that you want to be a part of. If you’re not sure—ask an editor about her vision for the future of the imprint she represents.

Fred Appel is executive editor and acquisitions editor for anthropology and religion at Princeton University Press.

Jennika Baines is an acquisitions editor at Indiana University Press, who acquires books in global and international studies, anthropology, Middle East studies, and Russian and East European studies.

Berghahn Books—answers were co-authored by Miriam Berghahn, Vivian Berghahn, and Chris Chappell, all press editors at Berghahn.

Dominic Boyer is a professor at Rice University and edits a series for Cornell University Press, Expertise: Cultures and Technologies of Knowledge.

Alessandro Duranti is a professor at UCLA and the series editor for the Oxford Series in the Anthropology of Language.

Michelle Lipinski is a senior editor at Stanford University Press who acquires books for their anthropology and law lists.

Priya Nelson is an editor at the University of Chicago Press where she acquires books in anthropology and history.

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana. 2019. “Good Questions.” Anthropology News website, March 21, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1120