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Ask an Editor: The Pros and Cons of Advance Contracts

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:

Would you recommend that first authors try to get an advance contract?  Why or why not?


Fred Appel: Let’s be clear on what we mean by an advance contract. It typically refers to a legal agreement signed between an author and a publishing house based on the latter’s preliminary assessment of either an incomplete or unrevised manuscript or based on an assessment of a prospectus (that is, before a manuscript is written). Such contracts oblige scholarly publishing houses to publish the author’s book provided that peer review of the completed manuscript goes well. If peer review does not go well, the publisher is released from said obligation and the author must look for a new publishing home for her manuscript. Only when they have a high degree of confidence that peer review will go well do scholarly book publishers offer advance contracts to authors.

Advance contracts allow authors a modicum of professional security and, for first-time authors who are assistant professors on the tenure-track, they can be important credentials to share with their tenure committees. More senior authors (tenured associate and full professors, say) don’t have the same professional need for advance contracts but may find them useful or desirable for other reasons.

Jennika Baines: Not really. Some presses don’t offer advance contracts. For those that do, an advance contract is more of an assurance of continued interest rather than a guarantee that the work will be published. A defining aspect of university presses is their commitment to peer review. There will almost certainly be a clause in any advance contract requiring the support of outside reviewers. If the reviewers don’t support publication, the press probably will not be able to move forward with the project. So having or not having an advance contract won’t make much of a difference to the process itself. If, however, an advance contract would be helpful in gaining funding for the project or if it’s necessary to the work in some way then you can raise the point with your editor.

Berghahn Books: It depends what the reason is. We realize that an advance contract offers some psychological comfort but is not a guarantee. Contracts are conditional—whether it be owing to the reviews process or the timely delivery of the manuscript at each stage. If the manuscript is of good quality, the author can be confident that it will be published. If there are reasons requiring a contract sooner (for example, tenure/promotion review or funding), talk to your publisher.

In fact, when in doubt, with respect to any part of the process, talk to your publisher! You will soon discover that your journey through the publication process is shepherded by real humans, who greatly respect you and your work, and want nothing but the best for your book.

Dominic Boyer: I would recommend asking for an advanced contract if the first author is in the situation that they need it for some practical purpose (for example, they are on the job market, or facing a third-year review) where the added credential could prove useful. Otherwise, I would say wait for the final contract. Advanced contracts take time to organize, which can slow a project down, and at the end of the day, they don’t exempt you from needing to go through the final contract process. As such, it’s not always clear what the value is of this extra step.

Alessandro Duranti: Textbooks and trade books should always get an advanced contract. For other kinds of academic books, the contract may or may not mean something. The publisher can always argue that the book that was delivered was not what they expected. As an author, I learned over the years that having a signed contract makes me feel more committed to a project and to a particular press. But it might be hard for first-time authors to get a contract without a finished product.

Michelle Lipinski: There is no universally applied correct answer here. And before thinking too deeply about this, I would note that many presses, Stanford University Press included, don’t offer many advance contracts to first-time authors.

If you are among the few who are offered the advance contract route on a first book, think hard about the aspects your book’s life cycle that matter most to you. In some cases, I find that establishing an early commitment allows me the ability to help build and develop the project alongside the author as we move through the process. But, the advanced contract process does mean two rounds of peer review, which adds to the length of the review process. Peer review of the proposal and sample chapters means earlier feedback, which also means revision and reshaping of the project at an earlier stage in the process. This could be a pro or con, depending on the feedback you receive, and how committed you are to a certain mode of analysis and presentation. Sometimes, it’s just easier to come to a press with a full manuscript. This way, reviewers won’t have to extrapolate what literature you plan to engage or make premature judgments about how the project should unfold.

Priya Nelson: Advance contracts are tools for editors to secure projects in which they have a particular interest. If an editor is very keen, she will propose terms to an author early on—either based on a peer review of a draft or without formal review. The benefit of issuing a contract is that the conditions of publication can be settled at the outset, freeing the editors and authors to focus on the labor of review, writing, and revision. But first-time book authors should remember that a contract assigns responsibilities and burdens (financial and editorial) to the publishing house. It is therefore usually within the editor’s discretion to issue a contract before a project has been reviewed and approved by the board. Authors should not be timid about asking but should, as a courtesy, recognize that a contract is a meaningful commitment—one that is never broken casually. If an editor seems reluctant, that does not in itself signal a lack of interest in issuing a contract eventually. Such things are usually just a matter of timing. If an author has a pressing need for a contract, she should inform the editor that the requirement for a formal agreement outweighs the benefits of allowing a relationship to develop at the pace the editor prefers. Perhaps the editor will put aside her preferences and issue a contract. In any case, trust, honesty, and good-humor are usually the best virtues when negotiating such situations.

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 an 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. “Advance Contracts.” Anthropology News website, May 23, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1178