Interview with Dr Madeleine Reeves on Publishing a First Book with an Academic Press

The BASEES Newsletter asked Madeleine Reeves, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and author of Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia (Cornell University Press, 2014), 2016 winner of the BASEES Alexander Nove Prize, to share her experiences and recommendations about placing a first book with an American University Press. Read her advice here…

Madeleine Reeves


BASEES Newsletter: What guided you to publish your book with an American University press?

MR: As with many things in the world of academic publishing, it was part serendipity, part deliberate intention.  The 'intention' part was that there was one particular series from Cornell University Press that was at the top of my list; I wanted to pitch it there first—if only to know that I had tried.  This was the series on Culture and Society After Socialism edited by Bruce Grant and Nancy Ries.  It was this series that had first taught me to think anthropologically about post-socialism and there are classics in it, by Caroline Humphrey, Katherine Verdery, Serguei Oushakine and Fran Hirsch that had been absolutely instrumental to the development of the arguments that I was making in my PhD. I also figured that my manuscript would have a far better chance of appearing at a price that didn’t require a small mortgage if it were published by a US press. The anthropology of Central Asia is a small field, and ten years ago it was positively tiny.  I felt (and still feel) that if research on this region is going to be read by fellow anthropologists as well as area specialists, we should at the very least be striving to publish in places that have a good distribution network and with simultaneous hardback and paperback versions. Much of the literature that I was using to teach on the region was either still locked away in dissertations, published only in hardback at eye-watering prices, or published in small German presses that were extremely difficult to access outside academic conferences.  

The ‘serendipity’ part was that I had met Bruce Grant, one of the series editors of Culture and Society After Socialism a few months before submitting my prospectus (book proposal) for review at the 2008 Soyuz Symposium in Berkeley. While I certainly didn’t have the guts or temperament as a newly-minted PhD to do an elevator pitch to an unsuspecting series editor, it did mean that when I sent off my prospectus a few months later I was able to refer back to that conference as the place where we had met. What I hadn’t appreciated at the time (and what I now realize is gold-dust in academic publishing) was that if you have a responsive series editor who is enthusiastic about the project, this can save you a huge amount of time and frustration.  By the time I got through a small pile of one-liner rejections from other presses (some of them with helpful remarks like ‘Sorry, Central Asia doesn't sell’) I already had a friendly and enthusiastic reply from the acquisition editor at Cornell, with an invitation to submit a full manuscript. 

BASEES Newsletter: What advice would you have for other scholars in your field seeking to publish a first book with a university press?

MR: 1. Know your press and know your series.  This will have a slightly different inflection for each field.  In Anthropology, certain presses have reputations for publishing (and not publishing) in certain geographical areas, or certain styles of book.  The same goes for history and literature. As well as on-line lists, a good indication of this is the kind of book that different presses have on sale in the respective Area Studies and disciplinary conferences.  Presses will usually have detailed guidelines on their website of what is required of prospectuses (book proposals).  Make sure to pitch your prospectus to the press, showing how it is in conversation with other books on their list.  Another way of saying this is ‘don’t just go for the big names’.  Look at the books that you have used during your PhD: sometimes smaller, niche presses are recognized to be leaders in your particular field.

2. If you have recently finished a dissertation, revise it first before submitting a prospectus. U.S. presses typically want a book that is substantially different from a doctoral dissertation.  I found Beth Luey’s ‘Revising Your Dissertation’ a really useful read, particularly as regards the different kind of macro-architecture required of the two texts. A doctoral dissertation in the social sciences, for instance, often requires the theory up-front and a separate methods chapter. Book publishers will often see this kind of framing as off-putting to potential readers.  Again, the best indication of the kind of way to approach the manuscript as book is to look at the titles and internal structure of the books they publish.  If they never publish books that are more than 200 pages long, don’t propose a book of 400 pages (unless you are Stephen Kotkin: Magnetic Mountain is the exception that proves the rule).

3. Know your audience. Be aware that, even for University presses (and indeed, perhaps especially for those presses without a big trade press arm to cross-subsidize the scholarly stuff) you need to think about the market for your book – or at least, you need to realize that this will ultimately be the press’s concern.  Will it sell? Who will buy it? Will it have lots of glossy photographs? Is it the kind of text that will end up on course lists at US universities? This doesn’t mean compromising on the integrity of your scholarship, but it does mean being aware that this will be something that the press will be concerned with—and may be crucial in their consideration of whether they can run with an initial paperback run alongside the hardback library market.  Have a think about which syllabi or course lists the book could end up on; whether it is pitched at undergrad or post-grad students, fellow scholars etc., and how it might be taken up beyond your immediate field.  The hardest part of the prospectus to write can be the 200-word summary of your book for a ‘general audience’.  Try that spiel out on your friends, your partner, your parents, your neighbors and ask them for their feedback.

4. Once you have a draft contract, pour yourself a drink to celebrate, and then read the draft contract carefully.  The big things won’t be open to negotiation for a first-time (or indeed any) author, but some things may be.  If it is important that the book come out straight away in paperback, try to negotiate this with the press and give them good reasons (market, reading lists, timeliness of the project, etc….) If you are keen to retain the rights to translate the work into Russian, negotiate that at the outset.  I was able to negotiate a higher number of author copies of Border Work so that I could give copies to colleagues in Kyrgyzstan. And read the contract carefully to ensure that there are no hidden costs.  One colleague, for instance, found in the small print of her contract that she was responsible for covering the costs of the copy-editing of her text.  This discovery, a few weeks before she was due to submit the manuscript, set her back several hundred pounds.

BASEES Newsletter: What were the highs and lows of the process from manuscript to launch?

MR: Let’s start with the lows.  There were various moments when even a glimpse of the unfinished, too-late, full-of-holes manuscript hiding under a pile of other, less overwhelming things to do, would give me shivers, and an email pinging into my inbox from my editor would give me sweaty palms.  This, I should stress, was nothing to do with the lovely people at Cornell, and everything to do with my anxiety of keeping other people waiting and letting them down (and more generally, a lingering doubt about whether the cumbersome half-beast that the manuscript had become could be tamed).  If I were to embark on the process again, I would set myself a much more realistic date for delivering revisions, particularly in the context of a full-time teaching load and new projects underway, if only to avoid the paralyzing fear of not delivering what I had promised. 

Other ‘lows’ to be aware of are that things that seem pretty small can often be painfully time-consuming: securing permissions for images; finding that you didn’t properly archive that Kyrgyz newspaper from 1999 that you want to double check; compiling an index; fixing the fiddly bits of a bibliography that feel like watching paint dry.  I have had only good experiences of working with Cornell, but I have worked with other presses where I have found the marketing department to be a law unto itself, particularly when it comes to critical issues like the title of the book or the image for the front cover.  Be prepared to defend the things that are really important to you, and to compromise on things that aren’t.

The highs were finishing the book, giving copies of it to friends in Kyrgyzstan, and finding out about the strange life that a book leads once it has left your home.   I find writing a real struggle, so I don't have many memories of writing or production ‘highs’ along the way. It was 99% long hard slog.

BASEES Newsletter: Border Work has won several prestigious prizes – did your publisher play an active role in advertising and nominating your book?

MR: Yes, they did, and here too publishers vary.  I am on the committee for a book prize for the ASN (Association for the Study of Nationalities) and I see this now from the other side:  some publishers are excellent at identifying relevant prizes, getting the books to the committee members, and publicizing the results. Others need to be reminded multiple times to send copies of their books to prize committees.  Although most presses will have a person dedicated to this, as an author you can help your Press’s marketing/ awards department by reminding them of up-coming deadlines for prizes—particularly (if it is a US press) for awards in Europe for which they might not otherwise be informed.  Presses are usually very obliging here: after all, it is kudos to them, as much as to you, if your book wins a prize.