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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Are You Ready to Pitch a Book?

Junior TT prof asks, “I always hear to wait till after tenure if you're not in a discipline (like legal history) for which books are the coin of the realm. But if you've gotten clearance internally or have simply already satisfied your tenure requirement in terms of writing, is there any reason to wait?”

Let’s assume that tenure is a lock. There still might be a reason to wait. That reason is whether you have sufficient platform to demonstrate to publishers that you will sell your book. And make no mistake about it, you will be the one who has to sell your book. For mere mortal law professors, publishers will have very limited budgets to promote the book. Sure, they will put it on their website and in their catalogue and do some limited promotion, but it will be up to you to show them up front that you have what it takes to do your own marketing.

Here's a little "do as I say, not as I do" advice. I spent far too much time learning and obsessing about building platform. I read far too many web sites and books. Many of them told me that to sell a non-fiction book I needed to obsessively build my following on social media of people who truly might buy the book. Many companies will offer to do this for you for a fee. Don’t fall for that. Paying for random followers, many of whom will be bots, will get you nowhere (and publishers will see through it). I put in the hours to make connections with over 10,000 people on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and my website (JenniferKreder.com). I did pay to try out Facebook’s tool to promote a few posts on my Facebook author page. It was unnecessary, but it was interesting to see how it worked by allowing you to target people with certain interests, particular demographics (gender and age range) in particular cities. Many of my future readers are active in Facebook groups focused on Holocaust history and genealogy. Now that I’ve been through the process of getting an agent and getting read by the big publishers, I really don’t think law professors need to do all this (although I have no regrets other than using social media for procrastination purposes). The reason is that these things are not the key to determine whether we as law prawfs have sufficient “platform,” which can roughly be translated as “visibility.”

So, how can you assess whether you have a sufficient “platform?” If you’ve been writing for only a few years on the tenure track, it might make sense to build a bit more platform before shooting for a mainstream publisher. But, don’t wait too long—and certainly not because you don’t have a large social media following. I waited unnecessarily and let my worry about numbers and burning bridges with agents get in the way. (You have to assume you’ll get just one shot to pitch any particular agent or publisher.)

It turns out for law professors that platform doesn’t turn much on the numbers of followers you have on social media. The numbers definitely won’t make or break you. Here are the types of things you need to start to think about:

  1. Are you known in a field that appeals to a wide audience?
  2. Who—EXACTLY—might be in that audience?
  3. How do you communicate with them?
  4. What books do they buy?
  5. Are there organizations that would be interested in sponsoring you to speak to large audiences of them?
  6. How much public speaking outside of the classroom have you done already?
  7. Have you written for outlets other than law reviews?
  8. Can you get on radio or TV?

Whether you have sufficient platform to warrant going for the book deal now or waiting is really a case-by-case call. If you decide it’s best to wait, focus on improving your answers to these questions, rather than obsessing over building a social media presence. You can get more active on social media now, but you will have time to do more of that later after the manuscript is in the hands of your publisher.

In my next post, let’s assume you’re ready to go for it! (Yes! I'm rooting for you!) I’ll write about how to get your book proposal in shape to submit to agents or publishers directly. As I’ll discuss in a later post, I hired a publication consultant to help prepare my book proposal. Although I know plenty of prawfs who have written books, I don’t think any had a literary agent, and I wanted one. So, I needed some expert help, because I could not tell from the many, many sources I read what they really wanted from someone like us.

Finally, as always, let me know in the comments if I can try to help you with specific questions. 

Posted by Jen Kreder on February 13, 2018 at 08:43 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: John Mayer | Feb 14, 2018 1:27:54 AM

It seems to me that this post overlooks a critical distinction, namely that between academic and commercial presses. While I have no experience with the latter, in my (admittedly limited) experience with the former, few if any of the concerns listed above would be particularly relevant. Instead, in my experience academic presses are much more concerned about the quality of the proposal on its substantive merits. An author's ability to get on the air, for instance, would have little bearing on the proposal's odds of acceptance, especially since the external reviewers (upon whose feedback a publication decision may often heavily be based) will typically be reviewing the manuscript blind to the author's identity.

Posted by: Anony | Feb 14, 2018 8:13:29 AM

Not these days, Anony. The academic presses are strapped. You need to show them how you will sell books.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 14, 2018 8:26:21 AM

Well, maybe my experience was an outlier, but none of the factors you mentioned ever came up. And that was just a couple years ago. So I guess I'll agree to disagree.

Posted by: Anony | Feb 14, 2018 8:34:16 AM

All of these issues may not be part of our discussions, but they definitely are happening during publishers’ pitch sessions, even at the academic presses. The proposal has to be strong no matter what, but even the academic presses are quite conscious of the need for most of their authors to sell a certain number of books. They make few exceptions to their practice of rejecting books that they predict won’t sell a certain minimum number. I’ve heard the magic number is 2,000-3,000 for most academic presses right now, but I can’t confirm that. It’s signifantly higher for Penguin, Random House, etc. Also, I pitched a grand total of three academic presses. Georgetown and Cambridge (or maybe Harvard? I don’t remember anymore). They were interested if I bulked it up and added a lot more footnotes. That’s not the kind of book I want to write. UPK sent out an email saying the Director was coming to my campus, so I went to meet her. We hit it off, agreed on the the key points and started the internal and external review process resulting in the contract. The initial happy d cover print run will be 1,500-2,000. The e-version will launch simultaneously.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 14, 2018 9:11:14 AM

Sorry for typos — trying to be responsive on phone. That completely unrecognizable bit is “hard cover.”

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 14, 2018 9:14:38 AM

Thanks, all (and especially Jen). Does anyone have opinions about authoring or editing volumes with presses that are neither university-affiliated nor popular/mass-market? E.g., West, Elgar, Aspen. How does that affect audience, accessibility, prestige (I think I know that one), etc.? Thanks.

Posted by: junior TT prof | Feb 15, 2018 3:35:18 PM

Having also gone through the process of hiring an agent (or more accurately, having the agent take me on as a client), and then landing a book deal, I think a lot of this advice is very solid. I'll add one thing to be a little more specific: Write up your main idea and try to place it as a Op-Ed with a mainline media outlet (CNN, Wash. Post, USA Today, etc.). Agents and publishers will love to see if you can put out the main idea to the general public in 800 words. And it's a great way to begin your pitch.

Posted by: Josh Douglas | Feb 15, 2018 5:01:58 PM

I'll offer a completely different experience just to show that there are many ways to skin a cat.

My first book is coauthored with a young psychologist, and neither of us have a platform of any significance. My "platform" (if you can even call it that) was particularly small at the time the book was accepted: I was (and still am) a post-J.D. graduate student in psychology, with very few publications, no accolades, no agent, and no social media presence. My coauthor was more established, but I wouldn't say she had a all-star platform either. Still, the first press (OUP) we sent the proposal too immediately snatched it up.

While writing that book, an editor at CUP, after reading one of my law review articles, emailed me and asked if I would consider writing a book for them. So I wrote a proposal (this one as the solo author), and now CUP and OUP both want to publish my second book. Again, same virtually non-existent platform.

I say this to note that all I really have had going for me is (1) I have some interesting, novel ideas, and (2) I can write like a house on fire. So even though the qualities listed in the post above are going to be sufficient for most people, I don't think that they are always necessary.

Posted by: Carlton Patrick | Feb 16, 2018 12:30:23 PM

Follow up: to Jen's point, I am sure that part of the publishers' willingness to take on my projects -- in spite of my/our lack of clout -- had a lot to do with their belief that the books would sell, rather than impress.

Posted by: Carlton Patrick | Feb 16, 2018 1:29:31 PM

First, congrats on your success! Second, if you already have a book that did not lose money, you've already proven yourself. Keep writing like a house on fire, and I look forward to seeing your book in print!

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 17, 2018 5:43:54 PM

FWIW, I ended up publishing an academic, footnoted book with Routledge, but first had a proposal rejected by another well-known law book publisher. Although it is not pleasant to read the reviews that cause your proposal to get rejected, it really was sound medicine. I learned a lot about what worked and didn't work, and significantly revised what I was doing. Then the encounter with Routledge was serendipitous. I got a request to review a proposal for the usual GBP 150 honorarium. I mentioned to the editor that I had my own idea and she suggested I send it along. A couple days later, having come to the conclusion I had no idea what the proposal I was reviewing was trying to say, I emailed the editor, declining the honorarium, and allowed as I'd understand if this also meant the end of my proposal at Routledge. And to my surprise I got a note a couple weeks later from another editor saying that she was interested and wanted to send it out for review.

The point is that you have to be persistent, and view the entire process as a journey.

And as long as I'm commenting, I'll also confirm that one has to take on responsibility for "selling" the book. I was not happy with the "academic book" pricing structure, but had no say in the matter (being a first time book author I didn't think I had a lot of leverage and pretty much rolled over on the contract). Mine appears now to be in 150 or so libraries around the world, which is cool, and I'm told Routledge will do a paperback at some point (there's a less expensive e-book). But apparently there's a price inelasticity for library purchases that they like to exploit.

Finally, as to selling, shamelessly:


And for a talk about the book at the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession:


Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Feb 18, 2018 10:22:53 AM

Congratulations, Jeff. Yes, the personal connections make all the difference in opening doors.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 18, 2018 9:11:31 PM

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