A University Press Wants to Publish my Dissertation!: How to Negotiate the Book Contract

Remember when you thought that finishing the dissertation was the goal, the endgame, the grand finale? Now you know that all this time, what you’ve really been writing is a first draft of THE BOOK. And now, you have a university press interested in publishing it. You’ve come a long way already. Let’s make sure you get to the finish line in fine style, with a book that makes you proud and earns you respect, if not a house on Martha’s Vineyard.

Before you sign with an editor:

  • Be sure to read books published by the press and editor you are considering. Are they attractively produced? Is the font-size and margin-width pleasing to the eye? Do they use color and design to create appealing covers? Are the illustrations and other graphics presented clearly? Are the texts clean? In other words, are they expertly copy-edited and free of errors?
  • Make sure you have done due diligence. Your relationship with your editor will become very important to you, so it’s essential that this relationship is a positive one. Before you sign with an editor, meet in person at least once and survey some of the editor’s authors about their experiences working with him or her.
  • Type editors’ names into Google Books to see what their authors have written about them; few authors slam their editors in their acknowledgments, but faint praise can be telling. 
  • When you interview editors, ask them about their editing style. Are they hands-on: do they line-edit manuscripts? Are they hands-off: do they mainly acquire manuscripts and interface between authors, reviewers, and editorial boards?
  • Realize that, as marvelous as it would be to publish your first book with the editor of your dreams, you may not get that experience. And that’s not the end of the world. In fact, you might decide to sign with an editor you can merely abide in order to publish with your top press. That can make all kinds of sense, provided that compromising on the editor does not prevent your project from becoming the book you want it to be.

Before you sign a contract:

  • Read it. Negotiate where possible regarding length of the manuscript, illustrations, cover art, deadline for submitting a final acceptable manuscript, etc.
  • Try to nail down a price range for your book. (Some presses will publish your book in hardback with a $100 price tag; you don’t want that.) Prices fluctuate, but you want your hard-back book to cost buyers no more than $35 and even less in the paperback edition.
  • Clarify the steps in the process to publication. Will the manuscript be sent to outside reviewers? (Reputable university presses typically send manuscripts to two or three experts in your field. It is this level of review that makes the book “refereed.”) If so, how many and who will choose them? Can you request that the manuscript not be sent to a particular individual? Who at the press needs to approve your manuscript for publication and based on what material? These are all questions you should ask your acquisitions editor before you sign a contract.
  • Will you be asked to cover any costs associated with production of your book? For example, who will pay fees associated with copyright permissions for illustrations or cover art? Are you responsible for compiling your own index? Does the press provide any assistance?
  • Does the press provide you with a copy-edited manuscript and page proofs so that you have two opportunities to make changes before it goes to press? What charges might you be responsible for with regard to changes you request?
  • Would the press consider providing you with an advance to be offset by royalties? An advance of a couple or few thousand dollars can be especially helpful for first-time authors.

A few don’ts:

  • Don’t get hung up on royalty percentages. Sure, ask for a higher rate than the single-digit rate you are likely to be offered. But don’t walk away if you don’t get the 30% (and that’s pretty much the maximum) that you might want. You did not write this book to make money, right? So why quibble over potential profits now? 
  • Don’t let a “vanity press” persuade you that it is an academic publisher. Vanity presses can be identified by the following characteristics: they do not have a known university in their press title; in addition, they are notorious for providing no peer review process, requiring authors to pay a substantial part of the costs of publishing, and—let’s be honest—their lackluster book covers.

Publishing a book is a major accomplishment; many people aspire to it, but relatively few attain it. Make sure that your hard work and original ideas get the attention they deserve by selecting your press and your editor carefully, and, when possible, negotiating your contract in advance.

More excellent advice:

Karen Kelsky, “The Status of the Press Matters, Still!”

Elaine Maisner, “Getting Published by a University Press.”

Laura Portwood-Stacer, “7 Mistakes I Made When I Published My Academic Book.”

Rachel Toor, “Things You Should Know Before Publishing a Book.”

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