Amanda Larson is the Open Education Librarian at Penn State University in State College, PA. Her professional interests include Open Education, Open Publishing, Open Pedagogy, Critical Librarianship, and Ethics Around Student Data and Privacy. You can find her on Twitter at: @maeverawr.
As an early career librarian on the tenure track, publishing and trying to publish enough, is a constant source of professional anxiety. I find myself continually looking for publishing opportunities; if they match up with my research interests or work, I’ll often put in a proposal. I figure the worst that can happen is that they’ll say “no” and I’ll get a rejection letter. The goal of this post is to share the process that I went through to successfully get a book contracted: I had to submit a book pitch, develop a book proposal, receive and incorporate feedback from both a publisher and outside reviewer, and then negotiate the actual book contract. There were a lot of steps throughout the process where I had no idea how it was all supposed to work, and I’m guessing that’s true for other early career librarians out there trying to figure this all out like I am.
Tick, Tick, Tick
In October of 2018, I ran across a Call for Proposals looking for topics for a book series for practical guides for librarians. Thinking about the “tick, tick, tick” of that tenure clock and the lack of guides on Open Educational Resources (OER), I decided to put together a proposal to create the guide that would have helped me when I started my position.
The initial proposal process was pretty easy! I filled out a form with the following information for my book pitch:
- Library/Organization Name
- Job Title
- Email Address
- Writing Background (including a list of publications and links to samples if online)
- Book Pitch
The Writing Background and Book Pitch sections were both larger free text fields so that authors can provide ample examples and information in their pitch. In the pitch section, the editor also included a link to a list of other titles in the series, so that prospective authors don’t pitch a duplicate title.. After submitting the form, the proposal went to the back of my mind, and I was surprised in December 2018 when the Editor reached out to see if I was interested in authoring for the series. Surprise – because imposter syndrome, y’all. Cue all of the existential anxiety you can imagine about whether or not I have the actual expertise to write an extensive guide as an early career librarian. I do, but that inner monologue can be brutal.
I didn’t know what to expect for the next steps. Was I already accepted after confirming my interest? If not, what else would I need to do before my pitch was accepted? The editor reached out to let me know I would need to create a book proposal. They provided guidelines for what the proposal should include, along with some examples of what this would look like, and I worked directly from those to create mine. The proposal included:
- a paragraph explaining why the book was needed (what gap it fills)
- the tentative title
- a blurb about the book (like you’d find on the back cover/book flap)
- a list of similar titles (for mine there weren’t any I considered similar)
- an “about me” blurb (this was mainly to establish my authority as an expert in the field)
- a biography (an actual author bio for the back cover/book flap)
- My publishing history
- An outline of the book (this included page length and number of images)
After completing the proposal, it went to the publisher for review, then came back with minor feedback. My anxiety spiked through this part of the process. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to revise it or if the feedback was the reason it had been rejected. Thankfully, I was brave enough to ask for clarification and found out I was supposed to make revisions! Sometimes my brain makes the most straightforward interactions hard. So I revised the proposal along the lines of the publisher’s feedback, then resubmitted the proposal.
There was radio silence for two weeks before the editor got back in touch with me about the outside reviewer’s feedback. This is one of those times where the publishing process isn’t transparent in any way. I didn’t even know it was going to get outside review! I’m not sure I would have changed anything if I knew ahead of time. Maybe I would have tried harder to make sure I looked like an expert? Thankfully, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and I only had to address a few minor things. After responding to the outside reviewers comments around what they thought was missing and editing the outline, the proposal went back to the publisher for final approval and the contract stage.
The proposal was approved. Huzzah! Now came what I felt was going to be the really scary part of the process – negotiating a publishing contract by myself. At this point, the editor for the series stepped out of the picture and the publisher contacted me directly with my acceptance and a copy of the contract. There was also a very explicit set of directions not to edit anything on the contract, but to send any changes back so a new contract could be generated.
“…I got this feeling in the pit of my stomach that there was no way I could sign it as is”
I started by reading my contract very carefully. Several times. The language was very vague (I’m guessing purposefully so) and I got this feeling in the pit of my stomach that there was no way I could sign it as is. If I did, I would be limiting the work I could do in the day-to-day as an Open Education Librarian. I make guides and tutorials all the time for faculty around the same topics as I was going to be covering in the book.
Based on my initial gut feeling, I asked our Copyright Officer if this was something she could help me think through. She read through the contract with me and confirmed the places in the contract that I felt uneasy about were too vague. She also let me know that the publisher was known to allow authors to retain their copyright. If you have access to a service like this at your institution, or a Scholarly Communication Librarian, I recommend taking advantage of it when it comes to the negotiation process. Honestly, even if you don’t, I recommend having a second person that you trust to read over the contract with you. You might try reaching out to someone in the archives, libraries, and information mentor database (alimb), your boss, a mentor, or a close trusted friend. It helps to have a second set of eyes look over everything and to talk through the contract.
” I was shocked that all my changes were made without question, and that my questions were answered without hesitation or condescension. I expected to put up a fight for the things I wanted.”
After identifying all the points I wanted to change in the contract, and any questions I had around language that was vague or legalese, I sent back my list of questions and changes. I was shocked that all my changes were made without question, and that my questions were answered without hesitation or condescension. I expected to put up a fight for the things I wanted. When I wrote back a second time with more changes and to ask to retain the copyright of my material, I expected a firm no, but they just made the changes!
Once you get to the contract negotiation phase, I recommend doing the following:
- Read the contract carefully, multiple times.
- Have someone else read the contract and talk through it with them.
- Identify any areas where the language is vague and you could make it more specific.
- Ask questions. If something is vague or you don’t know what it means, make the lawyer on the publisher’s end clarify what it means.
- Ask to retain your copyright.
Obviously, your mileage will vary as every publisher is different, but maybe this will give you the courage to ask hard questions and negotiate for what you want out of your book contract. I know in the future I’ll approach this process differently. I’ll have more self-confidence and a better understanding of the whole process.
I’d like to thank Catherine Hannula and Erin Rose for reading the draft version of this post, providing feedback, and their evergreen support of my work.
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