I had this conversation with one of my favorite untenured colleagues the other day, and at the end of it, s/he said: "Everyone tells you how important it is to get your book out before tenure, but no one has ever given me advice on how to find a publisher before." Shocking, but true. And this is at Zenith, where people publish a fair amount.
So this is what I said. Please add comments that are field-specific, that respond to things you see I have left out or that amend my errors.
1. Simplest advice first: map the publishing terrain of your field. Who is well known for its list and publishes books like the one you are writing? Which presses are considered desirable by others? With whom do the people you admire in your field publish? This should give you a short list of 5-7 presses on which you focus your efforts, always allowing for other presses to make themselves known to you. Go on the web, find their websites, and explore. Get a sense of which ones are a good fit for you.
2. Ask your senior colleagues at your own institution who they publish with, and whether they have an editor they like. Don't limit this query to your own department: I got to my first press, Rutgers, through a sociology colleague far senior to me, whose office was across the hall. She had an editor who she thought was intelligent and aggressive. Furthermore, when this colleague said she had been treated well by the press I took it seriously since she was well-known for her diva -- I mean, discerning -- personality.
3. Whatever presses you approach initially, get a personal connection. University presses are far more responsive than commercial presses (which aren't, unless you've got an agent, and even then....) When you write to the editor -- and you can send an email, but don't paste your book proposal into the body of the email -- mention this person in the first line. "Professor Famous thought you might be interested in my book," is something you wish to say right up front. Don't be shy. The editor will agree to talk to you (who are perhaps Entirely Unknown) *because* you appear to be a protege of Famous's, or someone who has merely impressed Famous in passing, because s/he wants Famous to come back to the press with her next book. Or s/he respects Famous's judgement and knows Famous wouldn't pass on a lemon.
4. Let's assume that two or three presses have written back and said they are interested. How do you winnow the list? One of my top categories is, who does the prettiest book? After all, you are a book lover, otherwise you wouldn't do this for a living, and it is your dream to publish. So your book should have artifact quality. This criterion is followed by, does the press have a reputation for quick turnaround and Getting Things Done? This includes the category, does the editor have a reputation for getting the projects out that s/he is behind? Then there is marketing. Do they take out a lot of ads in professional publications, the Nation's spring and fall book issues, and conference programs? Do they actually seem to get their books in stores where intellectuals shop? In other words, friend, you want to sell books -- and not just for the money, which is usually insignificant, but for your Reputation. You desperately want to be Read By Others.
Ok, so you have chosen your top press, and now you have to send them the manuscript. Make sure you --
1. Do *not* send an unrevised dissertation to a press. There is a little fad nowadays of young (and not so young) scholars sending off unrevised, or frankly rough, work to presses so that they can get free advice and an advance contract. This is advice you should be getting from your friends and colleagues, not readers for the press who are doing their work for peanuts. And this is how many peanuts we get: between $75 and $150 in cash, or double the sum in books. And it takes at least a day to review a manuscript properly. So these are sweatshop wages. Don't take advantage of us: better you should ask one of us to read your work out of the goodness of the old ticker, as Bertie Wooster would say.
2. Send a CLEAN revised manuscript. Proof it thoroughly, don't have those annoying footnotes that say things like "What book is this? Burden mbe? chk." The first time my second book went out, thinking that having been published once before earned me a little flex, I completely pissed off one of my readers who was, by the end of the review, not just angry but demoralized, and a little repentent for how vile s/he had been in the two page screed that spoke of endless frustrations with -- you guessed it -- my beautiful mind that seemed to be firing on too few cylinders when I imagined the manuscript was ready to be viewed. The other reviewer didn't seem to care, thought I was smart and worthy of his time despite the typos and occasional chronological issues. Go fucking figure. But since you do not know who the reviewers are (and guessing is a losers game) I now know that there is someone out there who thinks I am the Phyllis Diller of the historical profession. And you have more to lose -- I, after all, actually have tenure, and you don't yet.
3. DO send your revised, clean manuscript to a press before you know it is perfect (because in the end, you will have to revise it again) but send it to only one press. I have to tell you, unless you have a reputation or an agent already, making university presses compete for your first book is kind of cheesy. And the biggest bump in the advance you are going to get is maybe $5,000. And only then if you are doing something widely marketable, like gay and lesbian history, that sells like little hotcakes to gays and lesbians without Ph.D.'s. If you do insist on multiple submissions, you must inform all presses that this is what you are doing. And you should probably inform the person or people who gave you the introduction in the first place, because many people consider this practice rude.
4. Do not make an advance contract a deal breaker. Fewer presses are giving them out nowadays, because they are stupid, and everyone knows that such a contract is binding to you but not the press. As Susan Ware (who has had many book contracts) once told me, "An advance contract is like a training bra -- there's nothing in it." Say it, sister.
Need advice from the Radical? She's full of it. Send your questions to tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom. How else am I going to procrastinate?