Is writing more your new year’s resolution? Whether you are finishing up a first draft or going through the last edits, if you are considering publication as your next step, read on for tips and advice from our Managing Director and publisher Heather McCallum on good writing, approaching editors, and putting together a successful book proposal.
Q1. In terms of topic, what are you looking for when commissioning a book?
Heather McCallum: Originality. I’m interested in fresh research and fresh ideas and thinking. It’s important for us that the material has relevance beyond the academy, or at least that it is a subject of treatment that will be of interest beyond students and scholars. We are excited by ambition to impact a field, to write beyond the comfort zone. We are looking for a robust, enticing writing style that makes you want to read more. So, the work needs to be lively and perhaps provocative. Most of our books across all disciplines are driven by narrative, which means that the personal or human dimension is often important. It is important, regardless of the subject matter, that the book is relevant to a contemporary audience.
Finally, I should highlight `excellence’, which can be an unspecific term, but we are interested in something outstanding.
One doesn’t always get all of those things but they are factors. Textbooks are different: there you are looking for a survey, a survey that is well done and brings in the latest scholarship. Different criteria also apply for monographs that are purely for an academic audience.
Originality. I’m interested in fresh research and fresh ideas and thinking. It’s important for us that the material has relevance beyond the academy, or at least that it is a subject of treatment that will be of interest beyond students and scholars. We are excited by ambition to impact a field, to write beyond the comfort zone. We are looking for a robust, enticing writing style that makes you want to read more.
At Yale, we are mostly not looking to publish another life of, say, Marie Antoinette or Charles I with nothing new. There needs to be a fresh perspective which will really make it essential reading.
Q2. What are the challenges that academics face when writing for a general audience?
HM: The very first thing is disengagement from the training to write in a scrupulously scholarly fashion. Academics are trained to adduce evidence and present an argument in a particular way, which is often too balanced as well as too qualified and exemplified/detailed for a general reader. Scholarly authors rightly want to present a balanced case and all sides and, having done the research, wish to include all the examples they have to substantiate their position. Unfortunately, weighty nuance and multiple examples of the same point is often not what a general reader is interested in. When trying to guide academics that haven’t written for a general readership before, I always mention that whoever picks up their book does not have to read it, a general reader is not compelled to turn the pages as a peer or fellow scholar might. Academic writing is a both a standard and a test. Research is read specifically content, not for elegant prose. In the academy, the supervisor and examiner have to read the work if it is PhD, so there is no incentive to make it a particularly enticing read. When you are writing a general book, you need to make somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about the subject interested what you are writing about. They don’t have to read it so you are competing for their interest and attention. You need to think about how do you do this, what’s going to be your hook and how is your writing style going to engage.
When writing in a scholarly way, mostly one writes up one’s sources fairly directly. For a general audience book, what we want to see is that you as the expert have assessed all these materials, primary and secondary and are now writing an engaging account and a personal intervention. A well written and polished work, will often involve dropping a lot of the academic scaffolding, such as qualifications within the text, very scholarly referencing, extensive footnotes, theoretical background and much else. Then, you need to think a lot about chapter openings, chapter endings, how the whole book starts and ends (how you draw the reader in, how you reach a compelling ending or conclusion), controlling a strong argument. It is often necessary to cut out extraneous material, even whole chapters, that don’t push the narrative along forcefully. That can be difficult writers!
One of the important elements is character or characters. What we are trying to do achieve is robust narrative non-fiction. So, even in a quite analytical book, what we want is something of the people, as that is what will bring any subject to life, even if it’s a high political diplomatic history.
It sounds obvious but when you are writing a proposal, you are showcasing your own research and your ideas (rather than summarising that of others). When, for example, I am asking someone to write a biography, I’m always encouraging authors to have a clear opinion about their subject. The crucial question is, having read and understood all of the sources and scholarship, having devoted your life or a big chunk of it to understanding it, what do you think about it? That’s what we need to know.
Q3: How can somebody get their manuscript to reach the hands of an editor?
I do believe that campus visiting one of the very best ways to find fresh voices, strong materials and build your list distinctively as you learn about the field. I also think it helps you get away from a list dominated by Oxbridge and London.
HM: Yale University Press accepts unsolicited manuscripts and proposals, by mail or by email. We have guidelines on our website as to how to structure proposals and who to send proposals to. I think we are quite unusual in that as trade publishers and even some academic publishers and university presses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. We do respond to everything that we get and occasionally we do take on and publish unsolicited proposals and manuscripts. Some have been great successes. We also have an existing stable of authors we are committed to and a number of these have published with us several times, seeing us as their `house’. Clearly, we are delighted by this.
As a Commissioning Editor, I do believe that campus visiting one of the very best ways to find fresh voices, strong materials and build your list distinctively as you learn about the field. I also think it helps you get away from a list dominated by Oxbridge and London. Nothing the matter with that, of course, but there are a lot of other universities to explore and great scholars to find beyond that. If an Editor visiting the campus does make contact about a meeting, I really would take the opportunity even if you don’t have any immediate publishing plans. Editors are often mines of information and good contacts.
Any final words of wisdom for academic writers?
HM: Finding the right publisher is crucial. I do in all honesty often suggest publishers other than Yale to authors, say with a very scholarly book, as actually we will not do as good a job with such a book, as say Cambridge University Press or Palgrave MacMillan, who are absolutely geared up to specialised library market and academic marketing, which is not to say that we don’t have that. However, that is their specialism and their model. Yale is focused on a very different type of development, publicity and selling.
I do think it’s important to be with the right kind of publisher. There are different types of specialisation within academic publishers: university presses and commercial academic publishers; textbook and monograph publishers and so on. You need to think about whether or not they focus on particular areas, or periods, whether or not they are more social sciences than humanities based. Finally, you need to decide whether you want a full trade publisher. In that case, keep in mind that a full trade publisher would expect a different type of product, even from what we expect in our trade narrative non-fiction. They will have higher commercial expectations, higher expectations of the author and usually, they will remunerate them accordingly. If that’s important to you, as it has been for many scholars, to get a very big advance or to become a public intellectual, or be on TV, then that’s a different thing and mostly you would need an agent. That’s a very competitive landscape.
You can find the guidelines for manuscript submissions on our website or our US site. Stay tuned for Part II which includes more specific advice on putting together your proposal and turning your thesis into a book. Subscribe to our newsletter for updates from Yale Books!