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Has the pandemic changed how first-time book authors can approach editors?

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly shifted the ways in which many of us (authors, editors, and those outside the publishing field as well) perform our work. One big change in 2020 and 2021 was the cancellation of many in-person meetings and the transition of others to online-only formats. The lack of in-person conferences and their accompanying book exhibit halls removed one of the traditional venues where university press editors held face-to-face meetings with authors and made new contacts. For authors, it not only removed an opportunity to meet editors in an in-person setting, but also the chance to have serendipitous encounters with editors.

While in-person conferences did not end permanently, it is likely that some of the ways that we meet and communicate will remain altered. In some cases, these changes, such as the increased comfort with and use of video calls, present opportunities. While not quite offering the personal level of interaction of an in-person meeting, the ubiquity of and familiarity with videoconferencing have greatly reduced the expense and time associated with conference travel that might previously have served as barriers to entry. Authors, especially first-time authors who may lack university-funded travel budgets, can certainly take advantage of this leveling of the playing field.

Moreover, it was never the case that acquisitions editors only met with authors at in-person conferences or over a cup of coffee. If you have a good idea that is a strong fit for the press list, then an editor will more than likely be happy to set up a time for a conversation. In fact, a significant part of the job of acquisitions editors consists of looking for book ideas and conducting author outreach. They will be happy to hear from you about your project. Don’t send the entire manuscript unsolicited, but do send a brief message giving an overview of your project and why you think it would be a good fit for the press. Send this query letter directly to the editor at the press who seems to acquire in the area that you are writing. Check the press website to find this information. You can also ask trusted colleagues and mentors for introductions to editors and presses with whom they have had previous experience, though formal recommendations are certainly not required.

You can also help yourself by ensuring that your online presence is up-to-date and easily searchable. Keep your faculty or graduate student landing page current with your latest research activity to let editors know what you are working on. If your university does not provide you with a web page or you can’t include much information on it, consider setting up a personal website showcasing your research. If information about you is readily available online, it might lead some editors to reach out directly to you and will allow editors that you contact to learn more about you ahead of a meeting or phone/video call.

Pandemic or not, networking and communication are key to helping you find a publisher that is right for your project. Be creative in your outreach to publishers and do not feel like the only place you can meet with editors is at an academic conference. While you certainly can submit unsolicited proposals to publishers, it is always good if you can establish some connection ahead of your submission so that an editor is primed to receive your proposal. Having an enthusiastic and supportive acquisitions editor will be extremely helpful in shepherding your project through the initial stages of the publication process.

For more information, see “How should I approach a publisher?” and “When should I approach a publisher?” on the Ask UP site.

—University of South Carolina Press, November 2021