How to Get a College Text Published
A guide for libertarians
Many libertarians have complained to me that they feel the publishing world, at least in the educational field, is unsympathetic, if not hostile, to books which espouse libertarian ideas. This is particularly so in the social sciences and humanities. While I do not think that the charge has total validity, this article will try to discuss some of the factors at work which influence publishers in their decisions about publishing the books that they do.
One such factor, in my opinion, is the institution of the corporation. Until recently, publishing companies were primarily individual proprietorships which to some extent reflected the sympathies of the owners. If an owner liked the content of a book, he might decide to publish it even though it wouldn't be a likely money maker. Today, most of these proprietorships have been absorbed by firms that are incorporated.
BLOCKED BY THE INVISIBLE HAND
In the world of the corporation, run by managers whose only criteria is profitability, devotion to any potential book for its intellectual content is a secondary consideration. In the eyes of corporate managers and editors their responsibility is to maximize profit for the stockholders, thus raising the earnings per share and the capital value of the stock. This means that they will orient their publishing programs towards publishing those books which reflect the greatest possible consensus, hence market. The tighter economic conditions are, the more tenacious will the managers be in avoiding books which reflect a marginal market.
Since the prevailing intellectual consensus on the college and secondary level is not sympathetic to libertarianism, publishers are quite likely to reject manuscripts which espouse that point of view. When publishers do publish libertarian books, they have to be much more outstanding in their content and presentation than books which reflect the consensus point of view. This is why one sees a plethora of consensus oriented books being published and only a few libertarian ones.
A related, but not insurmountable, fact is that most publishers don't want to publish too many titles which reflect "odd-ball" perspectives for fear that their list will be stereotyped as ideological by the academic world. This simply reflects the long standing tendency for any prevailing orthodoxy to view its position as objective and true, and any challenging view as fanatical and ideological in nature—if not evil. (A tendency, I might add, which some libertarians are not totally immune from either!)
Having said this, however, I want to give some idea of the process that an editor goes through in evaluating manuscripts. Hopefully, this will give prospective authors an idea of what to do to enhance the marketability of their manuscripts. For purposes of simplification I will assume that we are dealing with a manuscript by an "unknown" author.
WORDS TO THE WISE AUTHOR
An editor receives an unsolicited manuscript in the mail. This generally means that the manuscript already has one strike against it. It is always helpful to have established some kind of prior contact with an editor. But if you haven't been able to do that, then you should be sure to attach a prospectus with your manuscript which describes what the book is about, the audience that it is intended for (the more specific you can be about suitable courses the better), and what—if any—published books your manuscript will compete with. In the latter case, a brief description of how your manuscript will differ from, and improve upon, the existing competition is quite helpful to an editor. Often times, an editor is not that knowledgeable about the potential market for a particular manuscript. You need to educate him with some kind of sales pitch.
Attaching a prospectus will often mean the difference between an editor looking at your manuscript or not. If he has to—bleary-eyed and hungover—thumb through an unsolicited manuscript and figure out the above information for himself, he may decide—on very superficial grounds—that the manuscript is not worth the effort and send out a standard rejection letter. But, if you attach a prospectus he may, even if he rejects it, suggest other publishers that might be suitable for the manuscript. In fact, authors shouldn't be shy about asking for help from editors. An editor may not be able to publish the manuscript for a variety of reasons independent of its quality. It may be more suitable for a trade publisher (one who primarily sells individual copies to the general public rather than to educators who control multiple copy adoptions in an academic environment), he may have a similar book under contract, or the financial strings may be tight at the moment.
Now assuming that an editor does have a prospectus he will probably ask himself what the total potential audience for the book is and whether or not he can effectively reach that audience with the marketing sources available to him. (It is often the case that an editor would like to publish a book but knows that his firm can't do a good job of promoting it.) Any information that a prospective author can provide about other people teaching in the field who would be likely to use the published book will impress an editor. It will also save him time from having to dig this information out for himself, and hence ingratiate you to him.
CAN YOU SELL 5,000?
If you can convince an editor that there are 50 or more teachers in the field teaching courses with average student enrollments of 100 or more, his interest in your manuscript will be further heightened. In addition you can help an editor by suggesting several people teaching courses relevant to the manuscript who could serve as critics for the quality and marketability of the manuscript. (Editors usually send out projects for evaluation to people teaching courses for which the manuscript is appropriate.) If the editor doesn't know much about the market for the book he is likely to appreciate your suggestions and use whomever you recommend as part of his decision making process. If an editor can identify the audience for a particular manuscript, obtain favorable reviews from a representative sample of that audience, and reach it with an inexpensive promotion campaign, then his decision to publish the manuscript is more likely to be favorable. The only qualification here is that the total audience for the book should constitute a minimum first year sales potential of 5,000 copies.
A possible exception would be an inexpensive paperback edition. In this case, the market potential would probably have to be closer to 10,000 or 15,000 copies in the first year. Given a relatively small market for a book, the publisher will prefer to charge a higher price for the book and publish it in hardback. If he can charge $10 for the book because of inelastic demand, he will prefer that to pricing it at $2.95. It is fairly safe to assume that a publisher will want a minimum return of about $30,000 in sales on any book that is published. Under tougher economic conditions, this figure may jump to $50,000.
A related concern to an editor, though not to him alone, is what kind of royalty rate he will have to pay an author. In the college textbook arena the range runs from 10 to 18 percent of net proceeds. An unknown author will probably get more attention if he indicates he is willing to accept a lower royalty. If the market is relatively small for a prospective book, the publisher is likely to offer the minimum figure. (Some publishers will make provisions for a graduated royalty although this is increasingly the exception rather than the rule.)
In closing, let me admonish those of you looking for a publisher—submit your manuscript in as presentable a form as possible! Rightly or wrongly, a badly typed, pencil-corrected manuscript will convey an unprofessional image to an editor and may well lessen his motivation for reading and ultimately wanting to publish it.
Michael Heim is an editor (history, philosophy, and economics) with the Wadsworth Publishing Company. He is also a writer and poet, and a member of the Berkeley Poets Cooperative. In addition to REASON, his work has been published in A WAY OUT, VOICES INTERNATIONAL, and FICTION.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "How to Get a College Text Published".