An interesting thing can happen when an editor writes to express interest in a book or article without stating specifically that s/he wishes to acquire it. Authors get these notes all the time — fishing expeditions where the editor asks to see more without making any sort of verbal commitment.
What does the editor want? Often, the answer can boil down to a sales pitch. Sometimes the editor wants to be convinced. I don’t mean a hard sell, and I certainly don’t mean a phone call (I have met two editors in ten years who want that), but what I do mean is a clear, author-elucidated expression of how and why this book can work for this press now, and what the author (yes the author) plans to do to make it a success.
Author after author comes to me with a variation on the theme that the press should already know this. “Don’t they know how to sell their own books?” some cry. Or (and I’m always fascinated by this one) “They are the professionals, not me — I expect them to tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
I would gently submit that becoming an author means becoming a publishing professional, and learning as much as one can about the real industry versus the imaginary one. The elements of selling an idea to a publisher and then later leading the effort to support one’s book in the marketplace are part of this.
Where and how does one learn? I recommend the presses themselves. The first step is a study of the catalogs and the booths at conferences to see how they sell other books. This rich endeavor can take a professional lifetime (I’m always, always learning new things from this). The second step is to learn from prominent academic authors. See how they promote their work online and at conferences. See how they sell. Once we establish just who it is that we admire, we can learn so much.
Finally, there are some good books on publishing out there, although I’ve found the genre to be a bit goofy and less-than-professional, to be quite honest, which is why I don’t send authors to the how-to-publish aisle right away. But books such as Thinking Like Your Editor, and The Forest For the Trees, although written for trade authors, do have thoughts for academic authors as well. In some respects an editor is an editor when it comes to what they worry about: successful acquisitions and ultimately job security.
An editor is doing more than just saying yes when s/he acquires your book. This person is actually aligning her or his career with yours, and betting that your work will make that editor’s list seem more robust, credible, and salesworthy. Think about it — that’s a big statement from an editor, so is it any wonder that some of them fish around a bit, and seem to want and need a little more reassurance that you and I know our jobs?