Over on Vulpes Libris I interviewed a Palgrave Pivot commissioning editor, as part of the Vulpes Alternative Book Publishing Thrortnight. Pivot sells itself as a way to publish your polemic or very-much-extended essay that is too long for journal publication but way too short for a book. During the interview (done by email Q&A over a few weeks in February), I decided to road-test the Pivot book proposal experience, to see if it really was as fast and as rigorous as they claim. I’m already a Palgrave author, and thus not an unknown quantity in publishing terms, which helps. I had a book proposal waiting in embryo, on literary disability, so I spent two days working it up to the Pivot requirements, filled in their submission form, and sent it in.
10 March: instant and personal acknowledgement from Palgrave (not difficult, they knew the proposal was on its way), and a promise to ‘look it over in the next couple of weeks’. That wasn’t quite as fast as I’d expected, since in the series I used to edit for a different publisher we generally sent the author a decision on whether the book proposal would go out to reviewers within a week.
13 March: OK, the Palgrave editor clearly found the time. Three days later, I had this response: ‘I’ve now looked over your proposal for the book and think that it looks very interesting, and possibly a nice fit for the list here. I’ll now share it with my Literary Disability Studies series editors and get back to you asap.’ Notice that he is being cautious, not pre-empting his external readers’ opinions, while sending reassurance and positivity. However, I was puzzled that he was now talking about what I thought was a different Palgrave series, not Pivot. I hadn’t appreciated (until he got in touch after this post was posted, and explained things more clearly) that Pivot is a format, not an imprint, and can publish books from other series as well as those only accepted for Pivot. Nonetheless, I was happy that the proposal had now left the dock.
23 March: Ten days later Palgrave email me to ask for sample chapters, as the series editors need to see this, because ‘they liked the look of the proposal a great deal’. All is now becoming clear. The editor has either decided or assumed that my book proposal was for the Literary Disability Studies series, and has forgotten or undecided that I sent the proposal in as a Pivot book. I check my book proposal again, and am relieved that I used the Pivot submissions form, which specifically doesn’t ask for sample chapters.
This is an important point for authors, and what makes Pivot different from other lists. Reading the sample chapters with a book proposal is essential for assessing how an author writes, whether they understand their subject, what standard of prose style, critical thinking, scholarly apparatus, etc, they’re using, and I would never accept a book from an author without them. They’re also essential for the author to write, as part of understanding what the book is about, how it will be structured, and how long the whole thing will take to write. However, not needing to write sample chapters (3-6 months work) before sending in the book proposal makes Pivot very attractive for the author in a hurry, because it means that for book projects that are already well-worked out in plan, and that you want to get published quickly, Pivot submissions have a time-critical edge. Two years ago, this was very important for UK academics who needed to have a monograph on their list for the round of research assessment that closed its submissions window in 2013. Now, the pressure isn’t so extreme, as we’re looking at 2019 or thereabouts, but job applications run all year round, and a book contract on a CV is as good as the finished book on the desk. Notwithstanding my own rule to always see sample chapters, I happily followed Pivot’s lure to not go through this process with my book proposal: not very wise, in hindsight. Dear reader, read on.
I sent a book chapter that had already been accepted by a different publisher, that drew on the same material I’d be using in my book. I explained that I did not have the time (true) to write sample chapters now, but had planned to do this in the summer.
23 March (half an hour later): This wasn’t acceptable, and the tone in the Palgrave emails turned slightly formal. ‘Ideally, we’d like a sample chapter and not a writing sample – can I ask when you’d expect to be able to send one on please?’ They really had not realised that the proposal was for Pivot and thus did not need a sample. I explained this formally, adding that if they were convinced that the proposal would be better considered outside Pivot, I would withdraw it, spend the summer writing sample chapters, and then resubmit the proposal.
25 March: Well that did the trick, sort of. ‘I’ve had a chat with our series editors on this and we’re happy to go ahead with the proposal and sample material provided – thanks for your patience!’ This still wasn’t telling me which series my book was going to be considered for: Literary Disability, or Pivot? Not that it mattered much.
22 April: A reply from Palgrave on what their reviewer said (who by then had been properly briefed and knew that the proposal was for Pivot): ‘As you can see, the report is mixed – while broadly positive about the idea behind the project, the reader flags up a number of issues with the proposal as currently constituted … Unfortunately, I’m unable to commission your book on the basis of this report but would be keen to look over a fleshed out proposal that takes into account the reader’s feedback and addresses the specific points raised within his/her report. Once this is in, I shall send it out to the reader again for a second look. I remain keen on this for the series and for the list more broadly, but feel that it just needs some more work before it’s ready.’
And I totally agree. Aside from some snarkiness from the reviewer about my writing style (hmmph), I agreed with their criticisms, and am completely fine about doing more work on the proposal. I’ll do as I originally planned: spend the summer writing the book as sample chapters, possibly even just write the book, period, and then resubmit it. Palgrave have since reconfirmed that they are very keen to see the revised proposal, so I will probably send it back to them, since I’d be happy for the book to go out with Pivot, or with their mainstream-length series. In the end, the length of the final book may determine the imprint, not any other factor.
I think this shows how the central selling points of the Pivot imprint – that you can get your book published really fast, and you don’t need to mess about with sample chapters to get a contract – could be a serious weakness in the quality of the books they accept, unless Palgrave are as rigorous in their gate-keeping as they showed themselves to be in my case. Palgrave are taking a risk, I think, by dropping the sample chapter requirement, and they have to be vigilant in keeping their standards as high as they would normally expect.
[addendum: the Palgrave editor got in touch after this was posted to make things clearer, so I’m posting what he said here: ‘usually I would ask for a sample chapter (at least one) but as a previously published author I know your work and your track record. Also, I should emphasise that the full MS would have gone through another round of peer review once submitted, before publication, as per our monograph programme. So it would not have been cleared without the reader seeing the full MS. I can assure you that we wouldn’t publish a project that hadn’t been peer reviewed to the rigorous standards we are accustomed to.’]
On the time taken to assess the book proposal, one month is exemplary, and I see no reason why this should not be the norm for all book proposals. Current practice in taking three to five months for two reviewers to read a proposal is completely unacceptable, and is caused by asking the wrong people to do the work (too overworked to make the time). Palgrave ‘pay’ their reviewers with cash or two books from their catalogue (twice the value of the cash offer), as do other academic publishers. Senior academics (overworked) might not be very interested in this, whereas impecunious postdocs (very recent experts in their PhD topics) most definitely are. Publishers: choose your reviewers wisely, and consider how incentives and prior obligations will affect your reviewers’ commitment to your business.