For years, university presses have focused on scholarly monographs and college textbooks. But that is changing. More universities are publishing popular non-fiction and fiction, in part because there's money in it. University presses can easily turn a profit from a press run of 10,000 to 15,000 books--figures that would cause a traditional trade press to turn up its corporate nose in disgust.
That is good news for historical writers looking for new markets.
Which of the university press should one approach?
Start with the Association of American University Presses at aaupnet.org. The website includes a resources section called For Authors & Faculty. The Finding a Publisher section includes a grid which shows which publishers are interested in fiction, biography, folklore, sociology, American history and other topics. Some publishers prefer fiction that targets their region. They are less picky when it comes to nonfiction.
The worst thing you can do is send out a blind query letter--a sure path to rejection. Instead, try to develop a relationship with an editor who buys books in your field. For fiction or less scholarly fields such as folklore, consult the press’s website. Look for editors interested in your topic and send them a query letter and a proposal.
For faculty, the process is easier. Most university presses send acquiring editors to conferences sponsored by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the History Society and regional groups such as the Western History Association or the Southern History Association. University presses often display their latest books at booths at the different conferences, and conference goers can pitch a book idea to an editor on the spot. This is of immense value to an author, and may culminate in the editor asking the author to send him a proposal. Be sure and mention your earlier conference meeting in the subsequent query letter.
Need more help? Check out the Association of American University Presses website video, "It's Not Scary: The Art of Getting Published with a Scholarly Press."
University press proposals aren't much different than those for traditional publishers. They should include a three- or four-page overview, a page about the author, prior publications and past book reviews. Identify the market for your book, discuss competing books, provide a chapter-by-chapter description, along with the number of illustrations or photographs and an estimated word count. For a novel, a chapter-by-chapter summary probably isn't necessary. But the proposal should discuss the major characters, the essential conflict, and the resolution.
University publishers conduct a much more thorough vetting process than do trade presses. Multiple readers review the manuscripts and suggest ways to improve it. There is a certain cachet to university press publishing. For academics, the rewards are many: there is a more dean-pleasing and therefore salary-enhancing quality to university press publication than with a trade press. My experience as a law professor was that, in the 1980s and 1990s, my annual merit salary increases for publications far exceeded what I could have earned by additional summer teaching.
There are other advantages to being published by a university press. Their books are overwhelmingly sturdy and well-produced. They win lots of awards. And university presses have strong backlists. Traditional publishers often deeply discount a poor seller after a year to unload their inventory of a slow-moving title. That is unheard of in the university press world. Occasionally, there are sales to reduce an excess of inventory, but never wholesale remaindering. Royalty checks from university presses may be low, but they endure for longer.
There are of course some disadvantages for university press writers. Advances for academic presses are minuscule. And royalties, generally 10 percent, are based on net income to the press rather than the traditional trade press royalties that are based on list price.
Books sold through bookstores generally pass through distributors who take 45 to 50 percent of the list price. If a university press receives only 50 percent of the list as its net income, that means the author will earn 10 percent of that, or a royalty of 5 percent of list price, compared with a trade author’s royalty of 10 percent of list.
Unlike traditional publishers, university presses offer little in the way of publicity and promotion. They do not pay for book signing tours or arrange author interviews with the media. Sometimes they run ads with books clustered by a type of discipline--say an ad in the American Historical Review featuring all the history books published that year. More typically, promotion is limited to displays in the press booths at conventions, convention book signings, and ads in the convention program.
On the other hand, university press authors rarely share their earnings with an agent. Literary agents are unneeded and seldom used to deal with academic publishers. Also, retail sales of academic monographs at conferences can enhance royalties, because they do not demand distributors and the conference discounts are far less than what a distributor would otherwise take.
The bottom line? No one has become wealthy through university press publication, but that is not what that process is all about.
It is rather the inner satisfaction of having authored a well-produced book from a prestigious press that will be distributed to university libraries and other interested parties throughout the world, and that will endure in print for a long time.
HWA Board President David J. Langum, Sr. has published six books with university presses, including his acclaimed biography, William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America, and the award-winning Quite Contrary: The Litigious Life of Mary Bennett Love.