When Is It Smart to Submit Your Work to a University Press? (You’d Be Surprised!)

Elise McHugh & Stephen Hull of UNM Press

Today’s post is by author Joni B. Cole (@JoniBCole).

How did a collection of essays by a Vermont author (me) end up being acquired by the University of New Mexico Press? Especially given I’ve never set foot in New Mexico and—while I like to think my writing is literary—my forthcoming collection isn’t what you would call standard academic fare.

In some ways, the process was fairly typical of finding any publisher. I sent the press a query letter, a proposal, and a writing sample. Then I waited (for months) and was beyond thrilled when I eventually heard, “Yes.” Despite the fact this will be my third book coming out from a university press, I still can’t discern exactly how university presses pick and choose the titles they publish, or how they compare with other traditional publishers.

Recently, I decided to shed my ignorance about university presses by posing the following questions to two very generous and patient souls at UNM Press: senior acquisitions editor Elise McHugh and director Stephen Hull. Their responses below provided quite the education.

JONI B. COLE: Who should pitch to a university press?

ELISE MCHUGH & STEPHEN HULL: Anyone who has written a book that they feel has an audience but suspects that the large traditional publishers in New York would feel the story is too regional or the audience too small to be published. The large trade houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) and their many imprints look at projects they feel will sell in the multi-thousands from the start, and they’ll pass on books they don’t believe will hit that mark in the first year of sales.

Not all university presses publish trade projects, but those that do are a natural home for books with regional settings or topics, or books with national appeal that don’t fit the mold of a traditional big house. And when we talk about trade books we’re talking about books written for a general audience, books you’d commonly find in bookstores, public libraries, and online vendors (versus scholarly or academic books whose topics and writing style focus on classroom adoption, university libraries, and researcher use).

What are the biggest myths writers need to know about university presses?

There are a number of misconceptions out there. One of the most common we hear is that university presses don’t do anything to publicize books, such as sending books out for book reviews, entering books into post-publication book awards, or helping authors set up book signings and other events. We do, though how much of that a university press can do is really based on how large its marketing department is. University press marketing and sales departments operate in the same way as any other traditional publisher, including the Big Five. Like any other press, we want to sell books and support our authors, and we’ll do as much as we are able to in that regard.

Another myth is that books will be priced much higher than books from other presses. It’s true university presses can’t offer the same price points as the Big Five, like $14.95 for a long paperback. Most of UNM Press’s paperbacks, including our poetry titles, range from $17.95 to $19.95, with a few priced $21.95 or $24.95, if they are extremely long. This is due to economics: The more books printed at one time, the less each book costs to produce. But while the Big Five print multi-thousands of books at one time, university presses are much more conservative, sometimes printing as few as 400 to 1,000 at a time.

If all of the copies of a particular book don’t sell within three years of being printed, the press loses money. It’s kind of like new car sales—the car starts depreciating in value as soon as it leaves the lot. So university presses print more conservatively and then watch sales closely and reprint a book whenever its stock gets low so there are always books on hand. Essentially, each copy of a book costs more to produce, but in the long run the press (hopefully) will save money while earning money for itself and its authors.

A third myth is that a university press will publish only books by people who live in a particular state or if the book is about a particular state. Most university presses will publish a number of titles that focus on a particular state or region as they know how to market to the area around them. However, university presses publish authors from all over the world. What is more important than location is whether a book is a good fit at a particular press.

For example, if an author has written a manuscript about nature and they’re looking at a particular press, does that press publish books about nature? If it does, are all of the books focused on the state or the region, or does the press seem to publish books about nature from all over the United States or in the world? If they have a manuscript about wildflowers in New Mexico, it’s a good bet UNM Press would be a potential fit because we publish nature books about the Southwest. But if the manuscript focuses on wildflowers in Georgia, we wouldn’t be a good fit.

Conversely, UNM Press is well-known for books by, about, and for people of the Latinx and Chicanx communities. So if an author has a book of short stories by Latinx individuals that live all over the country (not just New Mexico or the Southwest), that would be an excellent fit. A potential author should research the presses they are interested in to see what kind of books each publisher specializes in to try and see if there’s a potential match (more about this below).

How is the acquisition process similar or different than at traditional presses?

In many respects the acquisitions process is the same. Most presses will have some guidelines for prospective authors telling them what the press publishes and what it wants to see when initially contacted. (FYI, very few presses actually want an author to send their full manuscript in at first contact unless they’re operating a book contest.)

On the homepage of UNM Press’s website, there is a tab that reads For Authors. It’s a drop-down menu to select Contracted Authors or Prospective Authors. On that Prospective Authors page we detail exactly what we want to see (query letter and proposal), what subjects we specialize in, and what acquisition editor a person should contact for a particular subject (for instance, among many other subjects Elise McHugh handles writing guides and poetry while Stephen Hull handles music and film titles). If a publisher doesn’t list a specific contact, Dear Editor or Dear University of ______ Press as the query letter salutation is completely acceptable. If an acquisitions editor likes the sound of the project, they will either ask for a sample or the full manuscript to review.

What is the review process at a university press?

This is where university presses differ from other publishers. Most university presses will send projects under consideration to one or two peer reviewers. These would be other writers known for work in the same category as the author. For instance, if we’re considering a novel, we will send the novel to two peer reviewers we feel have a similar writing style and ask them to return a report to us about whether they feel the manuscript is ready for publication and if they have any revision suggestions to offer. This can add some time to the process, but not as much as people fear.

We ask for the reviews back within two to six weeks, which frankly often is the same length of time editors at other presses would take. Some people are put off by the prospect of having their work read in this way, but for us it is a way to offer the authors outside feedback to catch things they might not otherwise catch. And we don’t require revisions to be accepted carte blanche. UNM Press editors read the manuscript as well and talk with the authors about the reviews and what revisions we believe would make the project stronger. In the end, this process has been designed to make the project as strong as it can possibly be because we want the author and their work to shine.

The other piece that is different and often causes a lot of anxiety is that university presses have advisory committees made up of faculty or administrators from their home institutions. Our committee is the University Press Committee, and it’s comprised of twelve faculty members from various departments whose subjects we commonly publish (such as English, Chicano studies, art, anthropology, etc.). Some of these committees vote on whether or not to accept a project for publication. At UNM Press, we take all projects we’ve had reviewed to the UPC for approval. The committee sees a memo from the acquisitions editor, the peer reviews, the author’s response to those reviews, and a sample of the manuscript. We meet once a month.

To authors not familiar with the university press process, this can appear like an arbitrary decision—why put in all this work and time if a committee can reject a project even if the acquisitions editor and peer reviewers like it? But the fact is, that rarely happens (and on most of the occasions it does, it’s scholarly manuscripts the committee has issues with due to the research). Between the two of us, we have been attending meetings like these for over fifteen years, and we can count on our fingers the number of times a project that has editor support and positive peer reviews has been rejected by a committee. The committee relies on the editor and those reviews.

Basically, what the committee is there to do is uphold a high standard of publication for the press. They aren’t there to reject things—they are there to support the press and its authors to make the books, the authors, and the press stand out. Of course it’s still nerve-wracking, but maybe it will seem less so if readers of this column keep in mind that at other presses, especially the Big Five and their imprints, acquisition editors have to present each project to staff, such as marketing and sales and business, and argue for why a certain manuscript should be published.

The fact is every editor has people they have to convince because every publisher receives far more manuscripts in a year than it can publish. UNM Press publishes 50 new books each year, about half of those trade and half scholarly. But because university presses are generally a department within an institution, our processes and who we have to convince may be a bit different, which can be confusing to a first-time university press author.

Do I need to go through an agent with a university press?

University presses will (and some often do) work with agents, but having one isn’t a requirement. Almost none of our scholarly titles are agented, and few of the poetry manuscripts. In respect to UNM Press’s literary nonfiction and fiction, we’d say half to two-thirds are pitched directly by the authors and the rest are represented by agents. Many smaller independent presses don’t require an agent either. If a prospective author does their homework and checks out the websites of publishers, the website will note whether or not the press requires agented representation for submission.

What are some of the unique benefits of going with a university press?

That’s a great question because there are trade-offs. For instance, many university presses can’t compete with advances offered by larger publishers, and some can’t offer advances at all. And no university press is going to set up and pay for a cross-country book tour. However, because university presses operate on a smaller scale, there are some unique benefits.

University presses are generally committed to keeping a book in print for as long as possible. Those smaller print runs give the presses more flexibility. And while we’d naturally do backflips if a new title sold ten or twenty thousand in its first year of publication, UNM Press has a different standard of what “successful” means. If we have a novel that sells 1,500 or 2,000 copies in its first year and not only earns back all of the costs put in to produce it but also earns additional income, that’s a success. That’s a book we want to have on our backlist for as long as we can.

Here’s an example of how that can work: UNM Press has a novel on our list that has been in print since the 1980s. We sell maybe a hundred copies a year, but we keep it in print and available to readers because we can print it in small quantities that are still affordable for us to produce. That also means, here at UNMP, that a book that was originally printed in cloth (hardcover), if it sells through those couple of thousand of copies within the first two or three years, has an excellent chance of being brought out in paperback. An author doesn’t have to worry about hitting that ten or twenty thousand (or higher) mark before a paperback becomes a possibility.

Authors also generally have more say and more knowledge of the production process with a small press or university press. Because UNM Press produces 50-60 books each year and has a smaller staff, our authors work closely with people in every department and can get to know people on a first-name basis. They get some say in the design of their book cover and the book’s cover copy. They work closely with our three-person marketing and sales team to set up a publicity campaign for their book. They can ask their acquisition editor questions. They work closely with the editorial, design, and production staff, and can ask the staff questions as their book moves from final draft to page proofs to printed book. We’ve had many authors tell us that they enjoy the more personal and intimate experience they have with a publisher our size, and we love to hear that.

Finally, an author’s book has an excellent chance of getting more marketing time and being considered a front-list title at a smaller press. At UNM Press, the trade titles stand out among the 50 being published that year (half trade, half scholarly) rather than get buried in the midlist.

Do university presses offer standard royalties?

The idea of standard royalties is based on what is offered by the Big Five and its imprints. The reality is that royalty arrangements can vary widely depending upon the press, how large it is, how it operates, etc. For trade books at UNMP we use the same basic royalty ranges as the larger houses. We do offer advances, and while they will generally be smaller than larger houses, they are competitive with other university presses with robust trade programs, and with independent trade publishers.

Have any blockbuster books come out from university presses?

Absolutely! Reaching back, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean was originally published at the University of Chicago Press in 1976. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was first published in 1980 by Louisiana State University Press and has been in print continuously ever since. Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, published by the University of Texas Press in 2019, was a New York Times best seller and on the longlist for the 2019 National Book Awards. And in 2020 Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, published by West Virginia University Press, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award.

But perhaps the most surprising blockbuster ever published by a university press is Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. This was first published in 1984 by the Naval Institute Press of the U.S. Naval Academy. It was the first work of fiction ever published by the press and launched not only a long list of books and movies by and based on Clancy, but arguably launched the whole subgenre of techno-thrillers.

What’s something you wish every writer knew before or after pitching a university press?

This is something we wish writers would do before pitching to any press: Do some research! Go to different press websites, look at the books they’ve published, look at the subjects they publish, read (and follow!) any guidelines listed for how to approach them. Rejection unfortunately is part of the process and it’s never pleasant, but doing some research in advance and tailoring your queries to those publishers you can tell are a good potential fit with your project will save you time, work, and frustration.

Thank you, Elise and Stephen.

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