The Peer Review Process: What Sets University Presses Apart

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“89/365: Judgment” by SarahMcGowen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Today’s post is excerpted from THE BOOK PROPOSAL BOOK: A Guide for Scholarly Authors by Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer). Copyright © 2021 by Laura Portwood-Stacer. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

When an author submits a book proposal to a university press, in a best-case scenario the acquiring editor will think the project is promising and want to go ahead with peer review of the proposal and some or all of the book manuscript. At some publishers, acquisitions editors present projects they are excited about to other press staff and are then approved by an internal committee to proceed with peer review. At other presses, editors can proceed with peer review at their own discretion. Peer review is a practice that distinguishes scholarly presses from other types of publishers, so it’s key for authors to understand how it works and what expectations will fall to them as a result.

If you make it to the peer review stage, your editor will ask you to provide the materials they need for review. Many presses will move forward to peer review with just a proposal and sample chapter or two; some presses prefer to wait on peer review until the author provides a full or nearly complete manuscript, especially for first-time authors.

When your materials go out for review, particularly if you’ve submitted a full manuscript, your editor may stipulate exclusive submission, meaning that they will require you to (temporarily) pull the project from consideration elsewhere if you have submitted the proposal to multiple publishers. The exclusivity usually goes away once you get the reviews back, meaning that if you don’t like what the reviewers or editor want you to do with the manuscript, you can then try your luck with a different press to give yourself some options. Note that up until the moment of peer review or contract, you are free to be in talks with editors at multiple presses in order to identify the best home for your book. As long as you are transparent with everyone that that’s what you’re doing, there is no problem with this at all. If an editor thinks your project is particularly appealing and recognizes that they will have to compete with other publishers for it, you’re in a strong negotiating position and they may agree to waive exclusivity during the peer review process.

During peer review, your editor will ask expert scholars to evaluate your submitted materials and return their thoughts in the form of written reports. Unlike peer review conventions for scholarly journals, peer review for books is not anonymous in both directions. While you won’t know the identities of your reviewers (unless they reveal themselves in their reports), your reviewers will have access to your name and CV, because in addition to assessing the content of your submission materials, they will also be commenting on your scholarly profile and perceived authority to write the book you’re proposing. Reviewers will also be asked to comment on their perceptions of the market for your proposed book.

The return of the reader reports will likely be a big moment of decision for the acquiring editor. These are some possible scenarios:

  • The reviews come back largely positive and the editor decides to seek approval from their publisher’s internal committee and editorial board to offer you a contract.
  • The editor thinks the criticisms in the reader reports are minimal enough that they can be addressed through a response letter from you. The editor has faith that you will assure the editorial board that you can fix any significant problems in revision and gain their approval for a contract before another round of review.
  • The editor doesn’t think the reader reports are strong enough to get approval for a contract, but they still believe in the project. They may seek additional reports or ask you to revise the manuscript or proposal and resubmit for a second round of review.
  • The editor finds the reader reports negative enough that they don’t feel comfortable moving forward. In this case, the project will be rejected and you’ll move on to any other presses you may be considering. (You might first decide to revise your proposal based on the reports before submitting to additional publishers, but that’s up to you.)

This is a moment for you to make a decision as well. Do you like the direction the editor and reviewers want you to take the manuscript? Are you confident you can address the requested revisions? Have you felt respected and informed throughout the acquisitions process so far? If you have hesitation about any of these questions, you may want to communicate it to the editor. You should know that peer reviewers don’t have the final say on publication; that will lie with your editor and the press’s editorial board. A brief phone call can be extraordinarily useful for getting clarity on what your editor honestly thinks of the peer reviews and how the editor envisions the project moving forward. If you aren’t feeling reassured after talking to your editor about the reports, you might decide to pull the project from this press or temporarily put it on hold while you seek responses from other editors and presses.

If the acquisitions editor feels confident in your project and your ability to turn in a satisfactory finished manuscript, they will present the project to an internal staff committee—made up of editors, marketers, and salespeople—for approval. If the editor’s presentation goes well, the editor will either be approved to offer you an agreement to publish your book or to take your project to the press’s faculty editorial board for their approval. (Some presses don’t need editorial board approval to issue contracts; at those presses your project won’t go before the editorial board until you submit your full manuscript.)

At a university press, the editorial board is made up of faculty from across the institution, most of whom won’t be experts in your area, let alone your subject matter. Your editor will be providing the editorial board with sample materials from your book along with the peer reviewers’ reports and your response to the reports, and then making a presentation where they defend your book’s intellectual soundness, contribution, and fit with the press’s publishing program. Your editor’s enthusiastic support for the project and capacity to defend it using the information you’ve provided in your submission will count for a lot. Understanding that your editor will be making these presentations about your book is key, because your proposal is your chance to give them all the information they’ll need to pitch your book successfully when it gets to this stage. Also keep in mind: If you haven’t submitted a full manuscript yet, your full manuscript will likely also go through a peer review process before your book is given the final green light for publication.

While peer review is a significant aspect of the scholarly publishing process—it’s what sets university presses and other academic publishers apart from the rest of the publishing world—remember that individual peer reviewers don’t decide your book’s fate with the publisher. The input of experts in your field does matter to the decision of whether or not a press wants to take on the publication of your manuscript, yet the word of any given peer reviewer is not the end of the story. Your editor will have gathered reviews from at least two different scholars, and if their assessments contradict each other or are otherwise ambiguous, the editor may have sought at least one additional reviewer to come on board, maybe more. The negative opinion of one reviewer is not necessarily a death knell for your project. Even if all the reviewers agree in their criticism of the submitted materials, that doesn’t mean your project is doomed, as long as your editor still believes in it. If your own response helps your editor demonstrate convincingly that you can satisfactorily address the concerns voiced by the reviewers, your project may still be in play.

I advise approaching your “response to the reader reports” as something more along the lines of a “revision plan in light of the reader reports.” Your peer reviewers’ suggestions can genuinely improve your book if you synthesize them thoughtfully. Your job in presenting your revision plan isn’t to rebut the points the reviewers made, or to prove that your submission materials were perfect all along; your job is to show that you will use the reports to strengthen your project into something that represents a smart investment for the publisher. Providing a concrete, reasonable plan for revision—without coming off as defensive or ego-driven—is the way to convince the decision-makers that you’re a good bet.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors by Laura Portwood-Stacer.

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