Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Partial Guest Post (with Sarah Waurechen): Responding to Book Proposals Reviews

Kean was kind enough to let me (partially) hijack his forum today after I proposed that we co-author a post on responding to early reviews of a book manuscript. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Sarah Waurechen, and I’m an early modern British historian who writes a blog about teaching in higher education. You can find me here. I’ve been shopping my half-finished book around to publishers and discovered the hard way that there are some parts of this process for which very little guidance is available online. And so, without further ado, here are some tips from Kean and I about what to do if an editor emails you asking that you respond to some initial critiques.
Kean will start us off …
1. Who do I address the letter to and how long should it be?

Like every good little academic, I want to begin with a caveat … I don’t have significant experience when it comes to responding to referee comments on book proposals. So far, in fact, it has amounted to one such response to the publishers Zed Books – shameless plug for my co-edited volume here! My suggestions should, therefore, be taken with a pinch or two of salt and maybe some other spices and condiments thrown in the mix too! 

To start with, if you receive a request to respond to referee comments – which should, hopefully, include a separate editorial letter distinct from the referee comments – then you are already well ahead of the curve. Many of us don’t even get to this stage as we come up against outright rejection – see here for the gory details of another (this time rejected) book proposal I sent to Zed. What such editorial requests indicate is that the commissioning editor is interested, although they may need convincing of the academic suitability or possible readership interest in the proposed book.

As a starting point then, I think it’s important you address any response letter directly to the commissioning editor(s) or commissioning editorial board; you are not responding to referees directly, so keep that in mind. This means you have to think about how to convince the editor(s) / editorial board that your book is worthwhile in light of the referee and probably editorial comments.

My limited experience – which was with an edited volume – involved responding directly to a series of questions / issues raised by the commissioning editor, ranging from requests to change the title through removing certain chapters to dropping one of the editors. I want to emphasize that all these requests made the final book a much stronger and, in my mind at least, a better contribution to scholarship. These requests were laid out in bullet format and so were quite easy to respond to; we simply addressed each in turn. Our responses were not particularly long, we basically responded in kind by using bullet points etc. to emphasize what we would do to make the book a better “package”.

In terms of word or page length for this letter, if there is no explicit request then I think it depends on how long the editorial letter is. If the letter is well laid-out (e.g. bulleted) then it shouldn’t be too difficult to respond in kind. I would recommend – as with any response letter – not going into detail about how the new theoretical approach you’ve adopted has enabled you to blah-de-blah-de-blah … Just say what you will do, or ask the contributors to do; say how this addresses the points raised; and whether you think it’s helpful.

2. What type of tone should the letter have?

There is a fine line to any response letter, which I find myself tip-toeing along every time I write one. I have a 24-hour rule when it comes to responding to any editorial decision, which I’ve mentioned before in a blog post and think is important for maintaining cordial relations with our academic peers – see here.

The tone should always be clear and un-grouchy when responding to referee /editorial letters. My preference is to simply respond to each comment in turn, directly below the comment in a different typeface, bold or whatever.

Personally, I would keep the response simple, clear and concise. As someone who helps edit a journal, one of the most frustrating things I have to do is read someone’s four-page response letter in which they explain everything they’re trying to do in the paper – but which they then fail to put in the paper itself! Anyway, that is my two and a half cents worth…

3. Is it ok if I don't like all the reviewer(s)’ suggestions, or do I need to take them all on board?

What you have to remember is that editors have already put some effort into the book proposal once they have written an editorial letter. They don’t want it to ‘fail’ necessarily, but they want to be convinced that you know what you’re doing or are a reasonable person to work with – well, that’s my guess! It’s important to be polite and to spell out what it is you will do and, if relevant, what you don’t agree with. I was once told that you should ALWAYS disagree with one thing in a referee /editorial letter to show that you know better (i.e. you’re the expert). I’m not sure whether this is a good idea necessarily, but it’s perfectly reasonable – in my mind at least – to say something when you disagree with something. You’ll be the one writing the book after all.
Now my turn ...
Since Kean, by his own admission, has limited experience responding to these things, this is where I’m going to step in and offer my two cents as well. Like Kean, I’ve only written one response letter, but two heads is at least marginally better than one, right? In my case, I was responding to an early review of my monograph project. The reviewer had seen 4 out of 7 chapters and was excited, but had a few suggestions about how to clean the book up a little. As of yet, I haven’t secured the contract – I’m waiting to hear back from the advisory board – but I did make it past the editors, so I consider my letter have been successful, and I’m hoping to have a plug for you in short order too!

I’m not sure if I would suggest always quibbling over one thing all the time either. Sometimes, all the suggestions might make sense. At other moments, you might be too close to the material, and acknowledge that you need to trust someone else. In these situations being generally conciliatory can’t hurt. But if I’m being honest, I did push back. I was very careful about doing it, and I didn’t phrase it as a “no,” but I did offer some resistance. The reviewer was asking me to add material back in that I had already made the decision to cut, so I asked for “further editorial guidance” on the subject after laying out my case. But here’s the rule I followed when doing this: phrase any such resistance as a negotiation, and not as if it’s the hill to die on, unless of course the request fundamentally alters the nature/argument of your book.

4. How do I format the letter?

Again, Kean and I had slightly different approaches here. I was asked to write a very short response (800-1000 words) to a very long review (9 pages). My instructions also asked that I be “thorough,” so you can imagine my initial dismay, since this seemed like a gigantic contradiction in terms. Kean’s Q&A format was clearly not going to work. After mulling it over for a few days – I know, I know, I broke one of his golden rules – I decided that the only way to slay the dragon was to organize the critiques into 4 categories: “thematic continuity,” “precision,” “restructuring,” and “additional material.” After a paragraph-long explanation of my general approach to each issue, I offered 1 or 2 specific examples of how the book would change.

I think the key here is respecting the editor’s wishes. Like Kean, I believe that shorter is better. The people reading these things are reading countless emails, proposals, and sample chapters and they don’t need you making their lives any more miserable by adding an extra 10 pages of text that doesn’t need to be there. Be direct; tell them what you are going to do and what you want from them in return. But if the editor simply asks you to respond to “everything,” and doesn’t give you a word/page limit, then you probably should address everything. Again, do it in a concise way, but answer all the queries. Sadly, there is no template for what one of these response letters looks like. Much like when you’re designing a syllabus, the content and presentation are left in your capable hands. The key is to be effective, and you’re the only one who can work out what that means in any given situation, so trust your gut.

Clearly Kean and I both have very limited experience with this process, but hopefully this has helped you get a sense of what a response to a manuscript review should look like. While no one I’ve talked to has been able to provide me with hard and fast rules for success, the consensus was that such responses should be generally conciliatory, be addressed to the editor(s), and respect any formatting guidance that you do receive.  Be confident, concise, and answer the questions – after that, it’s just a matter of waiting for the results!

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