What is it like finagling a book contract?

Recently, I was offered a contract from Liturgical Press to write a book on The Saint John’s Bible. If you’re not familiar with the project, this video is a good place to start:

The book is tentatively titled Canonical Conversations. In brief: I am looking at some of the repeated symbolism of the artwork in The Saint John’s Bible, how it connections different parts of the Bible (“intertextuality”), and how those connections reflect a few contemporary issues in Catholic biblical interpretation.

As anyone who has written an academic book can tell you, the process of getting a contract can take months. So I am delighted I got the contract. Now, of course, I have to actually write the book!

What have I learned so far about getting a contract?

First, you don’t need to have the whole book written. This surprised me. For those who don’t know, it is very common to receive a contract to publish academic non-fiction with only one chapter. I sent in one chapter, an introduction, and an outline of the whole volume. (Bart Ehrman says he is on a perpetual cycle to publish one general audience scholarly book every two years with HarperOne. Most academics are not such productive public scholars!) My mentor and co-author on my first book, David Pleins, told me that he always gets a contract before writing the whole book. You don’t want to write a book nobody will publish, or revise ad nauseum to make it fit what a publisher wants.

Second, trust in others to help you articulate what you are doing. My thoughts on The Saint John’s Bible have deepened in the last year as I continue to speak about the project, especially with those who are also immersed in it. My own chronology:

June 2015: My workplace has a copy of the Heritage Edition, a high-quality ‘facsimile’ of the original. I was assigned the task of educating myself on it to show it to classes and community groups. In the course of my work, I started noticing things about the art that nobody had written about—particularly connections between different illuminations and how that reveals the way art exegetes Scripture.

February 2016: I gave my first paper on the project, “Illuminating Abraham: The Saint John’s Bible and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” at the Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty conference at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. I also met Michael Patella, one of the main scholars behind The Saint John’s Bible, who encouraged me to write something on it. At the time my idea was to do an iconographic “field guide” of sorts, researching each symbol used in this Bible. (I have since discarded that tedious idea!)

August 2016: For the Catholic Biblical Association meeting—which just happened to be at my university—I presented a paper, “Visualizing Feminist Exegesis: Revelation 12 in The Saint John’s Bible.” At the CBA I spoke with Hans Christoffersen, one of the head editors at Liturgical Press, about the possibility of writing a book. Surprisingly, Liturgical had nothing in the works on the subject. Hans told me to send him a proposal when the time was right.

Third, it requires patience. In October 2016, I sent my formal proposal to Hans. From here things basically went the way Michael Hyatt describes. Hans liked the proposal; he showed it to the editorial committee and they liked it; he showed it to the publishing board and it got through; and then Hans had to make the financial projections work.

It is nerve-wracking to wait to hear about whether or not the publisher likes your idea! As Rachelle Gardner points out, publishers can seem very slow, when in fact they are often crazy busy juggling several projects at different levels of development and keeping to strict schedules. Far from some of the horror stories I have heard, my editors at Zondervan and Liturgical have been responsive and enthusiastic. This might be one of the perks of writing trade non-fiction where the editor hopes to turn a profit, rather than just sell a few hundred copies to the same university libraries that buy everything else they publish.

For me, the financial projections step was difficult because the book has to be printed in full-color, glossy paper for the images, hence higher production costs. I have heard that finagling that kind of printing can be hard. I am glad I am writing on something near and dear to Liturgical Press’s heart! (The press is affiliated with the monks who commissioned The Saint John’s Bible.) Finally, on February 1, 2017, I was formally offered a contract.

Now, my manuscript is due on August 1, 2017. From what David has told me, publishers really, really like it when you stick to deadlines. You don’t want to be known as someone who is a pain to work with. This contrasts with other activities in academia that are known for being painfully slow, aka academic journals.

Fourth, be humble, but don’t underestimate yourself either. As a graduate student, there is often a nagging voice of doubt in the back of my head: should I be writing a book? Shouldn’t I follow the proper order: do my doctorate, publish it as a book, then branch out into a second book?

When I was getting married, several people told my 21-year-old fiance that she should wait until she finished college to get married. It’s the proper order of things, they said. She asked: why? They never had a good answer.

If you have found a question that intrigues you, and if others whose judgment you trust think you have some good ideas, then why not move forward?

2 thoughts on “What is it like finagling a book contract?

  1. Robin

    As always, I am so impressed by your enthusiasm and intellect. I cannot imagine a world that would not be interested in hearing your life story and seeing the transformations and growth that have come about. You really are one fine specimen of the human being!


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