Choosing Book Publishers: Academic, Teaching or Trade?

Where to publish your latest book-length manuscript?  Law professors can position their books for publication in many different ways.  The target audience and a publisher’s program are the key factors in choosing a publisher. 

Do you want to reach students, teachers, scholars, policy-makers, the general public?  What publishers best target which groups?  Are they all equally good at marketing or are some more effective than others? 

Often it is clear where the book should  be published but sometimes a book straddles the markets, posing vexing decisions.  How do professors choose then?

Some books are clearly meant for the classroom, and should be published by the likes of Aspen, Foundation, Lexis or West.  Within that cohort, houses further distinguish between adoptables, targeted to professors who require the book, and discretionary student purchases, for supplemental reading.  

Other books are obviously written for a specialized academic market and should  be published by such university presses as Cambridge, Harvard, NYU or Stanford.  A small number undoubtedly show greater potential trade market appeal, and could be published by such houses as John Wiley, McGraw-Hill, Penguin or Random House.  

But what of the book that transcends one or more of these audiences, positions, and publishing programs?  Is it possible that some houses can deliver it all, as many authors say is true of such presses as Oxford, Princeton, Yale?

In particular, I have spent this past year writing a book on contract law stories in the news during the past several years.  Readers of this blog would recognize a dozen or more of them. 

Featured subjects include the rap artist Eminem, the Golden Globe film awards, the actor Martin Sheen, cell service early termination fees, Facebook, the show “Survivor,” the HBO drama “The Sopranos,” and figures as diverse as Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, Dan Rather, Maya Angelou, Bernie Madoff, Rod Stewart, Sandra Bullock, the Los Angeles Dodgers and AIG.

Themes animate the big ideas in contracts, such as freedom, volition, bargain, and address all the topics in the standard course: formation, excuses, remedies, interpretation, and illegality, plus special treatment on the hottest topics today, including Website privacy policies and confidentiality.  

I first wrote them for posting here and to explain ancient doctrine to my students using fresh materials, which is a famously successful pedagogical form.  

My rewriting of them yielded a thematic and structural framework that would be appealing to contracts law teachers as a required or recommended book for that course, a fresh version of Marvin Chirelstein’s wonderful book of similar length and scope.  

Yet a third reworking of the materials, stressing the “pop” aspects, indicates what motivated initial blog posts: potential for a target audience within the larger group of readers of general non-fiction.

Further, I have formualted a proposal and framework for a series of the books, addressed to other fields: torts, property, criminal law, constitutional law, and so on.

I’ve proposed the book and/or series to several publishers. Most circulated the proposal for peer review, with excellent results.  Aside from kind assessments of the book, I got suggestions for improvement, and, most important, several offers to publish.   

The hard part is coming: which offer to choose and how to finally position the book/series.  It’s a vexing problem.  True, as close friends stress, this is a “high-class” problem, but still a problem.   I wonder, among readers of this blog, students, teachers, non-lawyers, would anyone want to read such a book?  How would you think about and resolve the trade-offs?

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1 Response

  1. Your description reminds me of a book by Mark West (now at Michigan), called Secrets, Sex and Spectacle. It’s about a comparison of scandals and their legal implications (esp. libel cases) in Japan and the US. There were one or two chapters early on that were heavy on the legal background, but the rest of it was quite entertaining, and full of stuff about Japanese pop and media culture (unfortunately much of it fairly opaque if you’ve never visited here and watched TV, browsed magazines, etc.) U Chicago Press published it; academic, but fun.

    To appeal to a general audience, a writing style in the Freaknomics or Undercover Economist vein (the latter being extremely well-written, even if the content made my blood boil). I think your idea of “explain[ing] ancient doctrine … using fresh materials,” would be the right way to go here, too, rather than making the celebrity cases the most salient feature — their shelf life might be short. I.e., the celebrity cases should be supporting your explanation of enduring principles of law that can be of practical use to non-lawyer readers, rather than making the pop aspects the featured dish. (Michael Sandel’s book is another that manages this balance between the topical and the philosophical well.)