When you send in a book proposal to a publisher, chances are that it will be sent out to reviewers. This is peer review – and a version that actually gets talked about very little.
The publisher often asks you to recommend two to three proposal reviewers. When you make these recommendations, it’s important to pick people who look credible. Your nominated reviewers should be people who know your work, and who are also likely to be considered as ‘an expert’ by the publisher.
Now, reviewers don’t have to be academics. It depends on the type of book you are proposing. If you are writing a book where you are looking for professional readers for instance, you could recommend someone in a professional field. This person should be someone who is influential and is able to speak on behalf of others.
The publisher will probably go to at least one of your recommended reviewers. But they are also likely to go to at least one other reviewer that they know. This may well be an experienced author who they publish already, someone whose judgment they trust because they have found over time that they are likely to give an honest and helpful opinion. But bear in mind that your unknown reviewer could even be the author of the book that is most like yours.
So, what does the publisher want from a reviewer? The publisher is looking for someone who will help them make the decision about whether to publish your book. They want to know for instance about the:
- quality of underpinning scholarship
Is the book about something interesting? Is the line taken in the book defensible? Does the argument as presented in the proposal seem well evidenced? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Are there any obvious flaws? Does it have a particular angle that is new and worthy of sharing? Is there anything glaringly obvious you have left out?
- quality of writing
Can you write? How well is your actual proposal written? How well is the sample chapter written? Do you have a clear and realistic idea of the readers you are writing for? Is the writing style a good fit with the target readers?
- potential readers
Who will find the book of interest? Is the book going to sell to a lot of people, or just a few? Will it be used in courses, and if so which ones? Will this be a book for the university library? Does it duplicate something already out there? If so, is your book likely to be competitive and if so, why? Would the reviewer buy the book or recommend it?
Reviewers are also generally asked to make an overall recommendation – If they were the publisher, would they publish this book – yes or no?
You might be wondering how important the peer review process is. Is it just a ritual that publishers go through? Something that has to be done but really they take no notice of? Well, no. What your peers say matters. Publishers already know a lot about the academic book market. They know their list, and that of their competitors. However, they want to make a commercial decision based on more than one point of view. They want to put their understandings up against that of people who know the field as scholars.
And yes, it is quite possible for a book proposal to be scuppered by a set of negative peer reviews. Yes, it is equally possible – but not that common – for a publisher to decide to go against the recommendations of reviewers. So…yes, publishers take the views of peer reviewers quite seriously. And they expect you to do so too. They almost always send the reviews to you, and ask you to respond to any concerns or criticisms.
And what do peer reviewers get out of the process? Well, peer book proposal reviewers are often paid in cash (a small token) or books (usually worth more). The publishers think enough of the process to put something into it – unlike journal peer reviews. However, by and large, reviewing book proposals is just another part of the unseen gift economy of scholarship.Something we do to help each other, and at the same time, the publishers who may, or may not, be commercial and for profit.