Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life, Part IV: Selling the Book and Signing the Contract

Well, hello there! My apologies for being incommunicado for the past few months. I’m sure you all have been doing some cool and crazy things. I have been traveling a bit and riding my bike a lot but mostly, I’ve been writing my book. And for those of you who have read previous posts in the Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life series, you know that this is great news, because it means I managed to sell the book to a publisher.

So here’s what happened.

Selling the Book

Back in January, my agent sent my proposal for “Path of the Dead Man” out to editors at the trades and to university presses who had expressed interest.

It was a mere two weeks between that moment and the bid deadline. During that time, I tried desperately to pretend it wasn’t happening, and that this wasn’t going to determine my life for the next few years. I did not succeed in this effort. And so I fretted. A lot. What would happen if no one bid on the book? What if there were bids, but they were really low? Like, so low that they wouldn’t even pay for research trips? I had already decided that I would not write the book for free. I was hoping for an advance that would work like a salary, paying me to write for two years.

Near the end of the two-week period, there was good news. Several presses had expressed interest and said they would be bidding. And one editor wanted to talk to me on the phone.



Thankfully, the editor quickly put me at ease.

We talked about my life in academia, and found we knew people in common, which was crazy and amazing. We talked about the challenges involved in my book structure (30 chapters, moving between the perspectives of nine different people), and about the kinds of books I like to read.

And then she asked me a really great (and hard) question:

“What is the emotional center of your book?”

This is not a question that academics usually ask about their work, and I didn’t have a great answer for it then. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and it’s helping me to find threads that tie all of the chapters together.

In the end, several bids came in; the editor with whom I chatted had submitted the highest one. And it would, in fact, pay me to be a writer for two years. And so, my friends, I am happy to report that I will be publishing “Path of the Dead Man” with Scribner (Simon & Schuster).


Signing the Contract

The bid process was really fast so the contract process felt slow. When it arrived in the mail in March, I was thrilled – here was tangible evidence that all of this had actually happened.

For the most part, a trade contract reads like a university press contract. There are some differences – a lot of provisions concerning the advance, the strange quirk that the press pays the agent, not the author – but there was one item that gave me pause.

24. Author warrants and represents that c). the Work has not been previously published, except for any portions identified by the Author as being previously published.

I called my agent.

“Ummmm,” I said. “Sooooo. I’ve got two essays out already, two in process, and two that I’ve promised to write in the next year.”

My agent:


So it appears that this is one of the major differences between publishing with academic and trade presses. In academia, it is pretty much expected that a scholar will publish multiple pieces taken from her larger project. Not too many, of course. But enough to establish a track record and to get good feedback from readers before sending the book out there into the world.

In trade publishing, this practice is tantamount to giving away your intellectual property. You’re basically leaving it on a park bench where anyone can steal it.

“Tell me that you own the copyright on all those pieces,” my agent said.

“Ummmmmm,” I said.

My agent:


There was nothing I could do about the essays already out. For the works in production (an essay in an edited collection and an article in a journal), I negotiated with the editors to retain the copyrights to my pieces. And then, sadly, I had to email two of my colleagues and pull out of their projects. I’m lucky that it was early enough in the process (no one had started writing yet) and that my colleagues are nice people; those bridges may be lightly singed, but they are not burned to the ground.

And I won’t be publishing any work about the Civil War in the desert Southwest in any format until sometime in 2019.

So, to recap. If you are thinking of writing a trade book:

  • Don’t write any articles or essays that include any material from your book before you secure an agent, write the proposal, and sell it.
  • If you already have and it’s not too late, negotiate for the copyright to your own work.


Since March, I’ve been churning out chapters. Not as many as I planned, but enough so that I feel like I’m making good progress. I’ve workshopped a few of them with Book Squad (my crew of historians in the Boston area who are also writing books). The narrative is starting to take shape, which makes me happy. And I’m submitting pages to my editor at the end of October. We’ll see what she says.

I hope this series on the Writing Life has been useful. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions about this exciting but strange process.

8 thoughts on “Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life, Part IV: Selling the Book and Signing the Contract”

  1. Very useful advice for those of us who think they might some day try this route. Your openness about the inner workings of academia and publishing is a much appreciated rarity.

    1. Yael, you should *definitely* go this route for the next book (if it is not already promised to a particular press). This whole experience has been fun but also surprising in many ways – so I’m glad I can demystify it for my friends and colleagues!

  2. Congratulations on your success and thank you for sharing your experience. This has been very helpful. Can you clarify the statement “except for any portions identified by the Author as being previously published”? When would one identify such pieces –in the proposal? (I gather it would be ideal to then state “and I retain the copyright”).

    1. Thanks, Beth! This provision means you have to notify the editor that you have previously published these pieces. You could do this in the proposal, but you can also just email your editor with a list of the articles in question. And yes, the assurance that you own the copyright will make the editor feel better about it if you have a lot of material already out there …

  3. Great post and very useful! Does publishing your work previously in the form of a dissertation (which is made available online by law) count as something that would be problematic when publishing your research as a trade book?

    1. Thanks, Nicole! If your dissertation is out there via ProQuest, that may be a problem for some trade publishers. This, incidentally, is one of the arguments in favor of embargoing.

    1. Thanks so much, Diane! I wanted to write about the process because initially I assumed it wouldn’t be so different from academic publishing. And then …
      I’m so glad it’s been helpful!

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