Careers: How to write a letter to a university press

I was asked the other day by a graduate student about how to get published by a university press. I thought the easiest thing to do was to post the letter that I wrote to Cornell University Press back in 2003 proposing the book that eventually became Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity.

November 14, 2003

Roger Haydon
Senior Editor
Cornell University Press
Sage House
512 East State Street
Ithaca NY 14850

Dear Mr. Haydon:

I enjoyed meeting you earlier this year at the Asian Studies conference. I regret that we did not have the opportunity to talk further in depth about the manuscript that I am currently working on and apologize for the delay in sending you the proposal. Cornell University Press has a reputation for cutting edge work in Asian Studies that blends political science, ethnography and history. I am excited by the opportunity of working with you on this project.

That’s Sign Fascism!: The Conflict Over Deaf Identity and Sign Language in Contemporary Japan is the story of the development of deaf communities, minority identities, and political movements. It is designed to be able to be read in introductory Japanese culture and history, Anthropology, Asian Studies, Political Science, Sociology, Deaf Studies, and Disability Studies, courses as well as focused topic courses in those areas.

In my book, I trace the history and development of deaf identity from the turn of the 19th century, linking deaf identity with early Showa and post-War modernization and industrialization discourses. I embed oral histories (well... in reality they were signed histories) from deaf women in the different generational cohorts to illustrate how larger social and political forces have shaped individual life stories.

The title refers to a comment made by one of the leaders within the somewhat assimilationist (albeit communist-inflected) Japanese Federation of the Deaf. She was incensed by the new generation of deaf activists who were adopting an American-style, radical, separationist deaf identity. The youth activists were claiming that they were the true bearers of a “pure JSL” (Japanese Sign Language) and attempting to control the lexicon and grammar through various means. The book ends by exploring how the language wars around Japanese signing are evidence of changing generational attitudes towards disability, identity, and culture in Japan.

Written for advanced undergraduates and interested laypeople, this ethnography appeals to several readerships. Deafness has characteristics of both ethnic minority as well as disability status. Those interested in minority groups in Japan will be attracted to my explicit analysis and comparison of the deaf against other Japanese minority groups (including the Burakumin and zainichi Koreans). As you may know, several volumes on minorities in Japan have come out in the past several years, indicating that this is increasingly an area of scholarly interest. Sonia Ryang’s recent edited volume on Koreans in Japan, the slate of books on Brazilian Nikkeijin, and the interest in Okinawan studies all point to minority studies as an area of growth in Japan Studies and Asian Studies.

My book also contributes to the growing field of Deafness and Disability Studies. While there are numerous texts on deaf communities in Western contexts, there are not many books that deal with deafness or disability cross-culturally. My co-edited volume Many Ways to be Deaf (Gallaudet University Press) released this summer has already sold 300 units in the first month, according to my most recent royalty statement. This is as a $70 344-page hardcover volume with little advertising. I have no doubt that a paperback monograph on deafness in Japan will have much broader appeal in deaf and disability studies, similar to Nora Groce’s (1988) classic Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (Harvard U Press), which is ranked 78,000th in and which has gone back to print several times. In terms of CUP publications, I would situate my text between Ellis Krauss’ Broadcasting Politics in Japan and Joshua Roth’s Brokered Homeland.

I’m enclosing a table of contents and the first two chapters for your consideration. Please also find enclosed a reprint of my Social Sciences Japan Journal article, which was awarded the 2003 ISS/Oxford University Press Award for Modern Japanese Studies and is based on a chapter of this book.

I would like to sign a contract at your earliest convenience with the manuscript to be submitted by May 2004. As I will be working on a new project by August 2004 funded through the Abe Fellowship, I have considerable incentive to finish this project by the end of next summer.

Karen Nakamura
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
Macalester College

Reading it after 3 years, I think it's an ok letter. It hits all of the main points: 1) short overview of project; 2) marketing placement; and 3) sales estimate and competition. I was given a contract, so it can't have been that bad. I'm glad that one of the first things that Roger Haydon (the editor) proposed was to change the title. I like the new title much more.

Cornell was actually the second university publisher that I seriously approached. The first publisher (a UK-based university press) reviewed my text and declined to option it. In retrospect, it was a bad match since I approached the linguistics/linguistic anthropology editor at that press, and they reviewed it accordingly. (Deaf in Japan is many things, but it's not linguistic anthropology). When I approached Cornell, I made sure to approach the editor who handled Asian Studies manuscripts.


  • Doctoral degree: May 2001
  • Sent out to other press: Nov 2001
  • Rejected by other press (mismarketed): late 2002
  • First contact with Cornell: March 2003
  • Contract: June 2004
  • Book published: August 2006

As you can tell, it took about five years for the book to get published from the time I contacted the publisher. This is on the fast side since my ms was in fairly good shape. If you compare the table of contents between my dissertation and my book, you can see that the largest restructuring was the ordering of the chapters.

Many tenure-track lines at liberal colleges are now requiring that you have a book published before tenure. This is reminder to junior colleagues that you should get working on your book manuscript as quickly as possible since it could take 3-5 years for it to see daylight.

If there is interest, I'll also post my responses to the anonymous reviewers of the text.


Timeline for publication of Book #2

One of my colleagues asked me about the timeline for publishing my second book. It looked something like this:

2011.12.15 -> Proposal submitted (cover letter and draft ms)
2012.04.23 <- Reader Reports received from Press
2012.04.30 -> Response to Reader Reports submitted (82,500 words)
-- Proposed deadline of 2012.6.1 for final author's ms
2012.06.04 -> Final author's ms sent to Press
2012.06.04 <- Press Board approves ms
2012.06.13 <- Press approves contract
2012.10.01 <- Press copyeditor sends back copyedited ms
2012.11.05 -> Copyedit approvals changes sent by Karen to Press
2013.01.31 <- Press provides final galley/page proofs (PDF)
2013.02.28 -> Page proof changes and approvals sent by Karen to Press
2013.05.19 <- Press receives first copies of book from printing presses
2013.05.20 <- Karen receives first copy
2013.05.23 <- Official publish date of _A Disability of the Soul_

From first contact to publication was 525 days (1 year 5 months and 8 days)
I have to say this is rather fast for an academic press. In my favor:

  • I had worked with the same Press for my first book and had the same editor, so things went smoothly
  • My editor knew that I was coming up for tenure and expedited things
  • I was also highly motivated to get things going quickly

In contrast, my
first book took a bit more time. My initial letter (which included the table of contents and two draft chapters) was sent on November 14, 2003. The book was published on July 27, 2006. That is 2 years, 8 months, and 13 days from first contact to publication.

However, a good part of this was the year that I spent working on revisions.

2003.11.14 -> Proposal submitted (cover letter and two chapters of ms)
2004.02.04 -> Full copy of ms sent to Press for external review
2004.04.xx <- Reader reports received by Karen
2004.05.06 -> Karen writes back to address issues raised by external reviewers
--- [one whole year elapses as I work on the ms revisions ] ---
2005.05.07 -> Final author's ms sent to Press
2005.12.12 -> Copyedit approvals changes sent by Karen to Press
2006.08.13 <- Official publish date of _Deaf in Japan_

So basically, if I had my act together on my first book, I could have had it out a good six months earlier. One thing I should note is that the Press (and Editor) I used is very quick and responsive. They sent me back reader reports in two months from the submission of the ms. That's pretty unheard of within academic circles. Several more months is the norm. When working with your editor, be sure to ask ahead of time how soon they would expect back their reader's reports.