Inside APA Books: An Interview With an Acquisitions Editor

What makes APA Books tick? This is the first in a series of interviews with APA Books staff, to help shed light on what we do, and how we do it.  For this interview, Tyler Aune, Editorial Development Manager, interviewed Chris Kelaher, Senior Acquisitions Editor.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the participants and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

Chris Kelaher, Acquisitions Editor with APA Books

TA: What’s a typical day in the life for an Acquisitions Editor at APA Books?

CK: I correspond with current authors as well as prospects, trying to bring in new material. When everything works out, we get a strong manuscript with which to work.  Much of my time is spent searching for new ideas, guiding new proposals through review, and eventually  getting a manuscript in good enough shape to send over to you guys [in development].  That can involve a lot of back-and forth with authors—sometimes for years, quite honestly.  To develop ideas, I look at what else is going on in the field, what’s being published in journals, which scholars and topics are prominent at the major professional meetings.  I spend a fair amount of time preparing for, attending, and following up on the key conferences in my fields. I keep an eye on the APA website and visit college campuses. And sometimes I actually find the time to do cold prospecting—researching who’s working on what, who’s teaching on which topics, identifying the gaps in our list, and approaching authors I think could fill those gaps.

TA: So when you go to a conference, do you already know ahead of time who’s gonna be there? You’re setting up meetings ahead of time?

CK: I do plenty of advance work and schedule meetings in advance, but I also meet with people on the fly, as well.

TA: So can people walk up to you, and say “hey Chris, I have a great idea for a book. . . “

CK: Absolutely! I want them to do that.

TA: What are the areas that you’re looking to acquire in, specifically?

CK: I’m one of three acquisitions editors at APA Books. My areas include cognitive psychology; developmental; social and personality; neuropsychology; forensic; and military.  I handle four series, including Division 35’s Psychology of Women series, Division’s 44 series on Perspectives on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, Latin American Perspectives on Psychology, and the Language and the Human Lifespan Series, which we copublish with DeGruyter Mouton, a major linguistics publisher.  I’m also looking for new material in environmental psychology, particularly climate change.

TA: Can you describe the typical author that you work with? How young, how old, how experienced?  At what point in their career is the typical APA book author?

CK: We have a number of outstanding younger authors, but more often than not, they’re degreed psychologists well along the tenure track in a university. It’s not always in their best interests career-wise to work on a book earlier than that.

TA: Because it’ll take time off from other things?

CK: Right. Producing a book is a lot more work than publishing a single journal article, yet the young scholar working his or her way up the university ladder often doesn’t get much credit for it.

TA: So then why write a book?

CK: Because many topics simply cannot be adequately covered in a journal article, which are shorter and more tightly focused. Sometimes the books come out of larger programs or conferences.  Books can pay special attention to specific areas, like the divisional series I mentioned earlier.  There are royalties involved, so you can make some money doing this. And you do get a certain cache, because not everyone can do it.  A book can pull together various strands of research after it reaches a critical mass, with enough data or raw material to synthesize it into something larger and more cohesive.  A book does that better than any other vehicle, I feel.  So plenty of folks still want to tackle the challenge, but our typical author tends to be somebody who has tenure, or is getting close to it, or is at least working with a more senior person.

TA: I’ve heard psychologists with publishing experience say, “don’t do edited volumes.” In other words, don’t be the person who has to corral the contributors, and handle all the paperwork, because it’s so much work with so little reward.  Is it harder these days to get people to do edited volumes, or to do books in general?  Do you get resistance?

CK: Well, publishers in general stress single author titles more these days if they can. There are a lot of benefits to them; however, many scholars feel they don’t have the time to write an entire book themselves, and many don’t feel that they have the full expertise necessary.  That’s especially the case with younger people, where the first part of their research careers is spent developing important but relatively narrow ideas. They’re encouraged to stress depth, but expanding the breadth or audience of their work is not yet in their comfort zone.  And many times they need reach a certain point in their careers before it’s even professionally advisable to go for breadth.

TA: Why is that?

CK: Well, a lot of psychology departments want you to make your bones with original research, which is usually put out piecemeal, in journal articles. That’s the way the system works.

TA: Does it actually help the science, the accumulation of knowledge, for things to be done this way? Or is that just the way the hierarchy works?

CK: I have a hard time discerning cause and effect here. It’s probably a little of both.  Because the process works that way, it keeps working that way, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But there are exceptions.  Actually just now, as you walked in this door, I was getting ready to meet with our marketing department about a forthcoming book called Making Research Matter: a Psychologist’s Guide to Engagement Beyond the Academy [coming in November, 2017].  One thing we can accomplish with this handy book is to help researchers reach beyond the people in their cohort, floor, or building, in the interest of increasing the impact of their work. I’m hearing more and more desire for translational research, a desire to have impact beyond just continuing one’s own career, and I find that very encouraging.

TA: We’ve seen some pushback over the idea of impact.  Some people say that that, in the effort to make a big splash, to get noticed, researchers may be tempted to cut corners, to make their work more appealing.  Is that a real risk?  Not that publishing with APA is gonna turn people into rock stars overnight, but…

CK: Now now, if you had seen the way people were approaching and talking about [Roberta] Golinkoff and [Kathy] Hirsh-Pasek at the last conference I went to, you might feel differently! They were rock stars!  Their tremendously successful book [Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children] is a bit of an outlier, but there are people who can write psychology in a way that is authoritative and scholarly, yet still accessible.  I’m not talking about pop psychology; I’m talking serious folks like Stephen Pinker, Dan Gilbert, Roy Baumeister, and the like.  Those people are in high demand, because what they do is important, and it’s useful, and it’s hard to do.

TA: It’s especially hard if you’ve been writing only in scholarly venues your whole career.

CK: Right. If you’ve had it pounded in your head for years not to do it that way.  Look: we’re very discerning in what we publish.  We’re very conscious that we represent APA, we represent psychology.  So we take steps to ensure that when we go for breadth, we don’t sacrifice depth.  That’s where our thorough process of vetting, our developmental editing (which most publishers don’t do anymore), really helps.  I think you can be serious and still speak to more than a handful of people at a time.

TA: Are there any areas that you feel are currently underrepresented in our list? If somebody wants to get a proposal into you, and it’s unsolicited, what’s the best chance of getting your attention?  What area(s)?

CK: Neuropsychology, for one. We do have some upcoming books in this area that I’m excited about, on topics such as multiple sclerosis and concussion.  And there’s also Clinical Neuropsychology: A Pocket Handbook for Assessment, [now in its third edition] which is a great resource.  But we want to do even more in this area.

TA: Obviously most unsolicited proposals get rejected. Why?  What are you looking for that you don’t find in those rejects?

CK: Many times, the prospective authors are not as qualified to write a book as they think they are. That’s part of it.  So credentials is one criterion.  Experience, is another.  It can be difficult to market an esoteric book written by someone with little name recognition.  And if our previous experience publishing on a certain topic was problematic, it would be foolhardy to ignore that.

TA: I know it’s very rare that an unsolicited book proposal can turn into a contract—

CK: Rare, but not impossible. Speaking for myself, I wish we got more proposals over the transom than we do.  It’s not usually the best stuff, and we don’t get a lot of it, but I’ll tell ya, when someone wants to work with you, it’s a good head start.  I’ve spent months, years, just trying to convince someone to write a book proposal.  It’s a lot faster just to react to one that comes at you, even if that one still needs a lot of work.

TA: That’s interesting. I always assumed that the slush pile was all rejects.

CK: Well, it’s called the slush pile for a reason. It can get pretty slushy.  But occasionally, you find a real snowball in there.


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