Meet the Editor-in-Residence, Sharmila Sen (Harvard University Press)

Sunil Amrith and Sharmila Sen sitting at a desk, engaged in conversation and smiling.
Megan O'Donnell

“You don’t need an introduction from a fancy person to pitch your book,” declared Sharmila Sen, Editorial Director and Director of Special Initiatives at Harvard University Press, during a public lunch event at Yale University on Monday, February 26. Sen, along with Sunil Amrith, the Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History, engaged an audience of humanities scholars—from senior faculty who are widely published to junior faculty and postdoctoral fellows preparing their first manuscripts—providing candid insights into academic book publishing. 

Sen, the Whitney Publishing Project’s second editor-in-residence, shared her expertise on various aspects of the publishing process, addressing common concerns of authors working on their first book. She highlighted the importance of crafting a distinct authorial voice for books, differentiating them from other forms of academic writing such as journal articles or dissertations. Book proposals and writing samples should demonstrate an author’s book voice, she advised, particularly crucial for authors who have not yet published a book. Sen also emphasized the necessity of presenting clear and compelling arguments in book proposals, noting that publishers publish books, not topics or ideas.

During the Q&A session, Sen fielded questions on a broad range of topics, from the rise of audio- and e-books to contracts to repurposing previously published work for a book. Sandra Enimil, Program Director for Scholarly Communication and Information Policy at Yale University Library, asked Sen about the frequency of contract negotiations among her authors and how negotiating affects the publication process.

“It’s neither coarse nor unintellectual to negotiate.”  In fact, Sen makes a point of encouraging her first-time authors to advocate for themselves during the contract stage. Sen stressed the value of contract negotiations for both authors and editors, describing it as an opportunity to establish a clear, mutual vision for the book as well as a healthy editor-author relationship.

Sen’s residency, from February 26 to March 1, advances the Whitney Publishing Project’s mission of helping scholars navigate the publication process, from first article to first book and beyond. During a very full week, Sen conducted one-on-one meetings with over twenty scholars, to discuss their book projects. These meetings offer faculty and postdoctoral fellows an opportunity to receive tailored feedback and advice from a leading editor of scholarly books in the humanities. 

We have no doubt that many of the book projects discussed during Sen’s week at Yale will soon lead to published books, which the Whitney Publishing Project will celebrate—one slide at a time, in the entrance to HQ.

Megan O’Donnell, Ph.D., is the associate communications officer for the Whitney Humanities Center.