Last night, I took a big step: I wrote to the kind and helpful editor of one of two equally fabulous presses that showed interest in my book, and told them that I was giving right of first refusal to the other. I had told him that I would be sending things off early in the fall semester, in time for tenure review, and so would have a decision around a month ago. And about a week and a half ago, he sent me a polite but unmistakable nudge. So, I spent half an hour drafting a letter that expressed the genuine difficulty I had had in making a choice, and a reason that I was going with the other press that could not be read as "they're better than you."**
So, here's what I learned, and I hope you all can benefit from it: DON'T TIP YOUR HAND TOO EARLY. When I spoke a month ago with two senior people with much publishing experience, they both told me that I should tell Second Press that I was still working, that I would be in touch soon, blah blah blah, and buy time for me to get a definite answer from First Press. That way, if I had to go to Second Press, they wouldn't be aware that they were getting a MS that another publisher had already rejected. Second Press is high-profile, and they don't need anyone's sloppy seconds. Unfortunately, I had already been too up-front with both presses about when the MS would be done, and when I would absolutely, positively send it out. So delaying for the extra three months that it would take to work its way through the review process of my by-a-nose first-choice press would have been seen as the transparent tactic it was. And that would not have made me look good.
On the one hand, I feel good about being honest. It's established a level of credibility and professionalism with this editor, and that will keep doors open for future projects. On the other hand, it's pretty firmly closed the door with this press for this project, which is too bad, because if First Press doesn't give me a contract, I go to Third Press, which, while good, is not in the same league as Second Press.
**That's actually true: the two presses are more or less equal in stature in the field and quality of product. Everyone I consulted with confirmed my opinion on this. They also, like me, were unanimous in giving a hair's-breadth edge to First Press, probably because its acquisitions editor has such a good reputation in the field.