To provide recommendations for faculty who are interested in writing a book proposal for an academic press.
The book proposal is an essential part of book publication as it is the document that serves to pitch the manuscript to editors. The following recommendations are based on the panel discussion “Writing a Book Proposal,” organized by CITLS and co-sponsored by the Skillman Library and the Academic Research Committee in Fall 2020. The panel was composed of Dr. Chris Lee, Dr. Han Luo, Dr. Seo-Hyun Park, and Dr. Carrie Rohman.
Selecting the Right Publisher & Working with Editors
- Research publishers and their publication lists. Select a publisher that will be a good fit for your manuscript and understand the differences between a commercial press, an academic press, a series, etc. Your manuscript might be a better fit in a university press or within a series. See where your disciplinary peers publish.
- Dual submissions. Sometimes publishers do not allow submissions to multiple presses simultaneously. Given that the time you spend waiting for an answer adds to the overall time of your book, have 2 or 3 presses in mind. Ideally, if the first press you contact turns you down, you should be ready to submit a proposal to the next.
- Book series. Book series can be attractive because libraries are typically committed to purchasing new books within them. Contact the editor(s) of the book series as well as the publisher.
- Establish a connection with the editor. While sometimes editors will approach writers, it is often common for writers to reach out to editors. There are three basic ways to accomplish this:
- Introductory meeting at a professional conference.
- Reference from a trusted colleague.
- Query letter via email.
- As you develop a work relationship with your editor, remember to be professional at all times.
- While established authors may in some cases receive an advance contract, first-time authors should be aware that the publisher is under no obligation to move forward with a manuscript if a contract has not been signed.
The Book Proposal
Once you have created a list of potential publishers for your book manuscript, consider the following recommendations for the book proposal itself.
- While book proposals are a conventional genre, make sure to follow the publisher’s guidelines and use their template as appropriate.
- Tailor your proposal to your audience. Articulate clearly what you book is about, its arguments and methodologies, as well as the “so what?” question. Your proposal, like your book manuscript, should tell an engaging “story” about your project. Acquisition editors will need to pitch your book to managers, therefore your book’s “story” and its arguments must be clear for them to do this work.
- Market and target audience. Your book will ultimately be a commodity, and, in order to be sold, it has to have a market and target audience. Who will buy your book? Who is the target audience of your work? (students, other academics, special collections in libraries and archives, etc.).
- Academic milieu. With which other works is your book going to be in conversation? An academic book is an opportunity to further knowledge on a specific area of inquiry, not a chance to disparage the works of others. How will your intervention build upon the intellectual work of others in your field?
- Potential reviewers. You might be asked to supply a list of potential reviewers for your work. These reviewers may or may not be contacted, but the exercise is an opportunity to demonstrate collegial ties within your own field or discipline.
- Jargon. Because it is often the case that the more we specialize in a field, the more natural its jargon becomes to us, it is a good idea to have your proposal read by colleagues, mentors, as well as others outside your field to avoid jargonistic language that can impede clarity and readability.
- Scope of your own project. You can point to the boundaries, or scope, of your own project in a muted way. You can flag this information so that the editor knows you are aware of what you are not writing about.
What to Send with Your Proposal
- Your proposal is usually accompanied by a number of completed chapters. Follow the guidelines of your selected press or editor and avoid sending incomplete files. Likewise, refrain from sending more than you are asked for.
- It is common for first-time authors to be asked to submit completed manuscripts fairly shortly after the proposal has been received and/or accepted for consideration. Therefore, it is a good idea to have your full manuscript ready so as to avoid any delays.
Common Reasons Book Proposals Are Rejected
- The proposal is not a good fit for the particular publisher.
- The proposal fails to contextualize its intervention in the most recent critical work in the field, or does so in a shallow manner.
- The language of the proposal is antagonistic of the work of others.
- The author has failed to include feedback received from the editor(s).
- Certain publishers such as Oxford UP, require that only authors who have been previously published by them can be reviewers, thus narrowing the potential pool of reviewers for a given manuscript. Make sure to understand these limitations when submitting to specific publishers.
Germano, William. (2013). From Dissertation to Book. University of Chicago Press.
Kelskey, Karen. (2015). “How to Write a Book Proposal,” The Professor Is In.
Rabiner, Susan and Alfred Fortunato. (2003). Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction — and Get it Published. WW Norton.
Toor, Rachel. (2020). Why It’s Important to Write a Proposal for an Academic Book, Chronicle of Higher Education.
—-. (2020). Should You Keep Working on That Book Manuscript?, Chronicle of Higher Education (20 Apr 2020)
—-. (2019). What to Say (and Not to Say) in Query Letters to Book Editors, Chronicle of Higher Education.
—-. (2019). “Lessons Learned from ‘Shark Tank’ on Writing Book Proposals,” Chronicle of Higher Education.
—-. (2013). “The Reality of Writing a Good Book Proposal,” Chronicle of Higher Education.