Manya Whitaker

Associate Professor of Education at Colorado College

Crafting a Convincing Book Proposal

Full vitae front book proposal

Image: iStock

One of the joys of academic life is contributing to the canon of a field and knowing that other people will read your words and, perhaps, change their thinking. Thankfully, what counts as scholarship has been expanding in recent years. Yet in many fields, books are still the key to unlocking professional success and notoriety.

It will be awhile before my CV matches that of a senior professor, but I’ve done OK on the book front as an untenured professor at a teaching college. I have published a book with a trade press, have a contract for a second (an edited anthology with an academic press), and am crafting my third book proposal. I’ve also had a variety of presses ask me to review proposals. So I have a decent idea of what constitutes a good proposal for an early-career academic.

The cover letter. Much like a cover letter for a job opening, the one you write in search of a book contract previews the content of the full submission. Your letter should include the key elements of your proposed book: the purpose, the audience, the content/format, and the projected length. It should end with a brief discussion of why this particular press is an ideal publisher for your book. In no more than a page and a half, you should be able to convince an editor that:

  • Your topic fills an obvious gap in the field.
  • The content will be innovative while still being in conversation with other texts.
  • The intended audience will find the work useful.
  • The book will be well aligned with the press’s current and future publishing goals.

Twice now I’ve written my cover letter after I finished the full proposal. Don’t do that. Write the cover letter first. In fact, it’s a good idea to write the cover letter before you write the full manuscript. In many ways, a cover letter serves as an outline. It’s a good check to see if: (a) You can clearly communicate the purpose of your book, and (b) you’ve truly thought through its content and organization. If you don’t have a coherent elevator pitch, it is unlikely that you will have a coherent book proposal (or manuscript).

The publisher. Self-publishing is not common practice in academe, so there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a press.

  • First, be careful of predatory presses. Usually those are companies you’ve never heard of beyond their invitational emails, and they often charge "publication fees." The lure of quick publication times can be enticing, but such publishers are not acceptable for academic authors.
  • For those with tenure-track positions, find out if the standards for tenure and promotion on your campus require that you publish with a scholarly press or if a trade press is acceptable. Academic presses tend to have specialized audiences — other academics, graduate students, conference-goers — who often know a little something about your book’s topic. Trade presses, on the other hand, have a more general audience. Trade books might be used in college classrooms or added to a professor’s bookshelf, but the target audience is nonacademics. Academic and trade presses have far different requirements with respect to writing style (e.g., citations, paragraph length, use of quotations), so even if your institution doesn’t dictate that you publish with one or the other, your topic and/or your writing style may be a better fit with a certain type of press.
  • If your institution doesn’t have specific publication requirements, then start your search by looking at the books that influenced your project. Who published those texts? You want a press with a strong publication record in your subject area. If there are no such patterns to discern in your field, then start with the press that published the most notable book in your research area, or ask senior scholars for recommendations. Visit press websites, browse their collections, and compile editors’ names and contact information. You should gather a list of three to five presses, saving links to, or copies of, their formatting guidelines for future reference.
  • If a finished manuscript is a ways off, consider using scholarly conferences to browse the various presses and to meet editors. Book exhibits at conferences aren’t always as robust today as they used to be, but many companies still send representatives to major scholarly meetings, where they set up shop in an exhibit hall. This is an excellent opportunity to talk with someone whose actual job is to review book proposals. You can ask a lot more questions in person than via email, and you get an immediate response. Between the books they’ve chosen to bring to the conference (which represent what they think is important in the field) and a brief conversation, it’s fairly easy to determine if your book would be of interest to the editors. If you’re lucky, the representative might browse your cover letter and give immediate feedback on the likelihood of the press’s being interested.

The proposal. Once you have a shortlist of publishers, review their formatting guidelines and start writing your proposal. Publishers generally ask the same questions, albeit in a different order. In addition to what you included in the cover letter, most will want to know the potential market for your book (which campuses and organizations might find it particularly relevant?) and how you might market it (e.g., blogs, websites, radio). And by "how you might market it," I do mean that the onus will be mostly on you to promote your book.

Also important are the competing and comparable texts. You need to find about four books that relate to your project, and describe how your text will differ or offer something new. What does your book accomplish that the others do not? The differences don’t have to be conceptual — you might be targeting a different audience or using different data sources.

The final substantive section of the proposal often involves information about you. Most publishers will want your CV and a brief bio so that they can ascertain your capability of writing this book. Is it within your area(s) of expertise? Have you published in this area before? Have you published a book before? This is where publishers conduct a risk analysis. How certain are they that you will finish as you’ve promised? Your job in this section is to anticipate any concerns they may have by presenting a brief discussion of how this book fits within your larger body of work.

One thing to keep in mind: If a publisher’s goal is to make money (although very few editors will say that outright), then a book proposal needs to clearly articulate how the intellectual value of the work might translate into monetary value.

Somewhere in the proposal you may be asked to describe the book’s logistics: length, images/figures, and permissions. Presses use that information to estimate the costs of publication. Of course, long books and ones with multiple images (especially if they are in color) are costlier to produce. Books with a lot of content that require permissions can make meeting a deadline difficult and might require you, as the author, to pay for reprint rights. (It’s almost certain the publisher won’t pay such costs, especially if you aren’t an established author in the field). Remember: You want a contract, so minimizing such concerns works only in your favor.

The final thing to think through are possible reviewers. Some publishers will ask you to suggest names, which makes sense because you are familiar with the experts in your subfield and are therefore better at choosing reviewers than is an editor who may not be up to date on the literature. It’s important to suggest scholars who will understand the purpose of your text, who are accessible, and who will offer constructive feedback. It’s OK if you know them and have a professional (but not personal) relationship with them. While the reviews will be blind, it makes sense to suggest people whom you know will consider the proposal thoroughly.

Final considerations. It can take anywhere from two weeks to a year for a press to fully review your proposal — and another year or two to actually publish the book once you’ve submitted the manuscript. Because presses are interested in cultivating both current and forthcoming subject areas, you should submit your proposal when you are certain that you can complete the manuscript within eight to 12 months (six months is preferable).

The press’s desire to consider a full proposal versus sample chapters will also dictate your timeline. Think carefully before you write an entire manuscript if you have any doubts about its being able to attract a publisher. Still, you might want to write at least a third of the manuscript before you start seeking a publisher, just to ensure that you have enough content from which to choose when sending sample chapters to publishers.

Writing a book — particularly your first — requires careful planning, deep knowledge, and a strong commitment to the project. Comparatively, writing a book proposal is a piece of cake.

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