Why It’s Important to Write a Proposal for an Academic Book

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Back in the old days, a prospective academic author could submit a manuscript —sometimes even a barely reworked dissertation — and book editors would consider it for publication. Now, even if you've finished the writing, editors want to see a book proposal first.

And that's a good thing. A strong proposal can make an acquisitions editor's job easier, which is always a smart step toward getting someone to say yes. And putting together a convincing proposal can be an important step toward writing a good book.

Last month I checked in with academic-press editors around the country and found that, even amid our Covid-19 lockdown, they are still eager to read book proposals and manuscripts. For this month's column, I went back to those editors to ask what they want to see in a book proposal and why it matters.

The purpose of a book proposal is to get an editor on your team. Commercial books are mostly sold by agents — seeking a good financial deal for their authors — based on a proposal. But a scholarly-book proposal is not about securing a fat advance. When an academic press sends you a provisional contract, what that usually means is it's committed to working with you to publish the book but the finished manuscript will still have to go through the peer-review process. Which is, let's not forget, a service that academics provide to one another.

Advance contracts don't count for much in the world of academic ladder-climbing. Most tenure committees want to see something more than a promise to publish — something tangible, like a page proof or a bound book.

Still, receiving a contract means there is an editor — a real, live person with a telephone number and an email address — who is waiting for your scholarly manuscript, believes in your project, and eagerly anticipates its completion. Having someone willing to talk about what you're working on makes the business of writing a little less lonely and miserable.

And a good proposal is the first step in getting an editor interested. As Susan Ferber, executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press, said: "We know it is harder to write short than to write long, so knowing an author does this well in a 15-page proposal is attractive to editors, who are looking at a lot of projects and trying to find the really stellar ones that deserve their attention. It is unrealistic to think that 576 pages of an unsolicited work will get the same initial attention as a pithy, well-written proposal."

Having an editor invested in your work means more than just knowing the book will be published. Editors often alert you to new books coming out on your subject, and many edit (yes, it's true) and offer editorial advice. Once you get the contract, your editor will go from being a gatekeeper to an essential member of your team — cheerleader, friendly critic, motivator, shrink.

A good proposal has eight basic elements. After you've determined that the press publishes in your area, your book proposal is pretty straightforward. Naomi Schneider, executive editor of the University of California Press, described the basic template:

  • A synopsis/overview.
  • An annotated table of contents.
  • A list of comparable books on your topic.
  • The potential market of readers.
  • The book's methodology and timetable for completion.
  • Your author platform (i.e., your social-media accounts, contacts, and outreach plans).
  • Your CV.
  • A sample chapter or two (not ones lifted from your dissertation).

"Make sure you follow the submission guidelines for the press to which you are submitting your project," said Ilene Kalish, executive editor for social sciences at New York University Press. "Do not send your project to a press with another press's template and/or with their set of author questions. Prepare a proposal for each press that fits its guidelines."

If you plan to send your proposal to several publishers, make sure each will consider a proposal that has been submitted to multiple places. Even if they do, Kalish said, "Do not send out a group email to five different editors with the proposal attached and ask us all to respond. Take the time to email each individual editor and let them know that you are submitting to other presses."

Writing a proposal can help you frame your book's argument. Authors often wait to write the introduction until they've finished the book. That's a good move in terms of crafting the final product. But, said Schneider of UC Press, "a proposal forces authors to articulate clearly what their thesis is, and how they would organize the book to build that argument."

That's essential. And if you've already finished the manuscript, writing a proposal can be part of the revision process.

Anyone who's taken first-year composition knows the importance of a thesis. But many academic writers actually have trouble staking out a strong claim and backing it up. Your book proposal can't be just "look at this cool thing I found!" and/or "no one's ever looked at this before." It also has to explain the why, Kalish said. You must "answer the 'So what?' question — that is: why anyone will care."

Here's a simple template I've offered to writer friends who've asked me for help on their book proposals: "What I'm arguing is X. I show that Y. This is important because Z." You need a one-paragraph description — an elevator pitch — at the beginning of the proposal so editors know why the book is worth publishing. That template may seem ham-handed, and you will finesse the language in the final manuscript. But for a proposal, just cut to the chase.

A mistake I often see, and no doubt have made myself, is not to include the juiciest bits in the proposal. You don't want to leave the editors in suspense. Give them your best stuff in the proposal, or they may not want to go ahead with the project.

A proposal provides an organizational road map. Doing research is, for many of us, the fun part. But at some point you have to stop messing around and wrangle everything you've found to the page. Putting together the proposal can help you figure out how all the pieces of your argument fit together.

It may surprise some to hear that, for Kalish of NYU Press, "The most important thing in your proposal is your table of contents. That's where I can see your argument 'come to life' and take shape." Organizing it is hard, meaty work. "Try to have descriptions that are interesting," she said, "not just 'in Chapter 1 I will show ..., in Chapter 2 I will show ...,'" and so on. Think of your chapters as mini-stories for your book, and describe them in the table of contents in interesting ways.

Laying out the book in chapters makes it easier to see what's missing and what might not be necessary. One organizational strategy I've recommended before is to use PowerPoint, making a slide for each chapter and then shuffling them around or deleting as needed.

"On a simple level, a proposal forces a hard think about the book's length," said Ferber of OUP. "So many people writing solely on computers do not even know the word count of the project until calculating this for a proposal." Likewise, she said, proposal writing helps you gauge "what apparatus the book will need (maps, graphs, photos, etc.), and what the package of the book should look like."

Your table of contents may need a "methods appendix," said Kalish, with a paragraph of description that details "what you did, when you did it, how you did it, and with whom," she said. "I always say to authors that they can never say enough about their methods." Especially in the social sciences, she said, "you need to explain your method for sampling, for question type, for location choice, etc. Peer reviewers and readers will want to hear about your reasoning and rationale for how the data was collected and also for your anonymity or level of involvement with your subjects."

I worked with an editor, Wesley Adams of Farrar Straus Giroux, who asked me to mock up a book jacket as part of my proposal, as a way to help me think through how to conceptualize it. The exercise showed him the vibe I was aiming for, and won over the marketing department, which understood where I was going.

A proposal will give publishers confidence that you are willing and able to help them market the book. This is the part that makes many academics twitchy. We just want to do the (hard hard) work of writing. But then there's the (icky hard) part of getting our words and ideas into the hands of readers. And that's where publishers really rely on writers.

"An important part of the proposal is the discussion of 'author platform,'" said Schneider of UC Press. "Publishers are paying keen attention to whether authors can help partner with the publisher to help promote the book. I ask authors to prepare a few paragraphs talking about their platforms. Yes, it's important for authors to quantify, in some way, how much of a following they might have on Facebook or Twitter, for instance. There are other data analytics they could get that might spotlight their influence on social media."

In laying out your author platform in your proposal, she said, you should also include contacts with traditional media. Have you published an op-ed? Written for magazines beyond scholarly journals? Spoken at conferences or other venues? Will you help organize speaking engagements at colleges and universities? Do you have connections with other organizations, NGOs, unions, etc., that might be interested in inviting you to speak or buying copies of your book?

Finally, you might be asked to provide "high-profile blurbers who might tweet about the book or, just by endorsing it, draw attention to it," Schneider said. "Are there other influencers who might want to interview you at a bookstore, library, or public forum? There's lots of ways to help push a book that go beyond the number of Twitter followers any one person could accrue."

A proposal helps editors do their job. Few people outside of the publishing world understand its complicated internal processes. "I have to prepare a formal proposal every time I want to offer a contract to an author," Schneider said. "It involves me providing a written rationale for the project and a discussion of the book's potential audience. I also have to prepare a profit-and-loss statement, a 'comp grid' of competitive titles, excerpts from the manuscript, the reader reviews, and the author response to the reviewers' comments. And I have to make an oral argument for the book as well at an editorial/marketing meeting — my brief for it, as it were! It's a formal process, and authors often have no idea how much work is involved."

You can find plenty of advice on proposal writing out there. I've even dished it out over the years. One strategy I came up with for myself was to anticipate my least favorite part of the publishing process and do it as part of my book proposal. In my case, that was the marketing questionnaire that publishers ask you to fill out just before a manuscript is published. That questionnaire forces you to write promotional copy — for the catalog, for the book jacket, for the sales reps who will try to persuade bookstores to stock your book. It forces you to answer, in fact, all the questions that you should have dealt with in a good proposal. So working backward is a useful strategy for me.

Keep in mind that editors vary in terms of what they want from a proposal. Greg Britton, editorial director of the Johns Hopkins University Press, said, "I'd much rather an author get to know what I want first. I like a quick email that pitches the book in a paragraph or so, and asks if I'd like to see more. I also like when authors approach me at academic conferences to tell me what they're thinking about. If I like it, I'll ask for a full proposal. The best books begin as conversations."

Once you target your dream press and find out whom you want to pitch to, ask what that editor wants to see. Most will probably want a proposal. Don't reach out until you have one ready to send.

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