This week’s post is a Special Request post for The Universe, which has informed me that countless junior scholars are fretting over the question of how to write a book proposal.
This post is exhaustive and detailed, and endeavors to answer every question I’ve ever fielded about this mysterious and arcane process.
You all know that the book proposal is the cornerstore to a successful tenure track career in most areas of the humanities and social sciences. Sure, some parts of psychology and economics and other fields are not book-based, but basically, the law of the land is: write a book.
What you may not be aware of is that the book proposal should be an element in your job applications. I don’t mean you send a proposal with your job applications, of course, but rather that you dedicate several sentences in the job letter to the book proposal and where you are in discussions with presses.
In this job market, you have to be looking ahead to the book, and able to speak intelligently about the book and its publishing plan, from the earliest days, ie, even when you are ABD and still finishing the dissertation. You don’t yet need a book to get a job, thank god, but you do need a book PLAN to get a job, and the more substantive that plan is—as in, accompanied by a completed book proposal, a timeline for submission to presses, actual discussions with specific presses, or best of all, an advance contract—the better you’ll do on the market.
The fact is, the dissertation does not get you a job. The anticipated book gets you the job.
OK, having established the necessity of writing a book proposal from early, early stages in your career, we now turn to the proposal itself.
I’m going to start by speaking in general terms about what you must submit to a press to get a contract. This is actually a collection of items, and not just a proposal.
In general, you do NOT submit a complete dissertation manuscript to a press!
Repeat: do NOT submit your full dissertation manuscript to presses!
Why? Two reasons:
- Because editors at presses are as overworked and overwhelmed as the rest of us and don’t have the time to wade through 300 pages of unknown quality.
- Because, frankly, your dissertation isn’t that good. No, I’m sorry, it really isn’t. This is true even if it won awards at your university and got passed with distinction, etc. etc. Here’s why: dissertations are not books. They’re dissertations. And the best dissertation in the world is not going to be the same as a marketable book. Dissertations are written to prove your legitimacy and to demonstrate mastery and to satisfy an impossible set of mutually contradictory demands set up by your advisor and committee. None of these things make for a marketable book that appeals to the widest possible audience. I will elaborate further below.
So what do you submit to presses? You submit the following:
- an 6-8 page proposal (shorter if so specified by the press)
- an annotated table of contents for the book
- 2 sample chapters
- a c.v.
- a cover letter
Every one of these elements is indispensable, most especially the cover letter. Today, however, we will restrict ourselves to discussing the book proposal itself. Next week we will move on to the other elements.
I will pause to say that of course, you should carefully check the requirements for submission listed on the press website. They may differ from what I’ve written above, and they will of course take precedence. And ideally, you will have been in conversations with an editor or series editor at the press prior to submitting your package. Blind, or unsolicited submissions, with no advance footwork, have a significantly lower success rate. Please refer to my post, How To Work the Conference (Part 3 of 3) for ideas on using your national conference’s Book Exhibit as an opportunity to encounter editors at presses.
Be aware that you ARE permitted to multiple-submit to different presses simultaneously! This differs from refereed journal articles. This simply has to be fully disclosed in the cover letter.
The Book Proposal
The book proposal is a sales document. It is entirely dedicated to showing that your book has a market and will sell.
Here’s the first mistake most writers make when preparing a book pitch:
They think like writers and forget they are selling a product!
Book publishers are in the business of making money – even not-for-profit academic publishers need to keep themselves afloat. It’s true that many of them love books and want to see new knowledge disseminated, but at the end of the day they will not acquire a book unless they think it will sell enough copies to make back enough money to at least break even.
It’s your job to convince publishers that your book has what it takes to make it in the marketplace that that publisher specialises in. In reality this means you must pitch more than a unique contribution to knowledge. You must demonstrate that your book has a readymade, and accessible, academic readership, which means that your query letter and proposal are, in a sense, sales documents.
So, you thought you were in the business of having ideas, but what you must now take onboard is that you also in the business of selling them!
Hear, hear, Gary of Bubblecow (and be sure and check out Bubblecow for more information–albeit UK-focused– on book proposals)! The sad fact is that university presses are dropping like flies in this economic downturn, and can no longer publish small, obscure specialized monographs the way they used to when our disciplines were younger. University libraries are also under extreme budgetary strain, and have drastically reduced their purchases of new monographs, so the potential market for university press books has shrunk considerably.
Read what Ken Wissoker, the Editorial Director of Duke University Press, has to say (in another recent post on PhD2Published) about the state of academic publishing and library acquisitions:
Libraries have made deeper and deeper cuts in their budget for books to pay for…big journal packages. In the early 80s a huge proportion of a library budget went on books. Now the proportions are reversed and books make up only a small percentage of a library’s budget. The recent library trend of “patron-driven acquisitions” which sounds like patrons choosing (it’s a great neoliberal term), but really means postponing or avoiding purchases as long as possible, will only make this worse. This results in a whole set of books that would have been publishable in a form individual scholars could afford five or ten years ago, but which will no longer have enough sales to be viable. It means books (and fields) that I would have been proud to publish a decade ago, I no longer consider.
Nowadays presses will not accept a book unless they are sure that it will make a profit or at least make back the expenses of publication. So, as you conceptualize your dissertation (while you’re still writing it), and as you plan your revisions (after you’re done), make sure that foremost in your mind are the elements that have the widest, most interdisciplinary, and potentially popular (think NYT readership) appeal. Refer to this post for suggestions on how to do this.
Above all, be aware that the book mss. has to be shorter rather than longer. Publishers recoil in horror from over-long manuscripts because more pages mean more costs. One of your top priorities should be to ensure that your book manuscript is within the acceptable word count of standard books recently published by that press in your field.
The book proposal has to summarize your ideas, but it has to do it in a way that shows
a) there is a market for them
b) they are market-ready
These are two huge variables. Your treatise on the image of the turtle in 14th century Ottoman religious iconography may have pleased you and your advisor, but if there isn’t a market of scholars and students out there seeking to know more about 1) the Ottoman Empire; 2) medieval iconography; 3) pictures of turtles, then you are in trouble. And secondarily, suppose there are no fewer than three separate markets of scholars clamoring for more information on 14th century Ottoman turtle pictures, but your manuscript bears all the marks of a classic narrow, boring dissertation, is far too long, and has not been revised for prime time…then you are still in trouble.
So in summary, the book proposal proves that you have valid ideas, that those ideas have a market, and that those ideas are presented in a marketable way.
How to do this?
Opinions vary widely on what makes a good book proposal as a piece of writing, so I want to state at the outset that I am suggesting what worked for me and most of the colleagues and students with whom I’ve worked closely in the humanities and humanistically-oriented social sciences.
My recommended book proposal contains the following:
Introductory Section of one to two paragraphs that follows the model of the introduction in Karen’s Foolproof Grant Proposal—ie, begins with a large topic of widespread interest, discusses 2+ bodies of scholarly work on that topic, reveals a gap in that work, demonstrates the urgency of that gap (ie, the dire consequences of ignorance), introduces the author as Hero filling that gap, and unveils a clear statement of the book project as Heroic Enterprise.
A BRIEF Disciplinary and Inter-disciplinary Discussion of the scholarly context of the work—who has written what about this subject over the years, how has a major debate in the field emerged, and how does this book intervene in that debate/turn that debate on its head. If your field is tiny, then you want to show that you intervene in debates beyond your immediate disciplinary context. This not a comps exam and you need not be comprehensive. This is a quick sketch of major works to establish the scholarly context only.
A Deeper Background/Elaboration of Topic section will go more in-depth into the “story” of the topic—the who, what, when, where and how. Information for non-specialists on the historical or geographical or cultural context, the major players, the touchstone events, and major texts and their reception, etc. will also be provided. This is a tricky section, actually, because you can’t lose focus and drone on and on. It has to stay focused and concise, with each piece of information providing essential information for a new reader with no background in your field or topic to grasp the core issues to understand that context and import of your topic.
A brief Summary and Chapter Breakdown of the proposed book, which will give a basic word length for the finished manuscript, and then walk through the chapters, no more than three to four sentences dedicated to each chapter, with particular attention to the Introduction and Conclusion. This section will also reference how any lingering dissertation-ese will be eradicated and how dissertation-centric chapters such as the “literature review” and “methodology” will be removed.
A Timeline to Completion section, which clearly articulates the revisions that have been/will be made that eradicate every last trace of dissertation-ese from the prose and that complete the chapters in a timely and feasible manner. Any new research that is anticipated—new fieldwork or archival research, etc.–will be clearly noted in this timeline as well. You will also list here the research leave time that you have gained/expect to gain to complete the book (particularly important if you are on the tenure track). Finally you will clearly disclose your plan for other publications, such as journal articles, based on the research, and show a savvy calculation for using these articles in high status journals to build excitement and anticipation for the book. This section should give a specific month-by-month timeline for the work, and give a deadline for completion of the manuscript for submission.
Finally, you will have the Marketing section. This is the section in which you explicitly discuss how well you expect the book to sell, who it will sell to, and how the press should best market it.
Now the market for most scholarly monographs is admittedly small and no amount of verbiage will change that. But if it’s a narrow but deep market, then you want to make sure you communicate that. And if your work spans several small markets, then you most definitely want to communicate that.
The markets to consider here are:
- the market of academic libraries
- the market of fellow scholars in your field(s)
- the market of courses in your discipline (especially large courses)
- the market of educated readers generally (again, think NYT readers)
You will want to address each of these markets individually, by showing how your work will appeal to it. This is the place where you mention other scholarly works that are similar to your work, and discuss, to the best of your knowledge, how well they sold and how big an impact they had on the field/fields. You will focus particularly on books published by the press to which you are currently submitting, and speak directly, to the extent possible, to the major themes prioritized in their recent and current lists, and to specific book series they are currently promoting.
You will write something like, “my book investigates similar themes to those in XXX by xxx, recently published by University of California Press. That book has had a major impact on the field and was widely reviewed in journals such as XXX and YYY. As I wrote my book to refute XXX, and to be explicitly in dialogue with xxxx, I anticipate that it will similarly gain wide exposure and be acquired by scholars and readers who are interested to see two sides of a pressing contemporary problem.”
The primary way that academic presses make money is through the sale of books for use in large undergraduate classes. Just think: if your book becomes the go-to case study on xxx in the Introduction to U.S. Society and Culture course, enrollment 350, taught in both Fall and Spring semesters in 25 universities across the nation—-how much cha-ching is that for the press? The more you can envision your book as a core text for use in large undergraduate classes, the better off you’ll be. You can certainly mention graduate seminars, but seriously—how much good are 10 graduate seminars annually, enrollment 8 students each, going to do the press?
Finally, you will end with a strong, concise Conclusion. This is an often neglected element to many genres of proposal, and one that I feel is indispensable. Remember that you want to sound, throughout this entire book proposal document, powerful, important, influential, well-prepared, and confident. The Conclusion is where you drive home this tone. In the Conclusion you end with a broad and expansive gesture toward the wider import and significance of your work. You strongly imply that your work is going to radically change the state of your field/fields, and have a major impact on scholarship and public discourse for years to come, and that the press would be foolish to miss the opportunity to be the publisher of your work.
As in all professional documents, the book proposal must reject any hint of querulousness or insecurity or inadequacy or anxiety. It must, from first sentence to last, display a calm command of the material, the genre, and your professional trajectory. You will engage with the press as a full-fledged professional who is confident in your abilities and excited to work with them on this next stage in your professional development. When you write, “I anticipate that this book will have a major impact on the fields of xxx, yyy, and zzz, and look forward to working with XXX Press in its publication,” that is the message you are conveying.