Should I Send Out a Book Proposal Before the Manuscript is Completely Finished?

This is a Q and A that arose on the blog this week, following the blog post, How To Write a Book Proposal.

I’ve been asked this question many times.  This is my answer.


Q:   Karen, can I ask you to elaborate on the advice you give earlier in this comment thread, to prepare and send your proposal out before the manuscript is completely revised? I’m eager to make progress toward getting my book published, but I feel like I still don’t completely understand how the different stages in the process relate to one another.

Here’s my situation. I have a dissertation that has more or lain fallow while I spent a year in a teaching-focused position and went on the market. I’ve got one chapter that needs a lot of work, one that needs a bit of work, and two others that are more or less in their finished form. But also, my sense of the project and its stakes has evolved over the last year, and I’m planning to hash all that out in a revised introduction.

So, does it make sense to draft the prospectus now, so I can begin the process of circulating it to presses while I work on making revisions this fall (which will be my first year on the TT)? Or should I focus my energies on refining the manuscript further before setting to work on the prospectus?

A:   This is an excellent question and one that I am often asked. It’s delicate, and in the end, only you know the state of your manuscript. But basically, I generally advise writing up the proposal and sending it out BEFORE the mss. is in “perfect” shape, because in that way, if you get a bite from an editor with the proposal, then you have some clear ideas and parameters for what the revisions should focus on and look like. And also a formal or informal deadline for completing them. I think that it’s always easier to write with a clear goal than in a vacuum of uncertainty. So in a way, the order I propose is also a psychological tool to get you launched and directed, rather than endlessly and fruitlessly “revising” to no clear end.

Logistically, the editor/reviewers are going to demand certain revisions in the revision process as well, and you won’t know what those are prior to sending out a proposal, so that too can help to prevent lost time and ease the process.

If you work up a proposal and send it out, and get some bites, and they ask to see the complete manuscript while giving you some general comments on the project, then, you can write back and say, “I’ll have it to you in 2 months.” Then do some revisions that reflect any cues or reactions you’ve gotten, and do a modest set of revisions in that two months, and then send them the damned mss. They will then demand more substantial revisions which you can execute moving forward.

The only caveat here is, if your dissertation/manuscript is truly an appalling mess. Then, if you write up a terrific proposal, send it, get requests for the full mss and send it, then you will immediately destroy your chances.

I am trusting that this is not the case, while knowing full well that MANY dissertations are allowed to pass committees and defenses that have no business whatsoever being passed. This relates to the phenomenon of the “nice advisor” that I discuss in the post, “It’s Not About You.”

And then again, some graduate students are so impossible to work with that committees/advisors pass them simply to get them out of their hair.

And that’s NOT the committee/advisor’s fault.

I have no idea which kind of dissertation experience you, or any reader, had, and what the quality of your dissertation/manuscript is. So just be aware that you must have it read by real, blunt, critical readers in your field, for a reality-check about whether it can pass muster as a manuscript to be reviewed.

A manuscript that is not quite book-ready is totally fine. But one that is a complete train wreck is not.

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Should I Send Out a Book Proposal Before the Manuscript is Completely Finished? — 20 Comments

  1. Thanks for that detailed response; I’m glad my question was relevant to other readers!

    The dissertation in question is no train-wreck (2 chapters have been published in well-respected journals), but it’s also no masterpiece, and for better or worse I left graduate school acutely in touch with the project’s–and my own–intellectual limitations. I’m also aware that, as you explain elsewhere, my dissertation is not yet a book in its structure, style, and voice.

    I’m beginning to realize that what it really needs is a strong methods chapter where I outline my approach and its stakes–this will let me get rid of the clunky grad-school lit review, and de-clutter the first chapter, which is currently trying to do too much work. My current plan is to spend the next 8 weeks hammering out the new chapter; once that heavy-lifting is done, I’ll have a clear vision and can work on the proposal and continue with revisions in the fall. This should put me in a good position to pimp it to publishers during the winter conference season.

    Thanks again for the advice–and for all the content on this blog, which I read religiously!

  2. Nice! Your advice adroitly splits the difference between the conflicting advice I got from two active senior scholars:

    Scholar 1: Ignore people who tell you to wait. As soon as you’ve got a good proposal and first-rate sample chapter go ahead and send it out to every press that interests you. An acceptance from a publisher will push you past that crucial first book in a timely manner. But whatever you do, don’t wait until you’ve got the mss. finished before you start trying to get it published. A first book has to be published–it doesn’t have to be that good.

    Scholar 2: Scholar 1 is nuts. Your project only has one shot at any one press, so don’t send out anything until you have an mss. all-but-ready to go. If you send out a half-baked project and it gets rejected everywhere, then you don’t have a fall-back position–even if you improve the project substantially, no on is going to look at it a second time.

  3. Is one better off trying to get a book contract straight off, or is it better to wait until one has a TT job? In other words, does a pre-exisiting contract not count toward the eventual tenure application even if the book comes out during while you are on the tenure clock?

    • oh my god, another doozy.

      So, here’s my view: you should get the contract before getting the TT job, because getting the contract helps you GET the TT job. The book contract, in book fields, is one of the strongest elements you can have (perhaps the strongest) on your record as you search for tt jobs. Then, assuming you get the TT job, you time out the writing of the book so that you get full credit for the book in your tenure case. in other words, don’t write it too fast–submit it in, say, year two or year three.

      Now, there is a risk element. After you get the advance contract, if, god forbid, you don’t land the TT job, you do still have to write the book. And if the book is in press before you get the TT job, or in the first year or so of the TT job, then it’s true….. if you are subsequently on the tenure track at some R1/elite institutions, that book will NOT count toward your tenure case, because the tenure cases rests only or primarily on work produced AFTER you start your job. And then, you will be told you need a second book. That kind of sucks. But it happens.

      But the fact is, you can’t hold back the book indefinitely, because as the years pass after your Ph.D. you MUST show that you are advancing steadily in your field/research, and the book is how you show that.

  4. Thank you for this post. I agree with Kirstin that those of us working on first books receive much conflicting–sometimes paralyzing–advice. I thought I’d add a bit from my own experience which looks somewhat different. The three presses to which I submitted my manuscript bypassed the formal book proposal stage. All asked me to send the *entire revised* manuscript (plus cover letter) in lieu of a proposal. So I spent my junior leave/fellowship year revising my dissertation before I sent it out. (I was fortunate to workshop my dissertation+ minimal revisions+one additional new chapter and received lots of helpful ideas about how to revise.) Luckily, this gamble paid off. I now have a contract, and I’m currently doing the final round of revisions on my manuscript. So, a related question that might be helpful for you, Karen, to answer is when do you advise assistant professors to take their junior leaves (if they’re luck to have one from their department)?

    • traditionally the junior leave is in year three or four. year three is best. You have two solid years of teaching under your belt, but still time to correct for any gaps in publishing.

      BTW, in my 5 year Plan post, I recommend taht from year one you apply assiduously for research leave fellowships so that you are NOT dependent on the goodness of your dept/campus, but provide your own year of leave.

  5. This is a great discussion, and has started the cogs going in my brain. My question is this. So: if one needs a writing sample (of the highest possible quality) to go with a book proposal and has managed, as j has (well done!) to publish two chapters, is it seen as lazy to use that writing (modified for book form) as the sample chapters for the book proposal? I am currently revising parts of my first two chapters for submission to journals, and would like to see if I can get them to ‘do work’ twice.

      • This is actually a question I’ve been asking colleagues recently as well. I have the book proposal ready, I am currently revising my dissertation intro to fit book form, voice, etc., but for those presses that ask for another chapter, I want to use an already-revised chapter that will be coming out in an edited collection this spring. If I do that, do I need to include a note that it will be in a forthcoming publication? If so, where do I make that note?

  6. I’ve noticed that many academic press websites simply ask for a proposal or prospectus, and then say that sample chapters are optional. Is it better to just go ahead and send one (or two) sample chapter(s), or to wait for the press to solicit them?

  7. Thank you for this very helpful site. I was wondering if you could say a few words about the annotated table of contents. Since you advise including chapter summaries in your proposals I’m wondering what exactly the t.o.c. should contain. I have noticed some (a minority, really) of publishers want chapter outlines. Is this what you are referring to? Thanks again.

  8. I’ve been told to submit a book proposal to only one press at a time?!? What would be the pros and cons of submitting to one press at a time as opposed to several different potential publishers?

  9. RE second books:

    I have a prize-winning first book, and am in the midst of writing my second. I have three chapters written, and four left to go. Should I get a contract now, or wait until a first draft is complete?

    My inclination so far has been to write the entire first draft and then seek a contract. That way I am able to write more or less unfettered. But I’m wondering: perhaps I should get a contract now. This would get me an editor and some press support. And it would also help on the job market. I have a TT job in a teaching institution, which I’m hoping to leave soon for a TT job in a research institution. This is my last year on the market before I must apply for tenure at my current institution.


  10. Professor, I just found your site while searching for quality guidance on submitting a book proposal. I believe I have a marketable project. Recently I submitted a proposal to Bob Barnett, a high power DC attorney, who represents people like the Bush’s, Clinton’s, Bob Woodward, and Amanda Knox. He stated that my topic is not a market he works in, but that what I submitted is “very well done,” and a “very worthy project.” I had help putting the proposal together by a published author acquaintance. He’s been quite gracious. The book is a compilation of eight veteran’s stories, and includes a chapter on resources and benefits. Seven stories are lined up with two complete. One is nearly finished, and three of the other four are started. It’s taken three years to accomplish what I have. I work full-time and am blessed with a job that requires 20 hours of mandatory over-time per month most of the year. Add to this, I am helping care for a family member with multiple health issues to include Alzheimer’s. I have my own health issues and am frequently worn out from all that I do. Unless I strike it rich and can afford to quit my job (which I don’t really want to do anyway because I love what I do) this project will take at least several more years to finish. My dilemma is: how do I sell this to publisher when I can’t begin to guess how long it will take to finish? Also, I fear trying to promote it too early to my ready-made niche market because the concept is tied to another concept that could be easily hijacked. The concept is crucial to the book’s success. Could you please give some insight? Thanks!

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