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.