Lori Flores

Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY)

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Writing a Book Proposal

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Image: Mariano Rivera (2007) / Flickr user Staxringold

Graduate students and junior colleagues often ask me for advice on how to navigate the transition from completing a dissertation to revising it into a book. Part of that process is learning how to write book proposals for academic publishers. Based on my own experiences, I’ve come up with seven tips that might help demystify proposal writing.

Disclaimer: I’m a historian, but I think these suggestions translate across disciplinary boundaries.

View your work with fresh eyes. If you’ve just finished your dissertation, congratulations! Now set it aside for a good while.

Trying to tackle dissertation-to-book revisions too soon will prevent you from seeing graduate school-inspired jargon and from spotting what content needs to be tweaked, cut, or added. Many times, you need a more distant perspective on your work in order to articulate to editors how you plan to produce a book — an entirely different beast from a dissertation in terms of framing, style, and structure. While you’re taking that break, circulate your work to valued colleagues for their suggestions, and tackle other passion projects or interesting new readings in your field for some inspiration.

If you’ve already taken a break and are ready to come back to your project, start by asking yourself some tough questions: Are you putting forth a strong argument that will reach a broader range of readers than it did in its previous iterations? Is your authorial voice authoritative, accessible, and uniquely you? Are there models (other books you admire) that can help you think about narrative craft and flow? This is the time to look at your intellectual contribution with a wider, more ambitious lens.

Don’t wait too long to approach publishers. The entire work does not need to be revised before you send in a proposal. I have talked to many people who have been reluctant to begin writing their book proposals because they think the entire manuscript needs to be revised, polished, and ready for scrutiny. It doesn’t. In fact, academic-press editors rarely ask to see more than one or two sample chapters in addition to your proposal.

So at this point, polish your introduction and strongest chapters. Rest assured that the full manuscript will not be due in the hands of readers for a while, with the author and press mutually agreeing upon that submission date well in advance.

Tailor your proposal to the publisher. Check the websites of scholarly presses for their submission guidelines. Pay attention to what each press wants, and tailor accordingly. A book proposal is usually no longer than 10 pages. It should include a brief cover letter addressed to the appropriate editor, followed by a clear, concise description of the project and a rationale for its publication (meaning — its scholarly significance, its appeal to both specialists and generalists, and any qualities that distinguish the book from its competition).

Your proposal should answer these questions:

  • Why should this press care about adding your book to its catalog?
  • What important intellectual conversations are you engaging and influencing?
  • What are the various audiences who would be interested in — and buy — this book?
  • Does your work possess any crossover appeal or timeliness?

In addition, you should mention whether you have successfully published excerpts from the work already and include estimates of the word/illustration count and the date when you expect to send in the full manuscript.

Pitch well. Book exhibits at scholarly conferences are the ideal place to pitch your manuscript to a potential editor. In advance of the meeting (it doesn’t need to be the “big” conference of your field, either — small conferences might actually get you more face time with a press), email the appropriate acquisitions editor to set up a time to talk. Provide a brief description of your book, along with your CV, and end by asking if the editor would like to receive your proposal before, during, or after your meeting (some editors want all the materials ahead of time, and some don’t).

In any case, never send lengthy, unsolicited manuscripts to editors. But feel free to pitch to as many, and meet with as many, presses as you want at this stage. If you’re lucky enough to be approached by a press first, take advantage of its interest and follow up in a timely manner.

Ask editors the right questions. Think about what’s important to you in a publisher. Ideally, you want to work with a press that has a solid reputation and has published other books you like and respect. Sure, prestige is important. But give additional thought to the way a press will treat you over the course of your relationship. Here’s what to ask a publisher:

  • Which editor/s would I be working with, and how closely?
  • How long does the overall process take (from proposal to editorial-board response to readers’ reports, and from copyediting to proofs to publication)?
  • Can I join a particular book series I admire in that press?
  • How many books does the press produce in the span of one season?

Getting a better idea of a publisher’s timeline and priorities will help you set your own schedule (if you have a tenure calendar or another kind of calendar for your life to keep in mind). Ask colleagues what their experiences have been with different presses, particularly if they have published very recently.

Be patient yet vigilant. Some editors might end up ignoring your work, while others will be more attentive. Once you have prioritized your list of interested publishers (if you’re lucky enough to have more than one), proceed to working with your first choice and submit whatever work the editor wants to send out for readers’ reports and the press’s editorial board. If there are lags in communication, follow up respectfully about the status of your submission. During this time, don’t burn your bridges with any other presses until you are officially offered a book contract to sign.

Approach that contract wisely. Getting offered a book contract is flattering and exciting, but be sure to ask some more important questions.

  • Is this an advance contract (meaning the press wants to work with the manuscript, but is not fully committing to publishing it yet), or a full contract?
  • Are you responsible for coming up with any subvention funds (meaning, extra money from your university or outside grantors to help pay for your book’s publication)?
  • If you are working with oral histories or human subjects, does the press have its own proprietary consent forms you will be required to complete?
  • How affordable will the book be (illustrations, copyright permissions, and length can hike up the price)?
  • Can the press offer you a simultaneous run in hardcover and paperback?
  • What are the author’s royalties, if any, for hardcover, paperback, and ebook editions?
  • How many free author’s copies will you receive?

Try to negotiate what is important to you before signing any contract, while realizing that you may have to give in to certain terms.

Book proposals can be revelatory in themselves. Writing mine helped me see more clearly what I planned to revise, reframe, and refine in my work, and that was extremely useful. Publishing a book is a long and bumpy road, but tackling the proposal is an important first step that can help clear some mental obstacles out of your path. (Editor's note: A version of this essay first appeared on the blog, Borderlands History.)

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