So you want to write an academic book proposal

Academics are used to proposing things: special topics courses. Conference presentations. Chapters for edited collections. To an academic, “CFP” means “call for proposals.” We’re used to the idea that we need to sum up our ideas and present them to a group of peers for approval before moving forward.

A book proposal, though still a proposal, is a different genre.

Most of the proposals we write are short. The people reviewing it don’t want to read more than, say, 300 words. We’ve learned to summarize the main ideas while invoking the proper number of references and making ourselves sound both smart and intriguing given a small amount of space. It’s enough to prove to strangers that we can speak on a topic for 15 minutes or give them a 5-7,000 word chapter by the given due date.

A book is, of course, a much longer project, and the purpose of the proposal can be a shift, especially for academics not used to writing things like grant proposals. You’re no longer arguing solely that your research is relevant and interesting, or that you’re an expert able to coherently and intelligently discuss your topic. For a book proposal, you need to shift your thinking slightly and consider facets of marketing.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, Bob Johnson, was telling us about the process he went through to propose his book Romancing the Atom. The part he stressed was how it was up to him, the author, to show the niche his book would occupy in the market. He told us that he had to provide the titles and authors of books that were similar and could be seen as competitors to the one he was proposing.

Granted, this shouldn’t be too difficult for scholars who in fact do research in their own field, but it’s a shift from reading books to add to your own argument toward thinking of those books as competition. This is especially true if someone who’s a big name in your field, and whom you may have met, has recently come out with a book: now you have to say why your book, written by a newcomer, would be chosen over this other one by an established researcher.

The publisher wants to know why your book is unique. This means you need to be able to set your idea apart from the others – while still connecting to the field and remaining in conversation – and to tell them why, exactly, people will buy yours instead. What is it about your book that makes it special, aside from the fact that you’re the one writing it? What gaps do the others leave that yours might fill?

We’ll get more into the usual parts of an academic book proposal next week, but this tends to be the main sticking point and the biggest new thing. Market my work? No, no – I just write a short proposal and then go talk about it. Journals have subscribers who are already interested in the sort of content that will be selected to be included, but this is a step taken by the editors of a book collection, too: does this chapter idea fit with the others? Does it make the point we want to make?

Is it the sort of thing someone would see and then want to buy?

But, come on – can’t the publisher have someone do all that work? If it’s marketing, isn’t it their job instead of mine?

Sorry, no. As the expert in your field, you’re the one best positioned to argue for how your work will fit and what new things it offers. The publisher takes care of a lot of things, but making these points in the proposal is really an argument for them to take the risk on your and your book. If they offer you a contract, they’re committing to the costs and hours involved in publishing your book, and they want to know that it’s worth it to them.

So: if you’re thinking of proposing an academic book this year, start also thinking from the side of marketing. Who’s going to buy your book? What does your ideal audience member look like? What classes might want it on their required reading lists? And why should they reach for yours instead of others already out there, either by the same publisher or a competitor?

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