The usual parts of an academic book proposal

So you’re thinking about getting an academic book published. Maybe you’re pretty confident about the writing process, but what about proposing it? There are a number of common elements in an academic book proposal, so it would help to take a moment and think about those just so you know what’s coming.

Although these are common, always (always, always) read the specific requirements of the agent or publisher you are querying. Make sure you include all the information they’re looking for, and in the format they request.

  • sample chapters – you’ll be asked to submit a number of sample chapters. It’s usually low – one to three – and, for the purposes of the proposal, the introduction doesn’t count. It’s helpful to include the intro, though, because it will show how you plan to catch readers’ attention and then how your entire book will be organized. Most academic proposals do not require the entire manuscript to be complete at the time of the proposal.

  • an index or outline – because of this, you’ll be asked to include either an index of chapter titles, or some sort of outline. Most recently I had to provide an abstract for each of the chapters I didn’t submit. This helps you really solidify what your book is going to be about, and shows them that you know enough about your subject to craft a throughline long enough to fill a book.

  • estimated length of the final manuscript – some will ask for word counts and others for page counts, so double-check before making your best guess. Contracts usually come with a range or a limit. The consideration here is writing enough to cover your subject, but not so much that the size of the book drives up printing costs toward something most people will consider to be too expensive. Your book doesn’t need to be long to be good, and you might have to narrow your focus a little if it looks like it might start to grow as you write it.

  • proposed delivery date – because you’re not submitting the entire book, you also get to tell them when, exactly, it will be in their hands. If you think this date is more than a year out, then it’s probably not the time to query. Many academic presses want to know that they’ll have your manuscript that quickly. This also shows them that you know there’s enough information out there, and that it’s accessible enough, for you to complete the manuscript.

  • proposed title – pick a good, informative title, but keep in mind that this will change. The title falls under marketing, and a lot of people will have input on it before your book is published. They factor in things like key words and where those words appear within the title, considering where a lot of internet searches cut off the display. So make it a good one, but don’t stress too much about making your proposed title perfect.

  • comp titles and your book’s nicheI mentioned this last week, but this is part of the marketing: what will be the competition for your book? Who publishes those other titles? What gap will your book fill? Basically, convince them that your book will actually sell and not simply crowd a shelf in the store. Those texts should be fairly easy to name, since you’ve been immersed in the literature as you plan writing your book, but it’s not something many people are used to writing.

  • ideal audience – who is going to want to read your book? Are there specific college classes that will reach for yours instead of whatever’s currently on their standard list? Not everyone in the world will want to buy your book (sorry), but they’ll want to know that the interested group will be large enough to make publishing worthwhile.

  • a list of possible peer readers – if you don’t need peer review, or the publisher doesn’t require it, you won’t have to do this step. If it is needed, then you’ll provide contact information for the requested number of possible peer reviewers. They need to be people with whom you don’t have a personal or professional relationship, in order to preserve the purpose of the peer review process.

  • whether this manuscript is under consideration by any other publisher – it is rare these days to see bans on simultaneous submission due to the length of the process and the fact that “publish or perish” means not being able to sit around and wait for each possible publisher, in turn, to get back to you. If you do already have someone interested, dropping that into the proposal might catch the attention of a publisher you think could be a better fit for the book. If this is the case, include the deadline by which you have to get back to the interested party.

  • any pertinent information about yourself – this is where you can name your credentials and past publications. It helps position you as the expert on your topic and shows that yes, you have experience working with getting feedback on your writing. This is especially useful if you’re querying an agent, who will want to know that you’re familiar with the process of revision and the idea that the document you deliver is not already perfect and can, in fact, be improved.

No matter which path you go with proposing your academic book, make sure to read the submission guidelines in full before delivering the requested documents. Chances are good you’ll have to provide all of the above information in form or another – the submissions page will tell you how many documents to submit and, if they prefer them to be labeled in a specific way.

The submission process itself is a long one and involves a lot of waiting to hear back to find out whether your proposal has been accepted. You want to make sure that the packet you send out is the best you can make it and addresses all the questions the publisher asks, so you’re not caught up in a back-and-forth as they request it again. Make sure you look over the submission requirements carefully and go down each publisher’s checklist, giving yourself enough time to think about the answers to each of these areas.

Writing the proposal is very different from writing the book, and you need to spend enough time thinking about it, too, the way you do with your manuscript.

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?