How to Write a Book Proposal

This whole post could probably be distilled into one single PRO-TIP.

PRO-TIP: Start thinking about your book proposal way before you think you need to. An significant number of presses will expect to see projects that already have a fair amount of momentum behind them.

More and more these days, presses (university or otherwise) are asking for supplemental information along with book proposals. The basics are all the same, but many presses  would now like for you to be well-connected socially. In other words, they want to see evidence of an audience, marketability, or of your book’s momentum. We’ll return to this quandary in a moment.

Going Over the Basics: Proposing a Book 101

I recently learned that your book not only doesn’t need to be but shouldn’t be finished when you start networking a publisher for it. Editors at most scholarly presses want to retain some creative control over how the book will turn out. If you send them a book that you believe is finished, many will be less likely to want to work with you. The reason: they will assume (and probably correctly) that you will be reluctant to take their suggestions and edits into account.

Like “How to Review a Book,” posted not long ago, I’m going to walk through the book proposal process using an example. The University of Texas Press has a collection entitled the CMES Binah Yitzrit Foundation Series in Israeli Studies. If you can find a niche series, such as this one, that fits your work, this can be a great place to start. Our title, The Politics & Poetics of Post-9/11 Israel, fits neatly in this series and will be more likely to catch Jim Burr’s attention (he serves as the acquisitions editor) than it would…say…the attention of the literature editor at the University Press of Florida. The broader the scope of the series or subject area, the more likely the editor is to receive dozens if not hundreds of proposals each year. So before starting, make sure your project FITS.

On the UT Press site, under “Information” there is an “Authors” page with Prospective Author Guidelines:

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I chose this press expressly for our example because of how tight the requirements for proposing a project are. You’ll notice that the “Please do not email a full manuscript” line points to what I was saying before: you don’t need to finish The Politics & Poetics of Post-9/11 Israel before you email Jim Burr.

  • Your cover letter will connect your book to the work of the series and explain your interventions in the field of Israeli Studies
  • Your proposal will include the chapter by chapter breakdown and the theoretical underpinnings of your work
  • The table of contents, sample chapter, and CV will be important (but those are not the subject of this blog post)

But What About Momentum?

The University of Texas Press, with its Author and Manuscript Inquiry Form, is an interesting case study for a press that cares surprisingly little about momentum. For your reference, the form is included here:

author_and_manuscript_inquiry2author_and_manuscript_inquiry3

The only question pertaining to marketing (how your book will sell) in this particular inquiry form is related to imagining your audience. However, that isn’t the case with all presses.

The University of Minnesota Press is a sharp contrast. Their acquisitions editors want to know:

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1. How you are going to “hook” readers,
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2. Who will use your book as a textbook for a class,

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3. How you’re going to get your book featured on a podcast or in a news story,

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and, 4. How you will market your book on social media, using @UMinnPress.

This press wants evidence that your book is going to sell before they look at it. They want to know that you, as an author, have created conversation around your work and that the book project will continue to pick up speed as you work on it and continue to market it.

Personal Feelings on the Matter

I’ll admit to you that I was initially pretty disheartened by the list of questions the University of Minnesota Press wants answers to before even really evaluating the quality of our scholarship. I’m of the arcane camp that believes in some sort of intellectual meritocracy, where the quality of the work should speak for itself…not to mention the fact that starting a Twitter campaign for myself or for a book that isn’t finished and doesn’t have a publisher sounds exhausting. Yet another thing to keep up with!

Now I’ll admit a second thing to you…my sister helped me put a really positive spin on these kinds of questions. (One of her most admirable traits.) She asked me a few simple questions:

  • Do you believe in your work?
  • Do you believe that, if read by the right people, it could make an impact?
  • Do you believe that, if read by students, it could help them to see the world differently or become better people?
  • HER CONCLUSION: Okay…well most of those people won’t know about your work unless you help them to know about it. So all you have to do is imagine who might be interested in reading it, and help inform them of the fact that it exists. You’re not selling it to them, you’re just making them aware of it.

I walked away feeling a lot better. But the idea of starting a brand new marketing campaign, via something like Twitter, still feels ludicrous. So, I’m going to pursue some of the other threads that are implicitly suggested in this line of questions. I will likely work on finding book reviewers to write strategically-placed reviews, include information about my book on my professional website, Academia.org, and LinkedIn, and maybe even seek more public attention via a radio interview or newspaper op-ed piece.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

All of a sudden, the University of Texas Press inquiry form feels bare bones. But I got to wondering if we might not all benefit from a little bit of what Minnesota is trying to tell us…you are the best spokesperson for your work…if you don’t tell people about it, who will?

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