The Less-Obvious Elements of an Effective Book Proposal

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 17, 2011

Getting published usually starts with a book proposal. Many a good manuscript has been turned down because of an ineffective proposal, and many a poor manuscript has been sent out for a formal review because the proposal was flawless.

Publication of a scholarly book ultimately depends on the peer-review process, but that step occurs only if the proposal accomplishes its single mission: to get you a hearing. Too often, however, scholars misunderstand the job of the proposal in the overall process.

As the director of an academic publisher, I've seen the best and worst of book proposals. So I'm in a good position to offer strategies to increase your chances of having a publisher take your proposal and manuscript to the review level—especially if you're an early-career scholar seeking to turn a dissertation into a book. Keep these points in mind:

Recognize the realities of your scholarly communityand get involved. As far as I know, this recommendation (and the one that follows) does not appear in the submission guidelines of any academic press, but it makes a difference. The social and political realities of your scholarly community reside more frequently in disciplinary societies than among your departmental colleagues (although departmental interactions are fraught with their own "realities"). Nowhere is the scholarly community more real than at conferences and regional or national society meetings. Besides being huge job fairs, conferences are the sites of networking and empire-building, of exchanging and stealing ideas, of presenting and refuting theses, of posturing and politicking.

Participating in that community can be crucial to your career, including your publishing opportunities. That means joining and participating as fully as possible in your field's societies and associations. It may involve service work, and it could even mean paying for travel out of your own pocket. While a conference paper might not count for much in your tenure file, it could create all-important career connections.

But be wary: These decisions require fastidious consideration of the benefits of involvement versus the cost of lost time and effort that takes you away from your research and writing. Be careful, for example, about readily accepting an invitation to edit a volume if you've never done it before and if it doesn't count toward your promotion and tenure. Nonetheless, the more connected you are, the more likely it is that your research will be heard. Editors, who spend a lot of time at academic conferences, especially welcome the scholar who is known as an active and appreciated participant.

Understand the workings of the publishing communityand get involved. That community includes scholars, such as journal and series editors, as well as publishing professionals, who themselves possess scholarly expertise and often hold advanced degrees.

Fruitful scholarly careers depend upon building relationships as well as one's library. Editors on the lookout for manuscripts become fixtures at academic conferences, and monitor the voices behind conference papers. Editors rely on their web of scholars for leads about new projects, for help reviewing manuscripts, and for keeping the pipeline full.

Getting to know the editors in your field opens the door to an eventual conversation about your research. You will also save valuable time in crafting a proposal if you (1) already know that a particular press publishes in your field and (2) have established a personal (albeit loose) connection with the editor. The first saves you time and energy, while the second is a step toward getting your manuscript a hearing.

Fostering a publishing relationship usually occurs in one of two ways:

  • You may directly approach an editor about your work. Caveat lector: That can get a little dicey. Unless the first words out of your mouth are, "Former President Bill Clinton suggested that I call you about my manuscript on ... ," never phone. Editors usually loathe an out-of-the-blue phone call about a manuscript. Even less do they like being saddled at a conference with a 450-page draft or even an electronic copy on a flash drive. For very practical reasons such handoffs can be a problem. They disrupt routine, and in the frenzy of a conference an editor may simply forget that flash drive.
  • So if editors don't like the frontal assault, what do they like? Correspondence (e-mail or snail mail) is best for starters, but only if you've done your homework and your letter doesn't appear to be a fishing expedition. Most critically, it helps to have an "in"—someone from that network you've developed who has a relationship with the press or with the editor who controls the list where your project fits.

    Your connection might be a mentor, a colleague, or a former classmate. In the small world of discipline-specific research, those degrees of separation are fewer than six. So if you have that "in," use it to contact an editor. Ideally, obtain an introduction from someone and perhaps ask them to alert the editor that you are going to be in touch. When you write, drop that name early in your letter. Awash with manuscripts, proposals, inquiries, and correspondence, editors need reminding of conversations or commitments. They probably even require a follow-up e-mail.

  • Alternately, an editor may reach out to you. Maybe a colleague or the director of your dissertation recommended your work. Perhaps the editor heard you read a paper at a conference. While the latter may afford some chest-puffing initially, remember that editors say yes until they say no. Proximity brings no guarantees, only possibilities.

Whether you approach the editor, or vice versa, the job of successfully presenting a project still depends on you. The expectations of the editor generally remain constant. But precisely what influences an editor's decision on your proposal (besides the thesis itself) may come as a surprise.

What's in a proposal? Editors, while far from lazy, don't want a project that requires a lot of hand-holding. The publication process is complicated, expensive, and labor-intensive, so editors craft submission guidelines aimed at quickly sizing up a manuscript's potential success or failure.

Besides allowing editors to gauge the validity or originality of a thesis, the guidelines serve an ulterior purpose. They afford a glimpse into how much work (i.e., money) a particular manuscript, author, or project could require to make it a viable publication. So, for example, while university presses are not-for-profit, they depend on income from book (and journal) sales to pay their operating expenses. Does your proposal betray that your manuscript will require a lot of costly copy-editing? If so, can the editor afford to continue with the project?

I can't stress this enough: Follow the submission guidelines carefully. Most guidelines are easily found on a publisher's Web site. Resist creating a form letter for multiple publishers, and learn how to tailor your proposal for the right publisher. Editors wince when a cover letter contains the name of a rival press in first paragraph. If your book fits into a particular series at the press, mention that, and explain why. Show that you've done your homework on that press.

Editors prefer to receive proposals by regular mail. The process for logging in and tracking manuscripts works better when a hard copy arrives on the editorial assistant's desk, which starts the evaluation process. If you must transmit a proposal by e-mail, please send a brief e-mail query to the appropriate editor before sending the full proposal.

So you've followed the guidelines and submitted the proper materials. The ingredients of a proposal are pretty straightforward: an abstract of the manuscript, a list of the number and types of illustrations, a table of contents, a sample chapter, a description of the audience, a copy of your CV, among other things. But what characteristics—seen and unseen—invite (or discourage) an editor to read carefully a proposal?

Direct the pitch to the right publisher. Do the publisher's interests match your own? Does your project fit with the publisher's list? Does the press specialize in your subject; do you both have the same audience? Just because a publisher publishes textbooks on Chaucer does not guarantee that the company will be keen on your monograph on "Characterization and Plot in the Wife of Bath."

Your research should also include placing the publisher on the continuum of your discipline and your department's expectations: Is the press respected in your field? In your department? Will the publication count for tenure and promotion? That may sound like common sense, but as the saying goes, "common sense is not common to all."

Pay attention to detail. Not all editors will concur with my selection of what's essential, but I suspect they would generally approve of the spirit of what follows. Although every component in a proposal carries weight, a few components signal early a manuscript's promise. For me, the "big four" are the abstract, the cover letter, the curriculum vitae, and the description of the audience or market. Those reveal the most about a manuscript's possibilities.

The abstract or "description of your manuscript" should be written for the editor, not for your peers or your dissertation director. A common and unfortunate mistake occurs when authors try to overwhelm the editor with mind-numbing erudition that reads more like a math word problem than a clear description of the project. The objective of the abstract should not be to confound, but to reveal, to be understood.

If you cannot distill the essence of your work into a few hundred cogent words, then the question immediately comes to mind: "Can this individual write for an audience beyond the über-specialist?"

The cover letter, likewise, betrays plenty about a manuscript's potential. Typical questions an editor might ask include: Does this author have a solid recommendation from someone in the field? Does the letter contain errors (i.e., is the author going to be a careful scholar or sloppy)? Is this cover letter for my press or anyone's? Do its sentences make sense (i.e., can she write)? Is it professional or overly familiar? (Unless a personal connection is in place, never start a query letter to me with "Dear Patrick." Be formal.)

The CV recounts the author's scholarly pedigree. An editor may look at the document for connections with the publisher's other authors or projects.

Finally, a researcher's description of the audience, or market, for the book is perhaps the most telling. Clint Eastwood's character, Harry Callahan, wryly remarks in Magnum Force, "A man's got to know his limitations." Nowhere is that more appropriate in a book proposal than in describing your audience. Value accuracy over generality. If you have written a highly specialized monograph on the "History of the Semicolon in Southern American Literature," admit that the audience will not be the "educated lay person" or the "general reader." Concede that you have written for a specialized audience. That's what publishers want: an author who knows her audience and has written for that audience.

Each element of a proposal should be flawless and professional in appearance. First impressions command attention. Most guidelines suggest double-spacing for the manuscript. Failing to follow such basic instructions could push an editor over an obsessive-compulsive ledge. Quietly deselect the Zapf Chancery wedding font, and if you are not a trained typographer, consider having a professional design your material to reflect a scholarly gravitas. (Look at a publisher's book designs and you'll get an idea of a press's typographic sensibilities.)

Revise, revise, revise. If your manuscript will be based on your dissertation, it's critical that your proposal describe how you are revising the thesis. That virtually screams to the publisher that you understand that the dissertation must be revised. The editors can then infer that you know a smidgen about the challenges of publishing. (Editors love authors who understand publishing.) Moreover, it announces that you realize that the audience for your dissertation—your committee of three to six people—differs drastically from the audience for your book, even for a highly specialized monograph.

Appreciating the role of a proposal—paying attention to its nitty-gritty subtleties—will not guarantee publication. But it could increase your odds of at least getting serious consideration. It's a step in the right direction.

Patrick H. Alexander is director of the Pennsylvania State University Press.