Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to write a book proposal for an academic press

So, you want to turn your dissertation into a book? Or, perhaps you want to write your first academic book on an entirely different subject. Unless you are famous and have publishers soliciting manuscripts from you, you likely will have to submit a formal academic book proposal to an academic press to have a hope of publishing a book with such a press.

Books

Many university press websites have guidelines that can help you through this process. UC Press has a good set of guidelines as does Harvard. Be sure to check the websites of the press where you plan to submit to find out if they have specific guidelines.

In this blog post, I provide generic suggestions for what should go in an academic book proposal, and then suggest a method for writing such a proposal.

A book proposal for an academic press has seven basic components:

  1. A one-page description of the book. The most important aspect of this one-page description is the argument you will set forth. Here is one example of how to do this:
    1. Paragraph 1: Hook – Invite the reader into your proposal with an interesting anecdote or some surprising data,
    2. Paragraph 2: State your central argument. Back it up with a few sentences.
    3. Paragraph 3: State the contribution to scholarship and place in the literature.
    4. Paragraph 4: Provide a brief roadmap to the book.
  2. A descriptive table of contents. Dedicate one paragraph to each chapter. Give the title of the chapter and provide a three to four sentence summary of the chapter.
  3. A mechanical description of the final manuscript. Here you say that the estimated length of the final manuscript will be anywhere from 70,000 to 150,000 words. More or less may raise eyebrows. You also should specify how many illustrations and/or tables you anticipate.
  4. A description of the audience for your book. Tell the editor who you expect to purchase your book. Will it be read only in your field, or also in other disciplines? Will undergraduates be able to understand your book? Or, is it solely directed at faculty and graduate students? Could it be used in undergraduate or graduate courses? If so, explain which ones.
  5. Describe the competition. What are the existing books in your field? How will your book stand out from these? Do you use a different methodology or approach? Is yours designed for a different audience? If any of the competing books you mention are quite similar to your own, spend a few sentences explaining how yours is distinct.
  6. How far along are you? Do you have a complete manuscript? If you do, say so. If not, say how many chapters you have completed, and provide an expected date of completion. If this is your first academic book, I discourage you from sending a proposal before you are certain you will finish the book within a year. If the publisher requires a complete manuscript, you likely want to be less than six months away from completion before sending the proposal.
  7. Who might review your book? You can provide the names and contact information of people who you think might be appropriate readers for your book.

Now that you know what the components are, it should be easier to imagine how you will write such a proposal. I suggest you start with the chapter descriptions, as those should not be terribly difficult to write. Once you have those done, you can begin to work on the introductory first page. When you get stuck, turn to the other, easier parts of the proposal. Describe the audience; list the reviewers; say how far along you are.

Once you get a full draft of your book proposal, set it aside for a week and work on the book, preferably on the Introduction. Pick the proposal back up after a week and see how it reads. Edit it and give it to a friend to read. Once you are comfortable with it, send it out to presses.

You can send your proposal to as many presses as you like. Some presses even allow for multiple submission of the entire manuscript.

Good luck!

70 comments:

  1. This helped me immensely! I am planning on submitting to UC Press this summer, so thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi!

    This post is very helpful. I have a question. In the "competition" section, do you refer to different texts specifically, or just a broader field of study? As in, is it sufficient enough to say something like "my book contributes to recent trends in diaspora studies that do xyz" and then cite who is doing that, or do you just leave as is? Do you include a works cited type page in a proposal?

    Thank you!

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  3. Eve: Good luck with your submission! Anonymous: Yes, you refer to specific texts. I dedicate about two sentences to each: one that describes the book and one that says how mine differs.

    I suggest you ask a colleague for a sample prospectus. That might be very helpful.

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  4. I have a question:

    If it's my dissertation the one I'm turning into a book (1st book ever), is it still better to start working on a few chapters before sending the proposal?

    (I mean, you think is possible to turn a dissertation into a book in one year, or is it better to be cautious and start with a few chapters?)

    Thanks

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  5. A.V.: I think it is better to write a proposal draft so that you have a big picture idea, then begin to revise the chapters. Once you have a clear idea as to how long it will take you, it is a good time to contact publishers. Usually publishers of a first-time book will want to see a full manuscript. But, they also will want a firm deadline of a complete manuscript (no more than a year away).

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  6. Thanks!
    (also, thanks for creating this blog!
    This is my starting point for research from now on).

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  7. I have a question. I want you to clarify component 1, paragraph 4: "a brief roadmap to the book". What exactly does it mean?

    Thanks!

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  8. A.V. : By a roadmap, I mean a brief paragraph outlines where you will go with this book. Something that provides a "map" to the book - that would guide the reader through your organizational strategy. Basically, it's a summary, but I think the metaphor of a roadmap conveys the point nicely.

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  9. Thank you for this very helpful information. If I may ask, what is the conventional length of an academic manuscript proposal? From the guide you have so generously provided above, I am thinking somewhere around 10 pages.

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  10. B.B. Mine have hovered around 5-6 pages single spaced. (really, 1.15 spacing). So, yes, 10 pages, if you are thinking double-spaced.

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  11. Thanks for the post!
    How long do publishers take to respond? I sent a number of proposals by mail (as stated on their websites) a couple of weeks ago and I don't know if I should expect to get a note of receipt. Is it possible they send it out for peer-review without noticing me first?

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  12. Anonymous: Publishers do tend to eventually respond eventually. They will not send out for review w/o notifying you.

    I have had publishers respond positively in as quickly as one day to as long as two months.

    I once got a rejection a year later...

    Congrats on getting your proposal off!

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  13. I just found your blog last night and I am thrilled! The organizational nuts and bolts you are describing and laying out are just what
    I needed to feel more finite about all of this. Much appreciation.

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  14. Hello, and thank you for this post! I'm wondering what a good page-length goal would be for an academic manuscript? I currently have a 300-page Word Doc (my English dissertation) but assume that won't be the same length when translated into a book format.
    THank you!
    Jennifer Atkinson

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  15. Anonymous: I think that a ballpark figure is about 100,000 words, but that is very ballpark. My first book was 85,000 words, and it is not particularly short. The final page count was 236 pages, including index and everything.

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  16. This is really helpful--thanks so much for sharing it.
    I have a quick question: where would be the appropriate place to mention the author's own essays and articles that have already been published on the topic? I assume these would be good indicators of the author's credentials, but I'm not sure where they should be discussed.
    Thank you!

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  17. Anonymous: You could either a) create a section titled "Author's Credentials" or b)include these on the CV that usually accompanies book proposals. I have done both.

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  18. When sending sample chapters with the proposal (the press guidelines request two chapters), is it poor form to send chapters of which parts have been published as articles (not the whole chapter, but large sections)? I have a proposal done but the only two chapters that are ready to go at this point have been partially published as articles (these are the only two chapters for which this is true, the rest is totally unpublished material). To get another chapter in shape to send would set me back a few months and I want to get this out the door. Thanks for your help!

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  19. Would it be poor form to propose a book if some of the chapters have already been published in academic journals? Is this done or not done?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Last two commenters:
    Most presses have (formal or informal) guidelines that specify that no more than between 20 and 40% of a book should have been previously published. This means you can usually publish two to three articles with no problem.

    In fact, placing part of the book as an article in a highly ranked journal can help you get a book contract.

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  21. Thanks for that. It's really useful as I'm re-drafting my PhD into a book with an extra chapter and a much-revamped intro. It's my first book, so I'm making sure it's well advanced before I do the proposal, but it'll be soon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Best of luck. I also just came across two more helpful posts on this topic:
      http://scatter.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/10-steps-from-dissertation-to-book-contract/#more-6175

      http://www.socwomen.org/web/images/stories/resources/career_dev/sws_dissertation-to-book.pdf

      Both of them are by sociologists, but seem to be generally useful nevertheless.

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  22. This is great information, thanks for sharing.

    I have a question that doesn't seem to be covered here. What is the relation between the letter of introduction/cover letter and the prospectus? What should go in the letter? It seems like it would provide some of the same information as the prospectus.
    Is does a cover letter include anything more than "Dear so-and-so, I'm pleased to submit my manuscript. I have enclosed x, y, and z. Please contact me if you have any questions. Sincerely, ME"?

    Thanks,
    Ryan
    pd--I'm in the Humanities, broadly speaking

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ryan - A cover letter should be short and sweet. It should include: the title, the estimated length of the manuscript, the proposed completion data, and one or two sentences about why the book is a great fit for the press.

      Delete
  23. Wonderful, thank you! This is a great answer to the kinds of questions all of us PhD students have, but that nobody seems to be able to answer properly (or in writing).

    I usually just make up something, when written proposals and such are needed, then send it to my dissertation director, and completely change it after getting his comments (which generally amount to "this is extremely unorthodox, it should have this, this, this" haha). Nice to know what I'm supposed to do from the start, for a change!

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  24. Thank you for this post. Just I wonder if use only books with one author or edited books in my competition section.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If there are not many sole-authored books, you can put in edited books to show that the area is growing. Or, if the edited volume is directly relevant.

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    2. Many thanks Tanya...I have two sole authored books and relevant…do you think it is enough…is there any limit to how many books you can compare with.

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    3. I don't know why, but all of my book proposals have had about six books listed as Competing.

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    4. Many thanks Tanya, I have included only sole authored from the last 10 years.

      Thank you very much again for taking the time to response to my questions.

      Delete
  25. Thanks Tanya for the helpful article!

    I have a question: in many presses, they ask: "Will the book include examples, cases, questions, problems, glossaries, bibliography, references, appendices,"

    what do they mean by "examples, cases, questions, problems"??

    thanks!

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    Replies
    1. In my opinion, these materials relate to classroom activities. Many academic texts receive better evaluation if they have been used for teaching.

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  26. and another question... how should I physically send the material? bind it together or what?

    thanks so much!

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  27. what a great blog! it was of extreme help and of good guidance. Thank you for taking the time to create this space

    Rachel

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  28. Thanks to your blog, I have turned an r&r around successfully into my first publication. I am now at the stage where I have one chapter of my dissertation r&red again with a top journal, a book proposal and chapter outline ready and was at a loss as to how to proceed. I got a lot of contradictory advice, from having to have a complete book before contacting editors to just emailing them unsolicited with a paragraph about myself. I was thinking last night that I hope Tanya has something on thsi and voila. Sure enough you are right, most presses require hardcopy submissions--which is a pain but that's what they do--I had the same questions in the comments about cover letter etc and you've answered them. Thank you!

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  29. I am seeking advice for an unusual situation relating to publishing academically.

    I did a successful BA (magna cum laude), then MSc. at a prestigious university. I began the PhD forthwith and got through the fieldwork and even successfully viva'd after turning in an incomplete and partially incoherent doctoral thesis. It took some time to figure out that this was due to major health issues, and more recently awareness that I probably did not get the full measure of academic mentoring I probably needed. Eventually, and most unfortunately, I discontinued with the written revision because of these issues and family/work commitments.

    Not a pretty story; however, I have strong 'external' mentors on my side who have been encouraging me to turn my PhD material into a book. My topic is narrow in regard to the population I was studying and the questions I was addressing, and there is still interest and a clear gap in the literature. I am better now, no longer under the stress of the PhD deadlines, but quite some time has passed since I first began as a research student. I have a couple of journal-related publications and have been invited and participated in conferences, but no longer have an academic affiliation (I have been working as an independent consultant).

    Should I decide to go forward with the book idea (and feel free to comment on this too), I am wondering about my chances in this position of getting such a book published, other criteria notwithstanding.

    Thank you for making space for such questions. It feels like such a shame to have all of those years and and data lost and hidden from view. I still have a strong connection to the material and would like to be able to make a contribution to my topic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is certainly no harm in trying to publish your work. In fact, as it seems you are no longer in academia, you may even want to go for a trade publication, in which case it would make no difference that you are not at a university. The key for now is to write a good proposal.

      Delete
    2. Your reply is encouraging. Also, a proposal as you describe helps one in my position and other writers-scholars make sense of what we aim to elucidate and communicate with the publication, giving it more clarity, even if the focus may shift somewhat as the writing proceeds.

      Thank you.

      Delete
  30. Would it be appropriate to propose parts of your unfinished dissertation as a book chapter? Are there any ethical issues with this? I am not sure as to who holds the copyright of the dissertation at the end. The timing of the final copy of the book chapter coincides with the time the dissertation will be defended.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In most cases, it is perfectly acceptable, even advisable, to publish from your dissertation.

      Delete
  31. thank you! oops this will help me to step forward again after i have stacked somewhere due to some contradictions! this might be useful for me!

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  32. Hi Tanya,
    Thank you for all these great advices. I completed my PhD thesis on John Milton and Derrida at Victoria University of Wellington. The examiners were happy with my discussion and recommended at least the publication of some chapters. My supervisor, after i did the last revisions, to approach a publisher and send off a proposal for publishing the thesis.
    My question is that do the UP publishers publish the materials from other universities? Are the publishers like Peter Lang, Addelton Academic Publishers, common ground publishing, Boydell & Brewer, and Palgrave good?
    Regards

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Publishers will publish people from any university, so long as the scholarship is sound.

      The trade academic presses you mention are often thought of as less prestigious than university presses. However, there can be many good reasons to publish with them.

      Delete
  33. Hi Tanya,
    THANK YOU! This post is so helpful. I have a question about writing a prospectus---Is it considered okay to quote from reports or letters of reference written by examiners of the thesis --- or is this poor form?

    Thanks in advance for any light.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Canoe Goddess,
      Sorry for the delay in the reply. I think that would be seen as fluff. If you have an advisor who thinks your work is super awesome, she can write a note directly to the editor, if they have that kind of relationship.

      Delete
  34. What about Ashgate Press? Is this a good trade academic press for medievalist (in the area of visual studies) who is seeking to publish her first academic book? Or would you recommend say a Univ. of Toronto as better. And if UToronto is not interested, would Ashgate not be good for T & P?

    Thanks so very much!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whether or not Ashgate is good for a tenure case depends on your department and on your subfield.

      A general rule is that a university press is better. I would suggest trying several university presses first. Begin with those that you have on your bookshelf.

      If nothing pans out, ask a close mentor if you should go for Ashgate.

      Delete
    2. Thank YOU SO MUCH!!! This is very helpful, as is your entire blog! :)

      Delete
  35. I hope you don't mind another question from this post! I am under contract for a co-authored volume in a 5 volume series with a press, and part of the terms of that contract was they have "first right of refusal" for my manuscript. The editor I am working with on the other project has been extremely enthusiastic about my monograph and after I completed the entire manuscript a couple of weeks ago, he instructed me to send a prospectus, table of contents, intro, and sample chapter to the area studies editor who would oversee it. He also asked that I cc him on the e-mail. I did that a week ago, and I have not heard anything since then. Obviously I wouldn't expect a yes/no response, but I don't even have confirmation that it was received. How do I proceed just to ensure it didn't disappear into the "junk-mail abyss" and to keep the process moving along, without irritating these editors?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Charlotte,
      I think it is acceptable to follow up with a short email something like this:

      Can you please confirm receipt? I'd like to make sure that my previous email did not end up in your junk mail folder. Of course, if you'd prefer a hard copy, I'd be happy to send one.

      Delete
  36. Tanya-

    I am so glad I stumbled upon this blog! If I can beg of your time, I have an odd publishing related question. I submitted my book proposal (history, dissertation revision) to several university presses in the manner you describe above and one of the editors is working to get me an advance contract, which I understand is a fairly rare occurrence, but great for me. My question is, in their manuscript information sheet that I am filling out, they are asking for possible reviewers, along with their contact information. Obviously, they are not supposed to be close to me (advisor, etc), but should I know them personally, or just know their work well enough to think they would be good choices to review? And how many of them should I supply? Thanks so much!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suggest putting down about four names. They should be people you think will regard your work favorably. The editor may not send the manuscript to these people necessarily, but it gives them an idea of where you place your work. If you are speaking to different fields, you can give one name in each, for example.

      And, Congrats!

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    2. Thanks so much! I look forward to your future posts, and spending some time mining old ones!

      Delete
  37. Hello, it has been great to find your blog. My question relates to non-academics publishing academic books. I completed a PhD ten years ago and have been working my government and industry since then in my subject area. I have been writing a book and hope to publish. If we assume that my book ticks all the right boxes in terms of quality and style etc, do you think that my not being affiliated with a university could still be a significant disadvantage to being published by a good University Press? Thanks, Caro

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Caro, I certainly don't think that it is impossible. Editors do look at people's CVs and your position does matter some. however, I certainly would think it is worthwhile to try if publishing with a university press is your goal.

      Delete
  38. Dear Tanya, thank you so much for your blog- it really helped me developing my proposal. But now- having sent it off to a university press a little more than 3 weeks ago- I have not heard anything. Should I expect a note of receipt? It does say on their website that you should not expect to hear from the editor for several weeks.. but should i write to the editor nonetheless?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, editors can take a very long time to get back. You may consider sending it to another press (or a few other presses).

      If it turns out that another press is interested, you can contact your first choice and update them.

      Otherwise, I wouldn't contact them.

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    2. Thank you! as fate would have it today I got an email that they want to see the whole manuscript:)

      Delete
  39. Another question! Is it okay to use sections of the same text taken from my first/introductory chapter in the book proposal? I worked so hard on the introductory chapter that I feel it's the strongest presentation of my research, but I'm wondering if I'll be penalized by a reviewer who reads the proposal and first chapter and sees the same text in both. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I see people do it all the time - so I think it's fine.

      Delete
  40. Thank you for a very informative discussion. If I may ask another question, how recent do competing books have to be? I am considering including a title which came out in 1997, is still in print, very well regarded among scholars in the field and assigned in relevant classes--but is it too old to be mentioned? How many years back would you draw the cut-off line for competition?

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    Replies
    1. I think you might mention the book in the text as one you are in conversation with. However, if it was published in 1997, I don't think it is necessarily a competing book.

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  41. Hi Tanya, Your blog is really useful. I am filling up the proposal form and it asks for the chapter details. I have 11 chapters in my thesis. For the last 5 analysis chapters and conclusion chapter, I am planning to have them as these are in my thesis. But, I am wondering about the Introduction, 3 literature review chapters and Methodology chapter - do you think I can adjust them in the Introduction chapter? As in the thesis do we need to have Literature Review and Methodology separated? Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you are publishing this with a major university or trade press, you likely will have to completely revamp the chapter organization.

      You probably will have to downsize your 3 lit review chapters and your methodology chapter into an Introduction. Usually, introductions are only about 5 to 10,000 words.

      Delete
  42. Thank you for your blog and very insightful posts.
    I am reworking my manuscript and unsure of the length for each chapter. Typically, how many pages (words) should a chapter be?

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  43. Thank you very much!

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  44. Thank you for making such a fantastic blog. I have just completed (and deposited) my dissertation and I want to publish it. I have a few questions: When listing suggested reviewers, do these people need to be asked first before you offer their names? Are their specific presses that typically accept first-time books? I have two conference panels (in October and April) that I will be presenting sections from chapters, I was hesitant to also submit a chapter for an article because I was worried that it might be over exposed and thereby kill the potential interest. But to one of the comments above, you replied that publication of an article is a good thing (better credentials). Given the conferences should I try to publish an article too or just start preparing a monograph proposal?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When listing suggested reviewers, do these people need to be asked first before you offer their names? NO
      Are their specific presses that typically accept first-time books? NO
      Given the conferences should I try to publish an article too or just start preparing a monograph proposal? I THINK YOU SHOULD TRY AND PUBLISH AT LEAST ONE ARTICLE FIRST TO GET A SENSE OF HOW YOUR WORK IS RECEIVED BY A LARGER AUDIENCE.

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