Tips on Preparing a Book Proposal

Where do you start?

It all depends on your point of departure, do you know which publisher you are sending the proposal to or is this a pre-approach proposal? If you know exactly which publisher you want to approach, visit their website, look for their standard proposal form (it’d be rare for publishers not to have them these days) and then follow their instructions. Here’s one from Rowman & Littlefield International, where I am co-editor of the book series, Media, Culture and Communication in Asia-Pacific Societies.

If you have yet to make up your mind, find out which publishers are the most/more well known in your field of research. If your work is interdisciplinary, research all areas. Talk to colleagues and mentors  working in the similar or related disciplines who might be able to recommend you to a publisher. This can often be a good way to get your foot in the door, so to speak.

Make a shortlist of about three publishers and then decide on the first publisher to write to. Some prefer you to send them a short enquiry email rather than a full proposal while others prefer you to send a full manuscript. To give yourself the best chance, follow the publisher’s instructions faithfully. Generally, you send proposals to one publisher at a time.

Remember a  book proposal is not a research proposal. They serve different purposes and should be regarded as two separate documents. A number of features are common to most book proposals, I’ll discuss each separately below:

Mechanics such as title, book length, expected completion date

  • Titles do often change, especially if you use your thesis title as most times they’re not quite up to the demands of marketing.
  • Book length, most academic monographs vary between 60 to 80,000 words. Co-authored books will differ as will edited volumes depending on the scope of the material you cover. Some publishers and book series (like this one where I am a co-editor) now look specifically for shorter volumes.
  • My preference, whenever I can, is to use the phrase ‘XYZ months from date of contract signed’ rather than a specific date as delays often occur. Factor in time for rewrites and revisions as well as your own time constraints if you are working full-time or travelling over extended periods

Outline/Description

  • This is a general introduction to the book and where you mention if your work addresses issues and/or topics that are new, different, under researched and previously not researched.
  • This is also where you would mention any features of the book’s contents that distinguish it from others. For example, extensive fieldwork data, visualisations, innovative methodologies, geographical/regional or cross-disciplinary focus.

Chapter-by-chapter synopsis

  • This is where you might use some of your research proposal information because the academic book proposals usually go to academic reviewers. Their job then is to assess if the contents of your proposed book will find a ready readership and indeed, who these readers are. Very often, publishers also ask you to suggest potential reviewers. This also gives them an indication of where you want to position the book.
  • Write as you would for a mix of knowledgeable readers being careful to maintain the flow and coherence of the book.

Market/competition information

  • Presumably if this monograph or proposed book is derived from your research work, you already have a good idea of who else has published regarding the subject. If you need to update yourself, conduct searches on university library catalogues (if you have access) and WorldCat plus marketing information from popular book sites like Amazon and Book Depository should do the trick.
  • You should also know where the gap is in publications that your book fills. Identify the gaps vis-à-vis what is already published.

Expected/targeted readership

  • Here you need to identify if your proposed book will be suitable for undergraduates, postgraduates and/or general readers. I find it useful to picture where the book would sit on a bookshelf in a store. It is also a great motivator!
  • You will also need to identify subject/research areas it would be useful for, maybe as a reference volume or even, textbook. This might involve searching for and looking through unit outlines by various universities to understand where the book can be positioned.
  • Don’t forget universities, schools and readers from other countries!

Once you’re done, send it to someone whose opinion on these matters you trust and ask for feedback. Incorporate what feedback you can and send it out. Be as specific with the addressee as possible. Find a relevant book series editor or commissioning editor in the relevant area rather than a general (email) address. You should receive an acknowledgement of receipt after a week or so.

Now sit tight and wait but if you don’t hear from the editor in 6 months, send a polite enquiry. After 1 year? Send a second polite enquiry. After 1.5 years of silence? Wait and see or withdraw your proposal to send it to another publisher. You make the call.

Finally, if you’re thinking of working with me on the RLI book series, do drop me a line!

(My thanks to Angela for asking the question in the first place).