When Should You Submit your Academic Book Proposal?

If there is one question I was most confused about, and am now asked most often it is this: when should I write and submit my academic book proposal to university presses? The answer I was repeatedly given when I was looking to publish my first book, and that I now routinely give is this:

You should not submit humanities book proposals until you have a complete manuscript ready to go straight to peer reviewers. Here's why. Click To Tweet

(Looking for a comprehensive guide where I answer all your questions about academic book proposals? Check out Academic Book Proposals: All Your Questions, Answered).

First-Time Book Authors’ Common Misconceptions about When to Submit their Academic Book Proposal 

When I was publishing my book, one main thing tripped me up. I didn’t quite understand at what point in the process presses issued book contracts. I initially conflated two very different things that come at two very different stages:

  • a university press expressing interest in the academic book, based on a proposal
  • a university press issuing an academic book contract

Many university presses ask authors to submit one to two sample chapters with their proposal. So, authors sometimes assume that a successful proposal (including one to two sample chapters) can result in a book contract. This is not usually how it happens, especially for first-time authors. 

University presses rarely give advance contracts to first-time book authors. Instead, to get an academic book contract, your entire manuscript must receive two positive peer reviews.

How the Publishing Process Works, from a University Press Standpoint, from Proposal to Contract

To understand why you should wait, you need to understand how university presses award book contracts. Here, we’ll work backwards.

  1. A university press issues a book contract when the editorial board votes for the book as a project. The editorial board bases their decision on the case the acquisitions editor makes. She supports her case using the academic book proposal, the full manuscript, the 2-3 (or more) peer reviews of the manuscript, and the author’s written response to the reviews detailing how she will revise her final manuscript to address the reviewers’ concerns.
  2. So, to get a book contract, you must have submitted a complete manuscript that has received 2-3+ favorable reviews.
  3. To receive 2-3+ favorable reviews, your complete manuscript must be in favorably reviewable shape.
  4. To have your manuscript even sent out for reviews, the press must have requested it based on a strong academic book proposal.

So, What Does this Mean about Proposal Timing?

Most people see the above schema and think: if a book proposal is really the first step, then I should start working on and submit a proposal as soon as I can to get the rest of the process going.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea.

However, depending on when your manuscript will be ready to go, doing so can create a significant lag between steps 4 and 3 above.

You don’t really gain anything by submitting an academic book proposal before your entire manuscript is ready to go to peer reviewers. Doing so, however, does have a few potential disadvantages.

Potential Disadvantages to Submitting a Proposal Well Before You Have a Complete Manuscript

  1. Your editor’s enthusiasm for the project could wane, if she must wait more than 3 to 6 months for the book manuscript.
  2. The editor to whom you proposed your book might leave the press in the interim.
  3. You might discover that your book changes substantially and the book proposal you submitted no longer represents your current project.

Potential Advantages to Waiting to Submit Your Proposal Until You Have a Complete Manuscript

  1. You can mention in your query/cover letters that the book manuscript is complete. All other things equal, acquisitions editors at university presses look on these proposals more favorably because they can act on them now.
  2. You know for sure that your academic book proposal accurately reflects the entire revised manuscript that will be sent to peer reviewers and presented to the editorial board.

Final Thoughts on Proposal Timing

You don’t gain much by preparing and submitting proposals to university presses early. In this publishing climate, first-time book authors hoping to publish with a university press are unlikely to get an advance contract based on a proposal alone. While submitting the proposal well before your manuscript is ready to go might not affect your ability to successfully get an academic book contract, the potential disadvantages and lack of tangible benefits to doing so seem to make waiting the more logical choice.

Further Reading on Academic Book Proposals

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