5 Myths about Academic Book Proposals

1. Your book proposal is only about your book–its ideas, arguments, etc.

Reality: Discussions about your book’s content is only one part of the proposal. Instead, the proposal must discuss your book, how it fits into the larger intellectual landscape of your field, why you are the person to write this book, and why now is the time to write it.

Further Reading:

  • Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor (eBook), which, while geared toward non-fiction (not necessarily academic) authors, nevertheless lays out the main questions–both about your book and about you–your proposal must answer.
  • William Germano’s Getting it Published (eBook), which tells you not only what must be in your proposal, but also gives you an inside perspective into how editors will “hear” what you say.

2. Your book proposal will be read by academics in your field.

Reality: This is only partly true. Your proposal will initially be read by an acquisitions/commissioning editor, who might have a Ph.D., but usually is not (or no longer) a professor. In any case, think of her as an intelligent expert on your field (publishing trends, big conversations, etc.), not necessarily a practitioner in your field.

If you are proposing your book for a series, it will then likely be read by your series editor, who is a senior academic. If your editor likes your proposal, she might also ask reviewers to review it and your sample chapters. Finally, your book proposal will be part of the package the acquisitions editor presents to the editorial board, who might be academics, but not necessarily in your field. So, you need to make sure your proposal presents your book to intelligent non-academics, academics in your field, and academics not in your field.

Further Reading: “What’s the difference between an acquisitions editor and a series editor?”

3. Your book proposal is one set “thing” you will submit to multiple presses.

Reality: While you will write one stock proposal as a general template, you will need to tailor your proposal for each press in two different ways. First, each press has its own proposal submission guidelines. So, you will need to revise your stock proposal to meet those guidelines. Second, each press has its own specialties and lists. You will need to tailor your proposal to highlight why your book is a good fit for areas where the press excels and convince the editors why it would be a good addition to their existing lists.

Further Reading:

4. Your book proposal will get you an academic book contract.

Reality: For first-time book authors, this is the exception rather than the rule. Some presses might issue an “advance contract,” which effectively secures the first opportunity to send the full manuscript out to peer reviews, once it’s done. This “advance contract,” however, does not obligate the press to publish your book if peer reviews of the full manuscript are not positive. Additionally, an “advance contract” does not mean much for tenure and promotion purposes at research-focused institutions.

Usually, an editorial board will only award a full book contract to an author (especially a first-time author) based on at least two positive peer reviews of the entire book manuscript.

Further Reading:

  • Learn more about what happens when in the book publishing process in my posts “The Seven Stages of Publishing Your Academic Book: Challenges and Tips” and my post outlining my own timeline from dissertation to book.
  • During a panel on book publishing in philosophy, Oxford University Press editor Peter Ohlin states that while editors’ policies can vary widely, he typically only offers book contracts to first-time authors after seeing a complete draft of the manuscript.
  • In that same panel, Princeton University Press editor Rob Tempio, on the other hand, states: “for first books, we tend to prefer a full manuscript, but we do often sign up something to an advance contract particularly if we are very keen on a project and want to secure an exclusive commitment to review and publish the final manuscript.” He notes that in his case, an advance contract “is contingent upon final approval by a peer review process of the final manuscript.”

5. You should write and submit your book proposal as early as you can, usually as soon as you have two solid sample chapters ready.

Reality: This advice can be good for some authors and extremely unwise for others, especially if they are writing a book based on a dissertation. Most authors of first academic books know not to submit proposals to presses based on an unrevised dissertation. But many believe the most efficient path to publication is to revise two chapters quickly and then submit proposals.

The problem, though, is that revising two chapters might not have forced you to evaluate and update some of the critical book-level elements, including argument, scope, and narrative arc.

In other words, you might have two solid chapters, but they might merely be two of five independent chapters that do not develop a coherent book argument. Or, your chapters might be solid, but the work you believe your book will do might be inconsistent with its actual scope.

So, having two solid sample chapters ready might not be the best benchmark for whether you are ready to write and submit book proposals.

Further Reading:

  • My article on working ON your book before working IN it teaches you how to do some of this critical book-level work that prepares you to understand–and later pitch–your book as a book.
  • Award-winning book author Lori Flores’s article on writing a book proposal gives slightly different advice: “don’t wait too long to approach publishers.” Note, though, that she, too, recommends that you do the important book-level work first, not merely polish two chapters.
  • I guide you through targeted and tested activities to distill your critical book-level elements (distill your main claims, assess your scope, and construct your narrative arc) at my dissertation-to-book boot camp.

Your Turn

Which myth surprised you most? Or, have you received advice about the proposal and are wondering if it’s a myth?

Let me know in the comments below.

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