Academic Book Proposals: All Your Questions, Answered

Writing and submitting an academic book proposal can seem like a daunting task. Below, I’ve answered some of your most common questions and offer the best resources to consult to prepare your academic book proposal.

(Want to make sure you’re ready to start thinking about the proposal? Make sure you’ve completed the 4 Crucial Steps to Do Before Writing an Academic Book Proposal).

General Academic Book Proposal Questions

What university presses should I submit proposals to? How do I find the right academic publisher? How do I know which publishers would be interested?

University presses specialize in subject areas. So, you first need to make sure that your book is a good fit (subject, methodology, etc.) for your target presses. To do so, determine which subject area your book fits in. Then, consult the AUP Subject area grid to see which presses publish in your area. Visit the press website and peruse recent books in your discipline to make sure they publish books like yours. You can also consult your own bibliography and bookshelf to identify possible publishers.

If you hope for your book to count for tenure and/or promotion purposes, you will also need to ensure that the press is prestigious in your evaluators’ eyes. You can ask them or senior colleagues about your press’s reputation in your discipline. Also consider reviewing whether other authors, published by that press have recently earned tenure, and at what type of institution.

For step-by-step instructions on how to find the right publisher for your academic book, see my four-part series:

What documents should an academic book proposal contain?

This varies by press (see below). You should consult the specific guidelines of your target presses. 

Presses usually want:

  • a cover letter
  • a book prospectus (including information about the book’s argument its audience, and how it fits within the existing literature)
  • detailed chapter outlines or a table of contents
  • an author CV
  • 1-2 sample chapter(s). 

Other times, presses do not want to receive a prospectus per se; rather, they ask that authors fill out their own proposal form that asks specific questions about the book. See, for instance, Indiana University Press below, which mixes both approaches.

How long should an academic book proposal be?

This will also vary by press. Some presses have strict guidelines. Others do not.

Looking back at my own documents, my “project description”–a sort of template book proposal that I then modified to conform to publishers’ guidelines–was 6 double-spaced pages. It included a one-paragraph book overview, three more detailed paragraphs on how the book’s argument unfolds, a discussion of its unique features and intervention into scholarly discussions (including comparisons with “competing” works), and a paragraph about its market. Note that it does not include a table of contents (which would have made it much longer).

The Liverpool University Press proposal form I submitted, by contrast, which did include an annotated table of contents, ran 10 single-spaced pages. It was broken down in the following ways (all determined by the press):

  • Brief summary: 3 sentences
  • Aims and scope of the book: 2 paragraphs
  • Contents list with detailed (minimum 400 words, per the publisher) synopsis of each chapter: 6 pages. (From what I can tell, this is likely abnormally long for most annotated tables of contents).
  • Strengths and unique selling points: 3 paragraphs
  • Market: 2 paragraphs
  • Competing books: 1 page composed of a bulleted list of 7 titles. Under each, I wrote a paragraph comparing my book with the book in question.
  • Practical information (length, illustrations, etc.): a few sentences

What are some examples of university press proposal guidelines?

Duke University Press

Duke University Press requires a cover letter, a prospectus (with detailed chapter outlines), a CV, and 1-2 sample chapters.

UNC Press

UNC Press wants proposals to include:

  • a narrative of the project
  • a description of the audience
  • a statement on how the manuscript fits with UNC press’s areas
  • practical information about the book (length, illustrations, etc.)
  • a chapter outline or annotated table of contents
  • the introduction chapter and one body chapter
  • a CV.

Indiana University Press

Indiana University Press requires authors to complete their online form. In addition to answering questions about practical information, authors must upload

  • a 500-word description of the project (purpose, audience, scope, contribution, and relationship to existing literature)
  • a 200-word statement describing why IUP is an a suitable publisher
  • a table of contents with paragraph-length descriptions of each chapter
  • 1-2 sample chapters
  • a CV.

University of California Press

UC Press states that there is no set format for a proposal, but that they usually contain

  • a 3-paragraph (maximum) description of the book (including audience, purpose, key features, contribution to scholarship, and place in the literature)
  • a discussion of market considerations
  • a table of contents with paragraph-length descriptions of each chapter
  • practical information about word count, illustrations, etc.
  • comparable and competing works
  • status of the book
  • names of reviewers
  • a statement on your author platform.

Harvard University Press

Harvard University Press, too, does not outline any particular length or form guidelines. Instead, it says that proposals should include

  • a narrative description of the project (its argument, audience, and place in the literature)
  • a comparison to existing books
  • a summary of your professional experience
  • an annotated table of contents (including descriptions of each chapter)
  • and practical information about the book such as length, timeline, and illustrations.

They do not want sample chapters.

MIT University Press

MIT University Press offers very specific guidelines for the prospectus:

  • brief description
  • outstanding features
  • competition
  • apparatus
  • audience
  • market considerations
  • status
  • reviewers

It also asks for:

  • a detailed table of contents
  • sample chapters
  • a CV.

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press also offers more specific guidelines

  • brief description
  • full description
  • proposed chapter outline
  • author information
  • readership
  • comparable books
  • additional information and specs

It also asks for:

  • a CV
  • chapter samples (recommended).

What are the best resources to help me prepare a strong academic book proposal?

  • Chapter 5 of Germano’s Getting it Published (“The Proposal”) is still a helpful resource for first-time academic book authors. Do also consult individual university press guidelines in conjunction with Germano.
  • Both Harvard and MIT University Presses recommend prospective authors consult Rabiner and Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor. While intended for all non-fiction writers (not academics), it nevertheless gives extremely useful insight into what they consider the “5 Major Questions” each academic book proposal should answer (chapter 2).
  • Rachel Toor’s “The Realty of Writing a Good Book Proposal” and “How to Write a Good Book Proposal, the Sequel.
  • A more practical short guide entitled “Tips for Book Proposals” put together by Oxford UP acquisitions editor, Susan Ferber.

Information on Specific Sections of Academic Book Proposals

What does “market competition,” “competing works” or “comparable books” mean?

As I explain in my longer post on your “competing works” section, this section serves two interrelated purposes. First, it establishes that there is, in fact, a healthy market for your book (a perennial concern of editors). Second, it gives your editor an idea of your “scholarly orbit” and how your book distinguishes itself from existing monographs.

What should I say about my academic book’s market and audience?

Princeton University Press puts it succinctly: “Give us your sense of the audience for this book. Is it for non- specialist, general readers? If so, on what basis? Is it for scholars? If so, in which fields and subfields? Is it for students? If so, which courses, what level, and how will it be used (as a supplementary or main text)? Bear in mind that few, if any, books fall into all three of these categories.

So, if you are writing a book for promotion and tenure, you are likely writing for scholars in one of your narrow subfields, not students.

Additionally, many first-time book authors think their book is “interdisciplinary.” They might say their book is for “cultural anthropologists and historians.” Former Oxford acquisitions editor Rachel Toor, though, cautions: “believing that scholarly books will cross disciplinary lines is mostly magical thinking. Sure, historians and anthropologists could, theoretically, be interested in books on literature or sociology, but not if they’re filled with discipline-specific jargon. (“Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly”)

Academic Book Proposals and Your Timeline

When should I submit academic book proposals?

The answer to this question is field- and press-dependent. Every single mentor I asked during my own process urged me to wait until the manuscript was written to submit proposals.

Having worked with first-time academic book authors, I now strongly urge them to wait until their manuscript is nearly complete, for two main reasons:

  1. Your understanding of your book might radically change after you revise your two “sample” chapters. So, the academic book proposal you prepare after having revised only two chapters might not accurately reflect what your actual book becomes.
  2. You have more to lose than to gain from submitting proposals too early. Few university presses that I know of will give an advanced contract to a first-time book author based on an academic book proposal alone. (As always, check with colleagues in your discipline about whether this is actually the case with your target presses). So, the best a press would say at this point would be “great! We’d like to see the manuscript when you have it ready.” Revising the manuscript could take longer than you’d anticipated and, in the interim, the editor could lose interest or leave the press.

For more, on this topic, see my more comprehensive post, “When should I submit my academic book proposal?”

Will a successful proposal lead to an “advanced contract”?

This depends on the press. Some might offer an “advanced contract” based on a proposal and sample chapters. This “advanced contract” should be thought of as “the right to send the full manuscript out for peer reviews.” Presses do not typically award full contracts for first books until the entire manuscript has been peer reviewed and the package has been approved by the board.

Any such “advanced contract,” then, will likely not mean much for tenure and promotion purposes.

Should I talk to an editor about my book at a conference?

The consensus among editors at reputable university presses is that the majority of the proposals they consider (67-80+%) come from authors who were already on their radar in some fashion–primarily through conversations at conferences. All editors interviewed said they do want authors to talk to them at conferences.

In all cases, editors expect a formal proposal will follow at some point, if the author and press believe the book is a good fit. About half said they prefer to receive an email in advance because their schedules are packed.

I did not speak to editors about my first book–whether at book exhibits or more formally–at conferences, primarily because I believed such conversations were almost as high stakes as the proposal, which is not the case. I also did not understand the importance of getting on book editors’ radars.

See my more exhaustive post on whether and how to pitch your book at a conference.

How do I develop connections to academic book editors?

It’s not impossible to send academic book proposals to editors “cold” (i.e. without any prior contact). Remember, though, that editors say only about 30% of the projects they pursue come to them in this way.

It’s preferable to have one of three possible connections to an editor to whom you send your proposal:

  1. a first-hand connection (usually from having met at a conference)
  2. an email to an editor on your behalf (usually from a senior scholar who knows the editor well, stating that s/he thought your book would be a good fit for that press’s list)
  3. the ability to mention in your cover letter that an established scholar (whom the editor knows) recommended you submit a book proposal to that press

Note that acquisitions editors heavily favor the first type. They say the second and third can nudge them to consider an otherwise borderline proposal, but that they will not do much more than that.

There are two main types of editors: acquisitions editors and series editors. So, you will likely connect with each type differently.

Acquisitions Editors

Acquisitions editors are what people normally mean when they say “my editor”–it’s the person employed to select the academic books the press will publish. They are usually intelligent non-academics. Not all have Ph.Ds. So, while they are intimately familiar with the disciplinary trends (since they play a major role in shaping what gets published), they themselves do not write scholarship. They usually attend important conferences to meet with prospective authors and attend panels, among other things.

Series Editors

Series editors, by contrast, are senior scholars who are responsible for helping acquire and review book proposals for a press’s specific series. Because they are professors, you might have already met series editors at conferences without necessarily knowing they were series editors.

Presenting at conferences and speaking to colleagues during breaks and at meals helps you develop first- and second-hand connections to editors. Additionally, your current colleagues and former mentors might be able to connect you with both acquisitions and series editors.

Can I submit academic book proposals to more than one press at a time?

Yes. You can submit academic book proposals to multiple presses at a time, but you cannot submit your full book manuscript to more than one press at a time.

Can I submit sample chapters to more than one press at a time?

Yes. But you cannot submit your full manuscript to more than one press at a time.

What will happen after I submit an academic book proposal?

This also depends on the press. University presses and trade presses (Routledge, Lexington, etc.) usually have drastically different timelines.

Trade Presses

Trade presses (which might not count at all or as much according to your institution’s tenure and promotion guidelines) might offer you a contract quickly upon receipt of your book proposal.

University Presses

University presses, on the other hand, might take several months to respond to your academic book proposal. If they are interested, they will request the full manuscript and send it for peer review. Depending on the reviews, you will be asked to respond formally to the reviewers’ comments, the book might be sent to a third reviewer (after which point you would respond), or your book could be rejected.

If your editor still wants to pursue the project, normally s/he will next present the whole book package (proposal, manuscript, reviews, and your response) to the board and you will be issued a contract (or your book will be rejected).

At this point, you will likely have several months to revise your book manuscript before submitting the final version.

As I show in my own first academic book’s timeline, my own “proposal to final manuscript submission” was seven months. Lorri Hagman, executive editor of The Washington University Press suggests that authors should expect it to take about a year between submitting your proposal and your final manuscript, and up to another 18 months between final manuscript submission and publication.

What if my second or third press requests the manuscript, but I haven’t yet heard from my top choice? Or, what if multiple presses request the manuscript at the same time?

This is but one example of dozens of possible “what if” scenarios. Here, it is a good idea to ask mentors and senior colleagues for advice.

What if a press has awarded me an advanced contract (or has expressed interest in the full manuscript based on the proposal), but the book changes between proposal and manuscript delivery?

Editors understand that ideas evolve. If further work has caused you to radically reconceive of the project, you should contact your editor. More minor changes might not require approval. However, when in doubt it’s best to stay in touch with your editor.

The one caveat editors offered was this: above all, avoid–whenever possible–significant changes in word count.

Further Academic Book Proposal Reading

Your Turn

What other questions do you have about academic book proposals? Ask in the comments below.

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