The Basics: Writing a Book Proposal

by Anna Blanch on November 15, 2010

The Basics consists of general and introductory advice for research tasks and professional development, like using research libraries, reading and notetaking, submitting and presenting conference papers and journal articles. This post considers the elements of writing a book proposal
In a post on St Eutychus, Nathan shared a lecture by Michael Bird on The 8 elements of a Non-fiction Book Proposal. I share these notes (edited slightly here as part of the basics series with some additional references. I’ve also posted on Why you should seek to publish as a (Christian) Scholar? in this series.

Prepar­ing Your Submission
Step 1. Get ready for rejec­tion. If you can’t han­dle rejec­tion do not try to pub­lish books.
Step 2. Write a pro­posal. Don’t bother with unso­licited manuscripts.

Writ­ing a Proposal
Pro­pos­als look a lit­tle some­thing like this:

  • Title
  • Short bio of yourself
  • Sum­mary
  • Audi­ence
  • Need
  • Com­pet­ing volumes
  • Poten­tial endorsers
  • Word Length
  • Sub­mis­sion Date
  • Sam­ple Chapter

Get­ting the Pro­posal heard

  • Meet an edi­tor — net­work like crazy, meet peo­ple, schmooze. You’re incred­i­bly unlikely to be pub­lished via an unso­licited man­u­script. Your chances dra­mat­i­cally increase if you know the pub­lisher. The edi­tor has to believe in your project over and above the other projects on the table. They have to sell it to their edi­to­r­ial col­leagues and the pub­lish­ing company. [Conferences (especially the large ones) are often the place where you will have most contact with acquisitions editors or their representatives.]
  • Con­sider the mar­ket, ethos, val­ues and the­ol­ogy of the publisher. [Do your homework on the other books they have published in the last 5 years and their list of forthcoming titles making sure you’re not duplicating anything or proposing something that would be in direct competition with one of their current titles.]
  • Be will­ing to make changes. Nego­ti­ate on the size, the scope, the con­tent, the audi­ence – every­thing is on the table. [If something isn’t negotiable then you need to decide if this is the publisher for you and whether you’ve miscalculated in your pitch].
  • Be pre­pared for it to be a long process filled with cor­rec­tions, proof-reading, endorsers, indices, reviewers.

Be Pre­pared for…
Some more things to be ready for in the process:

  • A long delay wait­ing for a response, it’s ok to make enquiries about the sta­tus of your pro­posal after a few months.
  • Rejec­tion. [One of my professors shared 43 rejection letters that he received for his first book]
  • Work and fam­ily com­mit­ments, your cir­cum­stances can change which will effect deliv­ery dates.
  • Edi­tors can be bru­tal, there’s a dif­fer­ence between an aca­d­e­mic super­vi­sor and an edi­tor. Super­vi­sors want you to pro­duce defend­able work, edi­tors want you to pro­duce mar­ketable work.
  • Copy edi­tors can be incompetent
  • Pub­lish­ers can change stuff
  • Crit­i­cism in reviews

In the writ­ing of books there is much sor­row, mainly for the authors. Bird writes because he learns the most in the pub­li­ca­tion process. Autonomous learn­ing is the goal of any Chris­t­ian schol­ar­ship. The first ben­e­fi­ciary of the process is your­self, but it’s good to see oth­ers. Writ­ing is an avenue for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the debate, being part of the con­ver­sa­tion, it’s fun.

How the blog inter­plays with books
Bird says that start­ing a blog was one of the best things he ever did. In the year after sub­mit­ting his PhD he got sev­eral knock­backs. The blog opened doors with pub­lish­ers (they even took him out to lunch). Some posts now prompt emails from publishers. The blog has been great for bounc­ing ideas off peo­ple. and nut­ting out ideas. [I wonder if it’s a little self-reassuring to include this section on this blog – but that’s what Nathan said Bird said, so….]

Other Resources
Some of these resources go into more detail about the elements of the proposal that Bird identifies above.
Submitting a Textbook proposal to Oxford University
University of California Press Book Proposal Guidelines
Routledge Information for Authors
How to Write a Book Proposal – Cambridge University (Department of History and Philosophy of Science)
Book Proposals – Purdue Online Writing Lab
Submitting a Proposal to the Academic Division
Ashgate Proposals for Humanities Authors

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD candidate in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is also a weekly contributor to Transpositions. You can read the rest of the posts in The Basics series here.

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