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How to write a book proposal for an academic press

academic book proposalSo, you want to turn your dissertation into a book? Or, perhaps you want to write your first academic book on an entirely different subject. Unless you are famous and have publishers soliciting manuscripts from you, you likely will have to submit a formal academic book proposal to an academic press to have a hope of publishing a book with such a press.

Many university press websites have guidelines that can help you through this process. UC Press has a good set of guidelines as does Harvard. Be sure to check the websites of the press where you plan to submit to find out if they have specific guidelines.

Here I provide generic suggestions for what should go in an academic book proposal, and then suggest a method for writing such a proposal.

A book proposal for an academic press has seven basic components:

  1. A one-page description of the book. The most important aspect of this one-page description is the argument you will set forth. Here is one example of how to do this:
    • Paragraph 1: Hook – Invite the reader into your proposal with an interesting anecdote or some surprising data.
    • Paragraph 2: State your central argument. Back it up with a few sentences.
    • Paragraph 3: State the contribution to scholarship and place in the literature.
    • Paragraph 4: Provide a brief roadmap to the book.
  2. A descriptive table of contents. Dedicate one paragraph to each chapter. Give the title of the chapter and provide a three to four sentence summary of the chapter.
  3. A mechanical description of the final manuscript. Here you say that the estimated length of the final manuscript will be anywhere from 70,000 to 150,000 words. More or less may raise eyebrows. You also should specify how many illustrations and/or tables you anticipate.
  4. A description of the audience for your book. Tell the editor who you expect to purchase your book. Will it be read only in your field, or also in other disciplines? Will undergraduates be able to understand your book? Or, is it solely directed at faculty and graduate students? Could it be used in undergraduate or graduate courses? If so, explain which ones.
  5. Describe the competition. What are the existing books in your field? How will your book stand out from these? Do you use a different methodology or approach? Is yours designed for a different audience? If any of the competing books you mention are quite similar to your own, spend a few sentences explaining how yours is distinct.
  6. How far along are you? Do you have a complete manuscript? If you do, say so. If not, say how many chapters you have completed, and provide an expected date of completion. If this is your first academic book, I discourage you from sending a proposal before you are certain you will finish the book within a year. If the publisher requires a complete manuscript, you likely want to be less than six months away from completion before sending the proposal.
  7. Who might review your book? You can provide the names and contact information of people who you think might be appropriate readers for your book.

Now that you know what the components are, it should be easier to imagine how you will write such a proposal. I suggest you start with the chapter descriptions, as those should not be terribly difficult to write. Once you have those done, you can begin to work on the introductory first page. When you get stuck, turn to the other, easier parts of the proposal. Describe the audience; list the reviewers; say how far along you are.

Once you get a full draft of your book proposal, set it aside for a week and work on the book, preferably on the Introduction. Pick the proposal back up after a week and see how it reads. Edit it and give it to a friend to read. Once you are comfortable with it, send it out to presses. You can send your proposal to as many presses as you like. Some presses even allow for multiple submission of the entire manuscript.

Reprinted with permission from Tanya Golash-Boza’s blog, Get a Life, PhD, Weekly Tips on How to Succeed in Academia and Have a Life Too