Reflections on seeking a publisher 4: On writing proposals

book publishingIn my experience, proposals are more difficult and nerve-wracking than writing the book. When I work on my book, I think about the strengths and about what I can offer to people through my writing. When I work on a proposal, it’s hard not to think about the possibility of acceptance and rejection, which is rather more stressful.

In writing, I find it crucial to hold on to my ideas as a foundation and focus first, before considering other people’s interests. But for a proposal, especially, I have to speak to someone else’s interests. It’s all well and good for me to believe that I have great ideas and that everyone could benefit from reading my book, but, realistically, the editor at a publishing house doesn’t much care about me; they care about their job and about finding books that will sell, and who knows what else? If I want that editor to do something—like read my proposal, or offer me a contract—it’s important to know what they want, because that knowledge gives me a better chance of writing something that will suit that editor.

A proposal is an attempt to get someone to go along with an idea. It’s not just a description of the idea, it’s an offer of a bargain. A book proposal is a request for an exchange: the publisher gives an author the resources to turn a manuscript into a book that can be sold and their promotional and distributional recourses and abilities, and the author gives them a manuscript that can become a book. For both the publisher and the author, the hope is that the collaboration will lead to a something that sells enough to justify the effort. From a published book, an author immediately receives the prestige of having published, and may also receive some financial reward and exposure to a wider audience (I won’t go so far as to say “fame”, but certainly reputation). The publisher is unlikely to gain much prestige or fame for publishing most books (they are, of course, hoping to find those few rare big sellers, of course); their main hope is to make a profit.

Thinking about the proposal in this light focuses attention on the person who is going to receive the proposal: how are they going to benefit from engaging with the proposal’s author? That’s what the proposal is doing: beyond saying “my book is great!”, it says to an editor: “here’s how you/your company will benefit.”

If this seems obvious to you, I think you’re ahead of the game. My experience of helping other people with proposals for books and grants (and even research), is that people talk about what they are doing or who they are themselves without attempting to address the interests of the person to whom the proposal is ostensibly addressed.

Different Proposals for Each Publisher?

For me, this focus on the proposal’s intended audience makes me pay close attention to the details of how each proposal template frames its questions, as well as to considerations of what other factors I know about the specific publisher.

For me, the focus on the specific recipient strongly leads toward writing a separate distinct proposal for each different publisher. Even though I have, at times, engaged proposal writing with the intention of writing a general proposal that I could send to many publishers at once, every time I look at the specific proposal questions for a specific publisher, I want to revise my general proposal to meet the specific context provided by that publisher.

One such difference that influenced me in my recent process which related books that specific publisher had published. For the publisher with no direct competitor, I wrote about there being a market niche worth entering; for the publisher with several direct competitors, I wrote about why my book is different from the ones they already have.

Perhaps the biggest issue that forces the most revision from publisher to publisher is the order of material and how I present it. The opening of the proposal has to grab the attention of the reader, and so it’s a place where sensitivity to the reader’s interests is most crucial.  And everything that follows the introduction is shaped by that beginning and by my desire to avoid repetition.  For one publisher, I might start with a comparison to a specific book, but that would mean not discussing that book later. Or perhaps I open with a specific way of pitching my book that suits one publisher but not another. For a textbook publisher I might propose it in terms of its potential use in classes; for a more general publisher, I might propose it as more of a self-help book, and thus alter the order in which I discuss these two aspects. The differences play out through the whole proposal in terms of which points I mention first and which I mention later. Thus, even if I generally retain the same information, each proposal can be significantly different in order of presentation.

Whether or not this level of care is worth it in terms of the overall efficiency of finding a publisher is uncertain: perhaps it’s better to write one proposal and send it to many publishers. For a given period of time, do I increase my chance of getting accepted more by writing fewer proposals detailed to specific publishers, or do increase my chance more by sending out many proposals that may each have less chance of being accepted because they are not tailored to the audience, but increase my overall chance because I have more opportunities to get accepted? (I have a better chance of winning one coin toss than I do trying to roll a 1 on a normal six-sided die; but if I get to roll the six-sided die enough times, I have a better chance of getting a 1 than I do if only try to win only one coin flip.)

My sense of the importance of writing each proposal specifically for each publisher strongly influences my decision with respect to the question that I address in my next post: whether to give publishers sole consideration of your work.

Read the first installment in the series, “Reflections on seeking a publisher 1: Introduction”
Read the second installment in the series, “Reflections on seeking a publisher 2: A lengthy process”
Read the third installment in the series, “Reflections on seeking a publisher 3: Write the proposal before the book?”
Read the fourth installment in the series, “On writing proposals”


Dave HarrisDave Harris, Ph.D., editor and writing coach, helps writers break through writing blocks, develop effective writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010). His book The Concise Guide to Literature Review: Getting the Best of What You Read [working title] will be published in 2020 by Routledge. Dave can be found on the web at www.thoughtclearing.com

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.