How to write a book proposal
You’ve found your dream publisher, and you’re ready to pitch your book. You just need to write a proposal that will convince them to publish it.
Just like journals, every press has their own guidelines for authors. Find it; it will tell you exactly what the editors want in a proposal. Most proposals ask for the same basic things, so in this article, we will review each and look at what the publisher expects to see in those sections.
Most academic publishers will ask for the following information:
- An overview of the book
- Details of the book
- A detailed table of contents
- Pedagogical features
- Market and competing titles
- Author(s) bios
An overview of the book
Let’s consider each of these items in detail. In the first section, you will provide a basic overview of what the book is about. The overview should catch their attention and make them want to read further. Think of this as the text you normally find on the back of a book or on the inside flap of a hardback book. It doesn’t need to be long, but it has to be interesting.
Details of the book
The next section in your proposal is the details of the book. The publisher needs to know the technical details of the book itself so they can start thinking about the design and cost of printing. Tell them your anticipated final word count. We use word count instead of number of pages, because the number of pages varies based on how they decide to format the book. Let them know how many graphs, photos, and other visuals you estimate including. Tell them if you want any images in color (which is very expensive and will drive up the cost of your book). If you need to get any permissions to use already published work or images, tell them what those are and whether or not you already have the permissions. Finally, let them know the date that you plan to have the finished manuscript to them.
Table of Contents
The table of contents in a book proposal is much more detailed than a normal table of contents; this should be the longest section of your proposal. The publisher will want to know every topic you will cover in your book, so you need to have a good outline of the entire thing. Of course, you can make some changes as you write the book if the outline doesn’t work out (discuss this with your editor first though).
I tend to write this part of the proposal using bullet points, but I have seen lots of proposals where the author writes paragraphs about what will be in the chapter. For my bullet points, I include every possible topic that I will include in that chapter.
Next, provide an overview of the pedagogical features of your book. Remember, this is a business, and publishers make their money off sales. For academic publishers, the biggest sales come from libraries and classroom adoption. Because of this, you want to mention any pedagogical resources that will help instructors teach your book.
Let the publisher know what disciplines and specific courses your book could be used in. Think broadly about this (I have a writing book that I know is used in Dance departments). Consider what sorts of features you look for when adopting books for your own classes, things like discussion and writing prompts, mindfulness exercises, additional references and web links, a glossary, lists of organizations. Or break-out boxes where other authors in the field provide some commentary. For a primary textbook, consider writing a test bank and slides that instructors could use for lectures. Or you might have a multi-media companion website.
Perhaps you do not want to include pedagogical features, you simply want to publish a research monograph. If that is the case, focus on what courses and disciplines might be interested in this book. You might also consider if a lay audience would be interested in it. If so, let the publisher know. That will help them decide how to market your book.
Market and competing titles
Research the book market and competing titles. We’ll start with the market. While I mentioned thinking about what courses your book could be used in, here you want to think about your audience. Is your book an introduction to the field? Is it intended for advanced graduate students, or faculty? Do you see it as a primary or secondary text in a class? Later, when your book is in production, you will probably get a marketing survey from your publisher. That survey will ask you things like which conferences should they promote your book at, and what journals to send it to for review. They will ask other marketing questions as well.
Situating your readership will help you narrow down the list of competing titles. On the one hand, people who buy books similar to yours are likely to buy your book. I am an ethnographer, particularly interested in ethnographic methodology. If a new book comes out on that topic, there’s a very good chance that I will buy it. That is part of your market–people who read similar books. On the other hand, those books are also competition, especially for course adoption. Subject matter and cost influence what books instructors adopt, and with open access resources, many instructors are no longer using textbooks at all. Actually look at books similar to yours. Highlight the ways in which those books are similar to yours and also demonstrate why yours is better. Depending on the field, this section can get quite long, but you want to show that you understand the market and your place in it.
The final section of your proposal is your biography. Think of this in terms of the author bios that are often at the end of a book. In a paragraph or two, sell yourself. Be clear why you are the person to write this book. Don’t waste space rehashing your vita. Instead, make the case that you will give them a high quality, completed product. Look at other people’s bios and learn how to sell yourself. This is not the time for modesty.
Along with your proposal, send them your complete CV as a separate document, and a writing sample if they ask for it. Usually the writing sample is a chapter of the book you’re proposing, but if you don’t have a chapter written yet, send them your best publication. If you are trying to publish your dissertation as a book, rework your best chapter to be appropriate for a book and send them that.
Sending out that first book proposal can be daunting, but you must submit your work if you want to see it published. That’s how the system works. Push past fear of rejection or fear of criticism or you will never be published. It’s that simple. And that complex. Pushing that ‘send’ button to submit your work to a publisher is terrifying and exhilarating. But there’s nothing like the feeling of holding a copy of your published book in your hands.
Jessica Smartt Gullion, PhD, is the Associate Dean of Research for the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Woman’s University, and a tenured sociologist. She has published books with The MIT Press, Routledge, and Brill/Sense, and currently has contracts for books with Oxford University Press and Guilford. Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/jessicasmarttgullion.