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Compiling an academic book proposal for edited collections and monographs is an essential step in getting your work published but, the first time I had to fill one in, I found it really difficult to work out what to include or how to frame it.
This is because a book proposal asks you to move from being a writer to being a publisher or bookseller and, initially, I didn’t know that much about publishing. Having published multiple books with four different academic publishing houses now, I find the book proposal process much more straightforward.
Each publisher has its own proposal template, sometimes called an ‘Author Questionnaire’. Surveying my old proposals, I saw a lot of variation in how the questions were asked and what was included, and there are quite different expectations again for novels and popular non-fiction. Your series editor, supervisors, and mentors are all excellent allies for getting it right for your publisher and your project. You might find it useful to ask for an example of a good proposal to model your first applications on.
Here are some other considerations and strategies for your book proposal:
The big picture
Academic publishing produces high-prestige books that retail for hundreds of dollars each. They often have indistinguishable covers and very descriptive titles. Unlike a mass market book that is trying to entice a single reader to pick up a volume on a whim (needing a memorable title and eye-catching cover), academic books are mostly sold to university libraries who subscribe to the series, or make one-off purchases as requested by a researcher. You therefore need to focus your sales pitch on the quality of your work and how well it fits into an existing series.
In order to get a contract, your book is competing internally with other potential manuscripts submitted to that publisher, and externally with other books already on the market. You know why your book is important and how it contributes to knowledge. In the proposal, you need to explain that to others who don’t have the same depth and familiarity with your field or your manuscript.
A book proposal document is considered at a commissioning meeting, which may include editors, marketing, production and sales teams. I find it helpful to see each section of the proposal as speaking to the questions different teams bring to that meeting.
The title should ‘look like’ a book title at that publisher. Survey the titles in the series you are submitting to and copy that style. It's a very basic way to show everyone that your book fits. Academic titles are often quite long and descriptive - make full use of your title and subtitle.
Sample and overview
You will typically be asked to include about 3 sample chapters from your book. The overview often looks like an detailed contents page. These sections should be quite quick to produce as you will usually have already written the manuscript, or collated the chapters. However, you should obviously make sure that the manuscript is well written and edited. You should also make sure the sample chapters follow the press’ requirements for formatting. The sample and overview sections are for your commissioning editor or publisher, who knows the field and wants to identify if your work is high quality. They will be sending it on for peer review, perhaps using their own networks, and perhaps asking you for recommendations for who they should be approaching.
You will always be asked for a synopsis...
...but may also be asked for a rationale, key words, or other descriptions of the project. The marketing team is looking for descriptions that will make sense to a librarian or undergraduate student, as well as ones that will be attractive to other researchers in your field. These words will end up as the blurb on your back cover, on the website, as metadata in library catalogues, and in any marketing materials. Start by including words that you would type into Google or a library catalogue to find this book for your literature review or class reading list.
For the back cover and website, you are likely to be asked for an author bio of about 50 words describing your affiliations, qualifications, research area and other relevant publications; and the names of a couple of high-profile researchers in your field to write a sentence or two of praise to endorse your book.
Images, number of pages, etc.
Almost no academic books sell beyond the existing market, so there is only a set amount of money that a book can make. A complex and expensive book reduces the profit margins. This section is for the production and sales team, and they would both like to keep extras to a minimum.
Unlike a PhD, the following things make a book more expensive and difficult to produce:
- Longer books are more expensive to print, store, and ship, so publishers will generally balk at a 150-thousand word book (70-100K is more typical).
- Images on photo paper, or in colour, make your book way more complicated and expensive to print. You may even be asked to contribute to costs yourself over a certain number of images (and you will need to pay for permissions for reproducing images, lyrics or other material).
- Any visual element (figures, tables, maps, images, boxes, etc) is harder to fit onto a page while maintaining the flow of the text. Footnotes are similarly harder to format than endnotes.
- Typesetters and copy editors don’t always have expertise for specialist material like mathematical symbols, music notation, non-Roman script, poetry, etc. unless you are with a specialist press.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include any of these include these elements in your book but think about which ones add value and are worth the hassle.
Readership and competition
These elements are highly relevant to the sales team and they are something of a balance. On the one hand, you want to show that people do read books about this kind of topic, and on the other you also want to show that your book is not exactly the same as another book that came out last year.
You don’t have to prove your book will be a bestseller or do in-depth market research, but you do have to let the publisher know that it will be relevant to researchers and students in your field across the world. How do you prove that there is an audience for your book?
This is where your conferences and professional societies come in handy. Your book might be useful as a subject set text. For a monograph, a few chapters previously published as articles also shows there is interest in your work. High impact journals and large international conferences make this point very easily, but you might also mention media interest, being a 3MT finalist, or social media stats.
The competition section should have about 5 or so books in it—it’s not a comprehensive reading list! The main audience for your academic book is other researchers, so if they aren’t publishing about your topic, they probably aren’t reading about it either! You should select high-profile and recent books where possible. Do particularly point out similar books published by that press, as it tells them they are already publishing in that area. If you don’t have any direct competition, select books that are broadly similar; explain how your book is similar, but also how it brings something new.
If you’ve already done the hard part of putting together a book, over time the proposal will become a straightforward job. It can be an inspiring opportunity to imagine the book you worked so hard to write actually reaching librarians and readers.
I'm grateful to Dr. Leigh McLennon, a publishing editor who has worked with both trade and academic books, who was consulted about this blog post. Leigh points out that a book proposal “is like a job application form, in the sense that it should be tailored to meet the criteria for the press you’re 'applying' to”. Similarly, she points out that you should only be applying to presses that actually publish books in your area!
--------------------------Research Degree Insiders. She has won an academic award for her work on Thesis Boot Camp at the University of Melbourne.
Her research interests are literature, musicology, cultural history, and academic writing. Katherine is on Twitter @katrinafee.