1. Your book proposal will only be read by academics in your field.
This is only partly true. Your proposal will be read by several audiences, only some of whom will be academics in your field. So, your book proposal needs to be legible to both specialists in your field and intelligent non-academics.
Typically, the first person to read your proposal will be the acquisitions editor (or “commissioning editor” in the UK), who might have a Ph.D., but is not necessarily a professor. Think of her as an intelligent expert on your field (publishing trends, big conversations, etc.), not necessarily a scholar in your field.
If you are proposing your book for a series, it will then likely be read by your series editor, who is a senior scholar in your field.
Finally, your book proposal will be part of the package the acquisitions editor presents to the press’s editorial board, which consists of faculty not necessarily in your field.
- “What’s the difference between an acquisitions editor and a series editor?”
- “Academic Book Series: What You Need to Know“
2. Your book proposal is one set document you will submit to multiple presses.
While there are certainly more or less standard pieces to academic book proposals–and, consequently, the way you represent your project in these sections will be similar–each press has its own proposal submission guidelines. These can range from requiring authors to download, complete, and submit a Word document template with detailed prompts (like Liverpool University Press); asking authors to respond to specific questions on a web form (like Indiana University Press); or leaving the proposal more open-ended with varying degrees of structure (compare MIT, the University of Nebraska Press, Princeton University Press, and Chicago University Press). While some of the material will be similar–if not identical–in proposals for different presses, you will likely need to tailor where (in what section) and how (length, among other factors) you present this material for each press.
Further Reading & Viewing
- “Academic Book Proposals: All Your Questions, Answered“
- Watch the part of the roundtable “Publishing Your First Academic Monograph: Advice from Editors” I hosted with editors from Liverpool University Press and the University of Nebraska Press as part of the 20th- and 21st-Century French and Francophone Studies Colloquium where editors discuss what “proposals” mean at their presses.
3. Your book proposal will get you an academic book contract.
Your first book will almost certainly not receive a full book contract–especially with a university press–based on a proposal (and sample chapters) alone. It might, though, receive an advance contract (sometimes called a “pre-completion contract”), which effectively means that the press wants the exclusive rights to send the full manuscript out to peer reviewers once it’s done.
This advance contract, however, does not require the press to publish your book if peer reviews of the full manuscript are not positive. Additionally, an advance contract does not mean much for tenure and promotion purposes at research-focused institutions.
Usually, an editorial board will only award a full book contract (meaning the press is committing to publish the book) after the full manuscript has received at least two positive peer reviews.
- “Will a press give me an advance contract?“
- “What Can You Negotiate in a Book Contract?“
- “What Does ‘A Book’ Mean for Tenure?“
4. You should write and submit your book proposal as early as you can, usually as soon as you have two solid sample chapters ready.
I frame this distinction differently. You certainly can write and submit a book proposal after you have two solid sample chapters done. However, the mere act of revising two chapters might not have forced you to evaluate and update some of the critical book-level elements, including argument, scope, and narrative arc. Instead, if you take this route, you might end up drafting proposals for a book that is merely a collection of disconnected chapters.
“But,” you protest, “my mentor/colleague/editor said I should draft the proposal to ‘think through the book’. So, after drafting my sample chapters, the proposal will allow me to refine my argument and articulate my book’s narrative arc.”
As I outline in my essay “Against Using the Book Proposal to Rethink Your Book: Why and How to Work on Your Book Instead,” I think the proposal mode is ill-equipped for this task. Namely, the proposal “requires that an author present a compelling case for the project and justify its component parts—a stance assuming, a priori, that the author has rigorously and systematically explored a variety of possibilities and made deliberate choices” (143–44). Writing a proposal, in other words, effectively closes off your book when you should instead be opening it up and evaluating its key features (like chapter order, scope, and source base).
So, I highly encourage you to complete the highest-order work on your book first. Then, you can draft or revise at least two of your chapters to fit your plan, before writing your book proposal.
- “When Should You Submit Your Book Proposal?“
- “Revising Before You Write: How to Work On Your Book.“
- The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook walks you through revising your project before you spend dozens of hours drafting a proposal.
5. Your book proposal is only about your book–its ideas, arguments, etc.
Discussions about your book’s claims and significance are your proposal’s core. But successful proposals must also address other factors, like its audience, how it fits into the larger intellectual landscape of your field, why you are the person to write this book, and why now is the time to write it.
- Laura Portwood Stacer’s “What Goes in An Academic Book Proposal: 8 Key Elements You Should Cover” for the basics and her The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors for in-depth academic book proposal support.
- Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor, which, while geared toward non-fiction (not necessarily academic) authors, nevertheless lays out the main questions–both about your book and about you–your proposal must answer.
- William Germano’s Getting it Published, which tells you not only what must be in your proposal, but also gives you an inside perspective into how editors will “hear” what you say.