Academic Book Proposals: All Your Questions, Answered

Academic book proposals

Writing and submitting an academic book proposal can seem like a daunting task. Below, I answer some of your most common questions and offer the best resources to consult to prepare your academic book proposal.

General Academic Book Proposal Questions

What is an academic “book proposal”?

As its name implies, a book proposal is an ensemble of documents that allows you to make a strong case for the book’s publication. The common name “book proposal” elides that, while there are certain standard elements, the “book proposal” is not one standard document–or even set of documents–that you tailor to each press. Rather, each press has its own guidelines.

A proposal package usually includes:

  • a cover letter
  • a book prospectus (including information about the book’s argument its audience, and how it fits within the existing literature)
  • detailed chapter outlines or a table of contents
  • an author CV
  • 1–2 sample chapter(s).

But sometimes presses ask you to complete very targeted press-specific forms in lieu of preparing a more open-ended document. Listen to what editors from Liverpool University Press and the University of Nebraska Press have to say about proposals (click “play” to start the round table replay at the precise moment where this discussion happens):

What are some examples of how presses define academic “book proposals”?

Presses with Templatized Forms

Indiana University Press

Indiana University Press requires authors to complete an online form. In addition to answering questions about practical information, authors must upload

  • a 500-word description of the project (purpose, audience, scope, contribution, and relationship to existing literature)
  • a 200-word statement describing why IUP is an a suitable publisher
  • a table of contents with paragraph-length descriptions of each chapter
  • 1-2 sample chapters
  • a CV
Liverpool University Press

When submitting a proposal to Liverpool University Press, you download a Microsoft Word document and answer targeted questions.

Presses with More Structured Guidelines

Some presses give detailed information on the specific sections authors should address, questions to guide each section,and even guidelines regarding length. Some include:

MIT University Press

MIT University Press offers very specific guidelines for the prospectus:

  • brief description (1–2 paragraphs)
  • outstanding features
  • competition
  • apparatus
  • audience
  • market considerations
  • status
  • reviewers

In addition to the prospectus, a complete book proposal also includes:

  • a detailed table of contents
  • sample chapters
  • a CV
Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press also asks authors to structure their prospectus in specific sections, and gives length guidelines:

  • brief description (1–2 paragraphs)
  • full description (1–2 paragraphs)
  • proposed chapter outline (1 paragraph per chapter)
  • author information
  • readership
  • comparable books
  • additional information and specs
  • a CV
  • sample chapters (recommended)

Note that these highly structured proposals use slightly different terminology to describe their sections (“competition” vs. “comparable books”; “apparatus” vs. “additional information and specs”). Note, too, that some sections (like “full description” in Princeton University Press’s guidelines) are only found in one press’s guidelines, but not the other’s.

Presses with Less Structured Guidelines

Other presses’ guidelines are much less structured.

Duke University Press

Duke University Press, for instance, only states that a complete proposal includes a cover letter, a prospectus (with detailed chapter outlines), a CV, and 1–2 sample chapters.

Compare this information (“a prospectus”), for instance, to the more detailed information Princeton University Press and MIT University Press offer above.

The University of Chicago Press

The University of Chicago Press requests a proposal consisting of a letter of introduction, a table of contents, a project description, and a curriculum vitae.

The website notes that “there is no set format” for the “project description,” but that it should include an “overview of the work, a concise chapter-by-chapter summary, an account of your book’s relationship to comparable or competing works, your assessment of your book’s audience, and practical details including length, number of illustrations, and the status of the work.”

How long should an academic book proposal be?

This will also vary by press. Some presses have strict guidelines. Others do not.

The University of Chicago Press, for instance, says that a “project description” (similar to what other presses call a “prospectus”) “should be accomplished in 5–10 pages.”

The Liverpool University Press proposal form I submitted ran 10 single-spaced pages. It was broken down in the following ways (all determined by the press):

  • Brief summary: 3 sentences
  • Aims and scope of the book: 2 paragraphs
  • Contents list with detailed (minimum 400 words, per the publisher) synopsis of each chapter: 6 pages. (From what I can tell, this is abnormally long for most annotated tables of contents).
  • Strengths and unique selling points: 3 paragraphs
  • Market: 2 paragraphs
  • Competing books: 1 page composed of a bulleted list of 7 titles. Under each, I wrote a paragraph comparing my book with the book in question.
  • Practical information (length, illustrations, etc.): a few sentences

What common problems do editors see in proposals?

Editors note several common problems:

  • a lack of fit with the press (this is not a problem with the proposal per se, but rather a problem with the author’s research about the presses)
  • a terrible title (this was true in my case! Learn how to set your title up for success in this free mini-course)
  • an author’s inability to distill their argument or main claims in a single sentence
  • a lack of understanding of their book’s audience
  • an impulse to leave the “competing works” section blank (learn why leaving the competing works section blank is a mistake and what to do instead)
  • a failure to include a CV
  • tailoring fails (like putting the wrong press or editor name)

Hear what editors from Liverpool University Press and the University of Nebraska Press have to say on these exact topics (same clip as above):

What will happen if my project is promising but the editor thinks it needs a lot of work?

This depends on the press. Some might pass on the project. Others, like the University of Nebraska Press and Liverpool University Press, sometimes help authors develop their promising projects in more mentor-like ways. (Click “play” to start the round table replay at the precise moment where this discussion happens.)

What university presses should I submit proposals to? How do I know which publishers would be interested?

Presses specialize in particular subject areas. So, to get a broad sense of the presses for which your book could be a good fit, revisit your project through broad (disciplinary) lenses. Then, review your bookshelf and bibliography. Finally, close-read press websites to verify that the press publishes books like yours. If you do hope for your book to count for your tenure dossier, you will need to keep the press’s timeline in mind and ensure your colleagues consider the press prestigious.

Once you have a good sense, you can seek to speak to authors who have recently published their first book there and chat with acquisitions editors at conferences.

Hear editors’ thoughts:

Should I send sample chapters to each press I’m interested in, whether they ask for them or not?

No. Be sure to follow a press’s proposal guidelines. They will specify which documents they prefer to receive. If they do not ask for chapters with the proposal and they are interested in the book, they will contact you to request either sample chapters or the whole manuscript.

If you have sample chapters ready but the press does not ask authors to submit them as part of their proposal package, you can indicate in the cover letter that you have sample chapters ready to send.

How many publishers should I submit proposals to?

You should plan to submit proposals in rounds if your timeline allows. First, target your top choices (3–5 presses, max). If you have not heard back in about 4 months, you can proceed to your next round.

How long should I expect to wait to hear from the editor?

This will also depend on the press. Some presses (especially academic trade presses) can respond fairly quickly–within 2 weeks. Others tell authors to expect to hear within 4 weeks. Others still say a response might take 3–4 months.

What are the best resources to help me prepare a strong academic book proposal?

Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book

To say that academic book proposals are a challenging genre is to put it mildly. Not only does each press have its own definition of what constitutes a proposal, but the proposal mode–writing about our arguments and claims for significance rather than making said arguments–is hardly something that we’re taught (or get to practice). Based on her work supporting hundreds of authors draft compelling proposals for university presses, Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book is the go-to reference for academic book proposals.

You should also subscribe to her newsletter, where you can browse the backlist of advice she’s given, and peruse her blog archives.

Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor

While written for authors of non-fiction books (and not those of academic monographs per se), Rabiner and Fortunato’s book helps you understand the questions all editors ask of the book proposals that cross their desks. In particular, their chapters on “Thinking like an Editor,” “How to Write a Proposal,” and “Using Narrative Tension” helped me understand what elements create a book’s “narrative arc” and how the various pieces of a book proposal should highlight it. If you only think of your academic book in argumentative–and not narrative–terms, this book is a must-read.

Rachel Toor, “The Reality of Writing a Good Book Proposal

Academic authors have ample practice making argumentative claims in our books. But, as Rachel Toor, former acquisitions editor at at Oxford and Duke, illustrates in this essay, we often shut down when asked to make claims about our books. Consequently, we all too often default to dry information about our book, forgetting that, as Toor puts it, “a book proposal contains an invitation, a seduction, and an unromantic assessment of where you stand relative to others.” In this highly actionable article, Toor shows you exactly how to “make it easy for the editor to say yes.”

Rachel Toor, “How to Write a Good Book Proposal, The Sequel

In this sequel post, Toor shows you how to tackle the “about the author,” “table of contents,” and “overview” sections of an academic book proposal and choose the sample chapter that will get editors’ attention. Not only will her perspective as a former acquisitions editor at Oxford and Duke help you understand what, exactly editors are looking for, but her targeted questions will help you craft the most compelling case for your book (and yourself) possible.

Information on Specific Sections of Academic Book Proposals

What does “market competition,” “competing works” or “comparable books” mean?

As I explain in my longer post on your “competing works” section, this section serves three main purposes. First, it establishes that there is, in fact, a healthy market for your book (a perennial concern of editors). Second, it gives your editor an idea of your “scholarly orbit” and audience. Third, it helps you show how your book distinguishes itself from existing monographs.

What should I say about my academic book’s market and audience?

Princeton University Press puts it succinctly: “Give us your sense of the audience for this book. Is it for non-specialist, general readers? If so, on what basis? Is it for scholars? If so, in which fields and subfields? Is it for students? If so, which courses, what level, and how will it be used (as a supplementary or main text)? Bear in mind that few, if any, books fall into all three of these categories.“

If you are writing a book for promotion and tenure, you are likely writing for scholars in one of your narrow subfields, not students.

Additionally, many first-time book authors think their book is “interdisciplinary.” They might say their book is for “cultural anthropologists and historians.” Former Oxford acquisitions editor Rachel Toor, though, cautions: “believing that scholarly books will cross disciplinary lines is mostly magical thinking. Sure, historians and anthropologists could, theoretically, be interested in books on literature or sociology, but not if they’re filled with discipline-specific jargon. (“Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly”)

What about the list of potential peer reviewers? Who should I list ? Should I check with them before listing them?

The short answer is: you should list scholars with the requisite expertise to be able to both evaluate your book’s claims and the evidence you use to support them and assess the contributions it makes to its fields. And no, you should never contact potential reviewers before listing them because doing so compromises the blind review process. Presses will ask for many more names than will actually review the manuscript because they assume that not everyone will be available. For more, check out my comprehensive post on the peer reviewers list section of your academic book proposal.

Academic Book Proposals and Your Timeline

When should I submit academic book proposals?

The answer to this question is field-, press-, and project-dependent. There is no one universal “right” time; rather, there are advantages and disadvantages to proposing the book before it is done and to waiting until the manuscript is complete. In this post on when to submit academic book proposals, I tell you what not to do and how to think about weighing these costs and benefits.

Will a successful proposal lead to an “advance contract”?

This depends on the press. Some might offer an “advance contract” (or even a full contract) based on a proposal and sample chapters. Learn more in my comprehensive post on advance academic book contracts.

Should I talk to an editor about my book at a conference?

Probably so. Editors estimate that the majority of the proposals they consider (67–80+%) come from authors who were already on their radar in some fashion–primarily through conversations at conferences.

Hear what editors at the University of Nebraska Press and Liverpool University Press want authors to know about coming to talk to them at conferences:

Then, check out my comprehensive post on talking to editors about your book at a conference.

Can I submit academic book proposals to more than one press at a time?

Yes. You can submit academic book proposals to multiple presses at a time, but you cannot submit your full book manuscript to more than one press at a time.

If you are submitting book proposals to multiple presses do mention this fact in your cover letter.

Can I submit sample chapters to more than one press at a time?

Typically, if this is in the context of submitting book proposals, yes, you can, unless the publisher explicitly prohibits it. But you cannot submit your full manuscript to more than one press at a time.

As above, do mention that you are submitting proposals to multiple presses (you do not need to mention the press names).

What if my second or third press requests the manuscript, but I haven’t yet heard from my top choice? Or, what if multiple presses request the manuscript at the same time?

This is but one example of dozens of possible “what if” scenarios. Here, it is a good idea to ask mentors and senior colleagues for advice.

What if a press has awarded me an advanced contract (or has expressed interest in the full manuscript based on the proposal), but the book changes between proposal and manuscript delivery?

Editors understand that ideas evolve. If further work has caused you to radically reconceive of the project, you should contact your editor. More minor changes might not require approval. However, when in doubt it’s best to stay in touch with your editor.

Remember, too, what Bridget Barry (editor in chief at the University of Nebraska Press) said in a roundtable clip above: “I always tell my authors, nothing is set in stone.”

The one caveat editors offered was this: above all, avoid–whenever possible–significant changes in word count.

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