Nothing seems to stress authors of first books more than this question: when should I write and submit my academic book proposal to university presses?
When I was writing my own first book, the resounding answer my mentors gave was: wait until the full manuscript is done.
For a while, this seemed like good advice. But over time my thinking has changed.
The advice to wait can be critical for some authors. But I now know that there can be significant advantages to proposing your book earlier and disadvantages to waiting.
In the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution—only advantages and disadvantages.
So, below, I first tell you when you should definitely not write and submit book proposals. Then, I help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of submitting proposals before the manuscript is done and the risks and benefits of waiting.
First, What Not to Do
Don’t Revise Two Chapters, Then Draft and Send Proposals
Many early-stage dissertation-to-book authors think about the proposal incorrectly. They know they will need to write book proposals at some point and that many presses require two sample chapters. So, they take what they think will be the shortest path. “If a press requires two sample chapters for the proposal, then I’ll just revise two chapters so I can send a proposal,” they think.
This is a recipe for disaster.
Specifically, revising two dissertation chapters does not help you produce a coherent book.
Instead, it’s important to do what I call “working on” your book. The core work involves distilling your book’s core claims, clarifying its structure, and defining how each chapter tangibly advances your book-level narrative. None of these can be accomplished merely by revising chapters. And you need to revisit these dimensions before revising the chapters to ensure that your chapters align with your book.
(Want a complete guide to working on your book? Check out The Dissertation-to-Book Workbook!)
Don’t Use the Proposal to Rethink the Book
You might have been mentally protesting while reading the above section. “But what you describe is precisely what the proposal is for, right? I lay out the book’s core work, explain its narrative, and summarize what each chapter contributes. So, if you’re saying I need to do the higher-order work first, can’t I just draft the proposal and then revise two chapters?”
Maybe, but I think the proposal mode–which asks you to present your project confidently–is antithetical to “working on” your book. Specifically, the proposal asks you to justify decisions you might not have interrogated. It closes down the book at the precise moment you should be opening it up.
I lay out my thinking in more depth and give you actionable prompts and exercises for rethinking your book project in my 2021 Journal of Scholarly Publishing essay.
Now, How to Think About What to Do
Let’s assume that you’re now convinced. You’re going to work on your book. Then, you’ll revise your chapters to correspond to your book-level plan.
But I haven’t really answered your question yet: when should you think about drafting and submitting proposals?
The real answer is: it depends.
First, let’s consider presses. Some—like Liverpool University Press and the University of Nebraska Press—can offer advance contracts, so, they invite authors to submit proposals early. At these presses, editors are happy to support a project that might need work.
Most presses, though, invite proposals within 6–12 months of the manuscript’s completion. So, you’ll first want to get information on your target presses and their preferred time to receive proposals. You should review your presses’ websites, ask recent authors at your target press, and potentially also ask editors at conferences.
Once you have a better sense of your target presses, you’ll want to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
Advantages to Submitting Proposals Before the Manuscript is Ready
When I was writing my own first book, I thought there were only disadvantages to submitting proposals before the manuscript was ready. Specifically, I thought my proposal would merely be speculative fiction, and wouldn’t be able to accurately capture my book’s actual claims.
But, having served as a peer reviewer for book proposals in my field, I now know that there are definite advantages to submitting proposals early. Namely, the press I review for views peer review of proposals as a formative step. Reviewers are asked to not only assess the project’s merits, but also to offer suggestions the author might keep in mind while preparing the manuscript. So, if a press sends proposals out for peer review, submitting proposals before the manuscript is complete can generate valuable feedback you can keep in mind while revising. (Laura Portwood-Stacer, author of The Book Proposal Book, also offers similar advice on her blog and in Chapter 12 of her book.)
Second, some presses offer advance (or, rarely, full) contracts at the proposal stage. If external deadlines motivate you—rather than fill you with dread—submitting proposals (and receiving an advance contract) can offer external accountability. (Yes, you can usually negotiate an extension if necessary).
Finally, in certain situations, submitting book proposals before the manuscript is ready can be more efficient. Some top university presses can take 3–4 months to review proposals. So, submitting a proposal 3–4 months before the manuscript’s completion can reduce the time your manuscript is not progressing.
Disadvantages to Submitting Proposals Before the Manuscript is Ready
That said, there are definitely downsides to submitting proposals before the manuscript is ready. First, since parts of your book are not yet complete, your proposal will necessarily involve some speculation. (Most presses expect the book to change, so don’t fret if you think the proposal might not be quite right.)
Second, while it’s not incredibly common, it’s possible that the editor to whom you propose the book might no longer work at the press by the time the manuscript is ready. If your book is not under contract, you could find yourself in a tricky situation.
Finally, if you propose your book entirely too early—before you’ve really done the work on your book I describe above—your project itself might have major problems. For instance, you might be writing what editors perceive as two different books for two different audiences. While some presses would be happy to work with authors to develop promising projects with major flaws, not all are.
Advantages to Waiting Until the Manuscript is Ready
Just as there are advantages and disadvantages to submitting proposals early, there are risks and benefits to waiting. First, when I waited to write the proposal until the book was ready, I was confident that the proposal accurately captured what my book actually did (rather than writing speculative fiction).
Second, my cover letter and proposal stated that the book was complete. All other things equal, a completed manuscript, which an editor can act on immediately, can make your project slightly more attractive to acquisitions editors.
Finally, if your proposal looks solid, the editor might decide to skip full peer review of your proposal (at presses where this is common practice) and proceed directly to peer review of the manuscript instead. As a result, you can potentially save 1–3 months (though see the caveat in the disadvantages section below).
Disadvantages to Waiting Until the Manuscript is Ready
What I didn’t realize when I was working on my first book, though, was that there were several disadvantages to the strategy I chose. First, while you might save 1–3 months at presses that normally send proposals out for peer review, you might be left waiting to hear back from presses for 3–4 months after submitting proposals.
Second, above I underscored that peer review of book proposals (and sample chapters) often result in formative recommendations the author can use to improve the book. For instance, I’ve supported authors who, post–peer review of the proposal, have been asked to add a chapter or rethink the structure of their book. Had they waited to submit the proposal until the full manuscript was done, they might have spent months revising a chapter that reviewers could have told them to cut much earlier. So, waiting until the manuscript is ready can be risky: you might prepare a book whose flaws could have been pointed out—and remedied—much earlier.
Finally, if you submit book proposals when the manuscript is ready (and say so in your materials), the next logical step for an interested press to take is to ask for your manuscript. If you submit proposals to many presses simultaneously and one press asks for the manuscript quickly, you can find yourself in the tricky situation of wanting to wait to assess interest without putting off the interested press. If you find yourself in this situation, do consult with a trusted mentor.