I quite regularly get questions about how to write a book proposal from colleagues. Given the importance of books as an often-required credential for tenure and/or promotion, such questions are to be taken seriously.
Writing a book proposal is a bit of work, comparable to writing a research paper. But two advantages are yours:
- You know what you’re writing about, as the research for the book is usually completed by the time you write the proposal. In fact, I usually only write a proposal when I have an almost-complete book manuscript that just needs some tweaking and polishing in view of publishing as a book.
- Most publishers offer a template that helps us write them in a fairly structured manner. Most of these templates are very much alike – publishers are generally interested in the same things.
Concretely, a book proposal usually needs to offer:
- A rationale for the book: why is this book worth publishing now?
- An outline of the book, preferably by means of an annotated table of contents or a chapter-by-chapter overview.
- An analysis of competition: which other books cover more or less the same field?
- A view of the potential readership: general public? Students (undergraduate or graduate)? Advanced scholars?
- Practicals: length of the manuscript, illustrations, timeline, possible permissions to be cleared, contact address and so forth.
Remember, as a rule of thumb, that a proposal should not just be a factual description of what you intend to offer the publisher: you have to offer an argument in the proposal, and it needs to be written as an argument for (a) the intellectual case you intend to build; (b) its quality, originality etc. and (c) its value for the publisher, in terms of markets, competition and so forth. What you really need is what is usually referred to as a pitch: a precise idea of who might read your book and in which ways they will read it. You write your proposal (or “pitch” it) towards this audience.
A book proposal is usually peer-reviewed, so you’ll get feedback and suggestions for revisions if applicable. When it’s approved and your manuscript is submitted and approved as well, the marketing people of the publishing house will send you a dreadful questionnaire in view of for their publicity strategy. You’ll be asked to list possible journals interested in reviewing the book, scholars in the field who can write cover blurbs (“endorsements” in polite language), courses or programs you know of in which your book can be used as a coursebook, conferences you’ll attend and so on.
So here are two book proposals, one I submitted some years ago to Cambridge University Press, the second submitted to Multilingual Matters. Some of you may recognize the books and may also be able to spot the differences between the proposals and the final product.