Guest Post: Writing the Book Proposal

Today’s guest poster, Craig W. Gill, is the Editor-in-Chief and Assistant Director of the University Press of Mississippi. He has worked at the Press for more than 17 years and has served in publishing for almost 25 years. He acquires primarily in American history, Southern history, Caribbean history, folklore, and music, as well as regional books on Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Gulf South.

10419036_10206199988895624_9006360509666085073_nAlmost all university presses prefer to first receive a proposal from a potential author, rather than a full manuscript. Alas, no editor anywhere has the time to read the huge number of manuscripts that come our way, and the situation would be even worse if we attempted to read manuscripts from every potential author seeking a publisher. This makes the proposal an ideal introduction to a topic and a crucial step in the process towards publication. Although an author may have chatted with an editor prior to submitting a proposal (if not then I urge you to get to an academic conference and chat up editors in the exhibit hall), the proposal is the first formal representation of a book project from the author to the publisher.

Most presses have standard guidelines for proposals. For example, the University Press of Mississippi guidelines can be found here. These guidelines request the following material:

  • An overview of the project (approx. 2,500 words), explaining how your work will fit into, and add to, current literature on the subject, and which makes clear the project’s central argument
  • A chapter outline, with roughly 400 words devoted to each chapter. For scholarly monographs and single-author nonfiction, the outline must show how the chapters build cohesively to support the argument. For a proposed essay collection, the outline should include an overview of the volume’s introduction, an abstract of each of the essays, and a list of the contributors and their affiliations. Again, the outline should show how the essays all connect to the subject of the book.
  • One or two completed chapters or essays
  • Anticipated length of the manuscript (in words), and the anticipated date of completion
  • Preliminary bibliography
  • The number and type of illustrations, if any
  • A résumé or curriculum vitae

Every scholarly publisher uses similar guidelines. In order to make your proposal stand out in a good way, you should strive for more. In this regard, the cover letter is crucial. Not only does the author need to explain the scholarly importance of her work, but she needs to demonstrate an awareness that the publisher will eventually want to sell copies of a book. Who is the audience for the book? Faculty? Graduate students? Undergraduates? The educated lay reader? Libraries? How does the writing style and organization of the book reflect the perceived audience? Where might the book be reviewed or adopted? What is the competition? How many different academic disciplines might be a target audience? Does it fill a hole in the existing scholarship and how? Think about marketing! Remember that the editor must “sell” a project to his or her colleagues, so provide the tools for doing just that.

At the same time, be realistic. Do not try to spin a tale of selling millions of copies to a giant audience around the world that cannot wait to hear the latest scholarly analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of meaning and structure in graphic novel representations of early American history. Editors are savvy and so are their colleagues. Tell the truth. If you have a great scholarly book then state the case for the importance of your scholarly argument. University presses publish scholarly monographs and we know how to successfully publish important books in our areas of interest, even if the total sales for a given book are 300 copies rather than 3000, or 3 million. Play to the strengths of your book and have confidence in it.

Those are general comments. Let me now lay out some very basic things that far too many authors get wrong.

  • Think about the publisher and what they publish. Do not send the University Press of Mississippi your quantitative economic history of colonial America. Mississippi does not publish economic histories of that nature. Do send your proposal for a book on comparative slave societies in the Caribbean and the U.S. South. We publish in all aspects of African American history and have a series in Caribbean studies. Do the necessary research, on-line, at the local bookstore, or in a conference exhibit hall, to know which publishers are interested in the kinds of topics you want to publish.
  • Get the names right! Especially if you are sending a proposal to more than one press please, please take the time to put the correct name of the editor and the press on your cover letter and anywhere else where the names occur. The editor at Mississippi is not impressed by your letter to the editor at Massachusetts, and vice versa.
  • More names! Find out the name of the editor at the press who acquires books in your specific area. This is easily done on the various press websites or at the library with the directory of the Association of American University Presses, And get the names right. I am Craig Gill, not Greg Hill. If you do not know the gender of the editor then make no assumptions. Carelessness in your approach sends the wrong message about your scholarship.
  • Do not send any editor, anywhere, your unrevised dissertation. If your dissertation is great, and if you have a clear and well-thought-out plan for revising that dissertation into a book manuscript, then you can give an editor that revision plan as part of a proposal that might include a sample chapter or two from a dissertation. Every academic should assume that every dissertation needs revision to ensure its successful transformation into a book.

And now allow me to stray slightly from the proposal to a few more general observations.

  • Endnotes are better than footnotes.
  • Pay attention to the word count of your manuscript. If the word count, including every piece of text, notes, or references, is greater than 90,000 words, why? Brevity and succinct writing are proving unfortunate casualties of the digital age.
  • If the word count of your notes is greater than or equal to the words in the main text, then you have a problem.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style is fine, but so is any reasonable generally accepted style book. Just pick one and be consistent.
  • Illustrations cost the author time and money because they often require permissions. What illustrations, if any, do you really need? And can you provide them as high-resolution digital files? (Not lousy screen grabs.) Who holds the rights to these images?
  • Do not seek permission until you are sure you need it. Scholarly fair use exists but the moment you ask for permission, you are indicating a belief that permission is required.
  • And finally, when in doubt, ask for advice. Colleagues, senior scholars, and editors are all happy to answer questions about possible projects. It is part of the job.

9 responses

  1. This is excellent advice. Especially important is researching the publishers you’re interested in submitting to before sending in a proposal; if they don’t represent your genre of work, you sending in your proposal will just be waste of your time and theirs.

    And don’t send in unrevised dissertations! In the immortal words of my research advisor: a dissertation is not a book. Seeking the advice of on-campus writing services, faculty advisors, and other contacts in academia can help you revitalize your dissertation into something more appropriate for publication.

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