Writing an Academic Book, Part III: Getting Your Proposal Accepted
After a lengthy hiatus caused by other obligations, I am back with the third installment in my series of posts about how how publish an academic book. In Part I, I summarized the criteria that can help you decide whether you want to write an academic book in the first place. Part II addresses the issue of how to choose a publisher. Let’s assume you’ve decided you do want to publish a book, and you know where you want to publish it. In this post, I cover the hard part: how to persuade the publisher to actually accept your idea.
Obviously, your success will in large part depend on how good your idea actually is, and also on your standing in your field. The better your proposed book project, and the more prominent an academic you are, the better your chances of getting publishers (especially topnotch ones) to accept your idea. I can’t—at least in this post—tell you how to do good scholarship in your field, or how to become a big-name academic. What I can do is how to increase your chances of getting published, holding these two crucial variables constant.
In my first post in the series, I summarized my qualifications for offering advice on this subject. Here, I will only reiterate that I have extensive experience both submitting and reviewing academic book proposals. I’ve had multiple books accepted by well-known publishers. But I’ve also gotten my share of rejections, which I have tried to learn from.
I. Some Basic Mechanics of Submission
There are two standard ways of submitting a book project to an academic publisher: you can send them a completed manuscript, or a book proposal outlining what you are going to do. The advantage of the manuscript approach is that you will probably only have to do one round of consideration by the editor and by peer reviewers. If you get a proposal accepted, the publisher will likely do another round of review of the completed manuscript later (once you have that done). It’s rare for a publisher to reject the completed manuscript after they have previously accepted the proposal. But it can and does happen, occasionally.
The biggest advantage of the proposal strategy is that it’s far easier and less time-consuming. You don’t (yet) have to have an entire book, just a brief description (perhaps 10-12 pages) of what the book is about. Moreover, if the editor and/or the peer reviewers, recommend changes and improvements, it’s a lot easier to work them in at an early stage in the project than to do so after you already have a complete manuscript. Finally, if the worst happens, and the project turns out to be a flop, you will lose a lot less time and effort on a failed book proposal than if you write an entire manuscript, only to find out that it’s unpublishable.
Once you have your book or manuscript, the best way to submit it is to get the name of the subject-matter editor at the publisher you want to submit it to and e-mail your submission directly to him or her. You can often find the name of the relevant person simply checking the publisher’s website. Most academic publishers have editors who specialize in different fields, such as law, social sciences, history, and so on. You can also sometimes find out the right person to submit to by asking other scholars in your field, who have published books with the relevant press.
The key is that you are more likely to get serious consideration for your idea if you e-mail it directly to the editor than if you try to send it to some other official at the press, or—worse still—try to send it by “snail” mail.
Many people will tell you that you should submit to only one publisher at a time. But, for reasons discussed in my last post, it will often make sense to submit to three or four simultaneously—but no more than that.
II. Drafting Your Proposal
If you submit an entire manuscript, the publisher’s decision is likely to come down to the quality of the manuscript itself. So most of the advice here is about the proposal route. However, many of the things that should be included in a proposal should also be included (in shorter form) in a cover letter that you submit with a complete manuscript.
There are many different ways to organize a proposal, and some people will tell you that theirs is the One True Way to do it. Bill Frucht of Yale University Press describes one helpful and relatively flexible approach here.
The truth is that successful proposals come in many different formats. There is no one structure that is always best for everyone. Still, a successful proposal will generally include answers to the following questions:
1. What is the book about?
This may seem obvious. But all too many authors still don’t get it. If your proposal doesn’t clearly describe what the main thesis of the book is, the editor and peer reviewers are likely to be confused about it. And if they are confused, they are probably g
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