Someone on Twitter mentioned book proposals in response to my post on planning. This is a good example of getting stuck in the plan (and then possibly getting stuck with the plan), so I thought I’d talk more about it.
What is a book proposal for?
The obvious answer is that it is the means by which you convince a publisher to publish your book.
It also provides a structure for you to figure out what book you really want to write. It is a plan.
These are not the same thing. In fact, they are really really different.
What the publisher cares most about is whether they can sell the book (even if it is to a limited run of academic libraries). They care about the synopsis, but their focus is often on the other parts of the proposal:
- who will read it
- are there any courses that will use it as a text
- what other books are out there like it
What you care most about is the synopsis. A book should have an argument that requires longer treatment but it’s hard to think that big as you are writing it. Writing an outline can help you see how to tackle a project of this size.
When do you write a book proposal?
For most academics your first book proposal will be a proposal to turn your PhD dissertation into a book. (see also Publishing from your dissertation) Thus you already have a substantial document written, albeit one that requires revisions.
Because you have done a substantial amount of writing and thinking to create the dissertation, writing a book proposal helps you make decisions. Doing the work the publisher cares about gives you some perspective on what was necessary for the PhD but not really needed for this particular audience. It also helps you clarify what the audience for the book needs that isn’t in the current version. You can then make a plan for revisions that will satisfy your needs and provide the basis for explaining to a publisher how the book will differ from the dissertation.
In other circumstances it isn’t quite as clear. Some people write proposals and get a contract before they start writing. Others wait until they have a substantial manuscript before they write a proposal. Sometimes the publisher will determine which strategy you use.
Why do you want to write a book proposal now?
This is a serious question. There is no right answer but knowing what your motivations are can help you.
Perhaps you are aware that in your discipline you need a book to get a job or promotion.
- Are you considering the book proposal as the first step?
- Does it need to be?
Maybe you’ve done substantial work and you really feel like this research needs a book length treatment.
- Does a book proposal help you clarify your ideas?
- Is this for you or for the publisher?
Or, maybe your colleagues need to see that you are serious about achieving what is an important milestone in your discipline. Writing a proposal for external consumption may be a good strategy but keep in mind that it can change as the project progresses.
Although it can seem more efficient to write one proposal that satisfies multiple audiences, in reality that’s harder than it looks. It will not be a waste of time to write a proposal just for your own guidance as you develop the book. Writing a good proposal will not necessarily make the process of writing the book any faster.
How does this relate to planning and writing?
This is where experimenting with planning can come in handy.
If you have an idea but still need to do a lot of the research and writing, it might work better if you identify the broad theme that requires book length treatment and then just start creating pieces. You might do substantial amounts of writing before a chapter outline becomes clear. That’s okay. When it does you can write an outline and flesh out a plan for revisions.
Using an application like Scrivener could be productive at this stage as it will let you write in a less structured way and rearrange what you have later.
You don’t have to stick with Scrivener right to the end. One of my clients found it really helpful for a while but at a certain point it made more sense to shift into a word processor and work on chapters. It can be really helpful at the point where you aren’t quite sure what the chapters are.
If, on the other hand, you have already done substantial work on a topic, a book proposal might help you organize your thoughts and plan more strategically how to proceed.
Step back from all the smaller pieces and the data and really flesh out what you think that larger argument is. Sketch out an outline. Drop some of what you’ve written into different chapters with notes on how it would need to be revised. See what remains to be done.
What if you have a contract and the project changes?
Talk to your editor. Seriously. Talk to your editor.
This kind of thing happens a lot. It is normal that the argument develops as you do the research and writing. Your editor would rather hear from you and talk through your ideas than have you stall on the project and then deliver the manuscript late or not at all.
Yes, there is a possibility that they won’t want to publish what you now want to write. If that happens you have choices. You can cancel the contract and look for another publisher. Or you can decide to push through with the thing that you now think is misguided.
Everything is renegotiable. Don’t make a whole bunch of assumptions about the costs of renegotiating. Talk to your editor and find out the facts. Then proceed to make a decision.
This post and its themes were included in the Scholarly Publishing edition of my published Short Guide Series. Read more about the series and purchase paperback or ebook copies here.
Want to see my book proposal, Helen Kara (includes PDF of the final proposal for Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide)
The Book Proposal Book: A Guide For Scholarly Authors, Laura Portwood-Stacer (Princeton University Press)
The Reality of Writing a Good Book Proposal, Rachel Toor (Chronicle of Higher Education)
How to Write a Good Book Proposal, the Sequel, Rachel Toor (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Interpreting Editorese, Rachel Toor (Chronicle of Higher Education), a helpful discussion of the things editors will say to you at conferences and how to make your own decisions about whether to submit a book proposal to them or not.
Proposing Your Audience: Writing The Book Proposal by Dan Berger
This post was edited July 14, 2015, additional related post added May 17, 2017. Updated November 30, 2021.