10 Quick Ways to Work on Your Book Proposal

In between childcare, Zoom meetings, and general pandemic freakouts

Has anyone else had that line from the Hamilton soundtrack—“the woorrllld turned upside do-ooown”—in their head for the last 10 days? Just me? Well, it’s a weird time. I feel like a lot of us are oscillating between the modes of “stop talking about productivity, I have no time or mental capacity to do anything!!!” and “ugh just give me something to read about or think about that isn’t how we’re all going to die or lose our jobs!!!” If you’re in the first camp right now, go ahead and shut this email and ignore me. If this newsletter happened to land in your inbox when you were in the other mode, read on.

Something I’ve kept at the front of my mind as I’ve designed my upcoming book about book proposals (the full manuscript due in less than a week, ahhh!) is that most academic writers can’t realistically allocate a big block of time to working on any one project, let alone a book proposal. This is the kind of thing that gets crammed in as bits and pieces of work over the course of a semester or summer, between teaching, other writing projects and research tasks, administrative obligations, and of course a million other personal commitments. My handbook breaks the process of crafting and pitching a proposal into 20 discrete tasks, but even those may be too much to ask of people who are just trying to hold it together during a pandemic. So this newsletter is about giving you 10 low-stress things you could do to make progress on your book proposal or just distract yourself from all the dire what-ifs that may be swirling around your head right now. Only if you want to!

  1. Scroll through websites of scholarly publishers you’re considering submitting to. Just poke around and see if you like the way their book covers look. Can you easily navigate the site to find books by topic and field? Are there some recently published books that you could picture next to yours on a reader’s shelf? If you find yourself saying yes to these questions, add those publishers to your list of possible targets.

  2. Start following acquisitions editors on Twitter. A lot of them are still talking about publishing and many have announced that they are arranging virtual meetings with prospective authors they would have met at upcoming conferences that are now canceled. If you’re struggling with the isolation of social distancing, you might enjoy the chance to talk about your research with someone who could get excited about it.

  3. Write a comp blurb for a book that you see as having a similar audience to yours. Note the publisher and year of publication (stick to ones published in the last 3-5 years if you can). Try to sum up that book’s value in a sentence or two, then sum up what will make people want to read your book if they’ve already read that one. Bang out a handful of these blurbs over the course of a few days and you’ll have a good comps section for your proposal.

  4. Do some free-writing about your project. Try to answer questions like “how did I get started writing about this topic?”; “Why is this topic important to me?”; or “What’s the best story from my research?” You can later mine this writing for material when it comes time to really draft your prospectus or intro chapter.

  5. Play around with your table of contents. Try different arrangements of the chapters and see if you can figure out which arc works best to take readers from point A to point B. If you need to do something tactile, write out the chapter titles on note cards and move them around to see what order you like the best. Take a picture with your phone when you find something that works.

  6. Choose images for your book. You could go through the photos you took during fieldwork or an archive of public domain images that might work to support your content. (You could start with the New York Public Library’s Public Domain Collection, which has over 180,000 images.) Start keeping a folder of the ones you might want to use.

  7. Fantasize about cover design. When it comes time to submit your final manuscript to your publisher, your editor may ask you for some direction on the cover. Think about images or elements that would work well. What colors and layouts are you drawn to? Are there any book jackets you’d like your designer to look to for inspiration? Start keeping a list of examples now and you’ll save yourself this step later.

  8. Figure out a word count for your book. Maybe you’ve been working on your chapter drafts in a bunch of separate files and you’ve never taken the time to total up how many words your whole manuscript is likely to comprise. This is a tedious little task that might distract you from the news for 15 minutes.

  9. Come up with a list of suggested reviewers. Who would you really love to get feedback on your project from? When an editor wants to send your proposal or manuscript out for peer review, they may ask you for some names. These shouldn’t be people you’re close to personally or professionally—no bosses or former advisors or co-authors—but they can be people you’ve met who have shown interest in your work.

  10. Build a website (or update the one you already have). My book proposal handbook is going to have 50 or so “time-tested tips” sprinkled throughout the chapters, and the very first one is to make your book project findable. You can make sure the front page of your website has all the info an editor would need if they were interested in approaching you about your book. A lot of people use Squarespace, Wix, or WordPress, and I find that messing around with website design and content is an easy rabbit hole to lose myself down when I can’t concentrate on other kinds of work.

Hope these ideas help, fam. My children are screaming in the other room, so I’d better get back to it. Stay safe!

If you want to work on your academic book proposal for-real-for-real, you can sign up for my online Book Proposal Accelerator, which is still scheduled to run from May 1st to June 18th. Some enrollees have requested to download all the materials early—because they’ve found themselves with a lot of time on their hands right now—and I’m happy to accommodate that if you’re in the same boat. You can use the curriculum to draft your proposal and then have access to the online forum and live Q&As when May rolls around. If you have any questions, let me know! If you want to go ahead and sign up, you can do that here.