A Book Proposal Is Not a Defense

So don't write it from a defensive place

Here’s a thing I see a lot when clients come to me for feedback on their scholarly book proposals: they seem to be at pains in the description to show how intellectually rigorous their project is and how it “fills a gap in the literature.” I totally get why this is a thing scholars do in book proposals. Most of your previous experiences presenting, explaining, and justifying your work in the academy have been shaped by those questions of rigor and originality. If you’re a first time author, your dissertation defense may be a fresh memory, and it’s easy to feel like the ways you framed your work for your committee would be helpful in framing your work for acquiring editors.

The thing I think people forget (or don’t get taught) is that acquiring editors are not your committee members, and they don’t care about exactly the same things your committee members did. It’s an editor’s job to care about different things. When an acquiring editor learns about a new book project, they are immediately thinking about whether other people will care about your topic and be compelled by the questions you are asking about it. That’s because an editor’s job is to connect authors with readers, not to evaluate how smart or hard-working their authors are. An editor might form a private opinion about how smart or hard-working you are, but that opinion won’t matter one way or the other if they think readers will be interested in what you have to say. If you approach an acquiring editor at a scholarly press with a serious book proposal, that editor will probably assume your research was rigorous and you’ve done all the relevant reading. So you should proceed from that assumption as well when you sit down to write up your project. Don’t belabor it in the proposal itself.

What are the implications of this principle for the content of your project description and cover letter? You can sum up your methods and the literature you are drawing on quickly, even passingly. You can definitely lose the several paragraphs where you explicate your theoretical framework and name all the big names. Focus on the stuff that’s in your book, and let the way you talk about that stuff communicate the theoretical framework. Put your efforts toward clearly articulating your argument, because a strong argument can be easily communicated in promotion materials for the book and will drive readers to it. Same goes for the stakes of your findings—show how your research matters to real people, and the readers who will care about your findings will crystalize in an editor’s mind.

But isn’t there room to do it all in my proposal?, you might ask. Can’t I talk about theory and methodology and the literature and convey a strong argument with clear stakes? Yes, you may be able to do that. But I have found that most authors who get bogged down in the weeds of theory and methodology and literature in their proposals are writing from a defensive place. They’re still writing for their committee or the department they hope will hire them or the expert readers they’re afraid will poke a million holes in their life’s work. That’s not a pleasant place to be writing from (I can say from personal experience), and it’s certainly not a pleasant place to read from. When you write your proposal as if you’ve held a different kind of reader in mind—an intelligent person who wants to hear what you have to say about an interesting topic—oh hey, that sounds a lot like the kind of people who work at scholarly presses!—the writing flows better, the material becomes more lively, and an editor can see how you will write for the people who will one day buy your book. Who will hopefully number greater than the number of people who sat on your dissertation committee or even the number of people who are expert enough on your topic to poke holes in your life’s work. You’re not writing for those people (anymore). Enjoy it.

We’re talking about connecting with editors in the book proposal accelerator this week. Later in the week, the newsletter will explain why filling a gap in the literature aka “this is the first book about…” is not the best way to connect with an acquisitions editor (usually). See you then!