The Essential Building Blocks of an Academic Book Proposal

Do you know what they are (and why they're there)?

Hello Manuscript Workers,

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about book proposals, I enjoy teasing out tricky issues with authors like how to make sure their book’s thesis is compelling enough, how to showcase that their book has a compelling narrative arc, which presses they should submit their proposal to and in what order, and how to navigate the process once they have an offer in hand. But it’s always good to be reminded that the basics are important too, because at some point everyone starts with the same question “what should I be putting in my book proposal?” and the answer isn’t as transparent as it might seem.

The standard advice in these instances is to consult the submission guidelines from your target publisher. I give this advice, and it’s good advice, because you obviously want to submit the elements your publisher asks for when you’re trying to get them to consider your project. But it’s also not always adequate advice, because publishers use language that—while it may make perfect sense to people who work in publishing or who have published books before—can be opaque and confusing to newcomers. For example, when a publisher asks you for a “project description,” what do they really want to know about it? When they ask for a “market analysis” or “discussion of competing titles,” what is that supposed to look like? When they want you to provide a “short author bio,” can you use the same thing that’s on your faculty webpage or would a different kind of narrative be better in this context?

For whatever reason, I’ve always found it frustrating when knowledge is assumed and norms and expectations aren’t spelled out very clearly. I’m one of those people who’ll lie awake at night cringing over a professional faux pas from 15 years ago, even though the mistake was due to my innocently not realizing what I was supposed to say or do in that situation. Are you like that too? If so, and if you weren’t sure how to answer the questions I posed in the last paragraph, I think you will very much appreciate the three things I’m about to tell you about.

First is this quickie guide to the key components of a scholarly book proposal. It not only tells you what they are, it tells you why they’re there and what the people who read your proposal are hoping to get out of them.

You can download the guide as a PDF here or as an accessible Word document here. I personally have a copy pinned up above my desk because even I need a reminder once in a while!

The second thing I think you’ll enjoy if you’re a “just tell me exactly what the expectations are” person is The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors, in which I further demystify each of these components and many other aspects of the scholarly book publishing process. The book isn’t exactly an instruction manual, though you can use it that way if you want. As I say in the introduction, “having a sense of the present unwritten ‘rules’ of scholarly publishing will set you up to push and break them to best effect, should you decide to do so.” There’s plenty about The Book Proposal Book elsewhere in this newsletter archive, so feel free to poke around if you’re new here.

The third thing I want to tell you about is my new online program, which I’m calling the Book Proposal Shortcut for Busy Scholars. Like The Book Proposal Book, this program breaks down every step of the proposal and publishing process, providing the context and guidance you need to produce a compelling pitch for your book project. It also has an additional layer: I draw on my experience working with hundreds of authors to tell you exactly what people tend to miss or forget when they draft their proposals. I help you avoid those missed opportunities, section by section, so your proposal will shine amidst a sea of other submissions at your target publisher.


The Book Proposal Shortcut is self-paced and non-interactive, which makes it a better fit for some people’s needs and schedules than my other workshops and programs. Enrollment is now open for the pilot launch of the Shortcut at a discounted cost, but it will be closing soon. I’ll then be gathering feedback from the first group of participants before relaunching again in January at the regular cost. (Any changes I make based on the feedback will be rolled out to the pilot group retroactively at no additional cost.)

If you’d like some structured help to finish your book proposal this fall, now’s the time to put your plan in place. The Shortcut will take care of all the planning actually — all you have to do is complete the steps in order and you’ll have a draft ready within weeks.

To find out all the deets about the Book Proposal Shortcut for Busy Scholars and to sign up before enrollment closes, click the button below.

Check out the Shortcut

Any questions? I’ll be doing a whole Q&A about the Book Proposal Shortcut in a newsletter later this week, so tell me what you want to know!