How Does a Book Idea Become a Manuscript?

Part 1 of my own story

I celebrated a big milestone in my current book project last week: I turned in a complete draft of my book manuscript to my editor at Princeton UP. I can’t really celebrate properly in the midst of a global pandemic, but I’m delighted to have it not on my desk anymore. To be clear, this is a “complete draft,” not a “final draft.” Many steps still lie between this one and me being done-done with the book. For newsletter readers who have never published a book before, I thought you might appreciate having the curtain pulled back on what happens during this process, so you can see what those steps look like. I’ll plan to keep you updated as things proceed, but for this post I thought I’d bring you up to speed on what’s happened so far.

So I’ll start at the very beginning, before this book was even an idea for a book. Way back in June of 2018, I created a document on my computer called “Book proposal feedback compiled.” It was, as the name suggests, a simple compilation of all the feedback and advice I’d found myself repeatedly giving to clients who had come to me for editing help on their book proposals. I literally went through all the editorial letters I’d written for clients and copy-pasted stuff that came up over and over into this new document. My idea was just to use this for myself to make it quicker to write subsequent editorial letters for new clients: instead of reinventing the wheel when I needed to give the same feedback, I could just paste from this master document (which ran about 25 pages, single spaced).

By January/February of 2019 (after I returned from a 3-month maternity leave) I was thinking about other ways I could use this material. Maybe create a digital pamphlet that I could let people download for a small fee? I wasn’t sure. I posted in a Facebook community I’m part of where editors support each other in growing their businesses (it’s run by Malini Devadas, who is great). Several of my fellow editors offered ideas and encouragement, but I still wasn’t sure what to do. In February, I ended up having a one-on-one coaching session with Malini, who guided me to some concrete steps I could take to make use of the material I’d generated. First, she suggested I start a newsletter where I could share some of my info freely with people who were interested. (You’re reading that newsletter right now, of course.) Then she thought maybe I could turn the material into a course or online group, and add value to it by providing direct support to scholars working on book proposals.

That idea turned into my Book Proposal Accelerator, of which I planned a pilot session for summer of 2019. I spent March, April, and May working on the curriculum. From the initial material I had compiled, I created a 12-module course to guide participants through every facet of a complete book proposal, plus some background on the academic publishing process so they could understand why the proposal looks the way it does and what the expectations are around it. This involved quite a bit of research and writing (plus the help of a graphic designer), resulting in a full curriculum packet that runs 122 pages.

While I was working on the Accelerator curriculum, I was keeping up the newsletter, posting about once a week, and generating a good amount of interest among authors and acquisitions editors. The subscriber numbers kept growing, which was encouraging (if you’re an original subscriber from back then - thank you!). The Accelerator got a lot of sign-ups, which was also encouraging and reinforced my sense that there was a real need out there for guidance on scholarly book proposals.

Excitingly, an acquisitions editor at a university press reached out to me that spring to say he enjoyed my newsletter and to ask if I’d thought about writing a book. Note: this email somehow landed in my spam folder and I didn’t actually find it until a few days after it came. CHECK YOUR SPAM FOLDER REGULARLY. I ended up chatting with the editor by phone about a month later to talk about a few book ideas I’d been kicking around in my head; he really liked the idea of turning the Accelerator curriculum into a book. He asked when I could send him a proposal. I said July and got to work.

So by summer of 2019 I was running an online course for scholars working on book proposals while working on a proposal of my own. The first module in the Accelerator is all about finding the right publishers for your work, and I knew that I wanted to talk to multiple publishers to find the best possible home for the project. I researched presses and by June came up with a list of three I intended to send the proposal to, including the press of the editor who had reached out to me. I selected the other two presses based on their existing strengths in books related to publishing and higher ed, because I knew they would already understand how to market this book to the people I wanted to reach.

My initial list did not include the publisher I ended up signing with, by the way. In the online forum for the Book Proposal Accelerator, I had asked participants to share their own lists of target presses as they worked through the first module. I was a bit apprehensive to share mine, but I decided to walk my own talk and post my list too. One of the participants had just recently met with an editor at Princeton UP (Peter Dougherty, former director of the press and currently an editor at large, acquiring in the area of higher ed) and thought my project might be interesting to him as he was currently working on acquiring skills-focused books for scholars. My Accelerator participant made an email introduction in late June and it turned out Peter was indeed interested in my project. I added Princeton to my list.

By early July, I’d finished a draft of my book proposal and was almost ready to send it out. I posted about it on Twitter, and another editor DMed me to say he’d like to look at it when I was ready. I added his press to my list and sent out the proposal and sample chapter to acquisitions editors at all five publishers in the second week of July.

I’ll stop the story here because it’s already running pretty long. Next time I’ll tell you how everything went down after I submitted the proposal to the five presses. But if I can leave you with a takeaway from this first phase of the story of my current book project, it’s to put yourself out there! Talk about your project even before you know what it’s going to be. Share things that make you nervous to share. You never know where opportunities will come from, and you might make a chance connection that ends up becoming very important later.

The online Book Proposal Accelerator is still going strong. After that pilot session in summer of 2019, I ran two more sessions, one in the fall and one this past January. The fourth session will be starting in less than a month, and you can still enroll if you want to! All the info + an enrollment form is here, and you can always ask me questions about the program by replying to this email or chatting me up on Twitter.