How to Describe Your Academic Book Project
This works for book proposals, job materials, grant applications, you name it.
This week I’m sharing a template for the “project description” or “book overview” section of an academic book proposal. The project description is just one part of your book proposal, but it’s the part that gets an editor interested, so it’s arguably the most important thing to get right when you initially submit. As with all my templates, this is not a formula that you absolutely have to follow in order to land a contract. It’s just something I’ve come up with after working on lots and lots of proposals with clients. Use it as a starting point if you’re lost or a revision tool if you’re stuck.
Here’s the structure (each bullet point corresponds to a paragraph, more or less):
Hook + a statement of the book’s big takeaway
A more detailed statement of the book’s central argument and conclusions
What’s at stake? Why should your findings matter and to whom?
The evidence and methods you use to build the book’s argument
The general structure and narrative arc of the book
Your target audience and why your target press is a good fit to reach that audience
The hook can be an intriguing episode from your research or a particularly vivid or familiar real-world example that readers can relate to. It should be something that illustrates the big thing you want readers to take away from the book. Then say what that big thing is.
In the next paragraph, take a few sentences to lay out the book’s main arguments. Here’s where you also give away the book’s conclusions. Yes, you should give these away up front. Editors and reviewers need to know what the book contributes in order to assess whether it’s a contribution this press should publish. If you don’t make this clear from the outset, readers may wonder if you really have something to argue or contribute at all.
Then explain why the findings in the book matter. A good way to do this is to highlight the consequences for human actors. Depending on your topic, you might also/instead be revealing consequences for animals or the environment, which is also fine. This paragraph should answer the question of what readers will know, believe, or be able to do as a result of this book.
Next you can talk about the Stuff in the book. What sites, objects, or texts do you analyze and how? Give the reader a sense of what you’re basing your argument on and how you arrive at your conclusions. Notice that this is a description of methods, not methodology. You do not need to justify your methods here, just describe them. If the book uses a truly innovative methodology that will advance your scholarly field(s), then you can make the case for that here as something that will interest readers. But most books don’t do that (and that’s ok—don’t claim it if it’s not true).
The general structure and narrative arc is the story of how you get from Point A to Point B over the course of the book’s chapters. Don’t list every chapter and describe its contents here! That is boring, and it doesn’t necessarily tell readers how it all works together to serve a larger purpose. (To me, listing the chapters or topics instead of giving a more macro overview of the book’s structure is a red flag that we may be dealing with a dissertation that needs further digestion.)
Here’s an optional paragraph I didn’t include in the list above: you can maaaaybe talk in a more meta way about how the book contributes to or intervenes in a scholarly field, especially if you’re doing theory. Personally, I think that the reviewers should be able to figure this out without the explanation, but it might be something you want to communicate to the acquiring editor and their editorial board (who won’t all be experts in your field). Don’t make this a slog through the literature, though. Pick out a few key concepts or theories that your work builds on and adds new, exciting layers to. Notice I said “builds on” and “adds.” This is not the place to put down other scholars or theories, because the people you talk about might just be your reviewers. And don’t spend too much time on this, because it’s easy for your voice to get lost when you dwell on other scholars’ ideas, and you want to demonstrate to editors and reviewers that you have a strong voice people will want to read.
Finally, I think it’s nice to describe the main audiences you are trying to reach and why they’ll find the book useful. Sometimes a press’s proposal template will ask for this information in a separate section from the project description, but I think including it here shows that you have fundamentally conceived the book with readers in mind. Bonus points if you can explain why your target press is the right place to reach those readers.
I like this structure because someone can kinda stop reading at any point and still appreciate what the book is about and why it’s important. Ideally, your writing here will be compelling enough that an editor doesn’t want to put it down, but if you can get the point across quickly, that can start the gears turning in an editor’s head about how they will make this project work at their press.
If you’re planning to write a book proposal this year and could use some help, check out the Book Proposal Accelerator I’m running from June to August. It’s a 12-week online program that will provide you the structure and guidance to produce something you can feel confident pitching by the end of the summer. I’ll say more about it in a future edition of this newsletter, but you can learn more or sign up now at manuscriptworks.com/accelerator if you’d like. I’m also here for one-on-one feedback if that’s more your jam. Questions? Reply to this newsletter or email me anytime!