How to Format Your Book Proposal

A key challenge for a lot of people working on a scholarly book proposal is simply getting started. If you’ve never written a book before, you may have never encountered an actual book proposal in your life. (Once you publish a scholarly book, you may be asked by presses to peer review other people’s proposals, in which case you’ll start to encounter a lot more examples. After the point at which you most needed to see them, naturally). This post is therefore about giving you a place to start.

You might have a document where you’ve been doing some free writing about your book project, or maybe you’ve written up a description for a job/fellowship/grant application. You might be tempted to start with that but I say no! Open a new, blank document. This is your prospectus document. You’re going to put headings in it and some empty lines between them, and boom, you’ll have a skeleton for your first draft. Then you can fill it in one piece at a time (copying over from that other document if there’s good stuff there). Soon you’ll have an actual first draft of a book proposal ready to start talking about with editors.

What are the headings you should be including in this skeleton? The short answer is: check the formatting guidelines from your target publisher. Publisher websites usually have a tab with information for prospective authors (it might buried in the site menu somewhere, so be prepared to dig for it). They’ll usually list the elements they want to see in a proposal and you can treat each of those as its own section in your document.

If for some reason you can’t find specific instructions, here’s a good basic list of elements that appear in most scholarly book proposals:

  • Working title

  • An overview of the book

  • A description of the intended audience(s) for the book

  • A list of comparable books on the market

  • A complete table of contents plus chapter descriptions

  • Manuscript specifications, e.g. number and type of images, estimated word count

  • Current status of the manuscript, i.e. how much of it is presently complete and ready for peer review, an estimated date when the whole thing will be complete and ready for peer review

  • Author bio/CV

If you cover all of this, you’ll probably provide enough information for an editor to assess whether your project is a fit for them. If the fit looks good but they need more information, they’ll ask you.

Some proposals also include additional elements on top of the ones in my basic list. For example, some presses will specifically ask you to provide the names of expert scholars who could serve as reviewers of your work. Some will want you to specify how much of the book’s material has been previously published and where. Some will ask for a sample chapter or two or a separate CV document to accompany the prospectus. If your target publisher specifically asks for an item with the proposal submission, obviously you should include it. If they don’t ask specifically, you can make a personal call whether to include it or not. (Don’t send sample chapters or a manuscript unless the editor asks directly or the submission guidelines say to do so.)

If you’re reading this list and thinking “great, now I know what the headings should be but I have no idea how to fill in the content,” I encourage you to look back through the archives of this newsletter! I’ve covered a lot of it over the past year. If you’re looking for a place to start, try here.

We cover all of these items and more in the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator. The January 2020 session starts tomorrow (January 3rd) but you can still join it if you are in a rush to get your proposal drafted in the next four weeks or if you would like to use the materials on your own over the course of the spring semester and just join for the Q&As this month. The next offering of the accelerator will likely be this summer (dates TBD, but probably an 8–week session). Tell your friends!