Bye-bye, Methods & Literature

Why you don't need to talk about them much in your book proposal

I think most scholars understand by now that an unrevised dissertation doesn’t have much chance of becoming published as a book (thank you, William Germano). Most writers who come to me for help with their dissertation-to-book conversions realize that they can cut the chapters of their dissertation that were entirely devoted to methods and methodological justification and to reviewing the relevant literature. But I think it’s important to understand not just that these cuts should be made but also why. Like so many things about scholarly book writing, it comes down to your readers.

As I mentioned a few weeks back (in “A Book Proposal Is Not a Defense”), the readership for your book (and book proposal) is much different than the readership for your dissertation. One purpose of a dissertation is to prove that you are an expert in the research methods you learned as part of your doctoral training. Another purpose of a dissertation is to prove that you have an expert-level command of the literature you read as part of your doctoral training. Your book will have neither of those purposes. That means you can spend a lot less time proving anything about your expertise and devote your full attention to proving your book’s actual thesis and showing why it matters.

Should you talk about the methods you used to conduct the research for your book at all in your project description? A little, yes, because they help situate you as an authority on your specific topic and as qualified to make the claims you make in the book. But you don’t need to get into the weeds of methodology, i.e. the reasons why you employed the methods you did. If there’s something very special about the way you conducted your research, you could mention it as outstanding feature of the book, but don’t dwell on it in the proposal. The most important purpose of the methods-and-evidence paragraph in your project description is to give the editor a sense of where in the world the book will take your readers, rather than where your research took you.

A similar principle applies to your discussion of other scholarship in the project description. Think of it this way: the purpose of the project description is to describe your project. If you are getting into any kind of sustained analysis of other scholarship—and by sustained I mean more than a few words—you’ve strayed too far from your own project. If your book builds on or intervenes in ongoing debates or areas of inquiry, you can totally mention this passingly, as a way to situate your work for the editor. But unless your book is specifically about debates or areas of inquiry, you don’t need to do much more than mention them in the description.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t credit other scholars when you are extending their ideas? Nope, not saying that. Am I saying that you should pretend you owe nothing to previous work and that you are a special genius who came up with every idea in your book yourself? No, come on. What I’m saying is that if your readers want to learn about the great work that other scholars have done (especially work by and about marginalized communities), they should be going and reading those texts themselves. So acknowledge your influences, cite them appropriately, and move on, so you can show an editor why your work belongs on readers’ shelves among those other texts.

This post is a response to the frequently asked questions I get about how much to discuss methods and literature in a scholarly book proposal. This week in the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator, we’re also talking about how long project descriptions should be, whether you need to draw contemporary connections to sell a historical project to editors, and whether research set outside the US is appealing to US publishers, among lots of other stuff. If you’d like to join the next session of the accelerator, or learn more about it, check it out here.