How to Tailor Your Book Proposal for Different Publishers

What to change from press to press and what you can leave alone

Hi Manuscript Workers,

In previous newsletters, I’ve broken down the key components of the typical scholarly book proposal as well as talked about reaching out to multiple publishers (here and here) about your project before you commit to someone. The next logical question you’d have after reading these posts might be, “Can I submit the same proposal to these various publishers, or does it need to be tailored for each one?” Here’s my quick answer to this question, in the form of a list of things you definitely should change, things you probably should change if you want the best chance of success, and things you might want to change depending on your project and who you’re sending it to.

Must Change

When submitting your proposal, you’ll be writing an email inquiry to the appropriate editor at your target publisher. Some publishers want you to write the inquiry first and wait to be invited to submit further materials; at other publishers you can go ahead and attach your proposal to the initial email. The submission instructions on their website should tell you what the publisher prefers.

You will definitely want to personalize each email inquiry you send. That means you should take care to get the editor’s name right as well as any description you’re attributing to the editor. For example, if you’re writing to the history editor at Press X, don’t accidentally say that you’re writing to them because they acquire in the area of political science (which might be true of the editor you also happen to be submitting to at Press Y).

In order to be most effective with the editor you’re addressing, your email inquiry should include a brief summation of why you’re targeting Press X. Ideally, this will go beyond the simple fact that they acquire books in your area. It’s a good idea to demonstrate that you’ve done a little more research than that and can see a fit between your book and some of the other recently published books on their list. Mention a couple of the books you see your book as being in conversation with or addressing similar readers as. You will of course mention different books when emailing editors at different presses.

Probably Should Change

There may be some additional elements of your letter of inquiry and of your proposal itself that will change from press to press. It’s possible that the same material will work for multiple presses, but I recommend at least verifying that before you submit.

Formatting. Different publishers have different submission requirements. Although the key elements of the proposal tend to be pretty consistent across presses, publishers may call them different things or ask for them in a different order. While some editors won’t really care about the headings you use in your prospectus or the order you put them in, you might as well make them conform to the press’s guidelines if it’s not too much trouble for you. An editor will probably appreciate it if your document comes in a format they’re used to seeing because it will help them find and process the information more efficiently.

Intended Audiences. Within your prospectus itself, you will be discussing the intended audiences for your book (some presses will call this readership or market). You might also mention intended audiences in your letter of inquiry. You may want to tweak this material to make sure that you’re emphasizing the best-fit audiences for the specific press you’re targeting. For example, if you’ve chosen the press because of their strengths in sociology, make sure that you say sociologists are among your primary intended audiences. To go the extra mile, explain what will make your book appealing to sociologists in particular. Play up the sociological angles of your analysis and delineate the intellectual contributions you’re making to your subfield of sociology.

Along with emphasizing your best-fit audiences, you may want to deemphasize any secondary readerships that don’t really make sense for a particular press. For instance, if you’re targeting Press X because of their simultaneous strengths in literary studies and Africana studies, but Press Y doesn’t have a dedicated list in Africana studies, you wouldn’t need to spend as much time talking about your contribution to Africana studies in your proposal for Press Y. It’s ok to mention the Africana studies audience as a possible secondary audience for your book, but if you play it up too much as a primary audience, Press Y may wonder why you are submitting to them in particular when that’s not a strength of theirs.

Comparable works. One of the tips I share in The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors is that it’s helpful if your list of comparable works—something every press will ask you to include in your proposal in some form—includes at least one recent title from the press you’re targeting. (I learned this tip from Dawn Durante, now editor in chief at the University of Texas Press. Thanks, Dawn!) You might not need to change your list if you include titles on it from all of your target presses. But it’s worth a double-check just to make sure each press you’re submitting to is represented.

You might also decide to alter your list from press to press, for similar reasons to the ones I discussed above related to intended audiences. If you are using your list of comparable works to situate yourself as participating in particular intellectual conversations (and I think you should be), you may decide to emphasize and deemphasize specific conversations depending on the strengths of the individual presses. This isn’t something that will apply to every author and book, but it’s something to at least consider before sending off your submission.

Would only change in exceptional circumstances

Other key elements of your proposal will probably stay pretty consistent. These include your title, your project description, your table of contents and chapter summaries, your author bio, your writing samples, the projected specs of your book (e.g. word count and illustrations), and the status of your manuscript and timeline for completion.

The only reason to change these elements in your proposal submissions is if there is some specific angle you think you would change in your book, should you publish it at a particular place. I can think of some occasions where this might be the case for an author—I’ve had clients who have said they would write their book differently if they were writing it for Duke University Press versus New York University Press, for instance. Another example would be if an author was pitching their book as a crossover/trade book to a particular press but as a more traditional research monograph to other presses. In that case, the different versions proposal might look quite different not only in terms of content but also in tone and style. (See my post on trade presses versus academic presses for more on this topic.)

That said, I do think it’s important to be clear on your own goals for your book, the contributions that are most important to you, and the audiences you most want to speak to. Then find the publisher who best understands and supports your vision. If you try to write your book (or proposal) based on what you think a particular publisher wants, I personally think it’ll feel less authentic and will be more of a daily struggle to produce the manuscript. Writing a book is hard enough, you should at least be writing the book you want to write (in my opinion).

I hope you now have a clear plan for what you’ll need to do with your proposal should you decide to submit it to multiple presses. I don’t want you to make too much extra work for yourself, but the additional effort that goes into tailoring your proposal for each publisher can pay off in big ways.

Have you been reading this post and thinking, “great, now I know how to tailor my proposal for different publishers, but I still have no f***ing idea which publishers I should be submitting to?” If so, then I want to invite you to the free 5-day challenge I’m running in August: Find the Perfect-Fit Publisher for Your Scholarly Book. You’ll show up with a book idea (you don’t have to have the proposal written yet) and leave with a short list of dream presses and the beginnings of your winning pitch.

I’ll say more about the challenge in this newsletter as we get closer to it, but you can go ahead and sign up now if you want. Click here for more information about how it will work and who should do it.

See you back here next week!