Sample chapters -- what publishers really want
Hi Manuscript Workers,
In my post on the essential building blocks of an academic book proposal, I said “If your target publisher asks for something and you have no idea what they’re referring to, send me an email. I’ll tell you what I think they mean!”
Well, people have taken me up on that offer, and one of the most common types of questions I get is about sample chapters. So I thought I’d tackle them in today’s newsletter.
First, a little background on the function of proposals and sample chapters. These are materials that editors use to decide whether they see promise in a project and want to see more. In some cases, if the proposal and sample chapters seem particularly promising to an editor, they may want to put the book under contract before the author completes the entire manuscript (this is called an advance contract.)
If the editor wants to move toward offering an advance contract, they will most likely need to discuss the project with their colleagues at the press and possibly get peer reviewers to endorse the submitted materials. The peer reviewers will evaluate the proposal and the sample chapter(s) and write a report for the publisher with their opinions on whether they think the author is qualified to write the full book, whether the book’s argument and evidence seem intellectually sound, and whether the material will be appealing to readers. The sample chapters must impress the editor and peer reviewers on all those points.
Now for some frequently asked questions about sample chapters:
If a publisher asks for sample chapter(s) with a proposal submission, which chapter(s) are best to send?
Send the chapter(s) that best represent the manuscript you intend to write in terms of the style you write in, the types of evidence you are analyzing, and the argument you are making. The sample chapter may be shown to peer reviewers, so you want the feedback they give you on the chapter to reflect the kind of feedback you might get on the book as a whole.
You also want the chapter to stand strongly enough on its own that editors and peer reviewers won’t say “I can’t comment on whether this will work as a book until I see the whole thing.” If they do say that, it’s not the end of the world, but it could delay the publisher wanting to move forward with an advance contract. You may need to go through peer review again with the full manuscript in order to get a commitment from the publisher.
If the publisher’s instructions don’t specify introduction versus body chapter, which is preferable?
Editors’ preferences on this vary. Some will say that they always want to see the introduction; others will say that the introduction is likely redundant with the book proposal and thus isn’t that useful. If you are already in contact with an editor, this is definitely a reasonable question to ask them (you won’t seem weird for not knowing the answer).
If you don’t feel you can ask the editor, I personally think it’s safer to choose a body chapter over an intro, because it is likely more representative of what the book as a whole will look like and will be more useful to get peer reviewer feedback on.
If the submission guidelines say to send two or more sample chapters, then an intro plus body chapter is a good combo. But if you don’t have the intro written and would rather send two body chapters, that’s probably fine too. If an editor is excited about your project but feels they need to see an intro before moving forward, they’ll let you know that. In other words, your choice of sample chapters is not going to tank your submission.
How long should sample chapters be?
There is no set length for a chapter of an academic monograph. Editors and writing advice books give varying recommendations, usually somewhere from 8,000 words to 12,000 words. I’ve worked with authors who wrote successful book chapters that were closer to 14,000 words or even longer.
The key principle to abide by is that all the material in the chapter should logically support the driving argument of that chapter and the story that chapter is trying to tell. If your sample chapter is longer than 12,000 words and you have some sections or paragraphs that could feel like tangents or nonessential information for your reader, you might consider trimming them or trying to get your point across more concisely.
For more on chapter and manuscript length, see this post from my archives: “How Long Should Your Book and Its Chapters Be?”
What if the proposal submission guidelines don’t mention sample chapters?
If your target publisher doesn’t require a sample chapter to be submitted with your book proposal, then you can hold off on sending it. If they like your proposal, they will very likely ask you to send either some sample chapters or the full manuscript. At that point, you can ask any questions you have about which chapters might be best to send along. (If you only have one or two chapters ready to send, it’s fine to tell them that too.)
If you have the sample chapter ready at the time of proposal submission, it’s probably fine to attach it with your proposal. Don’t send a full manuscript unless you are asked to by an editor, though. Even though they have the option not to open the attachment either way, it can be seen as presumptuous to send a full manuscript before it is requested.
Is it ok to submit a writing sample that isn’t an actual chapter from the manuscript? Is a journal article ok?
In some cases, editors are fine with receiving a sample of your writing that isn’t directly from the manuscript, especially if you are an experienced author seeking an advance contract for a new project that isn’t drafted yet. However, if you are a first-time book author, your editor will most likely want to see an actual chapter of your manuscript.
If you are planning to adapt a previously published journal article into one of your book chapters, it’s completely fine to use this chapter as your sample chapter. But I would strongly encourage you to revise it so that it follows the format it will have in your manuscript, rather than just submitting the journal article as is.
Some editors don’t mind receiving the sample in journal article form, but others feel strongly that they need to see how you would reframe the material to fit in the book. Again, you can ask their preferences if you have the opportunity, but the safest route is to revise first.
How should a journal article be revised when integrating it into a book manuscript?
At minimum, you should make sure the argument advanced by the revised chapter relates intuitively to the overarching argument of your book. You will likely need to rework at least the introduction and conclusion of the article to make that relationship clear.
You may also need to emphasize particular aspects of the argument that weren’t as important in the standalone journal article, or suppress some from the original article that aren’t as important to the through-line of your book. This may involve restructuring the article so that the structure works better to enhance and support your book’s argument for the reader.
The kind of revisions I just described are the sort of thing a developmental editor can help you with, if you need assistance. Which brings me to a recently recorded podcast episode I’d like to share with you!
The aim of this episode of the New Books Network Academic Life podcast was to demystify the hidden curriculum of academic developmental editing.
The host Dr. Christina Gessler and I talked about what academic authors should expect when looking for and working with a developmental editor. We also covered the differences between developmental editors and a number of other publishing professionals, including acquisitions editors, peer reviewers, ghost writers, writing coaches, copyeditors, proofreaders, and indexers.
You can find this podcast on your preferred podcast app (it dropped on August 4, 2022) or check out the episode home page here.
If you’re interested in what you hear on the episode and want to learn a bit more about how to work with a developmental editor, I also have a free webinar about that you can find here.
I also wanted to let you know that my self-paced Developmental Editing for Academics course is open for enrollment only through the end of this month.
I will be closing the course to new enrollments at the end of August. Those who are already signed up when the course closes will retain lifetime access to the materials.
This six-module course will teach you the practice of developmental editing for academic texts, explain how to work with academic clients as a professional editor, and outline the nuts and bolts of setting up a successful academic editing business.
The course is designed for working editors who wish to add academic developmental editing to their portfolio of services or tailor an existing nonfiction developmental editing practice to academic clients.
The course is also appropriate for academics with some editing experience (whether formal or informal) who are considering branching out into professional freelance editing for academic writers.
Previous students have included scholars with adjunct or contract positions who have been able to successfully transition to full-time editing after completing the course.
This course is not explicitly designed for academic writers who wish to edit their own work, though several such writers have enrolled in the past and found the curriculum useful to apply to their own academic work.
The course originated in 2019 as an offering through the Editorial Freelancers Association; I now offer it independently as a self-paced professional development program. The curriculum has helped over 150 emerging and established editors build their skills and raise their rates.
The course is composed of six modules, each of which includes a suggested reading list, brief written "lectures," and accompanying audio and video recordings. The recordings for each module average about an hour in length, so you can listen to or watch the entire course in six hours.
The topics of the modules are:
Module 1: Academic Publishing & Developmental Editing
Module 2: Approaching Texts
Module 3: Manuscript Assessment
Module 4: Editorial Letters & Hands-On Editing
Module 5: Academic Book Proposals
Module 6: The Business of Developmental Editing for Academics
You'll also get access to sample documents—real editorial letters and manuscript edits I've done for academic clients.
You can complete this course on your own schedule and in whatever order you'd like. The course materials will remain accessible to you indefinitely.
This is not an interactive course, and there are no graded assignments or feedback component. However, I will be holding group office hours on October 14th and December 9th at 10am Pacific that all participants in the course are welcome to attend. (Because I had to cancel the August office hours due to Covid, I am hoping to add a date in September as well.)
If you’d like to see what previous participants have said about the course and get all the enrollment details, check out the course page here or click the button below.
If you have a friend who gives great feedback on your manuscripts and has been contemplating a career shift or a side gig, please feel free to forward this newsletter on to them. Thanks in advance for helping spread the word about the course!