The subject line of this post is one of the most commonly asked questions I get about book proposals and publishing. (Seriously, I have a spreadsheet where I track the questions, and I’m pretty sure this is the one that appears most frequently on it.) If we were talking about trade publishing, the answer would be easy: Yes, you should write and pitch the proposal first (plus a sample chapter or two) because that’s all anyone will expect to see for you to sell a serious nonfiction book to a publisher. And you wouldn’t want to spend years working on a book that no publisher wants to buy from you. In academic book publishing, the norms are a little different, which means your approach might be a little different too.
One thing that makes scholarly publishing different from trade publishing is peer review. Most of the time (though there are exceptions), a scholarly publisher will require that submissions be peer reviewed by experts before offering a contract to an author. Some publishers prefer to peer review entire manuscripts before offering a contract. If you’re hoping to get a contract from one of those publishers, and you submit a proposal to them, all you’ll get is a tentative indication that they’re interested in the project or not. In other words, if they see your project as a plausible fit for their press, they’ll tell you to come back with a full manuscript and you’ll have to go write it. If you’re many months (or years) away from having the manuscript done, you risk the editor losing interest in the meantime.
Other publishers conduct peer review of proposals and sample chapters and sometimes offer contracts on the basis of those reviews. If you’re targeting one of those presses that will offer contracts with only a proposal and sample chapter(s), then the question falls back on your personal preferences. Here’s a little quiz to help you figure out whether you’re a manuscript-first or a proposal-first person:
Does your thinking process involve writing full drafts in order to figure out the underlying argument you want to make?
Are you fairly confident that you have a marketable topic and approach that publishers will respond positively toward?
Do you find external deadlines so intimidating that you don’t work well under them?
Can you articulate the argument, contribution, and structure of your book without having the write the whole thing?
Are you interested in getting feedback from editors and reviewers to shape the direction of the manuscript, potentially including positive reinforcement for what you’ve already done?
Do external deadlines motivate you?
Do you need a contract in hand as soon as possible for career reasons?
If you answered yes to 1, 2, and 3, then maybe go ahead and draft the manuscript first and then approach your target presses with a proposal. You’ll be ready to follow up with the full MS right away if anyone wants to see it. If you said yes to 4–7, then start with the proposal and see how far you can take it before you commit to finishing the manuscript.
Whichever route you decide to take, it can be incredibly helpful to start the manuscript-writing process by sketching out a proposal, even if you don’t show it to anyone until the manuscript is fully drafted. As the participants in my book proposal accelerator are learning, writing the proposal can force you to clarify your argument, articulate whom you’re writing the book for, and understand where you fit in current scholarly conversations, all of which can be useful lodestars as you work on the full manuscript. And if you need assistance figuring out how to write a proposal, whether you’ve written your manuscript already or not, the archives of this newsletter should help!