Take these steps to finish your book proposal
Hi Manuscript Workers,
My how-to posts have often been about solving a knowledge problem: you have to write a book proposal but don’t know what is expected in the different parts.
But for many aspiring authors, lack of knowledge is not the only or even the primary problem. For a lot of people, it’s the intimidation factor. It’s the mass of anxiety they’ve (you’ve) built up around this very consequential document that keeps them (you) from even starting it or having the stomach to revisit it up to the point of completion and submission.
The scholarly book proposal is a pretty short document—a good one can be done in under 10 pages, single-spaced—but the emotions people bring to it can make it feel much bigger than that.
This is why I wrote The Book Proposal Book not just as a repository of tips and how-tos, but as an intentional, step-by-step program, designed to pull readers through the process in the most efficient and (hopefully) least intimidating way possible.
If you haven’t read the book yet and are curious about the order of the steps I recommend following, here’s a general overview:
Come up with some target presses. These will mostly be publishers who have put out recent books that your book is in conversation with. Get to know their catalogues and submission requirements. Articulate for yourself why your book would fit there. This isn’t actually writing the proposal document yet but doing this first will help the proposal process feel real and targeted from the start.
Draft an email where you briefly explain your book and why it’s a good fit for your target press(es). This is just a draft for yourself. You’ll polish it later when it’s time to send it to acquisitions editors.
Write up a list of a handful of recent books that speak to the readers you’re trying to reach. Some of these books should be from your target press(es). Identify the aspects of your book that will appeal to the readers of the other books. These can be similarities or differences — your book doesn’t have to be better or more, just complementary. (This will end up being the “comps” section of your proposal.)
Write down which audiences you’re hoping will engage with your book. Are they scholars in particular fields (which fields)? Students? People outside academia? No need to overreach — a book that’s a solid fit for one or two well-defined audiences is more publishable than a book that’s trying to reach everyone.
Figure out the main thesis your book is arguing. This is harder than it sounds. Most people don’t know this off the top of their head (or can’t be succinct about it) unless they’ve put serious thought into it already. Now’s the time to do that serious thinking. You might need to read your manuscript again. What does your book explain? Not just describe or assert, but explain?
Write up a project description. A lot of people will sit down to write a book proposal and start with this step. As you can see, I recommend easing into it with the other groundwork first. (When you do get to this step, you can use my 6–7 paragraph template as a framework if you need one. It’s also in Chapter 6 of The Book Proposal Book.)
Write up summaries of all your chapters. Describe the what of the chapter but also the why. What’s the mini-thesis of the chapter and how does it serve the book’s central thesis? Essentially, why does this chapter belong in this book?
We haven’t talked about the book title yet (even though it appears first in the proposal document). Refine the title after you’ve gotten clear on your thesis and who your book is supposed to appeal to. Those factors should affect your title. You’ll need chapter titles too. All titles are placeholders and can/will change when you get further into the publishing process.
Write an author biography. Focus on things that would make your target readers trust you as the expert on your topic. Also mention the networks you’re visible in and the channels you can use to publicize the book when it’s out. This is what publishers are looking for. You don’t need 10,000 followers on social media as long as you have access to the most likely readers.
Fill in the other supporting details your target publisher asks for in proposal submissions. Most will want an estimated word count, number of images you’ll include, and date when you’ll have the full manuscript complete. Some presses request other info, so double-check their instructions.
Sometimes getting started and understanding the road ahead is the hardest part, so I hope that seeing the steps laid out like this helps the project feel more like something you’re absolutely smart enough and well-equipped to do.
In The Book Proposal Book, I break down exactly how to do each of these steps and in some cases break these steps into multiple smaller steps to help you get them done and feel like you’ve made some progress.
The book also has examples and more nuanced tips for specific situations. Additionally, it walks you through the final (scariest?) steps of actually submitting the thing and navigating the peer review, contract, production, and promotion processes.
To mark the first anniversary of The Book Proposal Book’s publication date (it came out exactly one year ago today!), I’ve developed a free printable checklist that you can use to make a plan for yourself to finish your proposal. You can download it by clicking the links below.
You can use this checklist with or without the book, though it has spaces for you to check off the chapters as you read them and to check off the steps laid out in the book as you complete them.
It also has lines for you to set target due dates for yourself. If you need to finish your proposal before teaching prep begins again, you can work backward and write in the milestone dates that will get you done when you need to get done.
If you still need to get a copy of The Book Proposal Book, you can do that through your favorite retailer or library, but I recommend ordering directly from Princeton University Press if possible. I think my discount code LPS21 should still work to get you 30% off.
If you’ve already had a chance to check out The Book Proposal Book sometime over the past year, thank you! I hope it’s been helpful for you. If you have indeed found value in it, can I ask a big favor? Could you leave a rating and/or review on Amazon right now?
Amazon is not my preferred book retailer, but I know that for many people it can be the most accessible way to obtain new books. It’s also where a lot of people discover books they didn’t know existed, and your ratings and reviews really help with that. As far as I know, you don’t have to have purchased the book on Amazon to leave a review there.
Thank you so much to everyone who’s already left a rating or review. I truly appreciate the time and effort you’ve taken to show your support and help other scholars discover this resource.
I’ll be back next week to dig into the most mysterious component of the scholarly book proposal and give you some tips on what publishers are looking for in it. See you then.