The 8 Key Elements of an Academic Book Proposal

Hello newsletter reader! I’m glad you’re here.

If you haven’t written your first book yet, you may have never encountered an actual book proposal in your life. (Once you publish a scholarly book, you‘ll start getting asked by presses to peer review other people’s proposals, in which case you’ll start to encounter a lot more examples, after the point at which you most needed to see them, naturally.) Without having seen a successful book proposal before, you may be stuck on where to start yours. This post is meant to help you by laying out the common elements that your proposal should include if you hope to publish a book with an academic publisher.

My favorite way to start a new piece of writing is to get a framework in place. Once I know the different elements I need to include, it’s that much easier to work on the document piece by piece and plug stuff in as I find time to make progress on it. The centerpiece of your academic book proposal will be a document called a prospectus. I’m going to tell you the headings you’ll be putting in this document, so that you’ll have a working skeleton to build on as you develop your proposal with your own specific content. Soon you’ll have an actual draft of a book prospectus ready to start talking about with editors.

Most academic publisher websites provide information for prospective authors, including guidelines for submitting a book proposal (that info might buried in the site menu somewhere, so be prepared to dig for it). The publisher will usually list the elements they want to see in a prospectus and you can treat each of those as its own section in your document. Don’t worry if you aren’t set on the publishers you will be submitting to yet; the requirements are generally similar across all academic presses.

If for some reason you can’t find specific instructions for your target press, here’s a good basic list of elements that appear in most scholarly book prospectuses (I’m also giving you my recommended length targets, though these aren’t set in stone):

  1. Working title

  2. An overview of the book (1200–1500 words is my suggested target)

  3. A description of the intended audience(s) for the book (a paragraph or two)

  4. A discussion of comparable books on the market (you can do this as an annotated list or as a few-paragraph narrative, aim for 4–6 titles)

  5. A complete table of contents plus chapter summaries (a paragraph or two per chapter, including intro and conclusion)

  6. Manuscript specifications, e.g. number and type of images, estimated word count

  7. Current status of the manuscript, i.e. how much of it is presently complete and ready for peer review, plus an estimated date when the whole thing will be complete and ready for peer review

  8. Author biography (a paragraph or two)

If you cover these eight key elements, you’ll probably provide enough information for an editor to assess whether your project is a fit for them. If the fit looks good but they need more information, they’ll ask you.

Some prospectuses also include additional elements on top of the ones in my basic list. For example, some presses will specifically ask you to provide the names of expert scholars who could serve as reviewers of your work. Some will want you to specify how much of the book’s material has been previously published and where. Some will ask for a sample chapter or two or a separate CV document to accompany the prospectus as part of the full proposal package. If your target publisher explicitly asks for an item with the proposal submission, obviously you should include it. If they don’t ask explicitly, you can make a personal call whether to include it or not. (Don’t send sample chapters or a manuscript unless the editor asks directly or the submission guidelines say to do so.) 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!

If you’re reading this list and thinking “great, now I know what the headings should be but I have no idea how to fill in the content,” a good place to start is this post on project descriptions and the other posts I’ve linked in the list above. You can also look back through the archives of this newsletter, which has a lot of tips to help you out. Once you have the framework in place, your original ideas can shine out from within it.

If you’d like a little more hands-on help developing your proposal, you might be interested in my Book Proposal Accelerator for academic authors. The next session will run January 8 to February 25, 2021. That’s a few months away at this point, but knowing how overwhelming the fall is about to be, it may be perfect timing for you if you’re just starting to think about your proposal now. If you’re subscribed to this newsletter, you’ll be the first to find out when enrollment opens for the winter session.

Client shout-outs

Morgan Ames’s book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) received the Best Information Science Book Award from the Association for Information Science & Technology. I recently started watching Silicon Valley on HBO, and if you like that show I think you’ll appreciate Morgan’s sharp and grounded critique of technological utopianism in this book.

You can now get your hands on Melissa Brough’s Youth Power in Precarious Times: Reimagining Civic Participation from Duke University Press. The proposal and sample chapters for this book were among the first projects I worked on after launching my editing business, so it’s really nice to see the book in its fully realized form after all the work Melissa has put in.

Coming up

There’s about a month left to sign up for the course I’m teaching this fall, Introduction to Academic Developmental Editing. It’s the course I wish I’d been able to take before I launched Manuscript Works five years ago. It’s open to working freelancers, in-house staff at academic publishers who want more training on developmental editing, and academics who are contemplating editing as a career switch or side gig. There’s a syllabus and welcome video here, if you’d like to learn more. You can also reply to this email with any questions you might have about the course. Hope to see a few of you there!