The Easiest Way to Get Your Book Proposal Rejected

And how to avoid it!

Hi Manuscript Workers!

Last week, I published some book proposal advice over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, running down the “6 Types of Book Proposals That Don’t Get Contracts.” Surprisingly enough, the easiest kind of proposal for an editor to reject has nothing to do with the soundness of the idea, the quality of the writing, or the qualifications of the author. It has everything to do with the (lack of) fit between the proposed book and the publisher the author is targeting. As I put it in my column,

It can be tempting to submit to a big press with prestigious name recognition, but it’s important to make sure the presses you are submitting to actually publish books in your area. Otherwise, even a stellar proposal by an accomplished scholar will meet with rejection, and you could lose months while you wait around for a response.

The fix here is to do your research on scholarly presses. Get familiar with their recent catalogs and the subject areas their editors acquire in. Try to get a sense of which audiences a press is speaking to by evaluating the tone and pitch of their marketing materials (such as the copy on their websites). Make sure you can articulate what makes your book a strong fit for this particular press, and make that case explicitly in your cover letter and prospectus.

I firmly believe that doing a little homework and getting the fit right before you approach publishers to pitch your book is the single most important and efficient thing you can do to increase your chances of publication success. It's the step I have all my clients start with when crafting a book proposal and it's the subject of Chapter 1 in The Book Proposal Book (the how-to guide I recently published with Princeton University Press).

Scholarly acquisitions editors look for a number of things when they assess an incoming book proposal submission, but one of the most important is a sense of "fit" with the other books their press publishes. Why is fit so important a criterion? Scholarly publishers develop strengths and reputations in specific fields and among specific audiences. This helps them reach promising target markets more efficiently, which is particularly important for small not-for-profit presses who are trying to do as much as they can with limited resources. Editors also want to cultivate coherent, ongoing intellectual conversations across the books they acquire.

Even if an editor personally finds your project intriguing, they may not be able to convince their marketing and sales colleagues that your book is a good investment if the fit is not clear. They may also struggle to find appropriate peer reviewers, which could set you back months or longer.

For these reasons, a proposal for a book that doesn't feel like a solid fit with a publisher's existing offerings is one of the easiest kinds of proposals to for an editor to reject. As I said above, the rejection will have nothing to do with the interestingness of your project or the quality of your proposal. It just won't appear to be the best use of an editor's time to invest in, when they could be spending their finite time and resources acquiring books that make more sense in the context of the existing list.

If you want to save yourself some time and anxiety during the submission process, you can do a little legwork on the front end to make sure you've got the fit right before you start reaching out to publishers. You'll greatly increase your chances of clearing that first hurdle and getting an acquisitions editor interested in learning more about your project and having it peer reviewed. That's why I’ve created a free 5-day challenge for prospective authors to help you identify the perfect-fit publishers for your scholarly book.

Register for the challenge

When you register for the free challenge, you’ll get immediate access to my PDF handout on How to Identify Target Presses for Your Scholarly Book. Then, starting August 11th, 2021, you’ll receive a sequence of five daily emails. The emails will walk you through finding potential presses, refining your list, clarifying your goals for your book, researching the presses to determine fit, and articulating the fit in a way that will be compelling to acquisitions editors when you eventually make your pitch.

If you complete all the steps, you’ll finish the challenge with a short list of dream presses and the beginnings of your winning proposal. Even if you think you already know which publisher is right for your book, the challenge will help you speak more knowledgeably and confidently about why they should partner with you.

Over 200 scholars are already registered, but there’s no cap, so please do sign up if you think it sounds helpful. See you in August!


You have until August 1 to share your in-situ photos of The Book Proposal Book on social media and be entered into my drawing for free workshops and other goodies. This post explains:

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Hello Manuscript Workers! It’s kind of a big week over here — yesterday was the official release date of The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors and I’m in full launch mode. If you don’t know yet, The Book Proposal Book is a step-by-step guide to crafting a scholarly book proposal and seeing your book through to successful publication. It p……
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There have been so many awesome photos and posts so far (thank you!), but one of the coolest came from MC Forelle, who was reading the book in a cafe and randomly happened to be sitting next to Bridget Flannery-McCoy, an acquiring editor at Princeton University Press (and one of the people I spoke with to gather info as I was doing research for the book). It was Such an unlikely coincidence, and MC is rightly taking it as a good omen for their book project!

Thank you for posting (and reading), MC. Looking forward to more fun photos between now and Sunday!