Hello Manuscript Workers,
Let me lead with a reminder that I have a one-hour book proposal workshop coming up in two weeks, on May 24th. You can sign up here, or keep reading this newsletter and follow the links at the end.
Today I want to talk a little bit about my core mission at Manuscript Works, which is to reveal the unspoken norms and expectations in scholarly book publishing that shape your chances of success at getting your book accepted.
People sometimes refer to these norms and expectations as a “hidden curriculum,” which can exist in many parts of academia. A hidden curriculum is like a syllabus of readings and assignments, except it’s not written down anywhere. It often feels as if others were given access to it on the first day of class while you’ve been spending the semester trying to pass without any clue as to what the instructor expects of you. In publishing, it can even feel as if there are multiple instructors all operating with their own idiosyncratic syllabus, and you’re lucky if you happen to catch glimpses of random ones at a conference panel or on social media or in your advisor’s office.
What I try to do in this newsletter (and in my book and workshops and programs) is speak about the often unspoken parts of the book publishing process. These are the parts that successful authors seem to understand but that in reality most scholars are never taught in a systematic way.
There are actually two layers to the hidden curriculum of scholarly book publishing, which we can think of as the What rules and the Why rules. The What rules are actually not so hard to figure out, as long as you know what you’re looking for. You might be aware that if you want to get a book published, you usually have to submit a book proposal to the publisher first. So you might ask your friends or advisors, “how do I write a book proposal?”
I see people posting this question on Twitter quite a lot. They tend to receive two common responses: (1) look up the requirements on your target publisher’s website and (2) ask people in your field to show you their proposals.
These are both good pieces of advice, but the problem is that in most cases these strategies will only get you as far as learning the What rules. You’ll get a list of required items to include in your proposal and you might be able to infer from other people’s proposals a vague sense of what you should be doing in yours. But you can write your proposal according to the What rules and still feel like you’re taking shots in the dark when it comes to completing the assignment. (That’s certainly how I felt twelve years ago when I wrote the proposal for my first book, a revision of my doctoral dissertation.)
In my current work with authors, I consider it crucial to go beyond the What rules and get into the Why rules. This means exploring not just what the required elements of a scholarly book proposal are, but also why they’re there. When publishers ask you to talk about X, they’re usually actually trying to figure out Y. So I want my authors to know what Y is, so they can make sure to address it when discussing X.
To give you one example, most publishers will ask you for a CV and/or brief author bio with your book proposal. You might think that they are looking for X: a list of your academic accomplishments that qualify you as an expert on your topic. That is part of what they’re looking for, but they are also trying to figure out Y: how established you are among the likely readership for your book, how visible your expertise already is, and how much potential you have to promote your book when it’s published. Understanding that Y piece helps you write an author bio that not only covers the basics of X but goes above and beyond to show publishers that you’ve got Y covered too.
When you understand the Why rules, you can not only meet the expectations of the hidden curriculum more convincingly and authentically, you can also creatively decide when and how you might want to break the What rules. You’ll also be able to integrate conflicting advice and experiences shared by your well-intentioned mentors and peers, because you’ll understand the underlying logic of their successes (which they themselves may not be aware of) and be able to apply that logic to your unique situation.
In my upcoming one-hour workshop, I’ll be covering both the What and the Why rules of writing an outstanding scholarly book proposal. I’ll break down each element of the standard proposal format and explain what publishers are really looking for in each part. Then I’ll give you ten specific ways you can level up your proposal to make it really shine in ways that most people miss (because they’ve only been thinking about the What, not the Why).
After the one-hour presentation, I’ll stick around and answer any questions you still have about writing a proposal or connecting with publishers. A recording will be made for anyone who can’t attend live.
I believe this information about the hidden curriculum of scholarly book publishing should be widely accessible, so I’m offering three different registration fee options in the hope that one of them will work for your budget.
I’m also offering free registration to anyone who makes a donation of $30 or more to striking graduate workers at the University of Michigan. Email a screenshot of your donation confirmation to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll sign you up.
A big thank you to the 30 people who have donated over $1600 to the strike fund so far! I look forward to seeing you on the 24th.
Laura for the tips and ideas. I think I will use them in the future. ❤️❤️❤️