There's No One Right Way to Write a Proposal

But there are some wrong ways

Hi everybody! This week in the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator, we were fortunate to be joined for our video office hours by Dawn Durante (@dawnd), Senior Acquisitions Editor for the University of Illinois Press. It was instructive to hear from a second acquisitions editor after our great chat with Andrew Berzanskis (@ABerzanskis) of the University of Washington Press earlier this month.

Dawn kicked off her comments with something I want all authors to understand but maybe I don’t say enough: there are many different “right” ways to write a book proposal or pitch a book to a scholarly publisher. So even when Dawn’s answers to questions about scholarly publishing might have differed from Andrew’s (or anyone else’s), it wasn’t that one answer was correct and the other was incorrect. It’s that the process can be idiosyncratic and variable from publisher to publisher or editor to editor. In some ways, this is frustrating! It means that I can’t give my clients foolproof advice or say “if you do this, you will be offered a contract.” And, let’s be honest, a lack of hard-and-fast rules can breed conditions in which social capital and entrenched systems of privilege can count for a lot in decisions about who and what gets published. But it can also be freeing, because it means that individual editors and presses have the discretion to work with authors whose projects or proposals may not neatly tick all the “right” boxes that have historically led to publishing contracts. It also means that your making a human connection with an editor can be much more important to your project’s chances of success than your achieving perfection at the proposal stage. Does that help take the pressure off a little bit? I hope so. Of course, there are some things that people do in book proposals that are just never a good look. (One of my jobs is to clue academic authors in about those “wrong” ways to write a proposal so they don’t unwittingly undermine their chances of getting published right out of the gate. These “mistakes” are usually pretty easy to avoid, if you know what they are.)

Dawn also shared with us that even within her press and her own lists, things work differently in different series. She oversees a bunch of incredible series, which you can check out here. In Dawn’s series, series editors play different roles and are involved in different parts of the editing and acquisitions process to different extents. If there’s a takeaway from that, it’s that you shouldn’t assume that just because you know how one series operates that you know how they all do. Sometimes a series editor will be your first contact when you submit a proposal, sometimes it will be an in-house acquisitions editor. Sometimes the series editor will review your work and offer you edits, sometimes they won’t. The best practice here is to follow the instructions on the series’ call for proposals. If there aren’t clear instructions, I urge clients to reach out to both acquisitions editor and series editors to find out how they prefer to receive proposals, or to submit the proposal to both sets of editors (let them all know you’re doing so, so that their work doesn’t get duplicated!).

One of the accelerator participants asked Dawn if there is anything authors routinely don’t do that she wishes they would. Again, Dawn’s answer was instructive: she said that when she meets with authors at conferences, they often feel like they have to give a 20-minute monologue to prove how great their scholarship is, but that this isn’t necessary. She noted that if an editor is taking the time to meet with you, they’re probably already inclined to think your research is interesting. So yes, you can talk about your book project during that meeting, but you can also use the time to strike up more of a dialogue with the editor. Find out what they’re interested in and how things work at their press. It’s as much an opportunity for you to suss out whether you think the fit is right as it is for them to do the same. Dawn also suggested ending the meeting by asking the editor “what’s the next step?” so that everyone is on the same page about how to move forward.

Dawn packed a lot of wisdom into our hour together; I’m sure we could have asked her many more questions after our scheduled time ran out. Fortunately, she’s agreed to come back again in January for the winter break session of the book proposal accelerator. If you’d like to join us too, you can enroll and get more information here.

I also want to spread the word about the Darlene Clark Hine African American History Fund, where Dawn asked that I direct the honorarium I offered her for speaking with us. You can find out more about it here (and make a donation yourself if you’re so inclined).

I’ll be back with more reports from the summer session of the book proposal accelerator next week. We’ll be talking Competing/Comparable Works, which is the section of the proposal that my clients seem to misunderstand the most. If you know someone who needs this info, please tell them to subscribe to the newsletter!