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Why book proposals get rejected
And how to avoid it happening to yours
Hi Manuscript Workers,
Have you submitted a book proposal to a scholarly publisher, feeling pretty good about the book you’re pitching, only to have them pass on it with little ceremony or explanation? Or maybe you haven’t submitted a proposal yet but you’re afraid of this outcome. Today’s newsletter will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls that lead to quick rejection from publishers.
First, I want to set some parameters here. I’m not talking about projects that an editor decides to put through peer review and then rejects because the reviews aren’t positive enough. I’m also not talking about projects that seem to make it through peer review unscathed and then get tanked by the press’s editorial board. Those scenarios do happen, and they’re incredibly frustrating, but they often happen for reasons that are beyond your control.
What I’m talking about here is “desk rejection”: an editor takes a look at your submission materials and doesn’t feel optimistic enough about the project to invest their limited time and labor into starting it through the acquisitions pipeline at their publisher.
While you can’t prevent every possible instance of this type of rejection either, you can reduce its likelihood by taking care to avoid these issues in your proposal submission:
Your proposal may not be clear enough about your “take” on your book’s topic. You may be able to say what the book is about on the surface, but you may not (yet) have articulated what contribution you’re making to the collective knowledge about that topic. The argument you bring to your topic is what makes the book uniquely yours, and it’s a major reason people will want your book versus any other book on the same subject. So spell this out for your editor.
You may have a take/argument that intrigues an editor, but haven’t provided enough substance to back it up yet. Actually, it’s ok if your proposal doesn’t fully present all the evidence that will be in your book, but you at least need to show what the contours of that evidence will look like in the full book. It should be clear to an editor how you will sustain a reader’s interest in the topic and argument over the course of several chapters, otherwise they may wonder if your book should be a great essay or article instead. This issue can show up in skimpy chapter summaries, so make sure they feel fleshed out in your proposal draft.
You may not have found your authoritative voice yet. You’ll want to situate your project in the relevant literature—in order to demonstrate the contribution you’re making—but that can easily slide into letting other work and voices drown out your own. Lead with what makes your research compelling outside of the disciplinary conversation. Then take a little time (a paragraph or two should do it) to explain how the book will push the scholarly conversation forward too, in addition to telling an interesting story or addressing an interesting problem in its own right.
The book you want to write may not be legible to editors as something that there’s demand for among readers. This is tricky, because you may want to do something that feels very original and unprecedented, and that can be a good thing. But an editor will need to believe that there are book-buying people out there who want the original and unprecedented thing you’re offering. You can help reassure editors on this point by finding at least a couple books out there that are doing the thing you’re trying to do — if not on the same topic or in the same format then at least speaking to the same kinds of readers. You can also spell out in specific terms who the readers are that you want to reach and offer some evidence that they’re interested in the kind of you thing you want to do.
Here’s the biggie. This is the easiest reason for an editor to reject a project: they don’t believe it “fits” at their press. When publishers talk about fit, they’re really talking about audience. Scholarly publishers are defined by their strong brands and intellectual niches. They work hard to cultivate particular readerships and to bring new books to those readerships that will excite them. This means that you will have an exponentially better chance of getting past the “desk review” stage with a book publisher if your proposal demonstrates how your book will provide value to the press’s established readership(s). Demonstrating this can look like mentioning other books the press has recently published that speak to the readers you want to reach. It can also mean getting a broader understanding of the press’s “lists”—subject areas they tend to publish in consistently—and positioning your book’s subject matter and intellectual contribution as a solid fit for at least one of those lists.
In my online programs, I work with authors on all five of these points to make sure they’re giving their projects the best chance of success at the proposal stage. Because that last point—fit—is one of the most fundamental and also the biggest culprit in rejection decisions, I encourage authors to tackle that one first, by identifying the best presses for their project and gathering evidence to support their case for fit.
If fit and identifying the right publishers for your book is something you’re thinking about right now, I welcome you to sign up for my free 5-day challenge, which starts next week:
If you need help with the other stuff too, do check out my other programs: the Book Proposal Shortcut for Busy Scholars is a self-paced thing you can do anytime, while the Book Proposal Accelerator is an interactive program that will be starting up again in June. If you’re looking for responsive feedback on your book proposal and personalized guidance through the entire publishing process, the Accelerator is the one you want.
Enrollment for the Book Proposal Accelerator opens on May 2 at 9am Pacific. I expect it to fill up quickly — the last two sessions have reached capacity in about an hour. This is the webpage where you’ll be able to sign up on May 2.
If you are planning to take advantage of institutional pre-enrollment for the Accelerator, please get in touch with me about that today. We’ll need to get paperwork started and payment confirmed before general enrollment opens, in order to hold your spot. If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible for pre-enrollment, click here and scroll down to the “enrollment” section.
That’s it for today! Hope to see a bunch of you in the free challenge next week!