Workshop Notes: Writing Book Proposals

Writing Book Proposals that Command Attention

Derek Krissoff, Senior Acquisitions Editor, UGA Press

CFDE Workshop, 2011

First, a quick recap of one issue from our last workshop on revising the dissertation into a book—developing your list of presses and increasing your understanding of how each is growing and shaping their own list of works they seek.

Tips to Expand your List of Presses

We tend to develop a list of presses to submit our work to by looking back at our bibliographies. Who publishes the works you cite the most? Here are some more places to go “fishing” for presses you may not have considered before. See the website for the American Association of University Presses. Check out the sites also for your scholarly or professional associations, and museums/libraries related to your research. Some of these organizations have publishing programs or funds to support dissemination of work. And keep your eye out for collaborations among scholarly presses; some collaborations are designed to support first books or books of interest to relatively small audiences. The Mellon Foundation has a program supporting a few such collaborations. Here’s one example.

For a broader listing of commercial publishing houses, as well as some resources on higher education publishing, see the American Association of Publishers. And check in regularly to the publishing section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. They feature a weekly list of all academic books published that week, divided by field. Following new releases in your field over time is a great way to get a very current sense of how university presses are developing their lists and spot emerging trends that may dovetail with your work. Pay attention also the language and tone in the book descriptions and keep that in mind as you prepare brief descriptions of your own work.

Let’s look at some sample UP guidelines for submission and talk about the components of book proposals (and query letters).

Becoming an Advocate for your Book:

We have to learn to “pitch” our books—to be able to describe them in a kind of short-hand way that is meaningful to a variety of people totally unacquainted with our work (or perhaps even the field). University press editors of course know the fields in which they acquire. But to get referred to right editor, you may first have to communicate the essence of your project to lots of other people. Here’s a quick exercise to help you begin to make the paradigm shift from doing research and writing arguments to becoming a voice for your research. I find it helpful to think of this as becoming an advocate for your book, someone who is helping this book find its way in the world (and of course just happens to be the author too!).

List books that are different from yours but analogous in some way. Now, try to spell out that relationship. Often this puts a lesser known writer in the context of a generally well-known one. For example: “Professor James is sort of the Michael Pollan of Law.”

Or, here’s another way to frame it that provides some context for people focused on big picture issues. “This book is what happens when _________ meets _________.” For example: when microfinance meets global health.

Another way to generate a sense of works that are analogous to yours is try another fill-in-the-blank. “If you liked __________, you’ll love my new book.”

“Field Research”

Observe the beast (the phenomena of writing about your writing) in its natural habitat. Go to bookstores and visit university press websites online.

Visit three bookstores. Try to include big chains and independent bookstores. Barnes & Noble is now around the corner. In Decatur, the Blue Elephant is an interesting independent. Browse the shelves that relate to your topic. Where do you think your book would be likely to wind up, which section? And make note of how those works are presented—read the book jacket copy. At the bookstores and while examining the descriptions of recently published books on UP websites, hone in on the way the publishers you want to publish with “package” their books. What terms recur? What kind of frameworks do you notice for presenting the main idea of each work? Ones you may encounter (and you can add to the list) include:

Solving a mystery
Addressing silence or gap
Addressing a problem or correcting a flawed idea.
Writing the definitive account.

A Publisher’s Weekly Exercise

Successful proposals translate the language of research into the language of describing or marketing the research. You might think of this as an exercise in “packaging.”

The following exercise will probably work best for authors with a completed draft or most of completed draft in hand. In other words, try this one when you have a solid grasp on your book’s identity and are preparing to articulate that to different audience.

Each week Publisher’s Weekly makes reviews of new books available on their website. These are very short, big-picture descriptions. Read a few weeks’ worth of reviews in the fields that are closest to your own. Then, try to write a one-paragraph review of your own book.