Effective Book Proposals

Publications, Publications, Publications….

For any UK academic lectureship, it is widely accepted that candidates will not only have a PhD in hand (or almost in hand) but also at least one (but preferably two) publications.  But what does this mean in reality?  Publications come in all sorts of different guises and, unsurprisingly, when we are talking publications most PGRs think about articles in refereed journals.  Nevertheless, academic rumours these days seem to suggest that candidates competing seriously for lectureships will also need have a book contract in hand, or at least in the pipeline.  Whether this is true or not, it seems sensible to take some time to consider what it means to put together an effective book proposal, giving you a greater chance of successfully acquiring a contract for that first academic monograph.

Effective Book Proposals

Back in November the Skills Training Team hosted a workshop for Early Career Researchers on Effective Book Proposals which was attended by Emma Brennan, Commissioning Editor at Manchester University Press.  What follows here is blog post based on some of my own research and the information which was provided for us at that workshop – I hope that you find it useful.

Most PGRs aim to publish the thesis as their first academic monograph.  There are obvious pros and cons to this (and I do know somebody at the moment who is in the final stages of their thesis and putting together a proposal for a monograph which is not based on their PhD).   When applying for lecturing posts, many application forms ask candidates to provide them with evidence that their research (and publications) have proven ‘impact’ – and they ask this for a number of reasons.  It is very rare that lectureships come up in one’s own specialism which means that you might need to ‘fit’ yourself into the posts that do crop up – this requires  considerable thought about how you market yourself and your research.  If you can prove that you are a researcher with a specific specialism but can also lend yourself to teaching and/or researching other related specialisms then you instantly become more of a prospect.

When considering book proposals,  publishing houses are looking for much the same thing – evidence not only that your book has an audience but that it fits in with any other monographs recently published by them.  And this evidence must imply that you have considered the bigger picture.  For example, my supervisor approached a publishing house with a book proposal, and linked her application to a series of monographs which were being published by them, explaining how her book would fit in with the over-arching theme of the series.  This makes it instantly easier for the publisher to continue reading the application and provides you, as the author, with an immediate audience – both student and academic/researcher.  For those of you who are ambitious enough to be planning a taught special module on your research specialism for undergraduate finalists (something usually required for most academic teaching posts), a book proposal for a ‘set text’ upon which the course will be based would be a very good idea, and increase your chances of being awarded a contract.  It therefore goes without saying that you should research the publisher as well as the proposal.

Scope and Content

It would appear that the application process differs according to each publishing house.  Some publishers have online application forms, others require you to complete and send the form in the post.  There are, however, general guidelines which will apply to all book proposals.  Firstly, most publishers will be looking for a description of the scope and content of your book.  Your proposal should therefore include a paragraph (up to approximately 500 words) which essentially details what you hope to say and the content you will cover.  This is usually preceded by a working title for the monograph.  For this, some applicants usually choose to attach details of broken down chapter headings and a synopsis.  This always helps to demonstrate how the book will take shape, and instantly gives you a framework from which to explore and write once you have been awarded the contract.

Why should we publish…

This is essentially the million dollar question – why should that particular publisher publish your book?  Here, it is useful to break down your response into bullet points which outline the strengths of your proposal.  Some of the things you can write about in this section include the field of research and why it is becoming popular (why it is of interest to different types of audience), whether a clear need for a book on that topic has been established (here it is usually useful to cite other researchers who have identified this need), how the book will achieve critical authority (i.e. what kind of research will go into the final version?  What is the quality of the research?).  In addition to this, it is useful to consider the following:

  • what are the questions that you hope to address in your book?
  • what is useful/new/original about the methodology?
  • will the book generate more publication opportunities?
  • what descriptors are you working with? (i.e. labels, terms, definitions)
  • how do you hope to develop the analysis?

Who is it aimed at….

I have dealt with this above, although suffice as to say, the broader your audience appeal the better.  In general terms, it is best to make your book interesting AND accessible to students, academics and researchers alike – those who are being taught, those who teach and those who research.  This also broadens the scope of your book and also helps you to make it interesting to the lay or general reader.  Perhaps this is a topic that is becoming popular amongst non-academic readers – how do you hope to engage that particular audience?  Here, a reference to your writing style and how you aim to communicate some of the ideas in the book is always helpful.

What are the comparable books?

In a section like this, the publisher is looking for evidence that you have considered how your book fits in with those currently on the market.  This is not so difficult if you have undertaken a thorough literature review.  Here you are being asked to provide a paragraph on how your book builds upon, challenges or complements other scholarly studies.  Do they create a niche from which your book can become nicely established?  How will your book contribute to the debate?

Essential Information

Here there is a section on essential information such as the date of completion, word count, whether you will want pictures, graphs or diagrams and whether you have approached any other publishers (be honest here – it is quite usual to be sending out a proposal for the same book to different publishers, just as long as you make sure that each proposal is relevant/tailored towards the specific publisher to which you are sending – much like a job application).  Finally, most publishers expect you to provide an up-to-date CV with your proposal and/or a current list of publications.  They also expect you to provide two ‘referees’ whom you are certain would like to read your work, and why.

More information…

There are some more resources available on this topic, should you need to consult them:


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