The Key Parts of an Academic Book Proposal

Former Cambridge University Press editor Maartje Scheltens explains the key parts to include in your academic book proposal when pitching to university presses.
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When you’re ready to approach an acquisitions editor, and you’ve chosen a publisher to submit your book proposal to (on how to get started, check out part 1 of this blog series here), how do you now go about writing this crucial document?

Academic publishers and university presses have a lot of information online about what they want to see in a book proposal, so always check their websites for submission guidelines. Just like a job application, you need to tailor your proposal to each publisher’s exact requirements. Some have an online book proposal template to fill out instead of asking you to email a formal document.

However, if they want you to submit a proposal, there are certain key elements that should always be included. In this blog, we’ll run through some tips for each of them.

If you’re writing a textbook, there are a few more things to consider and a bit more research to do to ensure your text will be widely adopted in relevant courses. For some advice on how to write a textbook proposal, start here.

The Title

Make sure your title makes clear what the book is about. Think about what someone would Google if they were looking for this book.

While you may have the ideal punning title in mind, don’t be disappointed if your acquisitions editor has other ideas. Visualize your printed book but be flexible. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is essential in choosing an effective title. Your publisher is the professional here; they know how best to present and market your book.

The Sales Pitch

Start with a clear overview of why this book should exist, in as few words as possible.

Remember to write not just for people in your field; sales and marketing teams need to understand how to sell the book. For an academic monograph, often the person making the purchasing decision might be a university librarian, not a professor in your field (though, of course, academics may recommend your book or buy it themselves). Test your short description out on some colleagues outside of your own subject area.

Be clear about what type of book it is: to be used in courses, a research monograph, or scholarly reference book.

Introducing Yourself

Give a brief overview of your career thus far and state your current affiliation or position.

What is your motivation for writing this book? What makes you the best person to write it? How does it flow on from previous research you’ve done? Have you published before?

The Contents and Chapter Abstracts

Provide a table of contents and write a summary of each chapter showing how it fits into your overall argument.

Make sure your content is not already out there. Many publishers don’t like more than 20–30 percent of the research to be available as journal articles already. Make sure any previously published material fits into the book’s argument.

The Market

Will your book be bought by individuals or libraries? Where are your readers—not just which countries, but what type of departments and institutions do they work in?

If the book will be useful for students, include information on what courses they would be taking and the level (first year courses, advanced students, etc.).

Sometimes your topic might have a wider interest and you might want to suggest that the book be marketed to a general reader, not just academics. Be realistic about this. Writing for a general audience is a very different skill. It’s difficult to write simultaneously for all of the possible audiences for your book—the specialists wanting rigor and innovation, graduate students, and the general audience. It’s better in the first instance to give the publisher a clear focus of where the main market is and in most cases you will be presenting your research for an academic reader.

Competing titles

List 3–5 titles that come closest to what your book covers. If your book is truly the first on your topic, great; but this is rare. You’ll probably be aware of most of the titles that cover similar ground, but don’t forget to check if there is anything about to be published that might be a competing title.

Ideally, the titles you pick won’t just be competing on content but they will also be similar in type and market: don’t offer an encyclopedia as a competing title for your monograph or a $4.99 introduction as a competitor for your graduate textbook. 

The Practicalities

So often, people forget that a book also needs to be produced, scheduled, and (usually) make a profit—or at least earn back its production costs. The acquisitions editor needs to know a few basic details so they can assess what kind of project you’re offering them. Usually the production department will also be consulted about proposed books, especially if it has an unusual format or a large number of illustrations. 

Make sure you have included:

  • The projected or actual word count (including bibliography/references/appendices/apparatus)
  • Whether you need any illustrations, and how many
  • Any specific external requirements such as Open Access publication, or timing of a tenure application
  • Whether you’ll need any online resources (like exercises with answers for a textbook)
  • When the full manuscript will be available for peer review, or how complete it is currently.

In a future blog post, we’ll go into the specific requirements you’ll need to follow if you are the editor of a contributory volume.

Reviewers

Some publishers will ask you to suggest possible readers for peer review, but for others this is an absolute no-no, so only do this if explicitly requested by the publishers.

Have you got a book proposal ready to go, but you’d like a professional eye to review it and make sure it’s as effective as it could be? Consider hiring one of Flatpage’s team of experienced book proposal experts to help hone the document.

About the author

Former Cambridge University Press acquisitions and desk editor and Flatpage team member Dr. Maartje Scheltens has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in book proposals. She knows the publishing process inside out and understands exactly what your academic publisher is looking for.

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