Writing an academic book proposal is no joke. After spending countless hours thinking about your book and beginning the writing process, you have to distill the best ideas from your book into a document that is likely five percent of the length of your book (if you’re lucky). On top of that, you have to write it in a way that sells your argument – something you’ve probably never done before. There are a lot of opportunities to get it wrong.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with over a dozen book writers since January. Many of them have been working on their first book, and the proposal is certainly a new genre for them. In my proposal evaluations, I’ve noticed that most authors stumble in the same places. In this post, I am going to discuss some of the common mistakes I see, so you don’t make them.
Before I continue, I want to make one thing clear: a book proposal is a marketing document, which means it’s unlike the dissertation or articles that you’ve written in the past. You are writing it to convince one person – your acquisitions editor – that readers will want to buy your book. Now, there’s a lot that goes into successfully selling your book, but today I’d like to focus on two sections of the book proposal where academic writers often run into trouble – the overview and the audience section.
The overview: unique isn’t enough.
The overview or brief description is your first opportunity to make an impression on your editor. There are a few essential elements in every overview/brief description:
- Tell the editor what your book is about.
- Provide a short summary of your argument.
- Give a description of your data/methodology, focusing on how you arrived at your argument.
- Make an argument for why your book is unique, interesting, important, and timely
- Discuss the broader implications of your book – how you move from a specialized topic to far-reaching takeaways.
Each of the components that I just mentioned deserves its own discussion. In the interest of time, I am going to focus now on the red flag I notice in most overviews: most overviews read like a literature review.
I understand this inclination. In academia, we pride ourselves on showing our work, because it’s important to give credit where credit’s due. But like I said before, the book proposal is not the same genre as an article or a dissertation, so you won’t follow the same conventions. At this point, you’re probably thinking, how do I show how I fill a gap in the literature if I don’t recount what the literature has already said?
This is where I want you to stop.
An academic book proposal is about YOUR perspective on the topic. So while it’s necessary to show that a gap exists by discussing existing literature, it’s even more important to make a compelling argument for why it’s essential to fill that gap. As I tell my clients, sometimes a topic is understudied for a reason. It’s fine to say that what you’re writing is new. However, that cannot be the extent of your contribution. What matters to an editor is that what you’re writing is important, and will have a readership.
Exercise discretion in how much existing literature you discuss in your overview. I don’t think there is a hard rule, like only reference other authors in 40% of your sentences or something like that. If you know of a standard, please feel free to share in the comments.
However, if I know more about what anyone besides YOU has to say on this topic, then you need to revise, because you’re sacrificing your narrative in favor of other people’s narratives. As I mentioned above, it’s normal to focus on others’ contributions because that’s how you’re taught to write. This is a practical issue. However, if you’re using the literature as a crutch because you’re not confident about your ideas, then you have a mindset issue.
Also, remember that there will be a section of the proposal where you discuss the relevant literature. For instance, the University of Chicago Press requires an “accessible overview” and “an account of your book’s relationship to comparable or competing works.” This is where you should show the editor your expertise and how the existing scholarship has informed your thinking.
Tip: As you write your overview, ask yourself, “what would a reader find interesting about my project?” Then qualify the type of reader:
- An expert reader
- A non-expert scholar
- A reader who cares about your topic but is neither a scholar nor an expert
Try to answer this question with no regard for how different your project is from other work. I guarantee you, if you focus on what’s interesting, you will set yourself apart from others who have written on similar topics.
Audience: identifying your real reader
There is certainly pressure to convince the editor that you have a wide readership.
You want to say you’re writing a book that everyone will read. We know that the current state of academic publishing is such that presses are feeling pressure to sell more books. Of course, you also want to write a book that people will read. This is normal.
I think that these expectations cause a lot of authors to cast a very wide net when describing their imagined reader.
Let’s review the common audiences that writers mention in their proposals by using an example.
Let’s say, for instance, that you are writing a book about anthem protests in football. A timely and provocative topic, right? There hasn’t been a scholarly treatment of the topic and it’s received quite a bit of media attention. So let’s talk about who it might appeal to:
Of course, you have the mythical NYT reader. Someone who is well-educated but not a subject matter expert. That’s your broadest audience. Then you have the students who will read your book for class. You think to yourself that this is an important audience because multiple copies of the book will be ordered at the same time. This is a smaller audience than that New York Times readership, but authors often go to great lengths to stretch this readership. You make a list of courses for which your book can be assigned. You say your book can be taught in:
- Social movement courses
- Race and ethnicity courses
- Sociology of sport courses
- African American studies courses
- Depending on the angle you take, it may even be interesting to media scholars.
- Then, since it covers so many different issues, it can certainly be taught in an introductory course!
People who care about social justice and supported the protests might also read your book.
Finally, you have the subject matter specialists who will read your book.They’ll be looking for a more sophisticated treatment than the students who are reading your course. There’s also something for organizational scholars because you discuss how the National Football League responded.
I’ve just listed about ten different audiences. Sounds great, right? Now, I want you to think about what the expectations will be for your book from each of these audiences. Are you capable of meeting those likely to be competing expectations? Do you want to?
Repeat after me: every point in your book does not make for a distinct readership.
Tip: When deciding on the potential audience for your book, I think you should make a list like the one I made above. Start with the biggest audience and then go down the smallest audience. Then, write out two questions:
- Why would this audience be interested in my book?
- A related question: will they be interested enough to purchase the book?
- What kind of book would I have to write to appeal to this audience?
This is tough, and you’ll have to make some hard decisions. Writing for one an expert audience might make some of your book incomprehensible for a non-expert audience. You also have to evaluate your own capabilities. Can you write in an accessible way? Have you before?
Also, give acquisition editors the credit they deserve. A good acquisitions editor will know what niche a book will fit into. Editors already have a sense of how topics sell and what readerships exist for the type of book that you intend to write. Don’t underestimate your acquisitions editor, and don’t assume every educated person is a potential reader. Finally, don’t expect that someone interested in your topic will also be interested in your book.
Remember, a book that’s trying to appeal to everyone won’t appeal to anyone.
In summary, I focused on these two parts of the academic book proposal because I believe they’re the most challenging. I also believe that you can do a great job on these sections by answering a few questions that will jumpstart your thinking on how to situate your book’s significance. There’s much more to say about book proposals, so if you have a question you’d like me to answer, ask in the comments or sign up for my FREE guide to writing a book proposal. It includes tips and resources for getting started on your proposal, along with best practices for crafting a proposal that editors will want to read. Click here to get it.