How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalDan Berger, a history professor at the University of Washington Bothell and the author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Erahas a helpful post up at Black Perspectives with some tips on how to write a book proposal.

Here is a taste:

A good proposal should be sent to multiple presses. While you should not submit the manuscript to multiple publishers simultaneously, it is not a betrayal of confidence to submit proposals to multiple publishers; in fact, it’s in your benefit to do so. The neoliberal university affects publishers as much as any other part of the academy. Editors are overworked and expected to do more with less while navigating legions of anxious junior (and senior) scholars eager to find a home for their work. Interest from one press is perhaps the only surefire thing that can get another press to get back to you if they have not already. In sending your proposal to multiple presses, you may want to make some superficial adjustments to the proposal. For instance, if you are interested in a particular series that a publisher has, you might work the themes and concepts of the series into your proposal in a deliberate fashion. However, since the proposal is introducing the book, it should be able to stand alone across multiple submissions without much tailored revision.

When I was finishing the proposal for Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, I devised a three-tiered list. Each tier had four or five presses in it. My plan was to send out the proposal to all of the presses in the group and see what happened; if no one in tier one was interested, then I would send it to tier two, and so on. I developed my list with equal parts reason and emotion: I talked with friends and mentors about it, and I scoured my bookshelves to see who had published books I was excited by or which bore significant tie in to some of the themes of my own book. I was fortunate to have interest from three of my tier-one list, so I didn’t need to keep sending it out. But having that list made me feel confident that I would publish the book somewhere, that I had other options if my top choices did not pan out. And the process of creating the tiers also helped me decide which press to go with when I had interest from multiple places. The other factor that helped me decide was gauging excitement for the project from different presses; when decision time came, I went with the press that seemed to best understand what I was doing with my book and shared my vision of what it could be.

Read the entire post here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalOver at Black Perspectives, Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa interviews Dawn Durante of the University of Illinois Press about how to write a book proposal for a university press.

Durante acquires books in Asian-American history, Latino History in the Midwest, Black Studies, Digital Humanities, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Keisha N. Blain: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the process of writing the book proposal?

Dawn Durante: In my opinion, the major misconception about the purpose of the book proposal is that it is solely for the benefit of an editor or a publisher to gauge interest in the book project. Proposals can be a much more valuable tool that serve authors better when drafted well before the point of contacting an editor. I often get asked about when the right time is to be thinking about a book proposal. An author should begin crafting a proposal as soon as they are beginning to develop the book. When a scholar is preparing a proposal for a press, they must articulate key arguments, audiences, and lay out the framework and arc of the book. Many of these issues are aspects authors are thinking through (or should be thinking through) from the very conception of the project. For instance, if someone has not thought deliberately about the key stakeholders and most likely audience for the project prior to the proposal, then how has the book’s organization and writing style been appropriately designed and implemented? A proposal constructed at an early juncture can serve as a guide for the writing process and should be refined up until the point it is submitted to an editor. I have encountered authors who are hesitant to invest time in a proposal early on given all the competing commitments scholars have to deal with, and I certainly understand that. However, having a well-thought-out proposal on hand can be useful for a variety of job, grant, or fellowship applications, and more importantly, a fully conceived proposal can be a beneficial roadmap for an author from the very beginning of their project’s development.

Read the entire interview here.

The AHA: An Editor’s Perspective

book-exhibit

I am sure some of you who attend the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association or some other major academic conference have witnessed a newly minted Ph.D pitching a book idea, based on her or his dissertation, to an editor in the exhibit hall. The editor listens and nods as the post-doc or assistant professor verbally walks through the proposal. This kind of conversation has become a rite of passage for any first-time academic author.

I have done this a few times and have always felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that the editor was bored and really did not want to hear from yet another dissertation writer trying to land a book contract. If the editor’s eyes were flashing around the room looking at the name badges of people coming into the booth I knew I was in trouble.  I knew I was in even more trouble if the editor interrupted me (always politely) multiple times to talk to someone who he or she deemed to be more important. Who wants to try to make a book pitch in such a public setting?  I was always self-conscious of the people milling around in the booth who were no doubt listening to me explain my proposal.

After I published my first book I decided that I would not use the exhibit hall to pitch proposals to editors. (Part of this decision was based on experience. My interaction with editors at the AHA and other conferences played a very, very small role in getting that book into print).  It was too much work.  As an introvert I hate such spontaneous meetings.

Don’t get me wrong, I still meet with publishers at the AHA.  But most of my meetings are scheduled well in advance so that the editors are prepared for the conversation. I try to make sure that these meetings take place away from the booth and preferably outside the exhibit hall.

The book exhibit continues to be my favorite part of any big conference.  When I enter the exhibit hall for the time my heart (and mind) still races. When I am at the AHA I try to make two or three visits.  I usually just browse titles and try to say hello to the editors I have worked with over the years.  I take pictures of the books I want to read or write about. I run into friends, acquaintances, colleagues and blog readers.

I tend to see my discussions with editors about book ideas as something separate from the exhibit itself.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Toff’s recent post at AHA Today about what it is like to be a book editor at the conference.  Toff is vice president and executive editor at Oxford University Press.

Here is a small taste of her post:

As talent scouts, we judge work that has already been done. Editors thus spend some of their time listening to papers and scoping out new talent. The “yield” is fairly low, but it’s a good way to check out potential authors. It tells us not only whether a particular historian has a good argument, but whether s/he is a decent human being. Public behavior is telling! Does s/he get to the point? How does the scholar react to questions and criticism? I also meet with potential authors who have written to me in advance and sent me proposals or sample materials. The conference is a chance for me to hear more about the project, to ask questions about what I’ve read, and often to guide the author in a slightly different direction. I’ll ask about competing titles, about sources, and, as at sessions, I’ll get a feel for the style of the person I’m dealing with.

Unfortunately, time is always short. So when meeting with an editor, authors should get to the point. The proverbial “elevator pitch” is no joke—we need a quick overview of the subject matter, the status of the book, and the archival work you’ve done. If the book has grown out of a dissertation, who was your adviser? That information often orients us intellectually. Think of the meeting as speed dating for scholars and editors—make a good first impression. Many university press editors are also commissioning books, especially for existing series. After consulting with series editors and doing some research, I will have identified potential authors for particular titles and set up meetings to discuss the possibilities. That’s where I wear my snake-charmer hat.

Editors always make time to chat informally with potential authors to see if we can find the perfect new project based both on the scholar’s interests and our needs as publishers. It’s kismet when those two objectives align. For example, I had worked with Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee on a World War I primary source anthology; I hoped to do another book with them. When we met at the AHA’s annual meeting several years ago, they told me that they had many more diaries they’d come across but had not had space to include. The result of that conversation was Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War (2015), a collection of six rare and diverse war journals.

Read the entire post here.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #45

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I took a blogging vacation last week, but my work on the ABS project continued.  I managed to put the final polish on Chapter One: “The Bible Cause in America” and Chapter Two: “Towards a Christian Nation.”  Those chapters have been sent off to publishers and agents.  Responses are beginning to roll in.  So far nearly every university press editor who replied has been very enthusiastic about the project, but made it clear that they would not be able to deliver a published book by May 2016.  It usually takes 12 months for a university press to bring a book into print, but this does not include the review process.  University presses are required to send the manuscript out to academic reviewers (peer review) before offering a contract.  The review process could take at least three months.  This means that it takes, at minimum, a total of fifteen months to bring a completed manuscript into print.  It will be impossible for me to deliver a manuscript for peer review by January 2015.

I still have several more university presses to hear from, but I am not optimistic about this publishing option. I do wish I had more time to deliver this manuscript because some very, very good university presses have shown serious interest.

All this means that I will probably need to go with a trade or commercial press.  Some trade presses require a literary agent.  As I have written before, a few agents have expressed interest in the project.  I have had a few nice bites from trade presses that do not require an agent.   Only time will tell.

In the meantime I am in the process of working on Chapter Three and preparing for a few more days at the ABS archives.  Stay tuned.

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #22

The American Bible Society at Night

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

In update #20 I suggested that this would be a “pivotal week” for the American Bible Society project.  I am trying to maximize my days in the archives and write a book proposal and a first chapter.

Let’s start with the archives.  I continue to make good progress reading through the ABS Extracts. My goal is to make it through the Civil War by the end of the week.  When I left the archives today I was in the early 1840s.  I think it will be doable.  This will free me up to spend two more weeks browsing the papers of the Corresponding Secretary, the complete reports of the Auxiliaries, the minutes of the Board of Managers, and some of the personal papers of ABS founders for the period between 1816 and 1865.

Things are moving slowly on the book proposal front, but at least they are moving.  I have been writing the proposal on New Jersey Transit’s Dover line and I think it is almost ready to go.  This will free me up to to spend the next four or five nights working on chapter one.  

Stay tuned.


How to Write a Book Proposal

Liz Covart at Uncommonplace Book offers some very practical advice about how to write a book proposal.  In fact, she suggests that it can be done in “ten easy steps.”  They are:

Rationale

Why Press?

Description

Annotate Table of Contents

Sources

Readership

Comparable and Competing Works

Specifications

Schedule

Author Bio

See how Covart unpacks each one of these steps here.  Great stuff.  Now get to work on that proposal!

Project Reading (and Writing)

First, I was encouraged by Joseph Adelman’s post yesterday at The Junto.  It looks like someone is actually interested in my attempt to chronicle some of the reading I am doing for my project on Presbyterians and American Revolution.  Thanks, Joseph.

I hope that these “project reading” reports will serve as a nice way of motivating me in my work.

I have failed to mention so far that a lot of the reading I have been doing these past few weeks has been connected to the preparation of a book proposal.  I am playing with two titles right now.  One is “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.”  The other is ” ‘Yet to be Decided Quote’: Presbyterians in a Revolutionary Age.”

My choice of a working title will depend on how I frame the book.  Will I be writing a new history of the American Revolution in the mid-Atlantic that takes the role of radical Presbyterians seriously?  Or will I be writing a history of Presbyterians in the eighteenth century and how they intersected with the American Revolution?  The answer to these questions will come to me as I continue to read in primary and secondary material.

I have already written a preliminary book proposal with a preliminary chapter outline.  My “project reading” over the last week or two has really been centered on the sample chapter–a vital part of any proposal.  Most scholars assume that the sample chapter submitted with the full proposal should be a finished and polished chapter, a piece of prose that will appear close to “as is” (with minor copy-editing) in the finished book.  Indeed, this is how I approached the assignment for both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Such an approach will probably suffice for most university presses.

But I am going to try something a bit different this time around, especially after reading Susan Rabiner and Aldred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get it PublishedHere is what they say about a book proposal’s “sample chapter”: 

A sample chapter is not really a chapter at all. It looks and smells like a chapter, in that it usually runs about a chapter’s length and has a beginning, middle, and end.  But like no chapter in your final book, it succeeds by cannibalizing other chapters, stealing the best material in the book and presenting it in such a way as to showcase the dramatic potential of the book or the power of the argument, or the richness of the topic.

Rather than calling this a “sample chapter,” Rabiner and Fortunato prefer to call it a writing sample.”

Since the College of New Jersey at Princeton, and what Mark Noll has called “the Princeton Circle,” plays such a prominent part in the book I hope to write, I decided to focus my “writing sample” on Princeton and John Witherspoon. I may not end up with an entire chapter in the book devoted to Princeton and Witherspoon, but for the writing sample I have chosen to “cannibalize” from material that will be dispersed throughout several chapters.

I got up early yesterday morning and started writing. This is what I’ve got so far:


Princeton

“Nassau Hall.  May she again flourish and continue the nursery of statesmen, as she has been of warriors.”

            Independent Gazetteer, May 3, 1783

           Things were beginning to look a lot brighter for John Witherspoon.  The president of the College of New Jersey was presiding over a gathering of dignitaries, including William Livingston, the revolutionary governor of the state, who had come to Princeton in late April 1783 to commemorate American independence.  As Witherspoon looked at the candles illuminating Nassau Hall, the college’s main building, and listened to a local infantry company fire cannons in celebration, he must have been hopeful.  Nassau Hall was damaged but still standing after the Battle of Princeton.  Students had returned in 1778 (originally sharing the building with an army hospital) and repairs were almost complete.  Most importantly, independence had been won.  When he came to Princeton from Paisley, Scotland in 1768 Witherspoon knew very little about the colonies’ grievances against England.  He had arrived to bring leadership to a fledgling college and unite a divided American Presbyterian church.  He could not have imagined toasting independence with some of the mid-Atlantic’s most prominent revolutionaries at a school he had transformed into a “seminary of sedition.”  

But what if Witherspoon never came to Princeton?  What if he had done the safe thing and settled for the security of his Paisley parish over this small crossroads village in central New Jersey?  Commemorations like the one that took place in Princeton on that Spring afternoon in 1783 can be times of contemplation, times to reflect on what might have been.  As Witherspoon thought about his brief but tumultuous sojourn in America he probably also remembered that he almost didn’t come.