Proposing Your Audience: Writing the Book Proposal

My regular contributions to Black Perspectives concern social movements and the carceral state. This month, at the request of the blog editors, I am contributing something in a different vein: publishing. I welcome the departure from the themes I normally write about; publishing is hard, often opaque work, and I hope my reflections can help make the process more transparent for others. The advice I offer below is oriented especially to people doing scholarly monographs and navigating academic and/or scholarly minded independent presses; the prospect of proposing books to literary agents and major publishers is beyond the scope of this essay.

The publishing process may seem opaque when one begins the process. Not enough attention is paid in graduate school to the intricacies of publishing, from writing the book proposal to publicizing the book upon release. There is nothing self-evident about the many steps involved. Navigating it all requires mentorship, patience, and effort.

Here I want to talk about one of the first steps in getting your book published: the book proposal. The book proposal can be an intimidating genre, but it is a useful one. Writing my first proposal, and in proposals for subsequent projects, I have been overwhelmed at how to explain this project I am so passionate about to…who, exactly? Discovering the audience of the proposal is the first challenge.

Though daunting, the book proposal genre is useful precisely because it asks us as authors to describe the big-picture significance of our work in concrete terms. The audience is not the acquisitions editor at this press or that one. Rather, you should write the proposal for the person and people you want to read your book—even if they don’t know it yet. The goal of the proposal is less to attract the dream press than it is to show publishers that you are writing their ideal book.

The proposal should explain your argument, evidence, and qualifications to an informed but non-specialist reader. You want to convince that reader that you have something smart and original to say, without assuming that they know or even much care about the intricacies of the subfield debates you are having. You want to demonstrate that you have gathered compelling materials that prove your case, so that the reader wants to read the whole book. And you want to show that you are the person to write this particular book: that you can string words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs; that you understand who else is talking about the issues you are focusing on in your book, and why that matters; and that you bring a fresh perspective to the subjects at hand.

The proposal should make clear what the book is, why lots of people from which fields will want to read it, and why you are uniquely positioned to write this particular book (based on the archives you consulted, the oral histories you conducted, the experience you bring, and the arguments you make). Finally, the proposal should list a few possible peer reviewers for your work—with the recognition that the press will ask some people on your list and some people not on your list—as well as a general timeline for completion.

A good proposal conveys interesting ideas in a compelling manner, demonstrating that the author is a reliable narrator. A good proposal establishes trust between the reader and the author. A good proposal can, and should, be shopped around to multiple presses. A good proposal provides the foundation for a strong introduction to the book itself. Like the book’s introduction, the proposal should convey an overview of the book itself, demonstrate its perspective and appeal, and provide some sense of the book’s contents in a compelling way. Although the proposal is shorter and more targeted than the introduction, both should convey the narrative and analytical flare of your project.

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.

Like any proposal, the book proposal is an invitation to the main event. It is also an invitation to a longer relationship. You’ll be working with an editor or publisher for years to come, perhaps over multiple projects. Longevity needn’t be a frightening prospect, however. It is also an exciting one.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.