Potential authors looking for how to write book proposals will find endless suggestions and templates on the Internet. What is harder to track is clear advice on how to use the proposal to publish the intangible aspects of a book.
Do you submit the proposal before or after the manuscript is written? When will you sign the contract? How should you talk to the editor? Do you contact the editor directly or find a literary agent first?
It is difficult to find clear answers to these questions, because the answers vary widely, depending on the publishing field the author wants to get involved in. The recommendations that apply to trade publishing do not apply to academic publishing at all. Most of my author clients want to place their books in academic publishing. Even in this field, advice on these aspects can and should vary according to the client’s needs and career goals.
As a consultant for future academic book authors, I have answered hundreds (or even thousands) of questions about the publishing process. I even recorded all the problems in a spreadsheet for a period of time, so I can monitor which problems occur most often. One of the most overwhelming questions is: When should I submit a proposal to the publisher during my writing process?
If I worked with a trade writer, the answer would be simple: you usually submit a proposal before finishing the book. You need a detailed outline of what you intend to write, plus market analysis and possible writing samples to show that your style will connect with readers. However, before you commit to researching and writing the entire project, you may wait to see if the publisher is willing to invest in the project.
When it comes to academic books, the answer is more complicated. If academic authors have a full-time job that ostensibly supports them in doing so, they may be able to write a complete draft of the manuscript before being awarded the contract. They will not count on the book itself as a source of income; their academic salary will provide this. However, this model may be changing, as more and more scholars find themselves unable to work full-time as university researchers and teachers, and publishers may have to adapt to this reality-willing to make promises to authors at an early stage -If they want to get manuscripts from many smart scholars who don’t have long-term academic work.
As in academic publishing, authors may have more opportunities to directly contact new editors, so the time issue becomes complicated. You do not need an agent to contact editors from university presses or commercial academic presses. You can usually contact the editor directly to discuss your project via email or in person at one of the large academic conferences held by academic organizations.
As I told my clients, if editors are willing to meet with potential authors, it is never too early to have an informal chat, which many people in the field do. The initial conversation—even when the author is just beginning to consider developing their idea into a book—is useful for measuring whether the editor got it and thinks that the idea fits their list.
The right time for the submission of a formal proposal is where people are confused. The reason is easy to understand, because there is actually no correct answer. Editors’ preferences for points where they like to enter the process with the author vary widely. These may be personal preferences or just the way the media works. Because peer review is a core aspect of academic publishing, some publishers have developed a habit — or policy — to wait for the entire manuscript to be approved by the peer reviewers and faculty editorial board before issuing a contract. It is often difficult to know from the outside whether a particular media has this policy, or whether they are willing to deal with it flexibly, depending on the project in front of them.
Some publishers are more willing to provide advance contracts than others, which may still require peer review, but only a proposal and a small number of manuscripts. An advance contract is a true commitment to publication, but it usually contains a requirement that the complete manuscript must undergo some kind of peer review and approval process by the editorial board.
The key issue
When someone comes to me to ask when they should submit a proposal to the target publisher, I usually ask some questions to understand the author’s situation. Then I can help them decide whether they should continue to submit or wait until they have completed the manuscript.
The first thing I want to know from the author is, “What is your dream printing machine?” I happen to know that this may be a situation where you are unwilling to issue an advance contract. On these printing presses, the author may receive an informal response to the submitted proposal, but at best this is the message: “Yes, we like this and can imagine publishing it, but come back when you have the complete manuscript It’s written and ready to be sent to peer review.” This response — or the other side of it, “No, this doesn’t work for us” — is still useful information received early, but the author must wait for a while before he is determined to be published. committed to.
If the author’s goal is a publisher that is more likely to sign a pre-contract based on the proposal and sample chapters, then the decision of when to contact becomes a personally useful question for the author. Therefore, these are the other questions I will ask the authors to help them develop a submission plan.
Do you already know the core arguments and main content you want readers to get from your book? If so, then it is possible to write a compact proposal linked to the editor. However, because academic contributions can be very complex and must respond to conversations in a certain field, many scholars use the process of researching and writing manuscripts to determine the thesis of their book.
If this sounds like you, I suggest you draft a proposal as soon as possible (plan your book and its readers for yourself), but don’t submit it to the publisher until you are sure what you want the contribution of the book And how the content supports this contribution. If you have a firm grasp of what you want to say about your topic (you may not know it in advance), then you will have a better chance to convince editors and peer reviewers that your book needs to exist.
Would you find it easier to process your manuscript with some external verification, your subject and perspective are correct? If this approach appeals to you, I might suggest that you submit your proposal early. Some editors and peer reviewers will provide useful feedback in the early stages, and if you are willing to accept this feedback, they can even help form the manuscript before you complete it.
The risk here is that if the editor or peer reviewer does not believe that your sample material believes you will write a fascinating book, you may not get the verification you are looking for. If you take this risk, you will not completely give up the opportunity to publish your book-you can always submit it to other publishing houses-but you must decide for yourself how much risk is for you in any publishing house. If they refuse to move forward for the first time, you may not have the opportunity to resubmit at the same publisher.
Are external deadlines your motivation? If you are the kind of person who needs, say, a legally binding deadline for you to complete and hand over something, then you may need an advance contract. Again, this is a bit risky, because if the manuscript is not submitted by the deadline, the publisher reserves the right to cancel publication. But in practice, there is usually some flexibility, as long as you keep in touch with the editor and agree on a revised deadline.
Have you completed the complete manuscript within a year or two? If so, it is a reasonable time to seek an advance contract. If you go further than that—it is entirely possible because academic research and writing may take a while, especially if the pandemic complicates travel and feedback opportunities—the wait may make sense. Your goals for this book, and which publisher is its best partner, may change in a few years, so it might be wise to postpone before committing to anyone.
Due to COVID and other sources of time pressure in today’s academies, the scarcity of peer reviewers has also affected publishers’ schedules. If the media know that they will have to contact reviewers again in just a few months to review the complete manuscript, they may be reluctant to peer review the proposal and sample chapters (for advance contracts). They may strongly urge authors to wait until they are ready to submit the entire manuscript for review in order to simplify the peer review and acquisition process for everyone.
Understanding the academic book publishing process, including how and when to interact with editors and publishers in the process, is not easy for first-time authors or even experienced authors. Careful consideration of your motivations and goals will help you better control the process of becoming a writer and allow you to determine the next steps that are meaningful to you.