How to write an academic book proposal: tips for securing a contract

Pieter Claeszoon: ‘Still life with a skull and a writing quill’. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

After having published 20 academic books as author/co-author and a further ten edited/co-edited collections (see here for a complete list of my books), I’ve had quite a bit of experience in writing book proposals.

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to go about securing that contract.

What are publishers looking for?

Your book will need to fill a gap in the market. How to identify this ‘gap’? Publishers are always looking for the next big idea: this could be a new topic, an emerging theoretical approach or innovative research methods. The commercial appeal of your proposed book will never be far from their minds – they need to be able to make money from the book.

Your book can be based on your research project findings, your teaching content, the way you use social theory or your research methods – I have published books on all of these topics (sometimes combining two or more in the one book).

Ideas for edited collections are often initiated through your research networks or from themed symposia.

My ‘go to’ source of inspiration for new books is when I find myself thinking – “I would really like to read a book on this topic”. I only ever write books about ideas in which I am excited and interested to pursue at a book-length scale.

Once you have identifed ‘the gap’ in the market

Sound out the specialised commissioning editors with an email first to ‘pitch’ the idea and see if it has any prospects. Speak to publishers at their displays at conferences – they always ready to discuss ideas. Otherwise find the relevant commissioning editor’s email on the publisher’s website and contact them that way.

Consider your favourite books – who publishes them? Is there a book series into which your idea would fit well? Contact the editors of the book series (they are always academics) to sound out your ideas with them.

Ask a colleague who is an experienced author to give you some feedback on a draft proposal.

The book does not have to be written before you get a contract. In fact, it’s best if you don’t spend too much time on writing it before you have secured the contract.

What to put in the book proposal?

Look on publishers’ websites for advice and download any proposal information and forms. Many publishers have pro formas they want prospective authors to use for the proposal.

The proposal should usually include the following:

  • Brief overview of the book (why this book, why now, what will be the main themes of the book?)
  • Brief author/editor bio (why are you the ideal person to write/edit this book?)
  • If an edited book – brief bios of each of the contributors
  • Chapter titles and brief summary of chapter content (like abstracts)
  • Target market – who will want to buy and use this book?
  • Course adoption – what uni courses might suit adoption of the book? (Warning – textbooks will get more sales but fewer academic kudos)
  • Word count and timeline – realistically, when can you deliver the finished manuscript to the publisher?
  • Some publishers want to see some full chapter examples (particularly for first authors) – many don’t

What happens after you submit your proposal?

The proposal will be evaluated by the commissioning editor, who may ask for some tweaks. If they think it is a good idea, it will be sent out to external reviewers (other academics) for their views on whether it should be published. If these reviews are favourable, the commissioning editor will take your proposal to the publisher’s editorial meeting and present it for approval to issue a contract (you may be asked to tweak it again first).

If all goes well at this meeting, the publisher will offer you a contact – now the real hard work begins!