Writing a book proposal I: From concept to submission

book-proposalPublishing an academic book is a bit different from publishing a novel, I’m told. All I can do is tell you the process I went through, and offer suggestions on how to make this smoother. I have written three book proposals for three different publishers, submitted two of them, and been accepted by one. Each proposal was different, because the publishers are different. In this post I suggest that you choose your publisher carefully, prepare your proposal according to their guidelines,  tailor your proposal to the audience, and take the time to do it properly.

1. Choose your publisher carefully

Questions to ask yourself include: what sorts of books does this publisher publish? Who is the main audience? What kinds of books have I read from this publisher? How do they compare with what I plan to write? A quick tip here, NO REPUTABLE PUBLISHER PUBLISHES YOUR THESIS ‘AS IS’. If a publisher is offering to do so, I would run in the other direction. Publishers (such as Lambert) that promise quick turn-arounds on your thesis with little to no edits are not going to help your career, or your readership. They are predatory publishers, preying on graduate students and early career academics, getting you to sign over rights to your thesis therefore preventing you from publishing in more reputable places where it would actually be read.

So let’s say you plan to be an academic, or are an academic. You may like to support your university press with your publication, especially if your research is local. But for many of us, it makes more sense to target a publisher that is a leader in your particular field. For me, the University of Minnesota Press (UMP) was a no-brainer: once I gave a lecture and realised on compiling the reference list that EVERY citation was a book published by UMP! So there is a real sense for me of joining an ongoing conversation — both within the book series I am publishing in, and within the disciplines of anthropology and geography more broadly. This is mostly because my PhD supervisor publishes through UMP — but so too do a lot of her contemporaries writing about capitalism, communities, and social change.

Let’s say you don’t plan to be an academic, or you are pursuing as best you can a form of public intellectualism. Here, I think it is still best to find a quality publisher and not take the ‘wide road’ of self-publication. I have written more ‘public’ proposals using my thesis content for the University of Hawaii Press (which specialises in Public Anthropology) and Allen & Unwin (which distributes widely in NZ and Australia).  While these proposals did not get accepted (former) or even submitted (latter), they did help me think about how I might write my academic book in a more publicly accessible style than is common for UMP. I have been recommend Bridget Williams Books for New Zealand content in this vein, and I do plan to write a book for them at some stage. Look for a publisher that is well recognised and produces good quality books that are distributed widely to your target audience (that is, not print-on-demand like Lambert…).

2. Prepare your proposal according to the publisher guidelines

It seems like a no-brainer, but since academics resemble our students in  more ways than one, it bears repeating. How frustrating is it when students submit work in the wrong format? How often do journal editors receive articles not in journal style? Getting on the wrong side of your publisher is not a good way to start. In the case of UMP, the guidelines are pretty loose:

Book proposal submission guidelines

How to Submit a Scholarly Book Proposal

Unless otherwise invited to do so by one of the Press editors, we prefer to receive a prospectus in advance of a complete manuscript. The submission of unrevised dissertations, unless solicited, is strongly discouraged. Your prospectus should include, at a minimum, the following information:


  • An overview of the book, including a summary of its main contributions; a description of the theoretical framework and methodology that you employ (if applicable); a comparison of your work to other books in the field and an explanation of how your research distinguishes itself from them; a description of the book’s target audience(s).
  • Table of Contents and chapter summaries.
  • At least two substantive sample chapters.
  • Current curriculum vitae. If your proposal is for a collection of essays, include a list of contributors’ affiliations.
  • Manuscript specifics, such as estimated word length (including notes and citations), delivery date, and number and type of illustrations (if applicable).
  • Your contact information, including mailing address, phone numbers, and e-mail address.

They do specifically warn against sending your whole thesis, in case you didn’t already know that was a bad idea. My own book proposal included the following headings:


A proposal for:….


Author (3 lines)
Concept (2 paragraphs)
Rationale (1 paragraph)
Chapter Outline in Brief (10 lines – chapter titles only really)
Contexts and Debates (2 pages)
Chapter Breakdown (3 pages – a paragraph per chapter, plus a sentence for each ‘interlude’)
Comparable and Competing Books (2 pages – with a reference and 2 lines for each book commented on)
Timeline to Completion (half a page)
Conclusion (1 paragraph)
Sample Chapter 1 (12 pages)
Sample Chapter 2 (26 pages)
References (2.5 pages)

3. Tailor your proposal for your publisher

Ask yourself: What sort of books does this publisher want? What kinds of proposals do they ask for? Who is going to read the proposal, and what is the process for getting it approved? If you are writing for a book series, contact the editors of the series (normally other academics) and ask for sample proposals. Pitch your idea in brief to the editors and ask whether it sounds interesting to them before you even put the proposal together. In my case, The Diverse Economies and Liveable Worlds series for UMP is edited by a group of people I know personally and have met, and some of whom have read my work. This makes the process a lot less scary, but I still had to work hard to make sure I was communicating my ‘fit’ with the series clearly. I knew my work fit the description, but I needed to make it clear that the overall aims of my work were communicated clearly, rather than the ethnographic detail that could easily be misconstrued as a scrap of data from the periphery (Tsing, 2005).

If there is no series that suits your work, and you are pitching a stand alone book, it might pay to get in contact with a colleague who has published with the publisher previously. They might be willing to share their proposal and the feedback or reviews from their proposal. This helps you think about the best way to pitch your work, and may get you an introduction to the appropriate editor.

So how did I tailor my proposal? I read and considered the ‘call for proposals’ put out by the editors, and incorporated the ideas into my book concept, using the same language and referring to the other two books in the series, as well as other UMP books the series editors had written or contributed to. In my ‘Context and Debates’ section I wrote, for example:

The Diverse Economies and Liveable Worlds series taps into a growing sense that economic difference and change are not just aberrations or wrinkles in the trajectory of capitalism, but options accessible to all in ways that are ‘surprising’ and ‘proximate’. In this vein, Guarding Life takes its inspiration from Gibson-Graham’s (2006) call for ‘starting where we are’, explore the surprising and proximate things people are already collectively achieving.

‘Surprising’ and ‘proximate’ refer to words used in the call for papers, and the Gibson-Graham book refers to a book by one of the series editors which was also published by UMP. But it is not enough to tailor it to the series editors, because in the end, they do not decide who will publish. You need to make sure that your proposal reads well for the editor in charge of publishing your work, the reviewers, and the board or faculty who decide if your proposal should be accepted.

4. Take the time to do it properly

As with anything, they way you do something is just as important as the result. For many editors, the way you put together your proposal is indicative of your professionalism and your ability to deliver. It was tempting for me to just cut and paste two sample chapters of my thesis without editing them into ‘book’ style, because I just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with (plus, I was on maternity leave, and didn’t have a lot of time). But in the end, I accepted the help of the series editors who pre-read my work and in fact suggested I use a different sample chapter that better spoke to the series aims and objectives. This required more rewriting, and of course, redoing the reference list again.

The whole process ended up taking more than a year (remember, I was on maternity leave then working part-time). The editors asked for expressions of interest in the summer of 2013/14. I actually sent in my first draft of the book proposal as an attachment with the EOI, but they didn’t notice until much later when I asked what they thought.  I got feedback near the end of 2014, then rewrote the second sample chapter and sent it off to the series editors again by March 2015 . I received further feedback then revised the proposal, submitting to the editors June 2015, who approved it and sent it off to the editor in the same month. It was rather long and drawn out, partly because I was one of the first proposals they reviewed. The feedback the editors gave was spot on, and it was worth taking the time to revise and resubmit, because after all this, it sailed through the formal review process. Which is what the next post will be about…


Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Tsing, A. L. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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