From Dissertation to Book: Writing a Book Proposal

Dear readers, I’d like to introduce Dr. Lori Flores, Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Stony Brook. She has collaborated with us in the past, particularly on a great book review series from last year featuring the work of her graduate students. Now, we have the pleasure of publishing her first post for BHb, which provides some great ideas about adapting one’s work for a book proposal. Most recently, Lori authored Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement, part of the Lamar Series in Western History published by Yale in 2016. -Mike

I am often asked for advice on how to navigate the transition from completing a dissertation to revising the dissertation into a book, and writing academic book proposals for publishers. Here are seven tips that might help demystify the book proposal process (disclaimer: I’m a historian, but hopefully these tips translate across disciplinary boundaries):

  • See your work with new, fresh eyes.

If you’ve just finished your dissertation, congratulations! Now set it aside for a good while. Trying to tackle dissertation-to-book revisions too soon will prevent you from seeing your graduate school-inspired language, and from knowing what needs to be tweaked, cut, or added in terms of content. Many times, you need a more distant perspective on your work in order to articulate to editors how you plan to produce a book, which is an entirely different beast in terms of framing, style, and structure. Feel free to circulate your work to valued colleagues for their input while you’re gaining that distance, and tackle other passion projects or interesting new readings in your field for some inspiration.

If you’ve already taken this break and are ready to come back to your project, look at your work with these fresher eyes. Are you putting forth a strong argument that will reach a broader range of readers than it did in its previous iterations? Is your authorial voice authoritative, accessible, and uniquely you? Are there models out there (other books you admire) that can help you think about narrative craft and flow? This is the time to look at your intellectual contribution with a wider, more ambitious lens.

  • The entire work does NOT need to be revised before you send in a proposal.

I have talked to many people who have been reluctant to begin writing their book proposals because they think the entire manuscript needs to be revised, polished, and ready for scrutiny. Not every chapter needs to be ready before you begin sending out proposals. In fact, academic press editors rarely ask to see more than one or two sample chapters in addition to your proposal document. At this point, polish your introduction and strongest chapters. Rest assured that the full drafted manuscript will not be due in the hands of readers for a while, with the author and press mutually agreeing upon that submission date well in advance.

  • Write your proposal, and tailor it to the publisher.

The guidelines for proposal submissions can be found on press websites, so be sure to pay attention to what an individual press wants and tailor your proposal accordingly. Usually no longer than 10 pages, a book proposal should include a brief cover letter addressed to the appropriate editor, followed by a clear, concise description of the project and a rationale for its publication (meaning, its scholarly significance, appeal to both the specialist and generalist, and any qualities that distinguish the book from its competition). Answer the questions: Why should this press care about adding your book to its catalog or a particular series? What important intellectual conversations are you engaging and influencing? What are the various audiences that would be interested in and buy this book? Does your work possess any crossover appeal or timeliness? You should state whether you have successfully published excerpts from the work already and provide an anticipated word/illustration count and proposed completion date of the full manuscript.

  • Pitch well.

Conference book exhibits are ideal locations to set up a pitch meeting with a potential editor. In advance of a conference that you plan to attend (this doesn’t need to be the “big” conference of your field, either—smaller conferences might actually get you more face time with someone), e-mail the appropriate acquisitions editor to set up a meeting. Provide a brief description of your book, along with your CV, and end by asking if they would like to receive your book proposal before, during, or after your meeting (some editors want all the materials before meeting you, and some don’t).

In any case, never send lengthy, unsolicited manuscripts to editors. You are free to pitch to as many, and meet with as many, presses as you want at this stage. If you’re lucky enough to be approached by a press first, take advantage of their interest and follow up on that connection in a timely manner.

  • Upon meeting with an editor, ask the right questions.

Think about what’s important to you in a publisher. Ideally, you want to work with a press that has a solid reputation and has published other books you like and respect. While prestige is important, give additional thought to the way a press will treat you for the years that you will have a relationship with them. Ask the following questions during your meeting with an editor: Which editor/s will you be working with, and how closely? How long does the overall process take (from proposal to editorial board response to readers’ reports, and from copyediting to proofs to publication)? Can you join a particular book series you admire in that press? How many books does the press produce in the span of one season? Getting a better idea of a press’s timeline and priorities will help you think backwards (if you have a tenure calendar or another kind of calendar for your life to keep in mind). Ask colleagues what their experiences have been with different presses, particularly if they have published very recently.

  • Be patient yet vigilant.

Some presses might end up ignoring your work, while others will be more attentive. Once you have prioritized your list of interested editors (if you’re lucky enough to have more than one), proceed to working with your first choice and submit whatever work the editor wants to send out for readers’ reports and their press’s editorial board. If there are lags in communication, follow up respectfully about the status of your submission. During this time, don’t burn your bridges with any other presses until you are officially offered a book contract to sign. 

  • Approach a book deal/contract wisely.

Getting offered a book contract is flattering and exciting, but be sure to ask some more important questions. Is this an advance contract (meaning the press wants to work with the manuscript, but is not fully committing to publishing it yet), or a full contract? Are you responsible for coming up with any subvention funds? If you are working with oral histories or human subjects, does the press have its own proprietary consent forms you will be required to complete? How affordable will the book be? (Illustrations, copyright permissions, and length can hike up the price). Can the press offer you a simultaneous run in hardcover and paperback? What are the authors’ royalties, if any, for hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions? How many free author copies will you receive? Try to negotiate what is important to you before signing any contract, while realizing that you may have to give in to certain terms.

Remember that book proposals can be revelatory in themselves. Writing mine helped me see more clearly what I planned to revise, reframe, and refine in my work, and that was extremely useful. Publishing a book is a long and bumpy road, but tackling the proposal is an important first step that can help clear some mental obstacles out of your path.

Categories: Teaching/Professional Development | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “From Dissertation to Book: Writing a Book Proposal

  1. For example, a Doctorate in History, Psychology makes easier the process of creating books for a wide audience of readers. What’s about the other? The second problem is the specific difference between the composition, language and style of books and dissertations. In fact, it is not an adaptation of the thesis, it’s about writing a whole book from scratch! Don’t forget even about such a situation that recently has been actively discussed in the press (for example Huffingtonpost ). First, people buy their scientific works and then hire a “ghosts’ to turn the dissertation into a book. Sadly, but true – the process of writing the book need much time and sweat.

  2. Great post Lori…thanks for the tips and experience!

  3. Pingback: A Year in Review: BHB in 2016 | Borderlands History

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