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A prospective author looking for the how-tos of writing a book proposal will find no end of advice and templates on the internet. Harder to track down is clear advice about the more intangible aspects of how to use the proposal to get a book published.
Do you submit the proposal before the manuscript is written or after? When do you sign the contract? How are you supposed to talk to an editor? Are you supposed to contact an editor directly, or do you need a literary agent first?
It’s harder to find clear answers to these questions because the answers vary quite a bit, depending on what sector of publishing the author is hoping to break into. Advice that works for trade publishing simply doesn’t apply in scholarly publishing, where most of my author clients are hoping to place their books. And even within this area, advice on these points can and should vary based on the client’s needs and career goals.
As a consultant for prospective academic book authors, I’ve fielded hundreds (maybe thousands) of questions about the publishing process. I even kept track of all the questions in a spreadsheet for a while, so I could monitor which ones came up most frequently. And one question that comes up the most, by a landslide, is: When in my book-writing process should I be submitting a proposal to publishers?
If I were working with trade authors, the answer would be straightforward: you typically submit the proposal before you finish writing the book. You need a detailed outline of what you plan to write, plus a market analysis and possibly a writing sample to show that your style will connect with readers. But you would probably wait to see if a publisher is willing to invest in the project before you would commit to researching and writing the whole thing.
The answer is more complicated when it comes to academic books. A scholarly author may be able to write a complete draft of their manuscript before securing a contract if they have a full-time job that ostensibly supports them in doing that. They won’t be banking on the book itself as a source of income; their academic salary will provide that. That pattern may be changing, however, as more scholars find themselves shut out of full-time employment as university researchers and teachers, and presses may have to adapt to this reality -- by being willing to commit to authors early in the process -- if they want to secure manuscripts from the many bright scholars without permanent academic employment.
The timing question is also complicated by the fact that, in scholarly publishing, authors may have more opportunities for direct access to acquiring editors. You don’t need an agent to approach an editor at a university press or commercial academic press. You can often contact an editor directly to talk about your project, either by email or in person at one of the larger academic conferences put on by scholarly organizations.
As I tell my clients, it’s never too early for an informal chat, assuming the editor makes themselves available to meet with prospective authors, which many in this sector do. Preliminary conversations -- even when an author is just starting to think about developing their idea into a book -- can be useful for gauging whether an editor gets it and sees the idea fitting with their list.
The proper timing of the formal proposal submission is where people get confused. It’s easy to see why, because there is actually no one right answer. Editors’ preferences on the point at which they like to enter the process with an author vary widely. These may be personal preferences or just the way things tend to work at their press. Because peer review is a core aspect of scholarly publishing, some presses make a habit -- or policy -- of waiting for an entire manuscript to be approved by peer reviewers and the faculty editorial board before issuing a contract. It’s usually hard to know from the outside whether a particular press has this policy or whether they are willing to be flexible, depending on the project that’s in front of them.
Some presses are more willing than others to offer advance contracts, which may still entail peer review but of only a proposal and small portion of the manuscript. An advance contract is a real commitment to publication, but it usually contains the stipulation that the full manuscript must undergo some sort of peer review and approval process by the editorial committee.
When someone comes to me for advice on when in their writing process they should submit a proposal to their target publishers, I usually ask a few questions to get a sense of the author’s situation. Then I can help them decide whether they should go ahead and start submitting or wait until they’ve written the entire manuscript.
The first thing I’ll want to know from an author is, “What is your dream press?” It might be one that I happen to know is reluctant to issue advance contracts. At those presses, an author may be able to get an informal response to a submitted proposal, but at best the message will be, “Yes, we like this and could imagine publishing it, but get back to us when you have the whole manuscript written and ready to send to peer reviewers.” That response -- or its flip side, “No, this isn’t for us” -- can still be helpful information to receive early on, but the author will have to wait a while before getting a firm commitment to publish.
If an author is targeting a press where an advance contract on the basis of a proposal and sample chapters is more of a possibility, the decision about when to approach becomes a matter of what works for that author personally. Therefore, these are the other questions I’ll pose to an author in order to help them make their submission plan.
Do you already know the core argument and main takeaway you want readers to get from your book? If so, then it may be possible to write a tight proposal that will connect with editors. But because scholarly contributions can be highly complex and must be responsive to conversations within a field, many academics figure out their book’s thesis through the process of researching and writing the manuscript.
If this sounds like you, I advise that you draft a proposal early on (to map out your book and its audience for yourself) but not submit it to publishers until you’re certain what you want the book’s contribution to be and how the content supports that contribution. You’ll have a better chance of convincing editors and peer reviewers that your book needs to exist if you have a firm handle on what specifically you want to say about your topic, which you may not know up front.
Would you find it easier to work on your manuscript with some external validation that you’re on the right track with your topic and angle? If this approach appeals to you, I might advise you to submit the proposal earlier on. Some editors and peer reviewers provide helpful feedback in the earlier stages, which can even help shape a manuscript before you complete it, provided you’re open to that feedback.
The risk here is that you might not get the validation you’re looking for if an editor or peer reviewers aren’t convinced by your sample materials that you’ll produce a compelling book. You won’t completely tank your chances of getting your book published if you take this risk -- you can always submit to other presses -- but you have to decide for yourself how high the stakes are for you at any one press. You may not be given the chance to resubmit at the same press if they decline to move forward the first time.
Are external deadlines a motivation for you? If you’re the kind of person who needs, say, a legally binding due date to get you to finish and turn something in, an advance contract might be what you need. Again, it’s a bit of a risk, because the publisher will reserve the right to cancel publication if the manuscript isn’t submitted by the due date. But in practice, there’s usually some flexibility, as long as you stay in touch with your editor and can agree on revised deadlines.
Are you within a year or two of having your full manuscript complete? If so, that’s a reasonable time to seek an advance contract. If you’re much further out than that -- which is entirely possible since academic research and writing can take a while, especially as the pandemic complicates travel and feedback opportunities -- it may make sense to wait. Your goals for the book, and which press would be the best partner for it, could shift over the course of a few years, so it may be wise to hold off before committing to anyone.
The scarcity of peer reviewers, due to COVID and other sources of time stress in today’s academy, is also affecting publishers’ timelines. A press may be reluctant to have a proposal and sample chapters peer reviewed (for an advance contract) if they know they’re going to have to reach out to the reviewers again in just a few months’ time to review the full manuscript. They may strongly urge an author to wait until they’re ready to submit the whole manuscript for review in order to streamline the peer-review and acquisitions process for everyone.
Figuring out the academic book publishing process, including how and when to interact with editors and publishers within that process, is not easy for first-time authors or even experienced ones. Thinking carefully about your own motivations and goals will help you take more control in your process of becoming an author and allow you to determine the next steps that make sense for you.