Writing a Textbook Proposal

Neil J. Salkind, a professor and a book agent, offers advice on how to get a publisher interested.

March 21, 2005

Writing your very own textbook? Now that’s a challenge, and for many, an attractive one at that.

You’ve taught the same class many times and never really quite found the book that fits your style of teaching or contains all the material you believe is important. And, there is the potential for extra income.

So, you’re ready to take the plunge and present a proposal to several publishers. What’s next? A well-written, engaging and effective proposal. We’ll assume that you’re proposing a textbook for the first- or second-level introductory market, that you are an expert in the subject matter you want to write about,  you have a terminal degree in your field (publishers like credentials) and you've got a teaching appointment of some kind.

We'll also assume this is something you really want to do (and we mean really want to do). At best, it’s a labor of love and will demand a great deal of your time and attention. Before you start writing anything, make sure that it’s the right time in your career and the right project to undertake.

Now that you’ve made your decision to embark on writing a textbook, the next step will be putting together a book proposal that will have publishers sitting up and taking notice.

The best proposals are those that contain five key elements  that the acquisitions editor will focus on. Each of these elements should distinguish the proposed book from the others on the market. These elements are:

  • A clear statement of who the target audience is and a rationale for the book.
  • A detailed table of contents.
  • A comparative analysis of the existing books in comparisons with your proposed book.
  • A sample chapter.
  • The loose ends.

Let’s take the one at a time.

The target audience. It's obvious that an introductory psychology book, for example, would not be written for any audience other than introductory psychology students. However, introductory books can be used at several different different levels of course work. What might be used as the introductory text in one setting may very well become the more advanced book in another. Define what level of audience you want this book targeted at and describe that audience early in the proposal. Include the size of the market (in terms of numbers of students enrolled in such courses) as well as the potential for growth in a particular discipline. And be sure to look for publishers who may need a new book in this area. You can determine this by calling and writing to editors at the various publishers who you think produce good textbooks and talk with them about the market and your ideas. Your rationale for the book should tell the editor what is unique about it and why the market will want it.

A detailed table of contents. Here’s your opportunity to show the editor how you will organize the information and, in general, what you know about the subject matter. The table of contents (or TOC) should be comprehensive, logically organized according to some underlying rationale (such as a chronological or topical approach), fit the course’s time constraints (semester or quarter, for example), be as descriptive as possible and convey anything special you might be including, such as anecdotes, sidebars, formula derivations, biographies or puzzles. Refer to the pedagogical tools you'll be using throughout the book. Remember that the TOC is like an outline and reflects your thoughts on how you would organize the book. Be complete. If a potential author can’t complete TOC, how can an editor expect the author to finish an entire manuscript?

A comparative analysis of the existing books. Most editors who will read your proposal know less than you about your field and even less than that about what other books will compete with your future masterpiece. The editor’s first job is to read your proposal and, if interesting enough, send it out for review. When an editor presents a book proposal to the full committee at a publisher, he or she will be depending upon your analysis of competing books and why yours has the potential to capture some of the market share. You want that person very well prepared. For every book that competes with yours, list the author(s), title, ISBN (so the editor can track sales – they use tools such as BookScan), number of pages, important elements such as a glossary, chapter exercises, etc., and most important, how your proposed book would differ and be better than existing ones. Your job is not to trash the other books, but it surely is to distinguish yours from the others and that can be done on many different dimensions, including whether one book is too restrictive in its scope of coverage, date of publication, theoretical focus, organization scheme, and even political orientation.

A sample chapter. This should absolutely shine. Don't send in the first or the last chapter, but one that falls around the middle of the book. And don't make it the easiest or the hardest chapter to write, but one where you can show your mastery and demonstrate the various techniques you might use throughout the book to engage the student and share your knowledge. Make it authoritative, approachable in tone and attractive in presentation. No fancy covers needed and no three ring binders please, but certainly double spaced, proofread, with pages numbered and using appropriate headers. When sent via e-mail, be sure you get confirmation it was received. You may also want to present it in person to the editor at a professional conference or have a sales representative transmit it –- it helps the sales folks earn points with their boss and gives you another person in the organization who might be able to help you track its progress. And as with your journal article manuscripts, have a trusted colleague read through the chapter and offer feedback.

The loose ends. There are a million loose ends to any textbook proposal . For example, if a CD or DVD is to accompany the text, indicate what added value it will bring to the student. How will the CD be developed, what will it contain, and who will be responsible for the material being provide (it need not always be you). How many pages will the manuscript be and what does the detailed writing schedule look like? What makes you the right author for this project – what writing experience and other skills can you bring to this effort? Your best bet to address absolutely everything you can and answer the editor’s questions before they are asked.

Writing an introductory text is long journey. A well-prepared proposal is the first step along that path.

Next month: The proposal’s in. What’s next?


Neil J. Salkind is on the faculty of the University of Kansas and is an agent at Studio B and has worked with many textbook publishers including Prentice Hall, Wadsworth, Sage and Blackwell.


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