We are often asked about the key components that contribute to a successful proposal. A formal proposal is typically the starting point for assessing a potential book project, and therefore a well-structured and coherent proposal can invariably make the difference between a book being accepted or rejected for publication. Alex Pettifer, Edward Elgar Publishing’s Editorial Director, explains how to write the perfect book proposal.
Before running through some of the key points to take into account when preparing a proposal, it is worth considering that it will have to appeal to both a commissioning editor and several academic reviewers, who will have quite different perspectives on whether the book could be a successful proposition. The editor will want to consider whether the project sits well in a relevant list, whether it is a potential fit for a series, what sort of market it might have, and how much it will cost to produce and market. The reviewer will critique the academic credentials of the project, where it lies within the current literature, the overall coherence of the project and what lasting contribution it might make. A good proposal will cover all these fundamental points, and more.
At Edward Elgar Publishing, we ask potential authors or editors to complete a standardized proposal form, based on a template we send them or that they have downloaded from our website. The reason for this is that the form contains much of the information we would need in order to build a complete picture of the book, as well as providing useful pointers for our referees. The proposal form itself contains 27 questions, broken down into four main sections – the Author, the Book, the Synopsis and The Market.
The first section of the proposal is fairly straightforward, as it largely contains basic biographical details on the author, their research interests and influences, and their nominated referees. We will typically pay closest attention in this section to an author’s publication track record. For instance, if an author is well published within a particular niche, and hence would have strong name recognition within that field, than this can sometimes make the difference for a marginal project becoming commercially viable. If the potential author is at an early stage in their career and doesn’t have a long publishing track record then it is important that they include high profile academics as referees, whom we may choose to contact in addition to our own referees
This section of six questions really allows us to build a clear picture of the prospective costs of publishing the book on offer. By giving accurate details of the length, number of figures and tables and the proportion of mathematical equations, we can calculate a rough estimate of the investment required to copyedit, typeset, proof read and print the book. The other question in this section relates to the use of copyright material. This is a key point often overlooked by authors, either in the use of their own work (perhaps drawing on journal articles they have previously published), or using the work of others (e.g. through reproducing figures and tables). Copyright problems can frustratingly hold-up production of the manuscript at a later date, so it is crucial that authors begin to consider the use of copyrighted material as they are preparing their proposal.
This is really the heart of the book proposal, and one that the external referees will particularly focus on. Successful book proposals will always contain a detailed synopsis, typically between 500 and 1,000 words, and sometimes longer depending on the complexity of the book’s structure and theoretical arguments. Generally, the more detail the better, as this certainly helps the referees to give more constructive feedback on the proposed book. The synopsis should not only describe the book but also explain why there is a need for it and what contribution it will make to the field. In addition, a draft table of contents is also required, in order that we can gain a clear view of the proposed structure of the book. Related to the synopsis, another key question in this section asks for the details of any important features in the book, either in terms of new material or theoretical approach. Again, the more detail here the better – a publisher won’t be interested in a book that brings nothing new to the market or its readership!
As an editor, it’s very important to gain a clear view of the author’s perception of the market for their book, as any misunderstanding on this will only lead to confusion and disappointment on both sides. Therefore, in this section the form has several questions that are intended to clarify the exact market the author has in mind. For the editor, this again feeds into the overall costing for taking on the project, as a textbook for instance will incur much heavier marketing costs than a traditional scholarly monograph. On a related note, we also ask for details on competing titles, which is much more of a concern for a textbook, but less so for a scholarly monograph. The proposal form also asks for the author’s view on the price of their book – if they had in mind a cheap trade paperback for the bookshop market, then this would not work commercially for a specialist edited book on a niche topic for instance.
While the above briefly covers some of the main points in preparing a successful proposal, the overriding point to make is that it very apparent from a brief reading whether the author has made a clear, structured and compelling case for a book’s publication. If an author ever has any questions or doubts about a proposal, then I would strongly encourage them to consult with one of our editors. Sharing a proposal with colleagues first can also be beneficial in obtaining some friendly and constructive feedback before submitting it formally.
As an editor, there is nothing more exciting than that initial read of a well structured and well argued book proposal – quite simply, it’s what gets us up in the morning! We pride ourselves on our responsiveness to authors, and will always acknowledge proposals on the day on which they are received. Hopefully, the above advice will prove useful to prospective authors, and we look forward to receiving their proposals.
Alex Pettifer is the Editorial Director at Edward Elgar Publishing.