Department of History and Philosophy of Science

How to write a book proposal

Form of proposal

Is sending a proposal standard practice, or should you send a manuscript to a potential publisher?

  • It's not immediately obvious how one should proceed. If you have finished your PhD, publishers do exist to whom you can send a slightly modified PhD. In rare cases it is possible to get a PhD thesis printed 'as is', for example, as a critical edition of a text. However, if you are seeking publication by one of the top publishing houses, simply submitting a PhD will not do. It is better to submit a detailed, grand proposal, making it clear that the book has its root in a PhD, but indicating the ways in which the book will go on beyond the PhD.
  • The very worst way to proceed, however, is to sit down after you have finished your PhD thesis and begin revising it before you contact a publisher. Publishers will ask you to revise it anyway.
  • Make sure that your proposal contains all the relevant information. OUP, for example, likes to have a statement including: aims, scope, intended readership, chapter-by-chapter outline, competing works, CV and possible reviewing journals.
  • With the proposal, it is often a good idea to send the publisher a sample chapter of your PhD reworked to read like a book chapter.
  • Without an expression of interest, you may send a thesis to a publishing house and hear nothing from them for 9 months or so. This can be extremely frustrating. It is much better to make contact with a publishing house through a proposal.
  • The Blackwell Guide for Authors (revised edition, 1981) maintains that it is quite in order for you to send your proposal to more than one press, provided that the first press you sent it to has sat on it for more than four months.
  • Be prepared for a frustrating time lag. Well-written proposals are also beneficial because they reduce the time lag in the publishing process. Editors must find someone to review a manuscript; someone who will probably be extremely busy with everyday academic work. Proposals take relatively little time to go through; thus proposed reviewers are usually happy to take them. A manuscript, however, may take up to 20 hours to read closely and review, and many academics will not accept manuscripts for this reason.
  • Some presses prefer authors to approach them through personal contacts; cold submissions are disfavoured. Others do not encourage communication through private channels. Talk to supervisors and those who have previously published about the vagaries of each publisher.
  • Do not choose a publishing house on prestige alone. Think about your audience carefully. Check publishers' catalogues and distribution networks to see if particular publishers will be right for your project.
  • One important consideration is the question of the relationship between your book and the papers you are publishing. You should not publish the same kind of material in the same kind of outlet. For example, publishing the same kind of material in both conference proceedings and a journal is unacceptable. However, it is generally not a problem if much of the material in your book has been previously published in the form of journal papers. You don't, however, want journal papers to come out after your book! Keep the timescale of publication in mind. Some journals, such as Isis, may take a year or so to publish a paper once accepted. Once your paper has been accepted, it is perfectly in order to enquire of editors its likely publication date. The business of scheduling publication has no relation with the process of refereeing.
  • If you will be using a substantial number of figures, or want colour figures, make this clear from the outset. Some publishers are much more generous than others over production of figures, though most will expect you to pay the permission fees. On occasion it may be possible to get a grant towards permission fees, for example from the BA or RS.

Differences between books and theses

  • Your thesis may lose quite a lot of material before publication, especially in a history PhD. Complex footnoting, for example, which works to establish your credentials in the PhD, is not necessarily essential in a book.
  • In PhDs, much of the writing is to convince the examiner that you know the field, and is not necessarily essential to the argument. If you are writing for a textbook, however, some of this scene-setting writing may have to be retained.
  • A PhD usually gives two published articles. This means that in a six-chapter PhD, there are usually four articles not published. It should be remembered that each chapter in a book must be at the level of a publishable journal article.
  • PhDs often read as if they were written for two examiners, not a wider community. Often, chapters are too detached from each other. In a book, you require a sustained argument; this applies especially in philosophy, where often the argument will need to be developed further.
  • Increasingly, publishers demand 'outreach' and may require authors to 'spice up' an introduction.

NJ, ER
Last revised 29 May 2008