Academic Book Proposals: How Grab The Publishers Attention

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Journal articles may have more clout in the REF, but there’s nothing like a book with your name on the spine to make academics feel that they have really made their mark as scholars. This article presents some basic tips on how to write, format, target and sell books based on your academic research.

About academic publishers.

Academic publishers are amongst the world’s most profitable publishing firms: far more so than better-known fiction publishers. His academic publishing house (Pergamon Press) gave the late, and very controversial, British newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell his wealth, and his great rival Rupert Murdoch is also a player. The area is now dominated by a few very large firms.

Why so lucrative? It’s the financial model: academics usually must publish as a condition of their employment, so they write and peer-review for no pay. The publishers put very little time into editing or design, and many authors are now asked to proofread and index their own work as well. The end products are in turn sold at high prices to information-hungry academics (it’s a rare title that actually crosses over into the mainstream market.)

Exploit yourself.

What that means for academics is that the basic business model is one of exploiting your hard work for someone else’s profit. But whether you must publish to fulfill your contract or have a burning desire to disseminate your research, you can use the system to your advantage.

As you make contacts and, eventually, negotiate, remember that they need you more than you need them: the industry runs on a constant stream of new content. 

Perfect proposals.

Obviously, given these parameters, what publishers value most is a manuscript that is as close to completion as possible, not a speculative venture.

Accordingly, when you propose, include at least one sample chapter, a full and detailed outline of the contents with a short summary of each chapter, and thoroughly researched information about the potential market for your book—including how it stacks up against similar titles and what courses might use it. You’ll also need a convincing CV and short bio.

Most academic publishers have a proposal template or guidelines on their Web site. If so, follow this to the letter.

And before you submit, ask two people to read your proposal: a trusted colleague who knows the topic, and a non-academic friend who can tell you whether what you’ve written is interesting. That’s because commissioning editors may not be specialists in your field.

Which publisher?

Sometimes a publisher will choose you: big names like Wiley and Palgrave Macmillan often send editorial representatives on scouting missions to conferences and major universities in search of new talent. If you’re head-hunted in this way, respond with a proposal within no more than two weeks.

If you need to find your own, look at the best three or four books recently published in your field. Who is the publisher? If an editor is named (check the author’s introduction), contact them directly.

Since there’s no profit motive, you can afford to be choosy for other reasons. Consider issues like product quality, prestige, distribution reach, and which academic authors will be your stablemates.

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