book writing

Writing a book pt 2 – the proposal


So, having dampened your expectations about the transformational aspect of book writing in the previous post, you’ve now set yourself up to think of it as a job like task. The first part in the process is to get a proposal together. For the publisher, this may be the most important aspect – the book is essentially just realising what is in the proposal. They may not care that much about what is actually in the book as long as it does what it says in the proposal. Getting this right is essential.

It is also a very useful component in proving to yourself whether there really is a book in that idea you’ve had floating around for a while, and in structuring that writing. Most publishers will have a book proposal form (eg here is Ubiquity’s). Take this seriously! I think authors sometimes feel like their genius should be the only proposal they need. It’s a business, your book is a product – get over it and play the game (sorry, that all sounds a bit capitalist, but the sooner an author recognises this, the easier the whole process will be).

The proposal form will usually ask for the following elements (it’ll vary between publishers):

  • Title – an obvious one, but a real struggle. Do you go descriptive or catchy? It will depend on your target audience but in general I’ve favoured shorter titles that capture the argument (with maybe a sub-heading).
  • Brief description – This can be difficult, as an author the temptation is often to summarise the whole book but it’s really a pitch for the book, setting out why it’s needed, and how it’ll address the problem.
  • Indicative contents listing – a breakdown of chapters is a very useful way of constructing the book for yourself. If you can get to around ten chapters with a distinctive flavour then you can probably hope to write 5-6K on each. Breaking it down like this is a good indication that there is a realistic book in there.
  • Market appraisal – trying to assess how your book differs from others can be tricky, but in general I think a publisher wants to see that you’re aware of other titles, and can make a case for yours being distinctive. Because if you can’t then that will suggest it won’t sell. They also LOVE it if you can say it’ll be definitely used in a course, but I’ve never had that.
  • Proposed length & illustrations – I always feel if I can get to 55K plus references, then that is sufficiently “booky”. 60-80K words is a good range. In a digital print world I don’t know why publishers are still so worried about the number of illustrations but they are. These are very useful in breaking up text, but they represent an additional burden in that print quality images have to be created in separate files and images you have that you may feel are print quality, often aren’t.
  • About you – academics are (sometimes) a modest bunch so writing the ‘why I am amazing and the best person in the whole world to write this book’ section can be a challenge. But you’ve got more expertise and experience than nearly anyone else in the area you’re proposing, so document it clearly.
  • Sample chapter – often people provide the introduction, which is a good means to set the context for the book, but it’s not a very representative chapter, so it may be a better choice to go for something else that really captures the tone of the book. I go for one that a) I have to hand or can complete quickly and b) showcases what I think are the best quality of the book.
  • Time frame – I’ll look at the writing process in more detail in a later post, but you’ll need to be realistic here – don’t go kidding yourself that you’re taking on a new role at work but you’ll get up at 5am every day, put in 2 hours writing, do a full days work, pick up the kids from school, after they’ve gone to bed you’ll put in another 2 hours and get the whole thing done in 6 weeks. This will need to be balanced with being appealing to the publisher – a book coming in 5 years time is not going to get them excited.

Choosing a publisher is a mixture of legitimacy, research clout, principles and pragmatism. Rather like being selected for a sports team when you’re not very gifted, often the best publisher is the one who will have you. I write about open education in various forms, so being open access is an absolute for me (any book that is proclaiming the benefits of OER and then asking you to pay $100 for it, finds its message rather undermined). But this is a complex issue, many fields don’t have these options, or the publishers require prohibitive fees to publish open access, or their discipline and institution requires publication with certain presses. And if you’re not an academic in a full time job, then publishing books is likely to be a key part of your income.

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