Supporting Faculty Writers: Book Proposal Workshop

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by Caitlin Holmes and Caitlin Dungan

On Friday, April 24th, Mason’s Writing Across the Curriculum invited three experts on academic publishing to present on crucial information for writing and submitting book proposals.  Our panelists, Dr. John Farina, Dr. Peter Stearns, and John Warren (click here for full biographies), provided thoughtful and supportive advice to attendees before workshopping proposals. Here, we will summarize a few key points that our presenters discussed, our tweets of the event (see the full Twitter feed here), and one presenter’s handout at the end of this piece. 

  • Do your homework.

“Doing your homework” on presses can mean several things.  First, figure out whether or not the press is publishing in your field.  Just because a press is highly respected within your discipline does not mean that it is publishing works that are within the scope of your sub-discipline.  Second, try to determine how long the press takes to process and then publish works.  If a press is known for taking years to move a book from acceptance to publication, consider your own deadlines for tenure and promotion when submitting.

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  • Be mindful of your timeline and the revisions you may need to make.

Turning a dissertation into a book often requires a rethinking of scope.  Dissertations tend to be narrow in terms of the subject matter discussed; books tend to be much broader.  Should you need to revise for a publisher, keep in mind what you propose as your turnaround time for producing a full manuscript – both for the publisher, and for your own tenure case (if applicable).  Publishers keep clauses in contracts that allow the publication to be canceled if they determine that the work is too much of a hassle to get to print due to author delays.  As a result, in tenure cases it’s possible that your institution may not recognize a contract as a substitute for a book that is in print or has a release date.

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  • Consider a query letter.

Get in touch with a publisher via a short letter of introduction where you briefly describe your project to determine if the editor is interested in seeing a full proposal.  Proposals sent in cold may not necessarily receive the same consideration as proposals that are sent in after an editor has expressed interest.  A query letter should be quite brief – no more than 500 words – to describe your project to an educated layperson and give a sense of your abilities or qualifications to publish on such a topic, as well as what contribution your book will make to the field.   Query letters are also a less formal way of establishing interest with a press, whereas book proposals are a more formal – and exclusive – means to submit your work.  In other words, a proposal may need to be submitted to one press at a time; query letters can be sent to as many presses as you like.

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  • Identify other ways to talk to editors.

Meet up with publishers at your discipline’s conference, get connected through your colleagues who have published with particular presses, and think about what connections you have with a press beyond just sending in a proposal.  It’s wonderful to be able to convey your passion for your project in text, but even more so in person.

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John Warren, Head of Mason Publishing Group/George Mason University Press, provided this handout to attendees: Book Proposals

What are some tips that you have for faculty who are starting to circulate their manuscripts?

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