Advice for would-be textbook authors on approaching a publisher and writing a proposal


Last month I was invited to take part in a panel discussion for early-career faculty thinking about their first book project. The panel was held at the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) conference, and attendance was around 20-30 people, which was pretty good for an 8am start! Here’s a summary of the advice I gave:

1) Research the right publisher for the project you’re proposing:

Publishers build lists of textbooks in defined discipline areas where they have editorial, marketing, and sales expertise. They are unlikely to be interested in a project that falls outside of their current publishing areas, so do some research on publishers’ websites, or look at the books on your own bookshelf to see who the publishers are. When you attend a conference, visit the exhibit hall, and talk with an Acquisitions Editor.

2) Identify the right Acquisitions Editor and send them an inquiry:
If you don’t have an upcoming conference, most publishers provide a list of Acquisitions Editors on their website (SAGE’s list is available here). Identify the person who is the best fit for your project, and send them an email with details of what you have in mind. The editor will tell you quite quickly if the book is something they might be interested in. As publishers’ proposal guidelines vary considerably, it is useful to establish first whether your project is of interest before you spend time writing a proposal to fit a particular publisher’s guidelines (only to find the project isn’t right for them).

3) Use the publisher’s proposal guidelines to craft the best proposal you can: Proposal guidelines (SAGE’s guidelines are available here) outline what the publisher wants to see in a textbook proposal. The audience for your proposal is the publisher, and also the external reviewers to whom it will be sent. The proposal is your opportunity to make a strong case for the book, how it will meet market needs, and why you are the person to write it. The Table of Contents is probably the most important piece, as it allows reviewers to see exactly what you intend to cover, and it also helps you organize your thoughts and plan the book. A thin or disorganized proposal (or one full of typos) is not going to fill the editor with confidence in you as a potential author!

4) Be prepared to take feedback and revise your proposal:
The editor will likely have some feedback on the first draft of your proposal, so be prepared to revise and resubmit. After sending the proposal out for review, there may be more changes to make in terms of the Table of Contents. The drafting and review of your proposal is an important early contact with the Acquisitions Editor, who is looking to see if you are an author with whom they can work: are you someone who is willing to listen to advice from the editor and reviewers? You’ll also want to feel that the editor is someone that you can work with too: are they enthusiastic about your work, do they understand the market? When you sign a contract to write a textbook for SAGE, we hope that it’s the beginning of a long and rewarding relationship, so it is important for both of us that it gets off to the very best start!

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