How to get noticed by publishers and other questions – A Q&A with Heather McCallum (PART II)

If you are finishing your PhD and considering publication or you are looking a publisher for your monograph or textbook, read on for helpful advice and practical tips from our Managing Director and Publisher Heather McCallum.

How to prepare a book proposal for a book based on a PhD

If you decide that publication in book form is the most appropriate for your work, the next stage is to prepare a book proposal. Most publishers, including Yale, will send guidelines to prospective authors on request. In fact, most publishers will have guidelines on their websites.

It is important to think of the book as a separate entity from the thesis at an early stage and to plan a structure with the points below in mind, aiming for a coherent narrative flow. You may, for example, need to add chapters or to omit them completely.

A good book proposal can be anywhere between 4 and 15 pages in length. It must include:

  • A general rationale for the book
  • Why it is distinctive or original and what the main arguments are
  • A statement on the expected audience, ie market
  • A brief review of the existing literature and where the book is within it
  • A comment on the competing titles
  • A full list of contents including a summary of each proposed chapter
  • A brief CV which highlights your background and qualifications

In History it might also include a summary of your primary and secondary sources (I find this valuable).

Be realistic about the market.

You are trying to entice a publisher. Try to see it from their perspective. What is likely to engage someone who knows nothing about your subject? Are there hooks, particular angles, points of contemporary interest? Think carefully about the title and the chapter headings.

Bear in mind that before the proposal is sent for review, it must attract the attention of the commissioning editor and possibly others at the publishing company. It is therefore inadvisable to use technical vocabulary or to assume too much familiarity with specialised concepts or literatures.

Many publishers require authors to send one or more sample chapters for external review with the proposal. You may choose to take the chapters you feel will need the least revision from your thesis, but it is often more effective to send a revised chapter. The first chapter is ideal but may be the most difficult to rewrite for publication, in which case try working on a substantive middle chapter instead. Sending the entire thesis is rarely advisable unless the publisher has specifically asked for it.

It can be very useful to ask a colleague with publishing experience or your supervisor to read through the proposal and sample material before you submit it to the publisher.

How to prepare a book proposal for a monograph, textbook, trade book

There is considerable overlap with the content for a PhD book proposal, but the language, pitch, and focus will be very different, specifically more market orientated, and in the case of textbooks there should be more data/material on courses and a focus on selling points. Textbooks and trade books, in particular, are obviously expected to be much more commercial.

The reading process

Any publisher which is in the academic market is likely to have the proposal read by 1-3 external academic referees.

These are selected by the publisher.

Contract offer and negotiation

If the project is approved internally subsequent to readers’ reports, your response, costings and so on the editor will make you an offer for a contract. This is unlikely to be substantial for a PhD or a monograph. It is important to be careful over issues like extent, delivery date and who is responsible for what in terms of permissions, for example.

The process of rewriting

Once you have signed a contract with the publisher and agreed a deadline, the hard work begins!

The publisher will usually give you with copies of the external readers’ reports, which often have helpful suggestions and recommendations for excisions, additions, reorganization and very specific content. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Look closely at the books you have found most persuasive in terms of scholarship and most engaging as a reader and work out what makes them successful. How do they draw you in? Good examples don’t have to be in your field or even your discipline. Be ambitious: try to write the book you would most want to read about your subject.
  • Keep the final reader constantly in mind. It is important to write for the widest potential audience, rather than just for those engaged in similar research areas. Never assume that readers will be as familiar with the literature as you are.
  • The opening chapter is the reader’s “way in” to the argument so it’s well worth putting particular effort into it. It must be as accessible and compelling as you can make it.
  • Think about the narrative flow of the book. The goal is to tempt readers to read from beginning to end of the book – literally to keep turning the pages. Many PhDs have a more “stop-start” approach, in which a point is made and then backed up with evidence and quite possibly numerous examples. Less is more. While it may feel painful to sacrifice hard won nuggets, most works benefit from some reduction of evidence. Alternatively, material might move into the footnotes.
  • In general a book is enhanced by cutting out, simplifying or reducing the review of the literature. Instead, relevant literature should be cited at appropriate points throughout the text.  Do not start with an extended historiographical overview.
  • Similarly, substantial methodology sections should be omitted.
  • It is helpful if conclusions are developed and summed up throughout the book rather than towards the end. A strong introduction should indicate clearly where you are going.

Some technical points:

  • Keep footnotes and endnotes to a minimum
  • Remember to remove all references to ‘this thesis’ or ‘this dissertation’. We advise authors not to mention the book’s origins as a PhD thesis in the preface or acknowledgments, as this information is often repeated in catalogue listings for the book and it can, unfortunately, be detrimental to sales.
  • Approval of quotes from interviewees will need to be obtained if they were not aware at the time of the interview that their comments would appear in a published format. Alternatively, these quotes could be made anonymous or omitted altogether.
  • Be aware that not all illustrations/tables/diagrams are suitable for book publication. If in doubt ask the publisher.
  • Remember that you will need permission to quote copyright material. The “fair-dealing” rule covers single quotations of up to 400 words, or multiple quotations from a work of not more than 200 words each and 800 words in total, for the purposes of review and criticism. Permission must be sought for longer quotations, illustrations or diagrams taken from other published sources, quotations of lyrics or poetry of more than one line and any epigraphs.
  • During the process of rewriting and polishing for publication it can be very valuable to have chapters read informally by colleagues or friends. An external eye can be helpful in pointing out omissions, suggesting new arguments.  Positive feedback is also encouraging! In addition, if English is not your first language it is highly desirable that you find a native speaker with expertise in your field to check through the final manuscript.

For more advice and information on good writing, approaching editors, and putting together a successful book proposal, read How to get noticed by publishers and other questions – Part I.

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