I’m ready to send a book proposal to a UP [university press] that would be a good fit with my project, but I’m worried about pitching “cold.” Because of COVID-19, I haven’t had the chance to network with any acquisitions editors. Any suggestions for impressing editors who don’t know your work?
– Art History
Dr. Editor’s response:
All good writing advice centres on two key pieces of information: audience and context. With a book proposal, you’re writing for an unusual audience: one specific reader — an acquisitions editor at your chosen university press — who in turn is imagining and channeling a broader audience of potential readers. Combine this unusual audience with an unfamiliar context and it’s no surprise you’ve got some worries about your proposal.
To get an expert’s take on writing with this unusual audience in mind, I spoke with Laura Portwood-Stacer, whose The Book Proposal Book comes out this month. Dr. Portwood-Stacer told me that while it’s great to get the chance to ask an editor what topics they’re excited about at the moment, such conversations aren’t the only way to ensure a good fit between your proposed book and an individual UP.
“You want to understand, as best you can, how that press makes acquisitions decisions,” she said. “You can do that by looking at what they’ve acquired and published, and getting a sense of what the books on their lists are like. Then, you’ll want to articulate how your book is either like those books or is a complement to them, so that people who are already reading books from that press will want yours.”
If, dear letter-writer, you’re confident about how your project fits with your chosen UP, then your next step is to hook your reader’s attention and persuade them to invest their time and attention in your book project. To do so, your proposal must both clearly articulate your argument — including its significance and its relevance to a body of readers — and, as Dr. Portwood-Stacer writes in her book, “demonstrate your own authority and ability to reach readers” (28).
Having authority and an ability to reach readers doesn’t mean having an h-index in the mid-double-digits, 10,000 Twitter followers, a tenure-track position at an Ivy league school or even a CV filled with big-league publications. “On the contrary,” Dr. Portwood-Stacer writes (92-3). “An editor may get more excited about discovering someone who is at the start of their writing career and just beginning to develop their reputation as an important thinker.”
To impress an acquisitions editor at a UP — that is, to persuade them of your credibility and potential reach — Dr. Portwood-Stacer’s recommendations include:
1. Demonstrate your grasp of key concepts
In your proposal, a too-heavy dependence on jargon terms can be “a red flag that you haven’t fully digested the secondary source material in your field,” Dr. Portwood-Stacer notes (83). In your proposal, an acquisitions editor needs to see your expert knowledge at work, and so you’ll need to show that you can communicate the meanings and mechanisms that underly jargon words and phrases.
When editors like me and consultants like Dr. Portwood-Stacer suggest avoiding the use of jargon, we’re not saying that your book has to be accessible to people who aren’t scholars. It’s appropriate to write for a niche, scholarly audience — when you are actually writing for that audience. But your proposal doesn’t have the same audience as your book. In your book proposal, your credibility shines most clearly when you show an acquisitions editor your ability to unpack trendy terms.
2. Show the humans
When book proposals come off as dry and boring, take your reader back to the “concrete things and real people” that motivate your work, Dr. Portwood-Stacer suggests (66). Academics tend to link together discrete events and concepts, and then name that link with some abstract language. There’s great value in doing so — frameworks, models and theories arise from such abstraction — but a surplus of such abstract language, without a connection to the material world, can result in a proposal that fails to excite.
Show the humans, the living beings or the material conditions or objects that inform your work. Point at some of your evidence. “Then,” says Dr. Portwood-Stacer, “you can pull back to some of the larger theoretical themes encapsulated in your findings” (67).
3. Emphasize with your reader’s perspective
Remember that an acquisitions editor is a person who is dedicated to getting quality information into the world. You don’t need to sell your book project the way you’d sell used cars; your work doesn’t have to be the most important, the shiniest, or even the first. Indeed, as Dr. Portwood-Stacer notes, being the first can be a bad thing, as “perhaps there are no other books like yours out there because there are no viable buying audiences for books like yours” (34).
To emphasize with your proposal-reader’s perspective, do your research: know the press and, if relevant, the series; and look at how their books are usually structured, titled and framed. Mirror these conventions in the form of your proposed book. If you can show that you understand what a book from their UP looks and sounds like — if you can show that you’ve considered what they’re interested in publishing — your pitch shouldn’t stay cold for too long.
Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors is published by Princeton University Press, and came out July 13, 2021.