For early- to mid-career researchers who have authored and published many journal articles but have yet to publish a book, submitting a proposal to a publisher can seem like a confusing and daunting process. If you are considering a book project but not sure how to pursue it, this article will take you step by step through the process. I’ll offer tips for success garnered from my experience as a former project manager in the S&T books department of a major scientific publisher.
Reasons to author or edit a reference book
A reference book publication is an important milestone in establishing your expertise in your field and an effective means to contribute valuable knowledge to your discipline. With a book you can make a lasting impact. A book has the advantage of a longer lifetime than a journal article, and for books that do well, a publisher will often enter into a contract with an author for updated subsequent editions every 3–5 years. In this digital age, your book will likely be published online and in print, or even online only. The major publishers will make individual chapters available for purchase, and this is another way for your book content to reach wider targeted audiences with specific uses.
Begin with a concept for the book
What is your vision for the book? Will it address a hot topic in your field? Will it be the first of its kind to offer a comprehensive overview and detailed discussion of applications of a new approach or technology? Or perhaps it will provide foundational knowledge, serving as the “go-to” reference for a topic. Maybe it will take a multidisciplinary approach, covering applications of a methodology in various disciplines. It could be a textbook geared toward classroom use and include problems and solutions and other supplemental material.
Will you write all of the chapters, in which case you will be the Author (or co-author if you’re working with a colleague), or will you solicit contributors for each chapter, in which case you will be the Editor?
Whatever your vision, keep in mind that your book should not be merely a collection of already published journal articles or conference papers. A book should contribute something new. Although of course chapters may include research and case studies that have been published in journal articles, the book’s organization will serve to give a context to this content, and chapters should build on each other or converse with each other in a logical manner.
Approaching a publisher
Do some research about the publishers in your field. Browse their online catalogues and publishing platforms. What books have they recently published in your area? Do they publish a book series related to your topic? Where do you see a gap in the literature that the publisher may be looking to fill?
Many publishers have their book proposal forms available for download on their websites, but before putting in the time and effort to prepare your proposal, it’s a good idea to get in touch with the acquisitions editor (also referred to as commissioning editor and publishing editor) for your subject area to find out if they are interested in receiving a proposal for your topic. The acquisitions editor is responsible for planning the books that will publish within that subject area in a given year. You will often be able to find contact information for the relevant acquisitions editor on the publisher’s website.
(Enter search engine terms such as “[Name of publisher] book proposal” to get to the right place.) Or, some publishers may list a general mailbox for book proposals, and a query to that mailbox will be directed to the appropriate editor. An informal email introducing yourself and briefly stating your book concept is sufficient to get a conversation started. The acquisitions editor will be happy to guide you through the next steps.
Elements of the book proposal
Most publishers will supply a proposal form that will include a description of what is needed for each section. The level of detail required will vary by publisher, but the following elements are typically included.
- 1. Your name, affiliation, professional biography, and contact information. You’ll also include this information for any co-authors or co-editors.
- 2. Tentative title and subtitle (if any).
- 3. Subject area and keywords related to the book content.
- 4. Intended audience for the book. This could be divided into a primary and secondary audience. Who will benefit from this book? Researchers in academia and industry? Graduate and post-doctoral students? Health professionals?
- 5. An overview of the book including its purpose and rationale. What is useful about the book? How will it benefit your target audience(s)? What problem does it address? What are its key features?
- 6. Market research. A list of related books that would compete with or complement your book. What does your book uniquely offer that these other books do not?
- 7. Planned table of contents that includes the title and brief description of each chapter. If you are editing the book and will invite contributors for each chapter, include the names and affiliations of the potential contributors.
- 8. Tentative timeline. How much time do you need to write the book? When would you be able to submit a sample chapter? Note: Generally, reference books are published within 1–2 years after contract signing. The timeline will vary depending on the length of the book and how much of it may be already written, but keep in mind that publishers will want to publish it as soon as possible.
- 9. Specifications. What is the approximate word count? How many figures and tables will there be? Will you include supplementary multimedia content?
What happens after you submit your proposal
The acquisitions editor will work with you to make sure your proposal is complete. Next, many publishers will send out the proposal for external review, asking experts in your field to assess the book’s marketability and provide suggestions for its development. Then your proposal will undergo an internal review where various stakeholders will decide whether to proceed with a publishing contract. If your book is given the green light, the publisher will contact you with a contract offer and you’ll be on your way to writing a book!
One more thing: Did you know that acquisitions editors are always actively searching for new authors for planned topics? They use citation metrics, conference data, and other sources to find potential authors who are doing exciting research in targeted areas. You just may open your Inbox one day to find a query from a publisher wondering if you have any interest in writing a book. Instead of immediately moving the email to your trash, take a moment to give it some thought and why not write back? They’ll be happy to receive your response.