Hi there writers!
So, as you know, I work with a lot of scholarly authors on their book proposals.
The book proposal is truly an art form that is very difficult to master.
I like to think of it as THE most important part of getting a book contract.
And yet there’s so much conflicting information out there that it can be hard for people to write one in a way that truly puts their best foot forward.
In fact, many of my clients are working on their SECOND books and still have a hard time with their proposals.
On Episode 26 of this podcast, I explained all the elements of a strong proposal.
I encourage you to go listen to that for all the nitty gritty details about how to approach each separate section of the document.
On today’s episode, I want to flip things around and talk about the top 5 most common mistakes I see scholarly authors make in their proposals.
If you can avoid making these mistakes, you are that much more likely to be taken seriously by editors and get a book contract!
The top 5 book proposal mistakes to avoid
Okay, so let me first remind you a bit about what the book proposal is and what it isn’t.
It IS a marketing document that is meant to persuade acquisitions editors at scholarly presses that your book deserves their investment.
It’s a proposal in the sense that it lays out the major contribution, stakes, findings, and uniqueness of your project, along with your entire chapter outline.
However, it’s NOT like a grant or fellowship proposal where you’re merely estimating the final outcome.
Instead, it should give a clear, specific idea of what the finished book will actually look like.
It’s also not a detailed summary of your topic and all of your findings.
I’ve seen proposals that run over 20 pages double-spaced and include full literature reviews.
You don’t want to do this!
A good proposal is a concise, 8-10 double-spaced paged synthesis of your project that justifies why it’s important to the world, not just to your tiny subfield.
So with that said, let’s talk about what the top 5 things NOT do when it comes to your proposal!
I say all of this with the caveat that I know people make all of these mistakes and still come out with book contracts, so feel free to disagree with me.
But I want to offer this information to help you submit the strongest possible document that will get presses on board with your project from the get-go.
#1: Starting too soon
So let’s get into it!
The first major mistake I see authors make is starting their proposals too soon in the book writing process.
When you’re first thinking about writing a book, it makes total sense to want to start with the proposal.
If anything, you want to just to get all your ideas down on paper in a structured format—like you would any other type of proposal.
But just because it seems to makes sense doesn’t mean you should do it, and it’s because you might very well be wasting your time.
Let me tell you why!
Before you write a first draft of the proposal, you need to have a few things already figured out.
First, you need to have finished collecting and analyzing most, if not all, of your data.
The reason for this is obvious—if you’ve only analyzed half of your data, the story can—and likely will—greatly change.
I’ve had clients who wrote their proposals before doing the brunt of their data analysis.
The result was that they had to go back and redo the proposal almost from scratch once they figured out what the data had to say.
Especially when it comes to qualitative work, you need the story to emerge from your data over time.
You don’t want to be imposing a framework or theory that you’re not sure really fits yet.
Second, you need to have a good sense of your overarching argument and your primary contribution.
I’m going to go into this point in Mistake #2, so I’ll hold off on talking about this for a minute.
Third, you need to have a table of contents and a structure for your book that you intend to stick with.
This last item is difficult to figure out if you haven’t already written at least one, but ideally two, chapters of your book.
And even when you wait until you have written a couple of chapters, I can guarantee that you will still need to go back and revise it as you keep figuring out how the whole book fits together.
The proposal is something that helps you think through the project in a more objective and holistic way, so it’s a useful exercise no matter when you do it.
But you can save yourself a good amount of time and effort by starting when you have a better sense of what the book is all about!
#2: No argument or unclear argument
So the second big mistake that I see a lot of authors make in their proposals has to do with the overarching claim or argument of the book.
This typically happens in one of two ways: either there is no argument to be found OR there is an argument but it’s convoluted and unclear.
Now, I’ve definitely had clients who obtained contracts before we began working together whose proposals didn’t include an argument.
But, because I want you to have the strongest document possible, I would say that you absolutely MUST include a clear, concise and convincing overarching argument within the first paragraph or two.
Essentially, what is the answer to your research questions?
What is your evidence pointing to in terms of knowledge that can potentially go beyond your case?
One of the things that happens a lot is to conflate your primary findings with your argument.
You may have found something fascinating that’s totally novel or challenges common assumptions about a particular phenomenon.
But, to me it’s not an argument until you explain WHY these findings occur.
I often encourage people to do is to coin a term that encapsulates their findings but can also be applied more broadly.
For example, my second book looked at how Chinese American professionals in China negotiate their Chinese and American identities in the ancestral homeland.
I found that they would often consciously switch between identities depending on context in ways that benefitted themselves and their careers.
From this I coined the more general term “strategic in-betweenness” to refer to a set of practices used by many individuals who live transnational lives.
I then used this term as the basis of the book’s overarching argument.
So that’s one approach you can take.
But ultimately, you need to make sure that your argument is something that other people can use evidence to challenge or overturn.
If what you have is currently a statement of fact, then add “because” and your explanation of why that happened.
The second thing is having a very unclear argument.
My rule of thumb is that a non-expert should be able to read your proposal, close the document, and then still be able to tell your argument to another person.
This means you have to do the work of simplifying, taking out jargon, and shortening your argument to one memorable sentence.
I strongly encourage you to do two things:
First, actually write “I argue” before your thesis statement.
It may go against how you like to write, but it’s by far the clearest way to get your point across to an editor who has only a few minutes to read this document.
The second thing is that you should limit your usage of “I argue” to your overarching argument.
Some people end up using the word “argue” everywhere in their proposal to the point where it’s unclear what the main argument actually is.
So keep the word “argue” for the overarching claim and for everything else, use phrases like “I suggest” or “I propose.”
#3: Burying Your Contribution
The third book proposal mistake is burying your own contribution behind other peoples’ ideas.
This is something I see a lot in junior scholars who are revising their dissertations into books.
For the diss, the way to prove your expertise to your committee was to cite other peoples’ work and show how your work is filling gaps or changing the established discourse.
With a book, on the other hand, people already assume you are an expert.
Instead, you need to be using other scholars’ work to bolster your own ideas.
So how this usually takes place is that there’s way too much setup to your case and your overall contribution.
Sometimes people spend the entire first page trying to sum up everything that’s been written on their topic before they get around to their own project.
A lot of my clients are social scientists who want to publish with University of California Press.
UC Press actually requires the proposal overview to be no longer than three paragraphs.
This forces authors to get at their own contribution right away.
Think about: what unique knowledge or perspective are you bringing to the table?
In other words, why should anyone care about your topic?
Never assume that anyone does, regardless of the human-interest level of your project.
In some ways, people who work on topics that the general public is already quite familiar with have a harder job justifying how their own take on things is unique.
Ultimately, it’s YOUR job to persuade readers to care or to understand things in the specific ways that you do.
The more persuasive you can be in the proposal, the easier it makes the editor’s job to convince the rest of the press to support your project.
#4: Assuming Too Much Reader Knowledge
The fourth mistake I want to talk about relates to the last one in terms of assuming too much reader knowledge.
This manifests in the usage of overly specialized language and jargon that a regular person wouldn’t understand.
It can also come in the form of referring to certain concepts or historical events or other scholars as a given rather than providing any kind of explanation.
Many of my clients worry that they’re not saying anything new with their research.
They assume everyone knows what experts in their field know, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
If you find yourself writing in short-hand, it means that you’re writing for your critics and not for a wider audience.
So l need to say this again and again: your proposal is a marketing document!
You need to write it in such a way that a general, educated but non-expert reader will understand what you’re talking about.
This means writing accessibly.
What this looks like in practice is filling in the blanks, giving brief definitions of specialized terms, and giving just enough context that you do not talk above the heads of your readers.
I often talk about how writing a book is similar to teaching undergrads.
When writing your proposal or manuscript, you should be thinking in terms of meeting undergrads where THEY are in terms of their knowledge about your topic.
Ask yourself: what would they need to know to fully understand my argument?
An acquisitions editor probably needs that information as well.
#5: Weak chapter summaries
So the fifth and final mistake I want to mention has to do with chapter summaries.
Your table of contents and chapter summaries are incredibly important.
Other than the overview section, they are likely going to get the most attention from an editor because they give the structure of the entire book.
A good chapter summary lays out the research questions and argument of the chapter as well as conveys how the chapter as a whole helps to support the overarching claim of the book.
I often see people make two different kinds of mistakes when it comes to these.
The first is when people just give an exhaustive, chronological list of what the chapter contains.
So they’ll write something like, “First I talk about this, then I talk about that, then I conclude with this.”
They’re taking the word “summary” very literally when, really, they should be thinking in terms of synthesis.
This section is still meant to persuade a press to invest in your book.
So prioritize laying out the significance of each chapter to the overall manuscript.
The second type of mistake happens when authors put some of their very best ideas in their chapter summaries and nowhere else.
So I often find myself pulling entire sentences out of chapter summaries and putting them into the overview section.
If you have some really great ideas that tie the book together in your chapter summaries, make sure they appear early on as well!
This means that some amount of redundancy is okay and to be expected.
You can always paraphrase these statements, but stating them more than once also helps solidify the ideas in the minds of your readers.
Summing It All Up
So there you have it—the top 5 mistakes I see scholarly authors make in their book proposals.
Let me sum them up one more time.
1) Starting too soon.
2) No argument or unclear argument.
3) Burying your contribution.
4) Assuming too much reader knowledge.
5) Weak chapter summaries.
Of course, there’s a lot more that I actually didn’t put into this episode but these five stood out the most.
But like I said, book proposals are an art form that no school teaches you how to perfect.
So if you need help putting together a strong, coherent, and persuasive proposal, sign up for a free consult to talk about how I can support you.
Hope this has helped you think through some new approaches to your proposal.
I’ll talk to you again soon!