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August 04, 2014


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Mary L. Dudziak

Hi, Bridget. That advice strikes me as all marketing and not enough about the substance of the book. A scholarly book, or a trade book about your research, at its core should be about your ideas and how they are innovative and important.

Susan Ferber at Oxford University Press is a widely respected editor who often talks with historians about book proposals. Here's a list of what she likes to see (from here ):

Components of the proposal (this is directed at the dissertation-to-book crowd, but is applicable for more senior people):

Cover letter

Include your current, reliable contact information. This is more important than prestigious letterhead
Address your letter to a specific person (who actually works at that press!)
Include a sentence or two about the book’s argument
Be up front about whether you’re also sending the proposal to other publishers
Don’t forget your book’s title in the cover letter!

Proposal with title (10-15 pp) should include

A writing sample that shows your voice [by this she means your sample chapter]
An annotated Table of Contents [TOC of the book -- not a TOC for the proposal. I've never seen a TOC for a proposal]

The proposal should address:

the sources you use
the competition in the market
note: your book will make a unique argument, but it is not completely unique. Remember, you book will end up in a library, shelved between two other books. It must in some way be like other books the library already owns. They’re not going to build a new wing for your work.
the intended audience (be specific and realistic; it’s better to underestimate)
the nuts and bolts
– length in word count, including notes
– maps, illustrations, other apparatus [don't get hung up on this stuff -- I've never included these details in a proposal]
– time table for completion (realistic, not your best case scenario)

More useful advice from other editors is here:

Really important: the proposal should be wonderfully written, in the style the book will be written in, and it should capture the editor's attention by the first full page. In the body of the proposal you set your work in the relevant scholarly literature and emphasize what is new and important about your book.

Editors often go to the Law and Society Association meeting. Some go to AALS, but the book exhibit there is very thin. If you go to conferences in other fields (history!), that's also a good place to find editors. You can contact an editor ahead of time and meet with them to talk about your book idea before you submit a proposal. That can be very helpful, and can help you gauge their interest.

Best of luck!

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