Text reads "The Book Proposal Book"

Demystifying Book Proposals

Review of The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors by Laura Portwood-Stacer (Princeton University Press, 2021).

The Book Proposal Book provides a much-needed guide to writing scholarly book proposals and connecting with publishers. Drawing upon her years of experience as a developmental editor, Laura Portwood-Stacer demystifies the tacit norms and purposes of proposal writing. By bringing clarity to topics that are seldom explicitly taught, The Book Proposal Book offers a vital resource, especially for scholars who lack the resources to work with a freelance editor or attend a publishing workshop. As Portwood-Stacer acknowledges, no handbook can resolve the structural oppression and inequity that characterize academic publishing, but this book helps to “level the playing field” (2) by making expert guidance and models of successful writing available to authors who would otherwise lack access to these.

Portwood-Stacer structures The Book Proposal Book to guide readers through each step of the publication process in order, from choosing target presses to promoting your book. Chapter 1 provides an overview of acquisitions processes, and Chapter 2 describes qualities that publishers value in proposals and books, as distinct from other academic genres. Chapters 3–11 present specific guidance for each component of a proposal package, including the project description, comparable titles, chapter summaries, author biography, and manuscript specs. Chapter 12 focuses on making initial connections with editors, and Chapters 13 and 14 discuss later stages of publishing, such as responding to readers’ reports and negotiating contracts. Each chapter presents concrete steps, templates, and generative exercises, as well as FAQs based on conversations with authors and publishing professionals. The book concludes with sample proposals and a response letter to readers’ reports, annotated to highlight strategies that authors might emulate in their own materials. (Additional worksheets are available at https://manuscriptworks.com/book.) These practical tools make The Book Proposal Book, like Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, a great fit for scholars who thrive with a structured plan. At the same time, this book encourages flexibility; readers can work through the recommended steps at their own pace.

Beyond the proposal, Portwood-Stacer offers helpful insights for developing the book manuscript itself. As such, her book complements other writing guides discussed in the Suggestions for Further Reading section, including Beth Luey’s Revising Your Dissertation and William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book. If you’re just beginning to envision a new book project, Portwood-Stacer’s exercises and guidance can prepare you to plan a successful manuscript. For example, drafting a preliminary letter of inquiry (using the exercises on 31–33) can be a powerful way to focus your work by clarifying what you plan to argue, which stories and findings from your research matter most to you, and which readers you hope to reach. Authors may complete the steps in Chapter 5 (on developing your core thesis) and Chapter 7 (on structuring the manuscript’s chapters to support that thesis) to gain a sense of their intentions for a new project; these chapters can also help authors plan substantive revisions to a manuscript they’ve already drafted.

Portwood-Stacer’s discussions of writing with authority offer important insights for scholars who are writing a first book based on their dissertation research. As a developmental editor, I have found Chapters 3, 5, and 9 particularly helpful for supporting authors during this transition, because these chapters focus on key differences between proposal and dissertation writing. Chapter 5 discusses your book’s thesis, “the core argument that drives everything in the manuscript” (54) and gives readers a “big idea” to associate with your research. Distinct from an interesting topic or approach, a compelling thesis “explains to the reader a phenomenon they might not have understood before,” “claims a relationship between entities,” and “theorizes that relationship in ways that can be agreed with or disagreed with” (55). In addition to changing how readers think about your specific subject matter, a “capacious” thesis invites readers to “imagine how the relationships you discovered and theorized might play out in the sites and scenarios they’re most interested in” (55).

Many proposal authors recognize the importance of advancing this sort of strong thesis but struggle to do so in practice. As Portwood-Stacer observes, it takes significant time and effort to discover your book’s core argument. It also takes courage to assert that argument, preparing to stand behind it when others inevitably disagree. The Book Proposal Book includes exercises for brainstorming your thesis and identifying arguments in materials you’ve already drafted (56–57). I also appreciated Portwood-Stacer’s guidance to give yourself time and talk through ideas with others: “talk to people about your findings and observe what parts resonate. … With some time and perspective, I bet you’ll find the argument you care about reaching readers with and can stand fully behind” (85, n3). Chapter 9 provides stylistic suggestions for stating arguments with precision and confidence. These include minimizing your use of rhetorical questions and hedging language; using active voice to specify “who’s doing what, with what motives, and with what consequences” (84); and using verbs like “argue, claim, demonstrate” to state the outcomes of your research (rather than only using verbs like “explore, analyze, consider,” which signal your research topics and questions). These strategies can help authors to convey a sense of authority, and they also make proposals more appealing for readers.

In addition to helping authors develop strong arguments, Portwood-Stacer guides them through another common challenge of proposal writing: identifying specific communities of readers for their book. One of Portwood-Stacer’s most significant contributions is her encouragement to write for readers who are eager to learn from your expertise, rather than dissertation committee members or other “gatekeeper” figures whose role is to critically question the rigor and originality of your ideas. She describes how her own book writing experience improved when she stopped anticipating the concerns of such “imaginary critics” (85) and instead focused on speaking to the readers who would be most likely to care about her research. Similarly, she advises authors to see each acquisitions editor not as a gatekeeper but as a potential “teammate” and “champion” who will advocate for their manuscript within the press (12). I believe that readers beyond Portwood-Stacer’s primary audience of proposal authors could benefit from reading her discussions of writing in a less defensive, more confident voice. Doctoral program faculty might find it generative to discuss Chapter 9 with PhD students and mentees. Graduate students who plan to develop books based on their dissertations would be well-served by thinking early and often about the main audiences they want to reach. Even for those who do not go on to write book proposals, Portwood-Stacer’s guidance for communicating why your research matters to specific readers might foster more enjoyable experiences of writing in other genres.

One important way to explain your book’s appeal for specific communities of readers is to describe the affinities and aims that it shares with other recent publications. In Chapter 3, which focuses on comparable/competing titles, Portwood-Stacer explains how to characterize other scholars’ work in generous and affirming ways. Though some academic contexts encourage scholars to highlight the originality of their research and position it as “filling gaps in the literature,” these strategies can work against a proposal’s appeal for publishers. As she notes, the goal of this proposal section is to convince editors that readers will buy your book in addition to comparable ones, “so you don’t need to put other books down or prove that yours is better” (38–39). Rather than pitching your book as the “first” on your topic, Portwood-Stacer advises, “focus on who you’re speaking to with your book and how the book will draw them in” (35).

Overall, The Book Proposal Book invites proposal authors to think of themselves as part of a community. I was often struck by how this book encourages authors to cultivate relationships of mutual support, responsibility, and care with other community members: the readers for whom you’re writing, the editors and other publishing professionals who help your book to reach those readers, and the colleagues whose research informs and motivates your own. As many readers have attested on social media, The Book Proposal Book can help authors to feel less alone through the daunting process of proposal writing. Portwood-Stacer’s lively and encouraging voice makes for “good company,” an aspect of style that she discusses in Chapter 9. I recommend keeping The Book Proposal Book close to your workspace, so you can revisit it any time you could use some reassurance. Readers can also use this book to guide collaborations with colleagues. For example, if you’re just beginning your proposal, you might use the questions on page 30 to draft some raw material to share with a writing partner—or just talk through these questions in conversation. Once you’ve completed a draft, you can use the checklist on pages 151–52 to evaluate your own proposal or exchange feedback with others. Developmental editors like myself will also find The Book Proposal Book helpful for guiding clients through the publication process. I recommend this book not only for authors who are currently working on book proposals, but for all readers who share Portwood-Stacer’s commitment to helping scholarly writers feel hopeful, powerful, and supported.

About the Author

Sara Saylor is a freelance developmental editor who supports scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and health sciences. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied English Renaissance literature. Following her PhD, she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Rhetoric at UT, researching graduate-level writing pedagogy and developing Writing Center programs for graduate students.

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