Here at MWS, we work with scholarly writers at all stages of the book publication process, so we're very familiar with the hurdles they face along the way. One of the most daunting for many is creating the book proposal for submission to potential publishers. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Sara Cohen, Editor at Temple University Press. We asked Sara about what piques her interest in a book proposal, as well as what makes her pitch a book proposal without a second glance.
MWS: How important is the query letter, and to what degree does it impact your solicitation or acceptance for review of a manuscript? How do you suggest authors approach it, as a separate genre from the proposal proper?
SC: The cover letter that accompanies a proposal and sample materials is important for my acquisition process because it provides my first impression of a project. I like to see a cover letter that’s about one page, single-spaced, and presents a concise description of a project, its argument and stakes, and what’s new about the project. It’s an author’s sales pitch to me, letting me know what the project is and why I should want to publish it. If I’m sold after reading the cover letter, then I read the other materials an author sent; if I’m not sold, then I usually skim the materials to see if there’s something that the cover letter didn’t convey clearly, though we’ve already started off on the wrong foot.
The cover letter is different from the proposal proper in that it’s a much shorter document. The cover letter is a distillation of the key ideas of the proposal; it’s what you’d want to tell me about your project if you only have one page to tell me about it. The proposal is a longer form document. I’ve seen them anywhere from 5 pages to 25 pages, but I think the sweet spot is usually around the 8-12 page mark. When I start reading the proposal, my interest has already [hopefully] been piqued and now I want further details and greater depth.
MWS: What makes a book proposal catch your eye? What makes you immediately disregard a proposal?
Many publishers have advice for how to write a proposal on their website, so it’s a good idea to look for that before submitting a proposal. Our guidelines, for example, are here: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/submissions.html. I don’t expect every proposal to conform to these guidelines precisely, but as my list below suggests, I do expect authors to include several of the elements described there.
I think every proposal should include:
I’m willing to read just about any book proposal as long as it’s on a topic that we publish in and it’s well written. With regard to the former, check the websites of the publishers to whom you’re submitting proposals to see if they have recent books in the area that you’re working on, broadly. If you’re writing a monograph about psychology, and the publisher hasn’t published books on psychology recently, they might not be the right fit for your work. With regard to the latter, remember that a book proposal is a sneak preview of a book and the author’s writing style. It should be clearly written and argued—if it’s not, then that gives an editor doubts about the author’s ability to write a book that’s clearly written and argued.
MWS: So are you less likely to consider someone whose submitting to lots of presses, as opposed to targeting you very specifically?
SC: We like to see some level of commitment from potential authors. If someone has sent a proposal solely to us, that usually makes us feel like we're their first choice. If someone sends a proposal to multiple presses, it can have a few different effects. If the proposal is great and I see that it's out with other presses, that might light a fire under me to act quickly. At the same time, it might make me feel like I'm someone's back up or second choice, which can make me take a project less seriously. It's context dependent, I think.
Knowing how many presses have seen a proposal also helps us communicate clearly with the author about our expectations if we send the project out for review. Some presses require exclusive review of a project, so if they sent a project out for review they make the author withdraw it from all the other presses they've sent it to. Other presses, like Temple, allow multiple submissions but ask that authors not to allow the project to go out for review with more than two other presses. The review process costs us time and money and we don't want to spend either unless we have some level of commitment from the author (i.e. we know we're one of their top three choices). One of THE WORST things is when an author sends us a manuscript, we send it out for review, they don't tell us it's out with anyone else, and then they spring that on us suddenly. This usually happens with first time scholars who don't know how publishing works and think that you need to be secretive about whom you're talking to. That's not the case at all, and I think it demonstrates a lack of trust and confidence in my press, in me, and in the publishing process.
MWS: What are the common characteristics of successful book proposals?
SC: Successful book proposals are clearly written, clearly argued, contain few or no typos, make a clear case for why a book is important, and demonstrate why the author is the right author for the project. Even when a book proposal has all that, I may still turn it away. A lot depends on the kinds of books I’m looking for at a particular moment—and that depends on factors like personal preference, list balance, and the market.
MWS: What mistakes do you most often see people make in book proposals?
SC: The most common mistakes I see are:
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.