Interview with Sara Cohen, Editor at Temple University Press

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: 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:

  1. A description of your book project.  As in the cover letter, this should include a description of the project and should demonstrate its argument, stakes, and what’s new about the project.  It’s also important to position the argument in relation to contemporary debates in the field(s) with which the manuscript engages.
  2. A table of contents with a brief description of each chapter.
  3. A section about comparable books.  This section should list some of the people who have written about similar topics and/or who have influenced your work.  It’s important to make it clear how your book responds to, builds on, and differs from others’ work and that it’s not simply a rehashing and remixing of others’ ideas.
  4. A section about the market or audience for your book.  Here you should describe who you think will read your book—students (undergrads or grad students? in what fields?), scholars (in what fields?), and/or popular audiences (interested in what?).  If you think that your book has the potential to be used in classes, list the kinds of classes in which you think it might be adopted.
  5. A timeline for completion.  Describe how long you think it will take you to finish the project. If the project is already complete, you should note that.
  6. A note about how many other publishers you’ve sent the proposal to.  You don’t need to name the publishers, just indicate that you’ve sent your project out to five other presses.  It’s a courtesy to publishers to let us know that you’re talking to other publishers.  If you’re not talking to other publishers, it’s good to note that as well.
  7. Why us?  As I read a proposal, I’m always thinking about how a book will fit in with the other books we’ve published, so it’s helpful to me if your proposal explains why you want to publish with us in particular.  To this end, you might include a couple of books that we’ve published that have influenced or that are similar to your work, or you might say something about how your book fits into our larger publishing program.

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:

  1. Jargon.  Most editors acquire books in a number of fields and aren’t experts in any of them, though we are generally familiar with contemporary issues and trends in the fields in which we acquire.   Try to avoid extensive use of field-specific terminology and if it’s necessary to use field-specific terminology, make sure to provide short definitions. 
  2. Writing to more than one editor at the same press.  You should only send a proposal to one editor at a press.  To figure out the best editor for your project, you can check the publisher’s website to see who acquires books in the subject area(s) that you work on.
  3. Proposing a book on a topic that we don’t publish in.  Before submitting a proposal, check to make sure that the publisher you’re proposing the project for publishes books in that area.  You can do that by checking their website and searching by subject.  Make sure that the publisher has published books on that subject in the last several years. 
  4. Proposing a book for a defunct series.  This happens with some regularity and creates the impression that an author is unfamiliar with the work that we’re currently publishing.  If you’re proposing a book for a series, make sure that series is still active by checking the publication date on the most recent book in the series.  If it’s more than three or four years old, the series is probably defunct.
  5. Saying that you’ve written your dissertation to read like a book. Lots of people say they’ve done this, but I’ve yet to see anyone accomplish it.