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:
- 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.
- A table of contents with a brief description of each chapter.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Update your approach by overlapping content and repackaging it for new readers.
To recoup calculable benefits from one-off writing, effectively repurpose and repackage your work. Think:
1. Beyond the basics: The more complex a project, the more reusable material it contains. Ignore shorter press releases or memos; identity pithy sections from larger works and use them as a springboard.
2. Beyond the first form: No written doc should remain in its original form. Think cyclically: presentations become SlideDecks; SlideDecks become infographics; infographics become social media updates.
3. Beyond the copy-and-paste: All written work must offer use-value. A list of bullet points copied from a prospective-client presentation doesn’t resonate on a website.
4. Beyond the summary: Identify a new audience’s expectations. Web readers expect a good story; white paper readers expect researched arguments. Summarize old material, but make it new.
5. Beyond the one-and-done: Repurposed content is evergreen, of course!
Make your written materials work harder for you. The effort may not mean less writing, but it does mean less work.
Despite its biblical authority, Skutley and her team know that the APA’s role is to serve the manual’s users and reflect their concerns rather than dictate rules from on high. Ultimately, the APA’s primary responsibility is to meet “the needs of researchers and writers, to make their work easier and to encourage the smooth dissemination of information.”
Of course, revising the manual is a Sisyphean task, given the ever-changing universe of scholarly publication. Creating the sixth edition was a painstaking process that entailed soliciting feedback from general users, panels of experts, and internal task forces and editorial boards: “One paragraph in the manual may be the product of an incredible volume of discussion and analysis,” Skutley reported.
Many of the updates reflect changes in technology and information sharing. In the sixth edition, Skutley explained, “there were a lot of changes in referencing, with the beginning of digital object identifiers [DOIs] and changes in tracking online resources.”
Other updates involve trying to eradicate bias in language and dealing with historical bias in existing publications; making the organization of the Manual more intuitive and user-friendly; and clarifying concerns about intellectual property and plagiarism in light of changing practices around data sharing.
Maybe the most useful addition has been a companion blog that works to keep pace with changes in the field between editions. APA’s editors diligently respond to questions and criticism, and flexibility is a priority in their decision-making. Skutley wants to “make things as easy for the user as possible—so rather than developing new forms for new kinds of references, for example, we’re trying to use existing forms and communicate them through blog posts.”
As an editorial maven herself, we asked Skutley about her favorite resources for writers. Her personal go-to text is Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. For APA users, she also recommends the blog, along with the manual’s companion website.
As for the seventh edition of the manual, its timing “really depends on what happens in the field over the next several years,” Skutley says. And she’s grateful for a bit of respite before starting to push that boulder up the hill again.
If, however, you are part of a business with a solid but overextended communications department, or if you expect top-quality materials at first pass that reflect and respond to your business’s mission, principles, and clients, the benefits of an on-demand editor or writer might not be worth the transactional cost.
In the on-demand marketplace, employers outsource parts of projects to specialized workers: Employers take a risk on a relatively untried entity, and workers compete to offer the cheapest rates. While the piecemeal, competitive approach works for some services, it can result in an inconsistent, substandard product for others.
This is particularly true of writing and editing projects. A business communicates its vision of itself in the documents it produces. Whether internal or external, every project is high-stakes. While a one-off editor may be able to offer an immediate solution to a temporary problem, there’s no guarantee that the services won’t be worth the low price paid. When the stakes and expectations are high, a writer with whom you are building a relationship will offer both immediate solutions and future strategies.
We embrace the on-demand economy—but maybe only part of it. For us, the time we spend building client relationships is the best part of what we do. We’ve learned (and our clients have, too) that with every project we complete, we are better prepared and more capable of anticipating and exceeding our client’s future needs.
• Type of edit: Having a paper edited can mean many different things, and some editors specialize, while others offer a range of services. Are you looking for a simple proofread (i.e., a check for typos and spacing problems), do you need a developmental editor (i.e., someone who can help you develop a draft-in-progress by identifying areas for development and streamlining structure), or something in between (i.e., a substantive edit or copyedit)? Often, writers aren’t sure exactly what they need. A good editor should be able to look at your document and quickly suss that out.
• Method(s) of communication: Do you work in Word, or do you need someone who is comfortable with LaTeX? Do you prefer to communicate online, or do you want to meet face-to-face? Consider what you need in terms of the logistics of communication.
• Style: It can be hard to see someone examine your writing with a critical eye—but of course, that’s an editor’s job. The nature of the approach varies, however: do you prefer someone with a soft-and-gentle approach, or a take-no-prisoners approach? Think about how you respond to criticism and find someone who’s going to complement that.
• Experience: While some editors may specialize in particular fields (e.g., health sciences, humanities, etc.) it is virtually impossible to find someone who is a subject-matter expert on precisely your topic—and that’s okay. An experienced editor is used to working with unfamiliar content. For editors, flexibility across disciplines is more important than knowledge within a discipline. This is less true of documentation styles: finding someone who has specific experience with whatever style you’re using ensures more efficient work.
• Turnaround time: Are you a long-term planner, or do you tend to work last-minute? Find someone whose turnaround can accommodate your work habits (but be wary of anyone who claims to turn around a 150-page manuscript in 48 hours). If you have a set deadline for a project, make sure to communicate that up front, and be aware that most editors charge a higher rate for rush work.
• Pricing: Some editors work on a per-project basis, others per-hour, page, or word. Make sure the terms are clear, and don’t be a sucker for bargain-basement pricing. When it comes to an editor’s fee, you may find out that “too good to be true” is absolutely accurate.
A good editor should be willing and able to discuss all of these issues and to provide references upon request. And many will perform a sample edit of a few paragraphs or pages to give you a sense for the scope and style of their work.
While it can take work to find the right editor (and courage to share your work), the benefits are great: You’ll end up with a polished piece of writing and a relationship that can serve as a future resource. In fact, in our experience, it’s a relationship that only gets better with time—working with a good editor on an ongoing basis means that the editor can get to know you as a writer, can work more efficiently, and ideally, can support you on individual projects while also helping you becoming a stronger and more confident writer.
We all intuitively recognize good stories: a good yarn piques our interest and engages us. A great story connects with us in a way that outlasts the story’s end.
Consequently, crafting a great story requires establishing and sustaining connections that are meaningful enough to resonate with increasingly sophisticated readers.
How are such connections forged? While identifying the right readers is certainly crucial, businesses must also offer readers consistent and consistently genuine insights into their brands.
Such insights depend, not surprisingly, on consistent language. While most businesses possess mission statements and mottoes, these rarely offer language that is flexible enough to be continuously generative.
A business must also be able to express:
- A direct apprehension of its value.
- A comprehensive vision of its product and service.
- A recognition of the motivation that drives its staff.
- A stone-cold identification of its clients.
- An explicit desire to build relationships.
A thorough and precise accounting for these fundamentals allows businesses to build a glossary—what content strategists call message architecture—that can be used in different ways to speak to value, vision and motivation.
Such a glossary is invaluable for consistently crafting really good stories. But just as important, it enables cohesive communications across the board, from internal emails and memos to external reports and presentations. It can also simplify connected cross-platform outreach, from business newsletters and websites to LinkedIn pages and Twitter handles.
If storytelling were only about entertainment, writing stories would be easy. However, a really good story—one that outlasts its ending—must do much more. To put it plainly, when it comes to storytelling, consistency counts.
But what can keep scholars from enjoying collaborative research—or engaging in it at all—are the very real logistical and intellectual challenges posed by the coauthor relationship. As editors and writing consultants, we know that careful, advanced planning and open, formalized communication offer the cure to almost any coauthoring ailment. Here are the most important things to consider:
1. Make sure long-term plans are clear from the start. Each coauthor’s interests may be driven by something very different—an impending review, interest in a particular journal, longstanding research goals, etc. Whether you intend to work together on a series of paper, coauthor one main paper while individuals take on sub-papers, or something else, sketching out long-term plans at the onset of your collaboration will ensure that the goals of everyone on your team are met.
2. Relatedly, make sure the details of authorship and intellectual property are crystal clear. While some fields may dictate specific authorship criteria, others are far looser. And as Fine and Kurdek (1993) note, these decisions can be complicated by issues of seniority and interpersonal clashes. An open and ongoing dialogue about contributions and responsibilities can engender clarity, particularly because the specifics of authorship credit may very likely need to evolve along with the project.
3. Keep a written record of all discussions and agreements. Headaches stemming from misunderstandings and miscommunication can be avoided with clear recordkeeping. This includes not only agreements about authorship, but also deadlines, publication goals, and all other decisions that affect the project.
4. Make use of technology. Tools like Endnote and RefWorks, Word’s “track changes” function, and the cloud’s many data sharing possibilities make the logistics of collaborative work far less challenging than ever before. Find the right tools for your project, and get all your coauthors on board with using them.
5. Clarify the division of labor for the actual writing of the paper. This may depend on various coauthors’ interest in and facility with writing, the agreed-upon terms of authorship, or other factors. Clarifying responsibilities for other process-related issues, which may not seem important at the outset but which can be very time-consuming (such as compiling individually authored sections or handling the actual journal submission), ensures far more efficient work.
6. Use an editors’ trick of the trade and create a style sheet for all of your coauthors to follow. This upfront time investment will ultimately—and exponentially—simplify the process of collating individually authored sections. Once the paper’s content is complete, consider designating the most experienced writer as the paper’s ultimate editor—or, better yet, hire an expert who can suss out inconsistencies and correlate usage, style, organization, and more.
 For example, Ginsberg and Miles (2011) and Greene (2007) document these trends in legal and scientific research, respectively.
[2 ]We’re thinking not only about the intellectual benefits and possible advancements to scholarship, but also the way that coauthoring allows individual researchers to gain experience in new areas and take on projects for which they might not otherwise have time. Some even consider coauthorship to be a solution to declining journal acceptance rates).
 See, for example, the useful survey of the authorship guidelines of prominent scientific organizations included in a study by Osborne and Holland (2009).
Fine, M. & Kurdek, L. (1993). Reflections on determining authorship credit and authorship order on faculty-student collaborations. American Psychologist, 48(11), 1141-1147.
Ginsberg, T. & Miles, T. (2011). Empiricism and the rising incidence of coauthorship in law. University of Illinois Law Review, 2011, 1785-1826.
Greene, M. (2007). The demise of the lone author. Nature, 450 (7173), 1165-1165.
Osborne, J. & Holland, A. (2009). What is authorship, and what should it be? A survey of prominent guidelines for determining authorship in scientific publications. Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation, 14(15), 1-19.