Writing a book proposal was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve had as a writer. It made me think about something I hadn’t considered throughout my academic career—my audience.
I realized that I was writing to an entirely new audience, and I needed to write differently.
Throughout graduate school, I was writing to either my dissertation committee (academics) or reviewers of journal articles (academics). I did this for over 10 years (if I count my Master’s program) so by the time I finished my dissertation, “my audience” automatically meant “academics.”
So, when I began writing my book proposal, it didn’t occur to me that I could be writing to anyone other than academics. After all, I was sending the proposal to academic publishers.
My friend, a university professor, gently reminded me that I was writing my book proposal for acquisition editors.
Acquisition editors assess whether a proposed manuscript will meet the goals and priorities of the press. Because academic publishers are a business, acquisition editors are looking for work that is both commercially and intellectually promising. In both cases, they are looking for something new and fresh, without being outlandish or overdone.
What does this mean for you as the aspiring book author?
You need to understand and write to your new audience. You also need to pull yourself out of the depths of your project where you dealt with the difference between Foucauldian genealogy vs. archaeology and other detailed minutiae of your sub-sub-field. It’s time to come up to the surface where people speak differently and value different things.
These surface people are asking something you might not have considered for a very long time, perhaps not since you wrote your application letter to graduate programs: so what?
What are the real-world implications of your project? Why now? Why this question? Why should anyone care?
Why should anyone buy your book?
Here are 5 tips to get you started
It can feel daunting to write to a whole new audience. I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to talk to ‘real people’ anymore. I have no idea how to ‘sell’ my book.” Here are a few tips to help you get started.
1. Talk about your book with someone who isn’t in your field. If this someone is not an academic, even better. See what they get excited about. See where they get confused. Notice when their eyes start to glaze over. Note the specific language and content points that grab their attention.
2. Do a quick research of interesting publishers. Go to the websites of publishers of some of your favourite books in your field. What have they published recently that is related to your work? Many academic publishers have special series. Can your manuscript fit into any of them? Read the descriptions of a few of the books that align with your work. How do these authors answer the “so what” question?
3. Read other book proposals. Publishers sometimes share samples of book proposals on their websites. My best friend kindly shared her book proposal with me. When reading other successful book proposals, pay attention to the argumentative structure and language choice. Note when and how they address the “so what” question.
4. Read about turning dissertations into books… but not too much. My favourites are Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword (recommended to me by an acquisition editor) and From Dissertation to Book by William Germano. Remember that you’re not getting another doctorate in turning a dissertation into a book. The key is to read just enough to be inspired and gain clarity on your next steps.
5. Start from scratch. When you’re ready to write the synopsis, start fresh instead of pulling lines from your dissertation. Going back into your dissertation will place you in the mindset of writing to academics. Start with a fresh page. You know your work through and through. You got this!
You are not alone in this process. I tapped into my intellectual networks of peers and friends to read my drafts and help me frame my work in a different way. You can do the same.
You can also work with me. I help academics like yourself to tease out the answers to the “so what” question while maintaining the integrity of their work.