So Book Prospectuses Aren’t Anonymous …

The first time I sent a book prospectus out for review, I didn’t actually know that prospectuses are non-anonymously reviewed. When I got three (generally positive) revises back, I was kind of taken aback that each of them included an evaluation of my qualification to write the (largely already-written) book.

In fact, I still remember those evaluations. In hindsight, they were fairly generic and really the only thing I could have expected at the time – no, the Reviewers did not know me or my work; yes, my training looked acceptable to produce potentially good work, and the prospectus and sample chapter suggested that I was capable of translating that potential into a full book.

I think I was thrown because I had the expectation that my work would be be judged separately from “me” (as if those two things are separable), and I was jolted when they were not. Its not even like those evaluations judged anything deeply personal. They weren’t (yet at least) commenting on my lifestyle choices or personality traits. It was, in fact, a very narrow sense of professional “self” that was being judged – does the overall reputation of her work suggest that x publisher should expect that her book idea will develop into a well-done book?

This is the purpose of non-anonymous prospectus review. Like the quality of the writing of the abstract and the innovation of the idea, the identity of the author is meant to provide reviewers with more indicators of the potential quality of the book.

Largely, that is what it is used for in the actual review process. I say “largely” because there are two variables that can, and will, come up sometimes if not frequently. The first is conscious bias – people who know you and do not like either you or your work, and therefore judge it more harshly for being able to identify you. This happens much less frequently than you would fair. I have been involved in the book review process as an author, a reviewer, or an editor for almost 200 separate books. I have seen evidence of this sort of bias once during that time. It was minor, and did not negatively impact the process of publishing the book that was involved. The second variable that can come up is unconscious bias – the reading of your name and its sex/gender/race/nationality significations as a shortcut for qualification (e.g., women are less qualified to write about x). We cannot possibly know how often this impacts book reviewing. Statistics suggest that this sort of unconscious bias impacts everything in the professional world; so it probably does here too. There might be some saving grace in the fact that book reviews are often long and detailed enough that it is hard to write a negative one without a real, substantive complaint about the text. Still, I’m not even going to try to tell you it doesn’t happen. Because it certainly does. I can just provide two pieces of advice: a) don’t be the Reviewer that does this (examine you conscious and unconscious bias); b) don’t worry about stuff you can’t control (a decent piece of advice for life, not just a book prospectus).

Instead, when it comes to your identity and book prospectuses, worry about what you can control. What’s that, you ask?

I have three suggestions: 1) Frame yourself as positively as you can; 2) realize the potential interactions between your identity/information and other parts of your proposal; 3) especially if you are relatively early in your career, google yourself. The first and third ones are good advice for being on the job market and just generally, but I will discuss them specifically in reference to the book publishing process here. I’ll detail them below …

1) Frame yourself as positively as you can

By this, I do not mean that you should brag about yourself, or make unreasonable claims. In fact, naively self-important self-identification is problematic as negative or self-depreciating presentation.

In a book proposal, you will have two forms of self-identification – a biographical paragraph in the prospectus and a CV. You should send both, and make both as professional as possible. Most publishers will send CVs out for review with the prospectus, but others do not. So you are going to want that bio paragraph to be able to stand on its own if it has to. So here are some general guidelines. 

It needs to include: your name, your (graduate) educational background, your current institutional affiliation, the subject of your research, indication of publishing experience if any, and key research-based indicators of scholarly recognition. It should not include: attempts at humor, personal information (marriage, kids, age), minor awards, other tangentially relevant information, professional experience outside of academia that is not directly relevant to the subject of the book (e.g., former employment at an international organization would be in a bio for a book about that organization but not for a book about American political campaigns’ positions on religion), or obvious compensation for weaknesses in the CV or prospectus, or throw-away self-praise.

So a bio of mine might read (text in red, comments in black):

Laura Sjoberg (might include here: PhD University of Southern California, JD Boston College, or might not – the further in your career you are the less necessary this is, though either early career or first book, I would include it) is Associate Professor of Political Science (might include “with an affiliation with the Center for Women and Gender Studies” if I wanted to emphasize my gender studies expertise) at the University of Florida. Her research addresses feminist and queer approaches to security, women’s violence in global politics, and political methodology (hint one: put the one most relevant to the book first; hint two: I take the categories from my job cover letters, because I spent time carefully categorizing my research for those).  She is the author or editor of x books, including, most recently Women as Rapists (put a date if it is another publisher, or a publisher and a date if at least one of them are with the publisher you are looking to use this time. If this is your first book and you have journal publications, mention them here. If this is your first and you don’t have journal publications, mention defending your dissertation and major conferences and where you have presented your work). She currently serves as (note the use of the words “serves as, which is more of a humble-brag and an indicator of recognition than an obnoxious brag) co-editor of International Studies Review and the International Feminist Journal of Politics. Her work has been published in more than three dozen journals in political science, law, gender studies, and geography (note: I only include this when I am looking for interdisciplinary street cred). 

Make sure that your significations of street cred and experience are factual rather than narrative (and FFS, don’t invent them). A shorter bio is better than one full of opinions about yourself, and also better than the inclusion of irrelevant information. 

So, things that would never be included:

  • x is the world’s foremost expert in …
  • x‘s article is in initial review at y journal
  • famous-academic thinks is his successor
  • got an undergraduate award
  • has hobbies a, b, and c

Things that would be appropriate:

  • completed field work in (area of the world that the book is about)
  • completed a PhD at institution under the supervision of e, f, and g. 
  • x’s article “title similar to the book” has recently been accepted for publication at journal.
  • before coming to x’s first job, held a post-doctoral fellowship at institution.

For junior scholars, the more simple and straightforward both your bio and CV are, the better. No one is expecting you to have a 20-year professional history or multiple previous books when you are proposing your first one. For more senior people who have previously published a lot of articles but this is your first book, this is a chance to signify professional socialization by listing some of your more prestigious journal publications. For senior people who have published books before, it is a chance to show that those previous books had some success.

2) Know what your bio will say about you, and what that will mean for the rest of the prospectus. 

If this is clearly a book that comes from your dissertation, your bio will say it, and you won’t be able to hide it. So, the first thing an evaluator will do is go look at the scope and structure of the book. Is the dissertation’s literature review chapter still in the outline? Is it a single case study that lacks broader appeal? Is there a justification for the methodology other than it being fancy enough to get a job? Is the audience broader than the five people whose work your dissertation critiqued?

I recommend the book (ironic right) From Dissertation to Book and/or heart-to-hearts with your mentors when you are thinking about how to structure and target your book – but I unconditionally recommend restructuring it from your dissertation and rewriting the most navel-gazing and inaccessible parts (at the very least) – both to get the book published and to have people read it once it is published.

The book being your first book and based on your dissertation isn’t necessarily a problem – plenty of first books have been published, even by elite presses, and been reviewed and sold well. Its just that you want to know that readers will know that it is your first book, and what signifiers they will be looking for in the prospectus that will tell them that it will be fine.

For more senior scholars, self-identification brings with it your scholarly reputation. If the book is in an area where you already have a reputation for good scholarship, highlight in the prospectus how the book builds off (and innovates from) your previous successful work.

3) Google Yourself. 

I count this one as just everyday good advice – but it is especially good advice when you submit a non-anonymous professional application or request, whether it is for a job or for a book. Your reviewer may either find your bio/CV satisfactory or already know of you and not google you. But why take the risk? Google yourself. Here’s some stuff to look out for:

  • make sure your facebook privacy settings only show stuff to your actual friends
  • try and get embarrassing pics of you off of websites of friends or untagged on facebook (we’re all happy you can do a kegstand, but none of us needs to see it)

When you google yourself, don’t just look for the negative stuff. Look for the positive stuff. Set up a google scholar profile. This will help a curious reviewer find your other work. If you have previous books, set up an Amazon author’s page. This will let the editor and reviewer get a feel for the sales data someone was going to look for anyway.

Above and beyond all of this, don’t freak out about it. Read this. Be careful in your presentation of both yourself and your book. This should take all of five more minutes of your time and anxiety. And that’s all it deserves. Like anonymous peer review, non-anonymous peer review has it pros and cons. But after putting your best face (or words, as it were) forward, there’s nothing you can do about it. So don’t sweat it.