Whether it is your first book or your tenth, books start at prospectuses.
Ok, that’s the first lie I’ve told you. Selling your book starts at the prospectus. But your book idea, and your book description, should not start at a prospectus. First expressing your book idea in the form of a prospectus will lead to a prospectus that is more difficult to read than it needs to be, less strategically organized than it could be, and less likely to sell your idea to the press than you’d like it to be.
Your book idea, and book organization, should always start in some other form than a prospectus. And, no, ‘dissertation’ does not count.
That form can be personalized. For me, its aloud. My professional background before academia – my professional comfort zone, I guess – was in sales and public speaking. Ideas just make more sense to me aloud than they do in writing, and I work through stuff aloud. So I formulate the initial articulation of new ideas through explaining them to other people. When people ask – “what’s your next book about?” (and sometimes even when they don’t), I explain the idea. I do it about a dozen times to about a dozen different people until I finally have an account of what the book is about, what it is for, and what holds it together that doesn’t leave the person listening with either a perplexed or bored look on their face. Then I try it a dozen more times, then its time to write a prospectus.
Others explain themselves better on paper – in a four-or-five page summary of the book. Don’t mistake a four-or-five page summary of the book for a prospectus, though. That summary is an internal accounting, for you, so you know what the book is for, where its going, and what its claim to uniqueness is (a question we’ll return to later). You need to have a good sense of what the book is going to look like, and be able to express that in the prospectus, but the prospectus shouldn’t just be a summary of the book. Prospectuses that are summaries of books sometimes get contracts, but, in my experience, they’re less likely to, and less likely to be greeted with enthusiasm at the press, than prospectuses that do the job that prospectuses should actually do – both express and sell the idea, while giving the publisher a good sense of what they are buying.
Make no mistake – a prospectus is you selling a book to the publisher, and the publisher deciding whether or not they can sell it to other people, or, in the case of some presses, whether it is independently important to take a risk on. This means that the prospectus needs to do a good job selling the book, without having the salesmanship of a used car salesperson.
This post will deal with what is, in my view, one of the most important questions in prospectus-writing: 1) What goes in a book prospectus, and how is it organized? Follow-up posts will deal with only-slightly-less important add-on questions: 2) How do I write a prospectus for a dissertation-book as a junior scholar? 3) How do I capitalize on my previous publishing history as someone who has written one, or multiple, books before?
For now …