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 …