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Writing a (Kick-Ass) Book Prospectus

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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 …

1) What goes in a book prospectus, and how is it organized?

The first note here is that some presses have requested templates for what their prospectuses look like that vary in some way from the standard organization I am about to suggest. I always write my prospectuses with the standard organization I am about to suggest, then tailor them to the individual needs of the presses that have individual needs. Those tend to be a minority of presses anyway. Under no circumstances, though, do I send a prospectus formatted differently than a press’ specific request to that press. I figure that, if I want them to consider my book, its probably worth the ten or fifteen minutes to reformat my material.

Ok, so, this is what an outline of my prospectuses looks like:

Title (self-explanatory, centered)

Author (name, institutional affiliation, contact information)

Book details (length, delivery date, number of figures and tables, each on one line, just with a colon, and the number). The length part tells the publisher approximately how much it will cost to produce your book. The standard length that I’ve seen is 75000-80000 words, though there are both shorter and longer projects. The delivery date both helps the publisher plan when the book might be published and tells them how far along the project is now. I generally try to make a reasonable but ambitious delivery date in my prospectuses – like, if 90% of what I want to happen with this project happens, when will it be ready? And if only 10% goes right, will it be ready less than a year after that? The number of figures and tables is also a cost thing for the publishers – how hard to typeset will your book be? Tables and figures are not a negative to book publishers, but it is something they like to know about in advance.

Statement of Aims (what you want to do with the book and why it matters, in 2 pages or less). In my view, this is the most important part of the prospectus. It needs to situate the book in the literature (in an interesting way, not in a boring, literature-review sort of way), then address what the book will add (but not in the ‘look at how pathbreaking I am’ sort of way). For example, the statement of aims for my forthcoming book (Women as Wartime Rapists), has four short paragraphs: one noting the rise of conflict sexual violence in the international arena and the rise of attention to that sexual violence; another suggesting that scholars have paid attention to that sexual violence as gendered; a third that suggests that, despite this analysis, women wartime rapists have been invisible, in the media, in the courts, and in scholarship; and a fourth that poses the book’s central question/goal: if war rape is one of the most intense sites of women’s subordination, how is it possible to see, and cope with, women’s perpetration, while still understanding conflict sexual violence as gendered? The statement of aims ends with the suggestion that the book’s goals are to begin to understand possible answers to that question.

Note, then, that the statement of aims does not summarize either the book or the literature that it is in. It ties the book both to current events and to the extant literature (if you can only do one, that’s ok, both sells better), and it tells the reader what it is that the book will be adding, without using the language of “my contribution to the literature will be …”). It also provides the reader of the prospectus with a perspective through which to read the summary material of the book that comes later in the prospectus – they will now be looking for (at least hopefully) both the exposition of women perpetrators of war rape and the gender-based complexities that come with it. This section also helps editors show their boards a context for, and an accessibility of, your book, when they are looking to sell it to a broader audience than, for example, people who specialize in women’s perpetration of conflict sexual violence (there are pretty few of those, as you might imagine). The inclusion of the broader implications is a flag of sale-ability of the book – perhaps why NYU now markets it as a book that “offers important insights into not only the topic of female perpetrators of wartime sexual violence, but to larger notions of gender and violence with crucial cultural, legal, and political implications.” The goal of the statement of aims is to put that sentence in the reader’s mind, along with providing a kind of guide to read the rest of the prospectus.

Some prospectuses without statements of aims, or where this is folded into the abstract of the book, succeed. I’ve found this approach to be more successful – shorter parts of the prospectus catch people’s attention better, and more pointed writing attracts publishers and reviewers more effectively than wandering writing.

Abstract (short, I mean short, summary of what the book is going to do. Think of this, if you are a debater (or even if you’re not), as the “overview” – the two-to-three minute ‘elevator speech’ that makes people interested in what is in the book). A good abstract is about a page and a half single-spaced, less than three pages double-spaced. The abstract is not the place to put a specific chapter outline (those of you who have read ahead will have guessed that, but I want to make sure I emphasize this, because a lot of people do that. Sometimes, it does go over the book in order. For example, the prospectus abstract for my Gendering Global Conflictwhich is a long book (for better or worse), discusses the four major questions that the book will address as four major sections: wars in a gendered world (the theoretical context for a feminist theory of war), the causes of war, the fighting of wars (strategy, tactics, and practices), and the consequences of wars. The ultimate book (years later) included three of those four questions/sections. So the abstract there says what the book will do, in order, but based on its major questions rather than on explicit chapters. By contrast, the prospectus for the Women as Wartime Rapists book explains the argument that the book will make: that the coupling of understanding wartime rape as “gendered” with the attachment to the idea that men are the perpetrators and women are the victims is the problem that constitutes women wartime rapists (and their victims) as impossible. The abstract then explains how the book will make the argument – using five empirical case studies of women who likely committed conflict sexual violence, how they were recognized (or not), how their actions were framed, and how their victims were treated, with contrasts to how male perpetrators were received and treated. An abstract, then, has two main components: what argument you will make and how you will make it. 

Note that the best empirical material in the world is pretty useless in a prospectus without an approach/argument, and the most interesting argument in the world isn’t particularly useful if your account that you are capable of making that argument isn’t compelling. You need to have a pretty clear idea of both to write a prospectus. That doesn’t mean they won’t change – for example, Women as Wartime Rapists did not end up being structured around the five case studies I originally intended – writing it that way felt messy and repetitive – the chapters ended up thematic instead. But the original plan passed a feasibility test, and communicated what I wanted to communicate.

Also, in an edited volume, this should give a sense of what the chapter structure will look like (use of the words “tightly edited” and specifying particular sections, boxes, or something else that will unify the book is helpful).

Like the statement of aims, some prospectuses have abstracts that are just a couple of sentences about each chapter, and sometimes that works. I find that this works better, because it gives a sense of market, and of the argument, which is easy to read and engaging. A good abstract is also a signifier of good writing ability, and material for the later abstract that the publisher will use to help sell the book.

Chapter Outline (this one is pretty straightforward – a list of chapters, with about a paragraph-long abstract of each chapter, with the possible exception of the introduction and conclusion, which can do with a sentence or two). Make sure how the chapters are broken up, and how one links to another, are clear in the Chapter Outline.

Proposed Market (a summary of the proposed market for the book. If you don’t know what this is, keep reading). Note that this and the competition/uniqueness section of the prospectus are both the most important, and the most neglected, part of an academic book prospectus.

Is this a general interest book? Those are like the sort sold in Barnes and Noble and airports and stuff. Most of our books aren’t, but if you’d like to pitch it that way, do your homework, and consider using an agent. If its not, then the question of proposed market has a couple of different slices:

  1. Level of audience. Is it a textbook for low-level undergraduates? (e.g., Introduction to International Relations?) Is it a book for upper-level undergraduates and graduate courses – one that scholars might get something out of, but it can also be used for course reading? Or is it a book for advanced graduate students and fellow scholars? You generally want to land on the second one if you can – this provides a wider market for the book than the more narrow ‘just useful for my field’ while not requiring a book that’s not an intro textbook to morph into one.
  2. Courses it might be adopted in. The more specific sorts of courses that you have that might adopt the book, the more likely the publisher is to believe there might be an audience for course adoptions. Often, course adoptions are the path to profitability for academic books, so it is important to pay attention to and give a feasible answer to. For example, for my Women as Wartime Rapists book, I mentioned a number of courses and modules on gender and security, and on conflict sexual violence, offered in schools of political science, international relations, and law. Try to make this section feasible (no, my Interpretive Quantification project with Sammy Barkin – article linked here, the book is forthcoming at the University of Michigan Press – is not going to be adopted by Introduction to International Relations courses all over the country. It might be adopted by methods courses, however, especially at the graduate level).
  3. Discipline of audience. Is the book pitched to people who study war and security? Is it pitched to IR? Or also history, or sociology, or law, or leadership studies, or gender studies? What are the other disciplines that might pick up your book and find it interesting? What parts of political science?

Competition/Uniqueness (this part really, really, really matters, and not a lot of people do really poorly). So let’s start with what this is not. It is not a section where you talk about what sucks about the books that are close to the one you are proposing in the field. Many of those people will review the prospectus, and read the comments. And book reviews aren’t anonymous. But above and beyond that, you want the publisher to be convinced that there exists a literature that people are reading (and, more importantly for them, buying) to which you are contributing, but that your contribution is unique enough that it will (also) be bought. It is also not a place to say ‘there are not any books with which my book competes, because my book is so new.’ First, that’s probably not true (you have a bibliography, right?). Second, even if it were true, that signifies a risk for the publisher – publishing in an area where they don’t know if there is an audience. Third, this is not a place to put a full literature review. It is, instead, a place to selectively highlight some of the work in the field.

So, for example, for my Women as Wartime Rapists book, I highlighted a growing literature on women’s violence in global politics as a context (there’s a literature around this that sells books in IR), alongside a larger literature in political science/IR/law on conflict sexual violence (there’s also broader potential appeal) before distinguishing my book from those (none of them explicitly theorize female rapists, my book crosses IR/law disciplinary boundaries, and my book uses new historical evidence). This way I am praiseful of the existing literature, and frame by book as having a context and a market, while suggesting a need for it. For the Interpretive Quantification project, we highlighted both methods theory books that try to deal with the relationship between epistemology and methodology, and critical IR textbooks on methodology. That provides a positive contexts. Then we talk about the differences between our book and those (for the methods theory books, this is a perspectival thing; for the critical methods textbooks, its that this one is quantitative).

In short, this section should talk about good books published at good places that have sold some books that are in your general area, then what it is that your book does that sets it apart that will help it sell books too (and preferably more books).

About the Author(s) (short, and I mean short, paragraph about what you do, who you are, and what qualifies you professionally. This should include name, rank, institutional affiliation, education, specialization, and previous publications. It shouldn’t be frilly, over-long, or brag about stuff that isn’t brag-worthy (e.g, “received a scholarship for undergraduate school a decade ago”).

Sources Cited (yea, that). You wouldn’t believe how many book prospectuses cite stuff in the statement of aims, abstract, and competition sections, then don’t actually provide the full citations. Don’t go citation-crazy (this isn’t a grant proposal), but do include actual citations for the other books and articles that you mention in the prospectus.

Note that this whole thing should be about 8 pages. It should be crisply written and focused. Everything that is included should be easy to read, and easy to engage for someone who knows your subfield but isn’t intimately involved with exactly what you do (e.g., the editor for the press).

  • Adam Humphreys

    this is really helpful and admirably clear – thank you!