A Few Thoughts on Book Proposals

A question I get sometimes from friends and coworkers that, I think, warrants a moment of discussion, is: how did you land your book contract? How did you market your book to publishers? What did your proposal look like?

And, sadly, my response always seems to disappoint because it really isn’t a magical one at all, just a simple two steps: know what a publisher is looking for and follow their instructions precisely!

I knew my book was an odd one, strange to market beyond simply “academic” so I began by searching out a publisher who wanted something academic and oddball. And would you believe how McFarland advertises itself?

McFarland is a leading independent publisher of academic and general interest nonfiction books. McFarland is known for covering topics of popular appeal in a serious and scholarly fashion…”

Among many librarians especially, McFarland is viewed as distinguished yet daring.”

McFarland welcomes proposals for nonfiction manuscripts on a wide range of subjects, not limited to the following: popular culture and performing arts (especially film, television, dance, gaming), military history (especially World War II and Civil War), international studies, health topics, sports (especially baseball, boxing, American football), automotive (and planes and trains), literary studies (including both classic and genre fiction, mystery, SF, fantasy, horror), medieval studies, mythology, folklore, and women’s and gender studies.”

As soon as I read these descriptors, I knew my book – a strange scholarly mixture of literary, mythology, folklore, and pop culture studies – had found a fabulous potential home.  I mean, I knew immediately that not only was this publisher in my book’s ideal neighborhood but this publisher came with the pool and hardwood floors to boot!

The first step to a successful book proposal, in other words, is picking the right publisher – just like in every other aspect of life, know your audience!

The second step? Followin’ instructions — everyone’s least favorite part :p

Check out McFarland’s:

  • In a query letter you should describe the manuscript, tell us how far along you are, estimate its final length (in either word count or double-spaced typescript pages), and tell us what is unique about the manuscript (or about you!). We answer most queries within a few days; if we’re interested we’ll invite you to send either the complete manuscript or a full proposal.
  • full book proposal should contain the following elements: an overall description, outline or table of contents, estimates of total word count and completion date, a preface or introduction, comments on how the book differs from any competing works on the same topic, a summary of what you might offer in the way of photographs or other illustrations, and some samples of the manuscript (1-2 chapters or the equivalent, plus representative pages of any special parts).”


That’s the mysterious stew, just two ingredients: know what the publisher wants and follow their directions.

I don’t know if you know this, but I sent out my book proposal without ever formally consulting an agent (although I did consult friends and colleagues once I was offered a contract) and I only ever sent out one – just one proposal to one publisher. I’m not saying that this is a recipe to always getting published or that literary agents are useless – simply that, from my experience working at a literary agency and in working with McFarland on my book project, a lot of grief can be avoided by simply giving your work a good once-over after you’ve finished it (maybe a good twice- and thrice-over), research the publishers you’re writing to, and follow instructions as fully and well as possible. J

Of course, the directions and webs all change from publisher to publisher. What have your experiences been? What advice would you give to an author seeking a publisher? Would you suggest starting with short stories? With academic journals?


One thought on “A Few Thoughts on Book Proposals”

  1. KC, thanks for the like on the blog today.

    In answer to your questions at the end of the post I would say to the new writer to stay where it feels natural. If you don’t understand poetry and cannot write short stories, stay in the novel arena. Write what you love, but also what you are good at.


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