The Volokh Conspiracy

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Writing an Academic Book, Part III: Getting Your Proposal Accepted

Third in a series of posts on how to write an academic book and get it published.


After a lengthy hiatus caused by other obligations, I am back with the third installment in my series of posts about how how to publish an academic book. In Part I, I summarized the criteria that can help you decide whether you want to write an academic book in the first place. Part II addresses the issue of how to choose a publisher. Let's assume you've decided you do want to publish a book, and you know where you want to publish it. In this post, I cover the hard part: how to persuade the publisher to actually accept your idea.

Obviously, your success will in large part depend on how good your idea actually is, and also on your standing in your field. The better your proposed book project, and the more prominent an academic you are, the better your chances of getting publishers (especially topnotch ones) to accept your idea. I can't—at least in this post—tell you how to do good scholarship in your field, or how to become a big-name academic. What I can do is describe how to increase your chances of getting published, holding these two crucial variables constant.

In my first post in the series, I summarized my qualifications for offering advice on this subject. Here, I will only reiterate that I have extensive experience both submitting and reviewing academic book proposals. I've had multiple books accepted by well-known publishers. But I've also gotten my share of rejections, which I have tried to learn from.

I. Some Basic Mechanics of Submission

There are two standard ways of submitting a book project to an academic publisher: you can send them a completed manuscript, or a book proposal outlining what you are going to do. The advantage of the manuscript approach is that you will probably only have to do one round of consideration by the editor and by peer reviewers. If you get a proposal accepted, the publisher will likely do another round of review of the completed manuscript later (once you have that done). It's rare for a publisher to reject the completed manuscript after they have previously accepted the proposal. But it can and does happen, occasionally.

The biggest advantage of the proposal strategy is that it's far easier and less time-consuming. You don't (yet) have to have an entire book, just a brief description (perhaps 10-12 pages) of what the book is about. Moreover, if the editor and/or the peer reviewers, recommend changes and improvements, it's a lot easier to work them in at an early stage in the project than to do so after you already have a complete manuscript. Finally, if the worst happens, and the project turns out to be a flop, you will lose a lot less time and effort on a failed book proposal than if you write an entire manuscript, only to find out that it's unpublishable.

Once you have your book or manuscript, the best way to submit it is to get the name of the subject-matter editor at the publisher you want to submit it to and e-mail your submission directly to him or her. You can often find the name of the relevant person simply checking the publisher's website.  Most academic publishers have editors who specialize in different fields, such as law, social sciences, history, and so on. You can also sometimes find out the right person to submit to by asking other scholars in your field, who have published books with the relevant press.

The key is that you are more likely to get serious consideration for your idea if you e-mail it directly to the editor than if you try to send it to some other official at the press, or—worse still—try to send it by "snail" mail.

Many people will tell you that you should submit to only one publisher at a time. But, for reasons discussed in my last post in this series, it will often make sense to submit to three or four simultaneously—but probably no more than that.

II. Drafting Your Proposal

If you submit an entire manuscript, the publisher's decision is likely to come down to the quality of the manuscript itself. So most of the advice here is about the proposal route. However, many of the things that should be included in a proposal should also be included (in shorter form) in a cover letter that you submit with a complete manuscript.

There are many different ways to organize a proposal, and some people will tell you that theirs is the One True Way to do it. Bill Frucht of Yale University Press describes one helpful and relatively flexible approach here.

The truth is that successful proposals come in many different formats. There is no one structure that is always best for everyone. Still, a successful proposal will generally include answers to the following questions:

         1. What is the book about?

This may seem obvious. But all too many authors still don't get it. If your proposal doesn't clearly describe what the main thesis of the book is, the editor and peer reviewers are likely to be confused about it. And if they are confused, they are probably going reject it.

Have a friend or relative who is not a hard-core expert in the relevant field read the proposal. If they can't easily tell what the book is about and what argument it makes, you need to rewrite to make it clearer.

       2. Why is the subject important?

This too may seem obvious. But too many scholars take it for granted that whatever they are interested in will also interest others. This may be true for some topics. But it isn't true for all. If the importance of your topic is not obvious, you need to explain why it matters—and preferably to more than just a small group of experts in the field.

In some cases, of course, a subject really will be accessible only to other experts. If that is the case, you should at least explain why it has a broader significance, even if only other experts can read it. For example, maybe your book presents a new way to analyze statistical data that only experts in quantitative methods can understand. But perhaps your methodological innovation can help analysts better assess important economic or social issues that affect large numbers of people. If so, point that out in your proposal!

          3. What are you saying that's new?

You must explain what your book will do that's different from previous literature on the same subject. If the editor and reviewers think you are just reinventing the wheel, they will probably reject your idea!

If there are other books on the same topic—especially well-known ones, describe why yours will be different. If necessary, include a brief discussion of each seemingly similar previous book, and explain what you do that the other book doesn't. If the difference is that you're challenging the conventional wisdom set out in those previous works, make sure to point that out!

In the proposal for my most recent book, Free to Move, I had to confront the fact that there are numerous previous works on all three types of "voting with your feet" addressed in my project: international migration, movement within federal systems, and foot voting in the private sector. I tried, as best as I could, to explain that my contribution was to combine all three in a single framework, and to link them to the concept of political freedom. If editors had come away with the impression that this is "just another book" on immigration, I doubt it would have gotten accepted.

        4. Why are you the right person to write this book?

Summarize your qualifications for doing this project. If the book builds on your previous publications, point out how they relate. If those publications are widely cited and well-regarded, point that out. You don't have to already be a famous scholar to get a book published with a major press. But the publisher will want to know that you have at least some substantial relevant qualifications.

The above four points are ones you must cover in almost any proposal. There are a few other things that are less essential, but still deserve serious consideration in most cases.

It isn't absolutely essential to provide an outline summarizing each chapter of the proposed book. But it can often help, and you should try to do so, if possible. Keep in mind that you can always restructure chapters—or even add new ones or eliminate some—later in the writing process.

Similarly, you don't necessarily have to preview your answers to potential objections to your thesis. In fact, you probably can't cover all of them in a proposal. But the more your project challenges accepted conventional wisdom, the more you should include at least some indication of your responses to what readers are likely to consider obvious  criticisms.

For example, when I wrote the proposal for what became my book The Grasping Hand, I knew I was challenging the then-overwhelmingly dominant academic view that Kelo v. City of New London was rightly decided, and that the Constitution allows the government to condemn property for almost any reason it wants. That's part of why I wanted to write the book in the first place! So I included a good deal of material in the proposal indicating my awareness of various counterarguments and summarizing my responses.

You might think it unfair that proposals challenging academic conventional wisdom are scrutinized more harshly than those supporting it. But that's just the way it is. Moreover, there are advantages to challenging orthodoxy that can offset the disadvantages. A crucial one is that a book attacking conventional wisdom is less likely to be rejected for being unoriginal!

Finally, if possible, you should consider including a section on what the likely market for the book is going to be, and in particular any reasons (if they exist) why the book might sell to more than just academic libraries and a few scholars in your field.

In principle, university presses are nonprofit organizations that are supposed to focus on producing new knowledge, not profit. In practice, they do care about profits and sales. And it's hard to blame them too much, especially in the post-Covid era where university finances may be shaky for some time.

You don't have to prove that your book will be a bestseller. But the more you can show that it can sell beyond a very narrow specialist audience, the better. If the book is suitable for adoption in courses, point that out, too.


III. The Peer Review Process

In most cases, academic publishers will put your proposal or manuscript through a peer review process before accepting it for publication. If the editor who initially gets the proposal dislikes it or thinks it doesn't fit the press's plans (e.g.—because they aren't interested in books on that particular subject), she will probably reject the proposal without further review. Otherwise, the editor will send it out to peer reviewers for their comments and recommendations. Usually, they will pick two reviewers. But, occasionally, it might be three or even four.

Some editors will ask the author for his or her recommendations for possible reviewers. You should be prepared for this possibility, and have two or three names ready to suggest. Ideally, your suggested reviewers will be big-name scholars in the relevant field, who know and like your work. If you don't know any such people, that's a problem you need to fix—and not just for the sake of getting your books accepted by publishers!

Do not recommend anyone who works for the same university as you do or the same think tank or research institute. Editors or their superiors might smell a conflict of interest, or even worry that you think your proposal won't pass muster unless it gets reviewed by someone with an incentive to give a favorable recommendation.

When the reviewer reports are ready (it usually takes two to three months, but can be longer or shorter), the editor will send them to you (without identifying the reviewers' names), and ask you to write a response. In the best-case scenario, the reports will be very positive and only suggest minor revisions. In that event, all you need do in your response is note how positive they were, and offer to consider the various minor recommendations for change.

At the opposite extreme, the reports could be highly negative. If that happens, the proposal will probably be rejected. All you can do is try to learn from the criticisms and use them to improve the proposal for the next time you submit it (to a different publisher).

Very often, however, the reviewers will give equivocal comments, praising some aspects of the proposal, but criticizing others. They might recommend publication, but urge significant revisions to the project.

If you get these types of reports, your response to the reviewers may well be crucial. If you're like me (and a good many other scholars), you may well be tempted to dismiss the reviewers' criticisms as a load of BS. Intellectual humility is a virtue more often preached than actually practiced in the academic world. How dare those ignorant cretins take issue with your brilliant insights! They clearly have no idea what they are talking about, and certainly don't know the subject as well you do.

The impulse to think that way is understandable. And some reviewers really do make dumb comments and offer foolish suggestions. Still, you should resist the temptation to simply dismiss all reviewer criticisms and use your response to explain why the reviewers are a bunch of idiots.

Remember that your goal is not to "win" a debate with the reviewers, but to get your proposal accepted by the publisher. Remember also that the editor picked these reviewers because he or she thought they would have useful insights. Some of them may even be people you yourself recommended as potential reviewers. Thus, if you try to dismiss the reviewers as morons whose concerns don't deserve any credence, the editor could well conclude that the real moron is you—and act accordingly! Not good news for your prospects of acceptance.

Instead of being dismissive, try to accommodate as many of the reviewers' suggestions as you reasonably can. In some cases, they may suggest relatively modest changes that can easily be incorporated in your initial framework. If so, point that out and signal your openness to including them if the editor concludes it would be a good idea. Some reviewer criticisms might be addressed in a different way than the reviewer suggests—one more compatible with your own vision for the book. If so, point that out too.

Some reviewers will raise criticisms that you think are weak, but that still should be addressed in the book because they are ideas that are likely to occur to many readers. One of the peer reviewers for my book The Grasping Hand (mentioned above) said I needed to address the argument that my position was similar to that adopted by the Supreme Court in its much-reviled 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York. I thought then—and still think even now!—that this is a weak argument. But the reviewer was right to push me to address it, because it's a point likely to occur to many academics and other informed readers. So address it I did—and the book was the better for it.

There may be some reviewer criticisms that you have to reject outright, either because they are outlandishly bad, or because they propose such radical revisions to the project as to be incompatible with your own vision for it. If so, your rejection of these critiques will have more credibility if you are willing to accept other, more reasonable suggestions and criticisms the reviewers make. And where you must say no, phrase your rebuttal as politely as possible.

Again, remember that your goal is is to get your project accepted, not show up the reviewers. Remember, too, that no one but you, the editor, and a few of his or her superiors will ever see the reviewer reports and your response to them. On the other hand, a lot more people might read you book—but only if it gets published! Keep your eye on that prize, and your chances of getting it will increase accordingly.

Once you've sent the editor your response and she is satisfied with it, she will send the proposal, the reviewer reports, and your response on to the press' board for approval. In most cases, they will in fact approve an offer if the editor makes a favorable recommendation.

Once you get that acceptance, congratulations! It's a major step in the right direction. But, if what got accepted was just a proposal (as opposed to a finished manuscript), you still have to actually go through the process of writing the book. I will take up the writing process in the next post in this series.