Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Book Proposal: A (Brief) List of Resources

One of my goals for this week is to complete a draft (however rough) of my book proposal. Up until a few days ago, I'd done more reading up on the process than writing, and I sought out a wide array of advice to help me get a sense of how to tackle this particular project. As is the case with so many things at this stage of my career, this style of writing is entirely new to me. I have, however, found the writing to be at least a little easier than the cover letter for the job market, my feelings for which were  captured in a Facebook update from this past Fall:

The book proposal is a strange beast for a lot of reasons, but I've found the writing to be incredibly helpful. Among other things, it's forcing me to find succinct ways to describe my book and why it matters, painful as that process might be.

I'll be writing a lot more about this entire dissertation-to-book process in the months (and, most likely, years) to come, and I hope to have actual advice to impart once I get further into it. For right now though, I thought I'd share a list of the readings I've found to be the most helpful and/or eye-opening:

1. "How to write a book proposal for an academic press." From Get a Life, Ph.D., a blog authored by Tanya Maria Golash-Boza.

[I've referred back to this post more than any other source so far. Her advice is rooted in extensive experience, and I appreciate her candor and her collegial approach. She speaks to you as a fellow professional, and the impeccably organized path that she lays out here has been incredibly helpful to me in the drafting process. Her advice to write the chapter descriptions first is a fantastic one, by the way: I tried it out and it definitely helped to jumpstart my writing.]

2. "How to Write a Book Proposal." From The Professor Is In, a blog authored by Dr. Karen Kelsky. 

[Dr. Karen's advice here, as elsewhere, is incredibly helpful and thorough. Just be prepared for her characteristic bluntness! She goes into considerable detail in this post, but I was very struck by her emphasis on confidence — essentially, that the proposal can't afford to betray any lingering insecurity. I'll be returning to the final two paragraphs multiple times in the next several days to remind myself of that!]  

3. "The Reality of Writing a Good Book Proposal," From The Chronicle of Higher Education, authored by Rachel Toor. 

[This post was written from the editor's perspective rather than the author's, and it's a fantastic read for that reason. It confirms what posts 1 and 2 have to say, but also offers up some unique advice as well. For instance, I found the suggestion to fill out the author questionnaire before writing the bulk of the proposal to be incredibly helpful (here's one of many good templates). It's made certain sections of the proposal far less daunting.]

4. "From Dissertation to Book." From The Chronicle of Higher Education, authored by Leonard Cassuto.

[Lots of good advice in here as well, but the main thing that makes this post stand out from the others is the advice to avoid publishing too much of your dissertation in journals if you want to publish an overhauled version as a book.]

5. The Thesis and the Book. Edited by Eleanor Harman, et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

[If you're looking for lists of things to avoid when trying to prepare your dissertation for book publication, then this book will be helpful. Moreover, the "author's checklist" in Chapter 6 is also a great thing that I'll likely return to as I move forward. That said, I couldn't believe the smugness and condescension that occasionally oozed from the pages. There are some fantastic and collegial chapters in here (Chapters 4 and 5 stood out to me in that regard), but the second and third nearly turned me off of the book altogether. Chapter 2 was entitled "The Dissertation's Deadly Sins," for instance. It begins by stating: "The dissertation system must have laid at its door an enormous squandering of creativity, youth, time, and money each year upon the execution of prose works that do not communicate significantly and are therefore dysfunctional." (Are you not INSPIRED?) And it then goes on to assault your eyes with phrases like "A second characteristic of the system makes the situation of doctoral candidates even more hopeless,"  "the dissertation's amateurishness further reveals itself in pedantry and cowardice," and "editors are accustomed to the juvenescent tantrums of neurotics." I am FULLY aware that I am new to this process and that I have an enormous amount to learn (and an equally enormous amount of work to do) before I submit a text to an academic press. I do not, however, appreciate having that lack of experience rubbed in my face (by way of a thesaurus) over the course of twenty pages. I especially don't appreciate having someone who repeatedly uses patroningzly alliterative phrases ("the pusillanimous passive," anyone?) lecture me on the importance of clear and approachable language.
The sad thing is that these chapters (two and three) DO contain excellent pointers, but they're almost entirely lost in the vitriol. 

With that said, the book as a whole is definitely worth a read because it contains a wealth of useful information — and, to be fair, some truly approachable and collegial chapters. Just try and resist the (not so occasional) urge to chuck the book across the room as you make your way towards those chapters.] 

Each of these five sources has proved helpful and enlightening, if at times a bit frustrating due to tone and approach. The tendency among some of these authors towards condescension continues to mystify me, and reminded me of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's past arguments against infantilizing graduate students and junior scholars. As he put it:
"The enduring ardor for hierarchy endemic to our profession puzzles me. Graduate students and faculty are colleagues engaged in a mutual enterprise. The commitment to study for an advanced humanities degree is a brave and perilous one, because the road is difficult and the destination extremely uncertain. Those who undertake such a commitment should be honored and cultivated for that choice, not made to feel like kids who need a strong dose of paternalism to keep them from overstepping."
In like fashion, I remain puzzled by the choice of some of these authors to infantilize their audience — especially since their work is (ostensibly) trying to encourage those very readers to act and write like professionals and not as students. Golash-Boza's perspective, after wading through The Thesis and the Book, was beyond a breath of fresh air as a result.

I'll be updating this list as I find more sources that prove helpful. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your recommendations and thoughts: what guidelines, books, articles, and/or blog posts have been helpful to you in this stage of the process?


  1. I've recently been through the proposal-writing process myself and I do agree with you about the bizarrely condescending tone of some of the resources - surely it would not be too much to assume that a person at the stage of turning their thesis into a book already has a reasonable amount of common sense, writing ability and awareness of what academic books look like! I don't have anything to recommend but I wish you luck with the proposal - I also found it a helpful experience (in the end) and yes, so much less painful than cover letters...

  2. Many thanks for the good wishes, Clerk of Oxford! I'm glad I'm not the only one mystified by the tone of some of these texts. Fortunately, I've already had some wonderful ones brought to my attention by way of Facebook, so I'll be adding to the list in due course. In the meantime, I'll be sending you many good thoughts on your own proposal -- I hope you get good news from the publisher very soon!

  3. Thank you for this list, Leila. I think you are much too charitable about "the Professor Is In." I try reading her posts, but they always make me feel like shit about myself. She's a real b****. Why do these people giving advice feel the need to patronize us? One can easily impart good advice in a polite, constructive tone.

  4. Anonymous, apologies for only publishing your comment now! Not sure how it slipped through the cracks. I used to feel similarly about "The Professor is In," but of late she's come to remind me (rather fondly) of my composition teacher from high school -- someone who I only really came to appreciate after I survived her course and learned so much from it. I try, as a result, to think of her when I read anything from "The Professor is In," because I truly believe that Dr. Karen's heart is very much in the right place. Are her posts phrased how I myself would phrase them? Nope, but I've found of late that her brutal honesty can be exactly what I need depending on what sort of headspace I'm in at the time (I just have to be mindful of that, otherwise, as you pointed out, the posts can sometimes leave you feeling a bit worse for wears).


Comments are moderated by the authors in order to keep the spam at bay.