by Rachel Brooks and Sarah O’Shea
Professor Rachel Brooks and Professor Sarah O’Shea (editors of the SRHE/Routledge Book series) recently ran a Professional Development Programme event on ‘Writing a Book Proposal’. Sarah and Rachel offered their insights as authors and editors, discussing some questions frequently asked by those thinking of putting a book proposal together; they also include some advice from a publisher’s perspective offered by our colleagues at Routledge. This summary has been compiled and edited by Sinead Murphy, SRHE Manager, Conferences and Events.
Publishing a book is a significant undertaking – so why do it? Writing a book is a means for researchers to provide an in-depth and coherent account of their work, that often isn’t possible in shorter articles or other formats. Books are accepted in social sciences (including higher education research) as appropriate outputs, and provide opportunities to reach a larger, sometimes international, audience for your work.
Before embarking on such a project, it is important to consider the different options available for disseminating your research, and the advantages and limitations of each. Firstly, you may wish to weigh up the distinctions between edited books and monographs:
- The labour of producing a co-edited book is distributed across a group authors and editors, and the format can facilitate a greater range and diversity of perspectives around a single topic or theme. At the same time, co-edited volumes demand a lot of time and project management from the editor(s), who must also ensure the overall quality of the finished product.
- Monographs, on the other hand, are generally sole-authored or sometimes involve a small author team, such that the writing can be well-integrated, with ideas and arguments explored in significant depth. A sole-authored book involves a great deal of time, energy, and labour, but is an excellent addition to your CV.
Some of the most innovative books in the field of higher education research are based on doctoral research. However, turning your PhD thesis into a book often requires a substantial amount of work, and there are some specific considerations worth bearing in mind during this process:
- Thesis chapters do not automatically translate to book chapters – restructuring, rewriting, revision, and addition is often required. Books typically do not, for example, tend to feature the same level of detail around methodological decisions and process as is found in a doctoral thesis. You may also need to ‘slice’ your thesis and explore a specific area or theme more deeply.
- Consider any overlaps with previously published journal articles. Some publishers may be concerned about what will be novel or original about your book if you have already published extensively from your PhD research, while for others this may not be a significant issue. It’s therefore worth discussing this topic with your target publisher at an early stage, to establish what kind of changes or developments may be expected for a book proposal to be successful.
- Discuss your publication plans (and/or draft proposal) with your current or former supervisor, or other experienced academics in your department or field. The transition from publishing works in progress and journal articles to publishing books can seem like a big leap, but supervisors – who know your work very well – are generally happy to discuss and advise on this process.
With your initial preparation complete, you may feel ready to approach a publisher. What are the next logical steps?
- Research your publishing options, and consider not only what would best suit your field and specific topic, but also your motivation for writing the book. Are you, for instance, trying to apply for a job or promotion? If so, which publisher is highly regarded in your field?
- Once you have decided on your publisher of choice, consider sending an informal e-mail to the editor(s). Your e-mail should provide a brief overview of your idea or focus and seek to gauge some feedback on whether this would appeal to the series – the response you receive can help you to quickly establish whether a publisher is the right fit for your work.
- Check the different publication options offered – is a paperback option available? Hard copies can be prohibitive in terms of cost to the prospective reader, and so a paperback option could be a key selling point down the track. Are there options for open access – and if so, what are the fees and charges? Some contracts or research projects include funding for these costs.
Once you have conducted this initial research, a publisher may invite you to write a proposal – this is a formal expression of what you hope your book will contain, which provides the basis for the publisher (and others) to make a final decision regarding a potential book contract.
Usually there is a form or template available on the publisher’s website or which they can send you, which must be carefully followed. These forms vary across publisher, so it is important to access this early in your process to tailor your proposal to what the publisher is asking for. While completing this form:
- Consult examples of successful proposals – colleagues in your department or wider network will often be happy to share.
- Provide details of your writing or editing experience – this is an opportunity to outline what you have already published from your PhD.
- The proposed timeline for someone drawing on their finished thesis will be much shorter than that of someone starting from scratch with a new research project. It is important to be realistic about how much writing you have done already, and your existing commitments. A typical timeline may be around one year from the date on which the book contract is signed, but this varies greatly depending on individual circumstances.
- Many publishers prescribe a minimum and maximum length for the finished book (normally around 80,000 words) but this varies between publishers, and there is increasing variety in length.
- A book proposal should also include a concise overview expressing the unique selling point of your book, a chapter-by-chapter summary, a list of competing titles in the same area as your proposed book (and what makes your book distinct from these) and the potential market for your book (academics, students, researchers, others?). Some of this can be more challenging with edited collections if you are planning a call for proposals, but both publishers and peer reviewers need to see what you are planning to include to assess the proposal fully.
Some further writing advice from a publisher’s perspective offered by Routledge, but widely applicable across many academic publishers, is:
- Take your time writing
It is obvious to those assessing a proposal if it has been rushed. Use the proposal as an opportunity to best advertise yourself, your author voice, and your ideas. Ensure you answer all questions on the template provided by the publisher or series editor fully – missing out on questions can imply to the publisher that your idea is not fully developed.
- Be clear and accessible in your language
While the editor you submit your proposal to at the publisher will work within your subject area, eg education, they are unlikely to be an expert in your specific topic. Make sure you spell out acronyms or technical terms the first time you use them and reference the work you are building upon.
- Think about the market/intended audience for the book
Publishers need to know that there is a clear route to market for your book, in addition to its academic merit. Make sure you express who you think your reader will be and how they are going to use your book. What are the key objectives of your book, and why is it needed? Making this clear in your proposal shows that you are serious about writing a book and that you have a good awareness of your key market and what else has published in the area.
- Recommend potential reviewers
The publisher may ask you to recommend peer reviewers as part of the proposal stage, generally requesting that they are at a different institution to you and spanning a range of locations if you are aiming at an international audience. Routledge does not guarantee to contact all of these people – and their peer review process is anonymised so you won’t know this for definite – but they provide another indication of who you are writing for. This can help the publisher search for other potential reviewers and ensure your book is correctly positioned within their publishing programme.
- Supply abstracts, table of contents, and a description of the book wherever possible
At the formal proposal stage, you should have a good idea of what the book will be about. Supplying this material can be more difficult when it comes to edited collections particularly if you are planning a call for proposals, but the publisher needs to see what you intend to include to assess the proposal fully – as do peer reviewers.
If you are considering proposing a book for inclusion in the SRHE/Routledge Book Series Research in Higher Education, please contact Rachel Brooks (firstname.lastname@example.org), Sarah O’Shea (email@example.com) or Clare Loughlin-Chow (SRHE Director, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Professor Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey, UK. As well as being co-editor of the Routledge/SRHE book series, she is editor-in-chief of Sociology and an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education. She has published widely in the sociology of higher education. Recent books include Student Migrants and Contemporary Educational Mobilities (with Johanna Waters); Reimagining the Higher Education Student (with Sarah O’Shea) and Sharing Care (with Paul Hodkinson).
Professor Sarah O’ Shea is a national and international recognised educator and researcher, who applies sociological perspectives to the study of higher education equity. Sarah has also held numerous university leadership positions, which have directly informed changes across the Australian higher education sector, particularly in the field of educational equity. She is a prolific writer, with over 80 publications including books, book chapters, scholarly journal articles, media articles and commissioned reports produced in the last decade.