I recently read some advice about how to start on a book proposal. The writer suggested that it was best to start with an outline.
I disagree. The vast majority of academic books begin with the author doing an analysis of what’s already available in the field. They identify a space which a new book might occupy. The space might, for example, be because there is an urgent policy or practice problem, a dearth of current literature available or a new finding that sheds light on an old problem… They then offer a text designed to fill this space.
I also recently heard an academic book publisher say that if there are no books out there like the one you want to write, then you need to think about why this is. It may well be, she suggested, that there is a good reason for this absence. It may well be, she went on, that the absence is because no one wants to read about this topic. It’s just not interesting to anyone much at all.
I agree with this. Identifying a space where a book might go is not enough. Good academic books are always designed for a particular readership. Publishers do not want to hear that everyone will be interested. They want to know exactly who is likely to buy the text if they decide to publish it. Hopeful authors thus need to tell the publisher, immediately after identifying the space for the book, what it is about this book that specific readers might want and/or need to read.
Good academic books also always have a USP – a unique selling point –an angle on the topic that is new, interesting, novel, innovative and/or compelling. They are not more of the same, but something different. They are likely to attract the readers for which they are intended because the text is not a duplicate of something already in their possession. So the book proposal really needs to make this USP clear.
Academic book proposals that are successful always provide the publisher with the answer to why you are the best person to write the book. What is it about your experience, research and background that means you can do the job of writing this book…and why you above all others? Selling the need for the book is often much easier to do than selling yourself, but it doesn’t have to be mortifying spin… it’s really just about listing the things that you bring to the writing because of who you are and what you’ve done.
So my version of events is that getting going on a book proposal requires attention to these four key things at the very outset:
1. why this book is needed
2. who is the readership
3. what’s unique about this book and
4. why you should write it
Once these are clear, then it’s the time to attend to the outline.