The proposal

All stages of writing a book excite me, even reading the proofs. But the other end of the process is particularly thrilling and fun. The original conception, the first idea, the basic premise is a stage at which infinite possibilities remain open, which over time will become narrowed down. Initially vague and abstract ideas crystallise into something more solid and concrete that you could propose to a publisher. Along the way, that moment of discovery, when you first understand for yourself exactly what you want to do, is the key stage. At that point, conception has occurred. You see the possibility of life for your plan.

I am around that point again. I have a very good idea of what the book will be. Even better, it will be a co-authored book, so I am sharing that excitement and journey of intellectual discovery, which exponentially increases the satisfaction. I have not written a book with this co-author before. That is another fun dimension of the process as we find out how each other thinks and works.

The immediate aim is constructing a credible proposal that will gain a publisher’s interest. We think the idea is excellent but we need to convey its attraction clearly and succinctly. I’ve written quite a few proposals over the years. Many of them succeeded in securing contracts but not all. I now have a bank of old proposals on file and often share them with colleagues or other potential authors who ask me about getting books published. Early career researchers are usually the ones who ask my advice as it might not be obvious what a publisher wants to see. Some of them have moved over to a standard pro forma system, though I still prefer to go freestyle. I think it a really good idea to make an initial contact with the editor and start the conversation so that a proposal is not received out of the blue. My own discipline, philosophy, has some brilliant, experienced commissioning editors, such as Peter Momtchiloff, Hilary Gaskin and Tony Bruce, with whom I’ve worked over many years. They are really knowledgeable people and also very honest. They won’t string you along if they think your idea doesn’t fly.

Key advice I give, and of which I repeatedly remind myself in writing a proposal, is that this is not the point at which to try and impress your editor with flowery words or intricacies. Keep it simple. The editors and referees will be busy people. They will want to see as easily as possible what you intend to do and what the proposed book will be about. Start with a summary of this, a bit like an abstract of a paper, but covering the entire book. This might only be 10 or 15 lines but you need to think it through very carefully. I’ve been discussing the current proposal for over a year with my co-author. We started with an ‘elevator pitch’ just for our own purposes. We thought that if we couldn’t persuade ourselves that we had a credible and exciting book idea, there was no point going further.

There are several other essentials, such as showing that you know and understand what already exists on the chosen topic and establishing your credentials in that field. I would then also offer a detailed abstract for each chapter so that the publisher sees that I’ve thought it all through and know what I will be doing. Once a book is published, I will sometimes look back at the proposal. If it matches closely what eventually came out, I am very satisfied. That shows why the proposal stage is so crucial. More than just securing a contract, it is your plan for the writing of the book. The best plans will indeed be the ones that you can follow faithfully, rather than have to adjust at a later stage.

I’ve not said much about the proposed book I’m working on with my co-author. That’s as I think it should be. If we are offered a contract – and I take nothing for granted – that’s when I will shout the news from the rooftops. You might think that the real work begins at that point; and, yes, researching and writing a book is a lot of hard graft. In a very significant sense, though, I would still maintain that the key groundwork, culminating in the submission of a proposal, is what really determines the fate of your ideas. Take the time you have. Think about it, discuss it, at length. When you have that book in your hands years later, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing your thoughts, hopes and plans made manifest.

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