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Education and Careers
Publishing books for beginners
Alison Shaw

Have you ever thought you’d like to write something more comprehensive than an article?  Writing a longer piece can be daunting but with the support of a good publisher, a clear understanding of the process and some precious time, it is not as difficult as you may think.

I am writing this article from the experience gained building Policy Press, a publishing house that works across academia, policy and practice in the social sciences.  We have created a strong list in ageing and social gerontology and are passionate about pushing forward understanding and positively influencing teaching, policy and practice.  Our Ageing and the Lifecourse series, edited by Judith Phillips, has been central to these developments.

The following article aims to give you some pointers for thinking about a book proposal.  The ideas are generic and applicable across publishing houses and subjects.

What are you trying to achieve?
You will have an idea of what you want to write about, and before you start developing the proposal it is worth making sure you are clear about your core aim.  You might want to:

  • Disseminate research, eg from a funded research project locally or internationally
  • Help students to learn – perhaps translating your course notes into a text as no textbook or organisational course packs currently meets your needs
  • Change practice, for example a ‘how to’ guide for front-line practitioners
  • Bring together the latest evidence emerging in your field by editing a comprehensive handbook
  • Contribute more widely to academic debate through a new synthesis or development of ideas
  • Encourage a general audience to see things differently with a passionate polemic
  • Influence policy by writing something that meets the needs of government ministers and civil servants (although often a book is not the best format for this but that is perhaps another article …)

It may be tempting to have several aims but most successful books have one primary purpose and that will help you to be clearer about all the other aspects of the proposal.

Who is your audience?  
Knowing to whom you want to communicate is also fundamental.  Different audiences require different styles of writing and content.  You may be aiming at researchers and academics; students (undergraduate, postgraduate, professional) and their teachers; policy makers; practitioners; NGOs and other influencing organisations; service users or the elusive ‘informed general reader’.

When thinking about your audience be clear about who will actually need to read it and will buy a personal copy – the primary audience – and those who will refer to it either in the library or electronically – the secondary audience.

Also think about whether your readers will be based in the UK or internationally?  If international, which particular regions?  For ageing and social gerontology the largest and most developed market is the US and many publishers will want to know if a book will be relevant there.

It is worth noting that as ageing and social gerontology does not have a large UK undergraduate market, textbook sales are more limited compared to other subjects and disciplines.  Publishers will therefore look for texts that are either comprehensive and relevant to an additional large international market, such as the US, or cross over into larger professional courses domestically such as nursing, social work and social care.  Often textbooks are proactively commissioned directly by publishers approaching potential authors

What content do you need and what do you have already?
When thinking about your book content, you will probably have some material already available.  Start by creating a contents list reflecting what you would expect to see in a book on the subject and then think about what you have and what gaps you will need to fill.  It is advisable to do it this way round rather than trying to build a book solely from material you have readily available.

Choosing a publisher 
Initial research is worth the time invested so that you choose the right partner.  Your bookshelves are a good place to start, or a quick check on Amazon/Google to see who is publishing in your area.  All publishers have comprehensive websites and it is worth making sure that they are publishing the right types of books as well as the right subject areas.  Approaching a traditional academic publisher of international monographs would not be appropriate if you want to write a short book aimed at practitioners. 

Make sure the quality of what the publisher produces matches your expectations and that their marketing and distribution is effective (as a potential customer, have you heard from them recently?).  Crucially, ask colleagues who have worked with different publishers.  Which ones have been responsive, professional and supportive?  Who have fulfilled on expectations?  Finally think about the ethos of the publisher and whether that aligns with your values and those of your readership.

The proposal process
Rather than sending a full proposal to the publisher straight away, contact the relevant subject editor first.  Their response will tell you if you have approached the right people.  Are they positive and encouraging? 

Following a successful discussion with the editor you will be asked to provide a full proposal.  Each publisher has their own guidelines but generally they all ask for the same key things:

  • Aim and synopsis – what are you trying to achieve with your book?  Why is it important and what need will it fulfil?
  • Background information and author information – where does the idea come from? (eg your teaching experience or a research project?); show why you are the right person to write it and include a brief CV
  • Content synopses – main contents list with additional chapter by chapter synopses (preferably with subheadings as bullet points)
  • Readership and market – who will read the book and who will buy it?
  • Competition – show the other key books on the subject (title, author, publisher, year of publication and price) and say in what way yours differs and why it is better
  • Practical details – include word count (make sure length is appropriate for audience), number of figures and tables, typescript delivery date.

Practical tips for a strong proposal
A few ‘dos and don’ts’ might be helpful:

  1. The clarity of writing and your ability to structure a written piece is demonstrated in your proposal.  If there are spelling errors and lazy cut and pastes this will give an unfavourable impression of what your book will be like.
  2. Ensuring you are realistic about your audience shows that you understand what you are writing and what need you are fulfilling.  If you know your readership and can convince the publisher of this then you are halfway there. 
  3. Show clearly the significance of what you are writing.  The publisher and reviewers need to know the book will make a significant contribution within its own terms of reference.  Be honest about where material has been made available elsewhere or been previously published to avoid any confusion later.  This will not necessarily mean a publisher won’t be interested.
  4. The content of most books should tell a story.  They should have a clear beginning, middle and end and they should balance broad overview with detail.
  5. Use evidence not assertions!  This is a big one for us.  Proposals that merely state what they are going to do without referencing the literature or concepts on which they will draw are not successful.  Use references to demonstrate your knowledge and approach, just as you would in an article or research bid.
  6. Take the competition seriously, particularly if proposing a new textbook.  It is very hard to get lecturers to change their reading lists – it can take years - so you need to be clear how your book is going to achieve that.

What are publishers looking for?
This can be summed up briefly as books that:

  • fit their list in terms of subject matter, format and audience
  • are financially viable i.e. can sell enough copies at the right market price to provide the required financial returns (the expected return will differ between publishers)
  • are appropriately written for the audience and fulfil a need for readers
  • are written by someone with the necessary expertise
  • add new scholarship, ideas or teaching materials – this can be the content itself or the way it is delivered
  • improves on the competition

Contracting process
The detail of the process for accepting or rejecting proposals will differ but in general academic publishers assess proposals for academic quality using peer review as well as considering the business case.   

It is usual for your editor to present your proposal and supporting documentation to a committee meeting where the decision to contract is taken.  Publishers’ criteria for contracting may vary but overall publishers seek both a strong academic and business case for your book.

Most importantly the publisher and author need to recognise each others’ expertise and strengths.  The author has the specialist subject knowledge, is embedded in the core networks and is able to communicate their knowledge effectively.  The publisher has specialist knowledge in the editing, production, marketing and sales of your book.  Each has a role to play and when they work together openly and clearly, both sticking to their deadlines and delivering on their agreement, the publishing process is a positive experience and very mutually beneficial.

If you would like any advice on proposals or publishing more generally please contact either Alison Shaw, Director, or Emily Watt, Commissioning Editor for Ageing and Social Gerontology.
ali.shaw@bristol.ac.uk or emily.watt@bristol.ac.uk

And follow this link for our proposal guidelines http://www.policypress.co.uk/PDFs/General/TPP_Website_2009_Book%20Proposals%20for%20Authors.pdf

More information on Policy Press’ ageing and critical gerontology titles and the Ageing and the Lifecourse series can be found at:

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