So now that I've committed to sending in a proposal, it's time to whip that thing into shape. In fact, if I can recommend anything I've done with this project as Something I Did Right That Everyone Should Do, it is this: Write your proposal now. As soon as you have a year between you and your dissertation defense, write your book proposal. Yes, it will change a lot between dissertation time and the day you talk to publishers. But this is really the best thing that I did for myself, because it forced me to really think about what I was trying to argue, and why my work was interesting. Since my dissertation honestly lacked a central focus, this gave me a roadmap for moving forward.
At this point, I did two smart things. First, I read William Germano's book. Seriously, pick it up. Second, I sent off the proposal to three people I know who have published a lot, and prepared to take their advice with humility and gratitude. Part of me thought this second bit would be a walk in the park, because a compressed version of the same proposal had already garnered me a load of fellowships this past year. Of course, that's never the case, so here are some of the suggestions I received, which might be helpful to anyone trying to write a book proposal**:
1. Give them what they want. The publisher will have a "for authors" section; do what it says. If it says 2-5 pages, then give them that. If it asks for a table of contents, make sure you include that. If they say, "tell us who the potential audience is," you'd better do that. This means that every proposal you send out will be a little different, even though you may be working from the same template for all of them.
2. Editors are not academics.*** They are business people, in the business of finding potential books that will sell. Show the editor the same thing that will move someone browsing your book at Big Conference Book Display to think "Gosh, I'm gonna buy this one." The book proposal, from what I've been given to understand, probably has more in common with a movie pitch to a Hollywood producer than with a fellowship proposal.
3. Editors are also not your dissertation advisor, expecting you to cite every book ever written on your subject. I spent time crafting a historiographic footnote justifying my book's existence, and a "selected bibliography" to show the breadth of work I had consulted. On the recommendation of one of my readers (who has published over half a dozen books with university presses), I just hit delete.
4. Editors are also not your mom, but it wouldn't hurt to write as if she were the intended audience. Could she read this and get at least a general sense of what your book is about? I don't know about your mom, but mine would have a big problem wading through my first draft's constant references to "discourse" (the same might go for "hermeneutics" or "performativity," if those are your sins). If you use the word "problematize," go stand in the corner for five minutes and think about what you've done, missy.
5. Be interesting quickly. I suck at this. It's why online dating didn't work out for me. Maybe my proposal needs a push-up bra. I'm not sure how I'm going to get there in my own proposal, but I do know that I've got to get it out there in the first paragraph, rather than embrace my own tendency to meander.
6. You are being graded on clarity as well as content. What we tell our students applies to us, too: if you can't communicate your ideas, then what good are they? If an editor has to hack through incomprehensible prose (including my love of parenthetical statements) to understand what your proposal says, they're going to assume that the book is just as dense and incoherent, and thus not worth reviewing. [Fill in your own extended first-date metaphor here, if you choose.] If they give up at the proposal stage, they'll never know.
Any further suggestions from you published authors (or editors!) out there are welcome.
**To be taken with a grain of salt, as I haven't had anything accepted yet.
***Series editors, on the other hand, are academics, so striking a balance is the tricky bit that I'm still working out.