Reflections on seeking a publisher 3: Write the proposal before the book?

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Before I started the proposal process for my book, I had written a complete draft (as well as two almost-complete early drafts), and also hired an editor to check that draft. I had, in short, a pretty mature draft. But the questions publishers ask about the completeness of the draft, led me to wonder whether that was the best plan for seeking publication.

Common proposal questions ask: “When do you plan to finish the book?”, and “When can you deliver the manuscript?”, which seem primarily relevant for proposals written by people who have not yet completed their book.
Given the length of the process of proposing (at least as I have gone about it), and given the desire of publishers to shape books to suit their publishing list, I wonder whether I might have been better off proposing the book before I wrote it.

Intellectually, I have been aware that one can propose a book before one writes it, and, indeed, that most projects are proposed before they are carried out, but this has never before felt like a real consideration to me; it feels wrong to propose a book before it’s written. That could reflect a lack of self-confidence, or maybe it reflects uncertainty caused by the exploratory nature of writing: I learn a lot as I write, and there is usually a pretty big difference between successive drafts, especially early ones. Or maybe it reflects my fear of committing to a large writing project, because writing under a deadline (which would occur if I had a contract but no book) is an added emotional burden.

In terms of writing productively, it’s valuable to know how different choices affect the process, including the emotional dimension. But it’s also hard to predict how all the factors will play out. In this case, perhaps the emotional difficulties associated with writing the proposal first would balance out the emotional difficulties related to the length of time the process takes. As I discussed in the previous post, my proposal process has taken over 9 months. If I had proposed the book at an earlier point, I might have saved time with respect to any ultimate publication date.

Aside from the question of saving time in the overall process, one idea that has occurred to me in these considerations is about the value of writing a proposal in helping guide a successful writing project. Thinking of my book through the publisher’s perspective provides additional ideas about how to write a good book. For me at least, although I generally make a point of thinking about the audience, when writing a proposal, the focus is much more explicitly directed towards considering my audience, and particularly towards the big concern of most publishers: who will buy the work? This forces forces me to be much more explicit about who that audience is and what their needs and interests are, and that can help me write a book that will serve my intended audience and also please a publisher.

Additionally, the proposal forces consideration of the books that compete with mine, and to be able to explain why mine is different (and better!). I do, of course, want my book to be delivering something that is original, so, in a very strict sense, there may be no direct competitor, but even so, there are many books in the general area. While no one may be writing quite the book that I am, there are plenty of books written for graduate students to support them in the general process of developing research. The process of comparing my book to potential competitors helps me refine what makes my message special, and thus helps me write my book better in terms of expressing my strengths.

Looking to the future, I suppose that I will spend more time writing book proposals as part of the larger process of writing books. Indeed, at present, I have shifted efforts from writing a draft of my next book, to writing a proposal for that book. As I already have a substantial draft (about 25,000 words), I can’t write a proposal before writing any draft, but I can write a proposal before I try to write the next draft.