Hottest Tips for ECRs from the AHA ECR Blog Archive – How To… Write a Book Proposal with Phillipa McGuinness

This week we continue revisiting some of our most popular and insightful posts from the AHA ECR blog archives with a piece from Phillipa McGuinness. Here she offers some fantastic tips on what and what not to do when writing a book proposal. Phillipa also explains what will catch the eye of a publisher, reminds us to read widely and encourages historians to be imaginative and bold.


Phillipa McGuinness is Executive Publisher at NewSouth Publishing where she has published a number of prize-winning books in Australian history, biography and memoir, politics, art and culture. She was previously Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and has been on the expert advisory panel of the Australian Research Council and a peer reviewer for the Australia Council. She is the editor of the book Copyfight (2015). Her first sole-authored book, The Year that Changed Everything: 2001, will be published next week by Penguin Random House. She tweets at @pipmcg

Do write your book proposal in the same voice that the book itself will be written in. It sounds obvious, but it’s frustrating to read a submission that suggests the promised book will be an Australian history blockbuster written in the style of Simon Schama when not a single sentence in the proposal suggests the author might be capable of that.

Don’t be shy. Cut to the chase. Remember that publishers get lots of proposals every week and we have thousands of words to read every single day, so be bold and upfront about what you’re trying to do in your book. Oh, and don’t address the letter or email covering your proposal to ‘Dear Sirs’. (It happens more than you might think.)

And back yourself: mention your massive social media presence, your prizes, your upcoming documentaries, your keynote speech, your television appearances, your column in the local newspaper, your blog, your previous career as a circus performer. No matter how modest your efforts to promote your work in public may seem, it all makes a difference.

Publishers are looking for an author who has something to say and will work with a publisher to try and say it in the best way possible and reach a broad audience. We’re looking for authors who have done research about what kind of publisher they’re approaching (make sure you get the name of the publisher right), and who take the time to suggest how they think their book might fit into our list. If your work isn’t Australian or is highly theoretical, you will probably be better off approaching an international publisher. If you want to write for students, you might need a textbook publisher.

Most of all, we’re looking for authors who will think carefully about the readers they want and will do everything they can to ensure that those readers are engaged and challenged. Readers must be front of mind. We want authors who will work hard to promote their book.

We’re also looking for authors who will deliver their books on time and to word length. It may sound prosaic but it’s important.

Publishers are wary of revised PhDs. So if your book is a PhD don’t try and hide its origins. It’s very easy to do a search and find that someone’s thesis topic is uncannily similar to the book they’re proposing. Be honest but persuade a publisher that you’re willing to revise, that you’re convinced your work is original and important and it will make an impact.

Try to be bold. Don’t play it safe. Don’t go crazy either – only a handful of publishers will want something truly experimental – but write with empathy and imagination. If there was a great story that you couldn’t work into your PhD, perhaps now you can include it. Take advice from your peers, mentors and colleagues, but write the book you want to write.

Never write in the passive voice.

Readers like carefully crafted sentences that build to tell something unexpected. Life is too short to waste with very bad writing, unless it contains unheard of facts of the utmost significance from never-before opened archives. History lends itself to narrative conventions better than most other academic disciplines – plot, character, background, dialogue, pace and suspense. So if you’re trying to reach a general audience, think about those. Chances are that once you have persuaded your readers that you know what you’re doing and that what you have to say is interesting, they will jump on board.

Readers hate feeling that an author has lost control of her material and is drowning in detail and couldn’t cut anything so crammed everything in. Often a story will shine more with less detail.

Think about why you decided to write a book in the first place. Do you want to connect with lots of readers and persuade them that the fascinating story you have to tell is important? Do you want to spend the months or years it will take to get it right? Is yours a story that can be told in no less than 80,000 words? If you’re hesitant about any of these questions, maybe your subject is best written about in a specialist article, or a series of them. No shame in that. And if what you have to say is revelatory and newsworthy, maybe you should write a newspaper opinion piece on the back of your scholarly articles.

Remember that if you’re going to be a good writer you must be a good reader. Read widely – including outside your field. Read specialist books and journals in your area, but if you are going to make an intellectual contribution, you must read beyond these. Visit bookshops, pay attention to authors being interviewed on the radio or podcasts and be sure to read general review pages as well as specialist ones. And if you haven’t subscribed to a few newspapers, magazines or literary journals, you should. Support the cultural ecosystem that supports you.

You should also remember that rejection is part of the deal. Don’t take it personally. Be as resilient as you can be. Chances are your book will find a home somewhere.

The problem with a lot of book proposals from academic historians is that they’re perfunctory and boring when they should be imaginative and bold. If you can’t grab my attention and convince me of how interesting what you’re doing is, it will be difficult for me to convince my colleagues, let alone the whole wide world. But the good ones can be so good they make me want to go into bat for an author so we can work together to get the book out in the world.


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