Proposing an Edited Book

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You have a concept for an edited book, now what? (See Envisioning an Edited Book.] What steps are needed to move the project forward? One important step involves agreeing to a book contract with a publisher, another involves finding contributors. The sequence of those steps is not consistent from one publisher to the next. In this post I will share lessons learned from two books I edited: A Handbook of Research on Electronic Collaboration (2009), and Cases in Online Interview Research (2012, and thoughts about a book I want to edit next year. I will also draw on what I’ve learned from researching variations and practices in the field.

To find a suitable publisher, think about the purpose and intended audience for the book. Do you want to create a reference book, scholarly book, or practical guide? Are you planning a textbook that will be assigned for course readings? Or a professional book graduate students or professionals read to learn more or develop skills? Typically, publishers focus on one or two of these markets. Not all publishers offer edited collections, or perhaps not for the type of book you want to edit. For example, the publisher might include edited reference books in their catalog, but not edited textbooks. Look at the publishers of books in your field or discipline; do they offer edited books of the type you want to develop? Once you have selected potential publishers, look at their protocols for acquisition of edited volumes.

How do I progress from a concept to a proposal for the book?

 To create a viable proposal, you will want to create a detailed plan for the book’s content. “Coherence” is the buzzword most frequently mentioned in discussions of edited collections. How will you pull the different pieces together to create a coherent whole book? You will need to decide how tightly, or broadly, you want to focus your collection. The more clarity you have at this point, the easier it will be for potential publishers to buy-in to the project and for writers to propose suitable chapters.

You could start by identifying themes for sections of the book, and the material that should be covered within each one. You can identify selection criteria for the book generally, or for each section in particular. For example, if you want to edit a book about research methods, you could outline sections about designing studies, addressing ethical issues, collecting data and perhaps you want to leave it fairly open to see what potential authors propose. Or, you might want spell out specific types of content. Perhaps within the section on qualitative ways for collecting data, you want some chapters that discuss practical aspects of interviewing or observing participants, and others that delve into theoretical foundations.

I used different strategies in two edited book projects. For the Handbook of Research my co-editor and I defined three broad disciplinary areas: business, education, and government/nonprofit. Within each discipline, we asked for chapters that explored one of two categories: intra-organizational collaboration, or Inter-organizational collaboration. Otherwise, we just asked that prospective authors follow the publisher’s guidelines for format and style. For the Cases book, I took a more circumscribed approach. Because it was meant to be a collection of cases about online research, I defined key terms to spell out the kinds of studies I hoped to include. I created a template for authors to follow, because I wanted readers to be able to compare apples to apples when studying the various cases. Thinking ahead to my next edited book, I will use a similar approach, and provide guidelines to contributors to ensure that some common topics are covered in each chapter. For example, I will ask that each author include theoretical and foundations and empirical research findings, as well as practical examples and steps.

Authors who contributed to Cases in Online Interview Research had to accept my vision for a set of coherent cases and be willing to create chapters that followed fairly strict guidelines. Authors who contributed to the first had more flexibility, within thematic categories, to develop chapters as they wanted. If, as an editor, you are not sure what you want or do not communicate your ideas clearly, a lot of time will be needed to respond to queries from potential contributors and review chapter proposals that are outside the desired topic area for the book.

Which comes first, the contract or the contributors?

A review of publishers’ guidelines revealed two main approaches: select contributors first– before agreement on a contract, or agree to the book concept before selection of contributions. (More on chapter selection options in the next post of this series.)

The first type of publisher expects you to develop your vision and plan, select most of the contributions, and create your table of contents—all before you submit a proposal. In this case, you would decide on the kinds of chapters you want in your book and either invite contributions or put out a call for chapters. You might ask potential authors to submit abstracts at this stage, so you can put together a detailed table of contents that communicates the substance of the book.

The second type of publisher wants to see a clear concept, including a description of the main topics to be covered. They will want to know what you plan to contribute, in terms of an introduction, summary, or chapter(s). They will want a well-researched description of the book’s uses and readers, and a plan for soliciting and selecting proposals. The acquisitions editor might want to discuss your proposal, and perhaps refine the ideas. Once you have come to an agreement, you will proceed with inviting or soliciting proposals.

The second approach was used with both of the books I edited. For the Handbook of Research, we had the concept, but no contributors on board at the time we signed the agreement. I had a core of invited contributors on board, perhaps a third of the authors, when I signed the contract for Cases on Online Interview Research. For both, I stayed in communication with the acquisitions editors throughout the process of chapter selection, and sent them completed tables of contents once I had completed the book plans. Thinking ahead, I will look for a publisher that will sign a contract based on a proposal that includes a detailed book concept and titles for chapters by a few invited writers. I’d prefer to develop a detailed table of contents with chapter titles and authors after I have a contract and named publisher.

If your selected publisher requests a proposal that includes a list of contributors and a table of contents, you will need to overcome an obvious challenge. You are asking people to commit to a chapter proposal before you are certain the book can become a reality. You will need to project credibility, since you cannot rely on the publisher’s name or reputation to build trust with potential authors. In this situation, you might want to begin with your own collegial network or professional association.

What next?

An edited book is inherently a collaborative venture. As editor, you stand between the publisher on one side, and writers on the other. To succeed, you must rely on trust and cooperation from both sides. The strength, clarity, and organization of your project plan will allow you to start your new book with a common set of goals and understandings. A vague description can be misinterpreted, and require more time and effort to develop into a valuable book.

The next post in this series will delve into the editor’s role and considerations for soliciting and selecting contributors, and communicating with selected writers throughout the book development process.

Want to explore your publication options, including the edited book? Janet Salmons offers the Create Your Publication Strategy online course. See for more information.




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