Q & A: Market research for book proposals

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November is Academic Writing Month, fondly known as AcWriMo. The AcWriMo focus on MethodSpace is on writing and publishing books. The whole series can be found through this link.

We offered a webinar, Write a Book! From Acquisition to Publication, with editors Leah Fargotstein, Eric Garner, and yours truly. We received more questions during the webinar than could be addressed in the 1-hour session, so we’ll respond to as many as possible in this series of posts. The recording, slides, and Q & A can be found through this link

Market Research and Analysis?

Two questions related to the research needed in order to select the most appropriate publisher, and position the book in the market:

  • How to find the most suitable publisher for our topics?
  • How do you sell your proposal to editors in a flooded market of similar works? Is it enough to address a different case study or to take a slightly different methodological approach? I guess this is about making a solid justification?

Academic writers have an advantage: we know how to do research! Market research is not unlike a literature review for a research proposal. As with a lit review, you are trying to see what else has been studied and written about your topic, and to demonstrate that your approach will be a unique contribution.

First: Define your project

Try to answer some fundamental questions:

  1. What type of book do I want to publish?
  2. What is the central focus on this book?
  3. Who are my readers, or primary market? Who else might be interested that could be described as a secondary market?
  4. What approach will I take, in terms of style or features?

Second: Organize your research

I suggest creating a simple table you can use to make notes, so you can see at a glance where your book will fit, in terms of publisher and market.

TitlePublisherTypeLengthTarget MarketFocusFeaturesNotes

Here is one you can download and adapt for your research.

Third: Find the competition

Start looking! Search bookstores and libraries. Look at reference lists. Ask your friends and colleagues. If you are thinking about a textbook, look at syllabi (and explore beyond your primary discipline.) Peruse the websites of publishers recognized in your field. Pay attention to the titles in press.

Search online and off. While searching online is probably your fruitful method, looking at actual books is helpful too. If you have access to a physical library, make a visit. Talk with reference librarians if you are planning a research handbook or other reference book.

When I was considering a particular book, I happened to be at a conference. I went to every publisher’s booth in the vendor area to see what they had. I also asked booth staff about their interest in this topic. Often acquisitions editors are present at conferences. In this case, I ended up with two publishers who were interested in the potential book!

Fourth: Study close competitors

Once you’ve found books that you feel are similar in some way to the one you want to propose, look more closely. Look at the table of contents. If you don’t have a physical book, look on the publisher’s website for a sample chapter or search for it on Google book preview. Make some notes.

Here is an example:

& Year

TypeLengthTarget MarketFocusFeaturesNotes
Qualitative Longitudinal Methods:
Researching Implementation and Change
Short book, probably
mental, not primary text
128 pagesResearchers,
grad students,
program evaluators
” researching change and its impact on organizations and individuals resulting from the implementation of programs and policies”
No book site or ancillary

E-book or paperback

person, friendly style

No social media presence
Intensive Longitudinal Methods
An Introduction to Diary and Experience Sampling Research
Core or
mental text
256 pages Researchers,
grad students

Social psychology
site, datasets,
outputs w/
stats programs

E-book or hardback
For large-scale research

No social media presence

Fifth: Identify your unique contribution

Keep in mind that publishers are in the business to sell books. How will you and your book offer something new and relevant? How is your proposed book different from those you reviewed? Who will benefit from your book? What impact could it make?

  • Different type?
  • Different length?
  • Different target audience? Broader, multidisciplinary audience?
  • Different level of online/social media following aligned with target audience?
  • Different focus (discipline, methodology, theoretical, applied)?
  • Different writing style?
  • Different features or resources?
  • Different potential for impact?

Sixth: Study potential publishers

Publishers have reputations for certain kinds of books. What publishers are most respected in the topic area or approach you want for your book? What publishers aim for the market you want to reach?

Here is an example from my work. I write for SAGE, yet my most recent book is from Stylus. Once you have worked with a publisher, you have real incentives to continue with them: you know the people, you know the system, you can promote new and earlier books together. Why did I stray? Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn is aimed at a different market. Unlike SAGE, Stylus focuses on professional books for faculty and administrators in higher education, and that is the primary target for this book. Stylus was a better match for this book, while SAGE will continue to be my publisher for research-oriented books.

Seventh: Make contact

Now that you’ve chosen the top publishers you want to consider, look on their websites to see what they want in terms of first contact. Some want to talk with you first, while others want a description or draft proposal. In any case, keep in mind that acquisitions editors are busy people. Be prepared. (If you haven’t listened to the webinar recording, follow this link. Leah Fargotstein offers suggestions about how to prepare for first contact.)

More help on proposals and research

  • See: Propose a Book for links to relevant articles and blog posts.
  • See: Proposing an Edited Book if you are thinking about a collection.
  • Find templates and samples in the Textbook and Academic Authors resource library. Please note that the Textbook and Academic Authors Association is offering webinar attendees and MethodSpace readers a $10 off for membership discount using the promo code SAGEAWM at www.taaonline.net/join.

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