Book Review: Laura Portwood-Stacer's "The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors"

Dawn Durante's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Book Review by Hanni Jalil

Laura Portwood-Stacer, The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021)

In The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors, developmental editor, publishing consultant, and scholar Laura Portwood-Stacer demystifies the publishing process from pitching your project to writing and submitting a proposal and beyond. Though Portwood-Stacer's principal aim is to provide a practical guide to authors who are in the process of pitching their book idea to editors and submitting a proposal, her book accomplishes much more than that. It gives authors a step-by-step description of the publishing pipeline, addressing questions that most, if not all, authors may have about academic publishing and its "hidden curriculum" (p.2).

Portwood-Stacer gives advice on how to identify the book's audience, think about fit before choosing a publisher, build a respectful and collaborative relationship with the editor and press staff, navigate the peer review process with grace, grow an author platform, and find your voice. She has structured the book so that each of the fourteen chapters addresses these points and breaks down tasks into twenty steps that, if completed, will equip authors with the tools they need to draft and pitch a proposal. While structured to allow readers to follow chapters' progression in order, Portwood-Stacer is mindful of readers at different stages of the process. To this end, she incorporates a flexible organizational scheme, giving readers the option to focus on the relevant chapters according to their needs. In addition to the book's chapters, she provides an appendix with sample documents, including letters of introductions, proposals, and responses to readers' reports, all drawn from a library of materials she gathered while writing her first scholarly book and working with hundreds of authors as a developmental editor. Finally, a "Suggestions for Further Reading" section gives additional titles that authors may investigate as they embark on other stages of the writing and publishing process. Downloadable worksheets are available online through the book's website, making this a valuable guide for first-time and seasoned authors alike. 

For this first-generation scholar, woman of color faculty member, future author, and former Mellon University Press Diversity Fellow, the book's goal to decode the "hidden curriculum" is refreshing. Portwood-Stacer is committed to promoting equity in scholarly publishing by eliminating "a good deal of uncertainty" from the process of writing and submitting a book proposal. This book is a welcome resource for scholars, especially those who are often presumed incompetent and made to feel like they do not belong in the academy. As Portwood-Stacer so eloquently writes, "structural forces (and some individuals) within academia have worked to marginalize and oppress Black scholars, Indigenous scholars, other scholars of color, women scholars, queer scholars, trans scholars, disabled scholars, scholars from poor and working-class backgrounds, and scholars at the intersection of these categories" (p. 2-3). These forces extend to the publishing world, where "social capital and entrenched systems of power still count a lot in decisions of who and what gets published and promoted" (p.3). In this instance, like in many others, knowledge is power. For scholars from historically underrepresented groups, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the world of scholarly book publishing can be empowering.  

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of this book is the author's reminder that perfection is not what we should strive for. It is possible to find editors who believe in your work and who will become advocates and allies on your book publishing journey rather than gatekeepers. I know that before working as an assistant editor and getting to see publishing from an "insider" perspective, I would have been less likely to approach an editor, know how to write a book proposal, or think that I could one day write a book. There is hope in books like Portwood-Stacer's; this guide will be particularly helpful for prospective authors who will not have an opportunity to work in the publishing industry or find experienced authors willing to mentor them through the process, and for whom the "hidden curriculum" continues to be a barrier to success.

Hanni Jalil (she/her/hers/ella) is an assistant professor in the department of history at California State University Channel Islands whose work is on health, disease, and medicine in Latin America. She was the 2019-2020 Mellon University Press Diversity Fellow at the University of Washington Press. You can follow her on Twitter @JalilHanni.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing.