How important is it that an author has written a book before?

Question: How important is it that an author has written a book before? Does that improve their chances of you taking on their project and giving them a contract? –MR

Answer: While there is an element of reassurance if an author has already published a book before, everyone has to start somewhere and there will always need to be a ‘first book’ at some point. 

Some big textbook lists/publishers may not sign unpublished authors as the bigger textbook projects have a higher risk factor than an academic monograph might do, but this isn’t the same across the board. 

I’ve worked on subjects where academic scholarship was relatively new, so the pool of previously published authors was very small – getting new voices into the mix was really important to build up the high quality literature in the area.

Equally, if someone has written many books before, it doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be offered a contract for their next book. 

Whether you have tons of experience as an author, or are brand new, the combination of the project itself and your experience in the area (as a researcher, practitioner or teacher, depending on the type of book) along with the feedback from the peer reviews is a more realistic predictor of whether a project would be approved.  If in doubt, just drop the editor/publisher an email and see if it’s worth submitting a proposal.

Louise Baird-Smith
Commissioning Editor – Design and Photography
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

“Ask the Editor” is a Design Incubation series, where design academics, researchers, and practitioners pose their questions to editors of books, journals, conferences and other academic and design trade publishing organizations. If you would like your questions answered by publishing professionals, send your questions to Design Incubation via the “Ask the Editor” form on our website.

Academic Publishing: Proposing a Book


CC: My name is Catherine C, I’m the Assistant Editor for Design at Bloomsbury Visual Arts

LB: and I’m Louise Baird Smith, im the Commissioning Editor for Design and Photography books

LB: So this is a talk in collaboration with the Design Incubation team and Bloomsbury Publishing, just talking you through really how to start off with the book proposal, how to present it, and is it what we are looking for.

What is Your Book?

LB: So the first thing you want to establish is, what is the book? What sort of book is it?

  • Is it a going to be a research book—so you are looking at a quite high level specific academic scholarly work?
  • Or is it something that might be used by students and professionals in their day-to-day lives?
  • Or is it something like a text book, that would be used by a first year or above undergraduates.
  • Or is it going to be a big reference book which is covering the whole state of a specific topic or subject?

Once you establish what sort of book its going to be, you have to work out who it is for. So like these ones, this is what you would have for the students, books for the researchers, and books for academics.

You need to look at why they actually want that book? Is it something that is going to be aligning to their course, or is it going to be something that they need to pass exams, or is it looking at a new technology that they might be using in their work?

So those are the key considerations that you need to think about when you start looking at a book proposal. And then you’ll need to think about which publisher you’ll be looking to contact.

Choosing Your Publisher

CC: In terms of choosing a publisher, doing some research and just looking at websites is obviously a really good idea. You’ll want to look at a publisher who already publishes books in your area. And just checking websites is a really good way to.

LB: And different publishers might have different lists they work from, and so you might have one publisher, like Taschen, who do big beautiful books that might end up in museums. But you might have others who are like university presses, who wouldn’t necessarily have books that go into bookstores, but are very high level research. So having a look at the different focus they have is very important.

The Proposal

CC: When you get to the stage of wanting to put together/prepare a proposal, most publishers, definitely Bloomsbury, has a set book proposal document which we like authors to complete. You can find that on our website, and all academic contacts are listed on the website. So if you just get in touch, someone will be very happy to send you their document.

Its really good to give as much detail as possible and to stick (obviously) to the structure of their proposal document. So that’s just basically looking at things like—what your books is about, what is its coverage, what is the kind of structure. We ask for an annotated table of contents— that can be very really useful for us in terms of gauging what the book is going to be used for.

LM: That’s basically like how you would have an abstract for a journal—so just a really short description of each chapter.

CC: If you can give us some information about what is unique about your book, what is special about it, in what way is it better than competitive titles, who you think the potential readers will be.

And also see what your experience is, sometimes some authors submit CVs, alongside their proposal documents — which can be really helpful.

LM: Particularly if you teach in the area, or have done specific research already— that is really good for us to know.

And, depending on the publisher as well, they may ask for some sample material. Particularly on the certain textbook side, its really important for us to have a sample chapter, or a sample of a few pages from a chapter, so we can see the writing style, and the level that you write at. For academic books, it might be less important. But each publisher will work in a different way. Some will ask for the whole book, but the majority of publishers will want to see some sample material, and then they can work with you on that.

So the general process is, once you have put together this proposal document, it will go to me or one of my colleagues, who will send you feedback on whether it looks roughly appropriate for the list. If it aligns with the current books that we have got. It is not competing with something we already have? Is it filling a gap in our list, for a market that we can reach with our contacts?

If it is all looking good, and it is looking like a topic of interest, then we will send you feedback— it is a sort of collaboration between you and us making sure it is as strong as it can be at proposal stage. A lot of the development work happens up front, particularly with the more academic books. We want to make sure it is we are both clear on the process and what the actual project would be.

Then we, sort of, look at financial aspects as well at that point. If it is going to be a book based around gallery or archival material—that is obviously very expensive. So if it is a book that has a very small market that could mean financially it would not work for us. So these are the sorts of things we consider at that first, initial stage.

Once we are happy with it, then we will take it onto peer review, which CC will mention in a second. Occasionally it will not be the right book for us or if needs changes—it might not quite what you want to publish. So if it does not look like it would work for the first publisher you contact that does not mean it is not a good potential book and we would be happy to put in the direction of someone it might fit with better if it is not right for our list at that point.

Peer Review to Contract

CC: So if we think it is a project that might be interesting for us, we would send it up for peer review to academics who teach or research in the area, just to get some initial feedback of what they think of it. Obviously we can advise from a publishing perspective but it is really good to get expert advice from people working in that area. We do organize that anonymously, but you do see on the proposal document that we invite suggestions if there’s someone that would be particularly suitable to review a book. We are always very happy to hear your ideas.

LM: And it helps guide us where we send it to, and if we don’t need some specific thing.

CC: That is something that we organize. We aim to get peer review feedback completed in a month. Sometimes the process can take longer, We will return that feedback to you anonymously and then it would be…

LM: And then we discuss it through— both in terms of the editor and editor’s assistant—whomever is working with you on the project at that point. We chat through peer review and work out if its something that we need to do changes on, or if it is looking strong as it is. Occasionally there might be a second round of peer reviews if big changes need to be made. But we use that, like I said as guidance, we can look at it as a book project but actually from the academic side its really helpful to have that extra peer review level of assessment as well.

So if we decide at that point if the project can work for us both financially and in terms of adding something to the field that is new then we put together a proposal pack for our publishing committee—that is sales, marketing, and editorial colleagues—who will look at the project as a potential investment basically for the publisher. We’ll look at potential print run, costings, royalties, looking at the scope of the book, whether is it international coverage. And the marketing, where will be pushing the book to?

And hopefully at that point if all goes through then we’ll be able to offer a contract. That is the point at which you and your editor will discuss and agree what you are agreeing to and what the publishers are agreeing to. That is usually in terms of delivery time scales, what it is that each party are doing? For most publishers its a pretty standard template of what is covered, it usually includes things like proofreading, and who’s responsible for that, who is responsible for the indexing, and number of images and words.

LM: I don’t if know if you want to run over, quickly the time frame that are usually involved in each stage up to the contract?

CC: Yeah. definitely. So when you send us a proposal we will always acknowledge it and then aim to get our in-house editors feedback to you within a month. On from that, we aim to have peer review back to you within hopefully the maximum of 3 months. And then typically the full process—from us receiving the proposal to making revisions as necessary following the review to being able to offer a contract—would be hopefully about 6 months.

LB: That is the ideal. Sometimes its quicker, sometimes its slower. It sort of depends on the time of year and often the kind of revisions that are needed.

After Contract

So once you are offered a contract, once its signed, you usually have, it is usually about a year to a year-and-a-half to write the book, but obviously that is done in collaboration with you, if you are going up for tenure, or if you are having a sabbatical that might affect the time frame that you have to write the book. So we want to work with you to make sure you’ve got a date that is accurate that we don’t end up missing because that could be quite disasterous for our books. So that is done in collaboration with you, and during that process there are various points where you check-in with the editorial team in house. So you might be working with the development editor if you are working with one of the thick textbooks. So they will be working with you on individual chapters, and images, and things like that. So there is various stages throughout that process. That is before it gets peer reviewed, and taken through to the production process, which is when its copy edited, proofread, typeset, all the rest of that.

Bloomsbury Information

Some reasons to publish with Bloomsbury: we combine the best of an academic press in that we have 2 stages minimum of rigorous anonymous peer review.

And we combine that with the best parts of a trade publisher in that our books look really nice. This is especially relevant for Visual Arts publishing.

We really pride ourselves on having good relationships with authors. Its a much more personal relationship than perhaps some of the bigger publishers. You will have one editor who will work with you through the publishing process.

Final Points

That is a very quick run through of the publishing process, up to contract. After that point you just have to write the book. So pretty easy (laugh). So if you have any questions, our contact details will be available after this. Thanks!

Academic Publishing
Design Incubation/Bloomsbury
Louise Baird-Smith – Commissioning Editor for Design and Photography, Bloomsbury