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Academic Coaching & Writing

II. The Rationale: How to Make the Case for Your Book

Jul 31, 2013 by Amy Benson Brown

The most critical part of academic book proposals is often the hardest to write. Publishers sometimes refer to it as the “rationale.” This explanation of the purpose of your book often follows the general project description, near the beginning of the book proposal. Though no perfect formula or template for articulating a book’s rationale exists, it is your best shot at conveying the essence of your project and winning the interest of academic editors.

To better understand the specific ground covered in the rationale, consider this excerpt from the University of California Press’s instructions for authors:

Be sure to include what you consider to be the outstanding, distinctive, or unique features of the work. This narrative description should explain the proposed book's purpose, themes, arguments, scope, contribution to scholarship, and place in the literature. Please state your argument concisely and clearly.

No small order there! But, ultimately, these specifics boil down to one question, succinctly expressed by Cambridge University Press:

Why does a book need to be written on your proposed topic?

As that question implies, the rationale is a kind of justification of your book’s existence, an explanation of its raison d’etre. And, to make matters worse, publishers expect authors to convey this in just a few sentences!

No wonder this task provokes something akin to an existential crisis, with all the accompanying angst and dread. This kind of gut reaction is entirely understandable. Academic authors, after all, have invested years in meticulous investigation of narrowly framed research questions and may be under the gun of career-related deadlines.

The trick is not to get struck or derailed by this initial emotional response. The following suggestions can help you confront this daunting question and make your most compelling case for your book.

First, take time to notice some of the differences between the language of publishing and the language of scholarship. Read the book jacket copy of academic books you admire. You might start with books on your own shelf and then branch out to analyze descriptions in publications like Choice (an important publication for university librarians who, after all, represent the largest market for academic books).

Don’t forget to also browse the descriptions of recent books on websites of your favorite university presses. Below, for example, is an abbreviated description of a recent book.

The University of Chicago Press’s describes Mark Barrow’s Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology (2009) in this way.

As Mark V. Barrow reveals in Nature’s Ghosts, the threat of species loss has haunted Americans since the early days of the republic. . . . A sweeping, beautifully illustrated historical narrative that unites the fascinating stories of endangered animals and the dedicated individuals who have studied and struggled to protect them, Nature’s Ghosts offers an unprecedented view of what we’ve lost—and a stark reminder of the hard work of preservation still ahead.

Notice the phrasing here. Jot down terms, particularly verbs, that you may not typically use to describe your work, but which are compelling and render the big picture. Though you may well use different phrases to accurately bring your own argument to life, aim for direct, vivid language.

Of course, the description quoted above is promotional copy for advertising. In actual book proposals, most authors would rightly avoid phrases like “sweeping” or “beautifully illustrated.” However, such word choices as “threat,” haunted,” and “stark reminder” convey the interest and importance of the subject. Similarly, the statement that this book offers “an unprecedented view” also implies it deserves a place in that press’s catalogue or maybe even on our own bookshelves

But, if your own way of thinking about your project still seems miles away from such broad and bold descriptions, here’s another exercise to get you started.

Take a few minutes to reconnect with why you began this project in the first place. Free write about these questions.

  • What was most interesting to you when you began this research? (The question in not about what your advisors affirmed as interesting, but about your own gut sense.)
  • Why did that fascinate you?
  • What do you think is most important about your research now?

Harvard University Press also recommends five additional questions to get scholars in the right frame of mind to write clearly and vividly about their projects.

  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

This last question raises the most complex issue of all. “To whom” the book will matter is key to its significance and success. But, of course this is a subjective issue. The next blog in this series breaks down this tricky question of significance and maps the potential arenas where your project may matter most.


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