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III. Why Does This Book Matter?

Aug 07, 2013 by Amy Benson Brown

Successful book proposals offer a convincing argument or “rationale” for the book’s existence, as the last blog in this series noted. But demonstrating that a book will matter to audiences can be tricky. Significance, after all, is subjective. Some may even argue that it, like beauty, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

Think, for instance, of a book that has had a tremendous impact on your own field of research—the classic text or the iconoclastic one that sparked a schism.

As you write your proposal, these books may loom in the back of your mind like mountains in the distance. When T.S. Elliot described truly great works as “existing monuments” that seem to “form an ideal order among themselves,” he voiced the way such books can come to seem almost as eternal and enduring as the landscape.

That sense that the great works are “great” in and of themselves, however, is an illusion (as Elliot himself argued in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”). Each book was made at a particular moment, in a particular place, by a particular person or group of people. These books came to matter, in large part, because of the ways they related to earlier “great” works and to each other.

Taking the long view of history may feel like a luxury to busy academic authors, but it provides an important insight. The bottom line, at least when it comes to books, is that significance is fundamentally relational.

So, as you draft an explanation of why your book matters, consider how it relates to larger contexts. Most often, the significance of a project lies in how it relates to three cornerstones of scholarly publishing:

  • State of the discipline
  • Background of the author
  • Mission of the press

Take time to brainstorm or free write about these issues. You might even try to sketch a conceptual map of these relations, as you prepare to write your proposal. Try to define the specific ways your book relates to your field (or fields). This relationship is often expressed in one or the following forms:

  • As a new perspective
  • As synthesis, analysis, and translation
  • As a correction or filling of a gap

As a New Perspective

Some books offer a new angle for understanding. For example, consider the way digital mapping technology provides a new perspective on American history in Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize and American Industry 1800-1868 by Anne Kelly Knowles (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which integrates GIS data into its historical scholarship.

As Synthesis, Analysis, and Translation

Another type of contribution comes from books that weave together different strands of research on a topic. This type of work may be by a single author or appear as an edited collection, such as Traumatic Stress‬: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society‬, edited by Bessel A. Van der Kolk‬, et al. (Guildford Press, 1996), which offers a synthesis and translation of research for clinicians and other mental health workers.

As a Correction or Filling of a Gap

Another way books advance understanding in a field is by pointing out omissions or filling a gap in the scholarship, as does Karen Stolley’s Domesticating Empire: Enlightenment in Spanish America (forthcoming in December 2013 from Vanderbilt University Press), which explores how and why almost a whole century of writing by Latin American authors has been largely forgotten.

In addition to articulating how your book relates to your discipline, you may also want to describe its meaning in relation to your professional experience and identity as a scholar. Is your work informed by earlier research projects, for instance, or by your teaching or experience in clinical practice?

In some cases, the author’s background is inseparable from why his or her book matters. Consider the 2012 book from Princeton University Press, Finance and the Good Society by economist Robert Shiller, who famously predicted the recent disasters in both the real estate and stock markets.

Last but not least, reflect on how your project relates to a particular academic press’s publishing history and mission. Of course, you should look most closely at how your target press defines itself and the list of books it publishes. But, if you need a general overview of what university presses do, check out this helpful recent blog by Jason Weidemann, Senior Acquisitions Editor of the University of Minnesota Press.

In addition to reading about what presses that publish in your field are interested in, look for an ongoing scholarly conversation to which your book speaks. Often, a special “series” published by a university press showcases such scholarly dialogues. Take a look at Duke University Press’s series, for example, “American Encounters/Global Interactions.”

The press’s website explains that this series aims “to strengthen dialogue and collaboration between historians of U.S. international relations and area studies specialists” and “encourages scholarship based on multi-archive historical research” while it “promotes critical inquiry into issues of subjectivity and narrative.” Translation: this may be the right fit for your project if you’re an historian writing on American power and international relations, especially if you draw upon the resources of multiple archives.

In summary, to write compellingly about why your book matters, think through several things: how your project contributes to the broader field; how it draws on your professional experience and identity as a scholar; and how it fits with the interests of the university presses that you are approaching.

To get a feel for the right tone before you write, spend some time reading book-jacket copy and reviews of scholarly books you admire. Then, aim to express your book’s rationale as simply and concisely as possible. Avoid jargon, in particular, whenever you can.

For further reading on this topic, check out William Germano’s chapter on book proposals in Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books. Germano offers a wealth of useful advice, such as this final suggestion: Once you can clearly articulate the stakes of your project, try to distill a super-short version. It can be handy to have an official, formal explanation in manuscript form and one that’s just the right size for an elevator ride or cocktail party conversation.

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