(Book proposal update, by the way: The editor at Press 1 received my MS, looked it over, liked it, and has found readers. I should hear back within a few months. Now, if it gets accepted, that will be far too fortuitous to really happen in the world of nonfiction, so I'm not getting my hopes up. Just so you know. Really. No hopes! I swear!)
Anyway, here goes--with the usual caveat about my lack of publisher, this being what just one person did, not having seen any other finished proposals (although Medieval Woman's prospectus helped me to get mine on track), etc.
Each publisher has somewhat different requirements for submission, but I quickly found that the same basic set of documents covered most of my bases. Those documents included:
- a cover letter
- a proposal/prospectus
- a table of contents
- a CV
- a sample chapter or two.
The cover letter.
My proposal cover was somewhat shorter than a job app letter--just a little over one page. Paragraph 1 was very short but gave the title of the work, a word count, and mentioned the fact that the manuscript was complete. Paragraph 2 was more challenging: Here's where I gave them a quick, readable, and hopefully engaging description of the book's project. The important thing here, I think, is to keep the writing free from overly specialized jargon and technical detail. The editor might not know all the ins and outs of your field, and even if she does, you want to show that your prose is comprehensible. But at the same time, you don't want to sound like you don't know the language of your field. When I wrote mine, I tried to think about why my research is exciting, and to highlight that, as though I were writing it to someone in a related but not identical field (a Victorianist, perhaps). So this isn't quite a dissertation abstract, but rather a brief statement of why someone should read your book.
The rest of the letter was easier. In paragraph 3, I gave my credentials (title, where my degree is from, statement of what parts of the book were being published as articles and where); paragraph 4 summed up the awards and fellowships I'd received to work on the project; and paragraph 5 told the editor what I was including with the letter (much as you would end a job letter) and mentioned that I would be happy to send the full MS upon request. Easy enough.
I wrote two proposals. The first one is in the garbage. (Metaphorically--in fact it's still on my hard drive, but I haven't looked at it in a really long time.) That was because it was long: I wrote a whole extensive multi-page narrative of what the book is trying to do, what it does in each chapter, and on and on and on. Then I read Medieval Woman's prospectus and completely redid mine, trying to keep the thing to two pages (single-spaced). My advisor read both and without question voted for Attempt No. 2, the short one. So brevity might be something here.
It was not easy to get that two-page summary written. In fact, it has since expanded somewhat--to about 2.3 pages, single-spaced (and I 1.5-spaced it when I submitted it)--but it's still pretty concise.
It starts off with yet another one-paragraph summary of the book, this one a little more "technical"--more along the lines of an abstract--but that also focuses on the problem that the book is trying to deal with, with a quick indication of my answer to that problem. Then I have a one-paragraph summary of each chapter. Since I have eight chapters, that's a lot of little paragraphs; I expect that it'll be easier to keep the document short if you have, say, four chapters. But I think that doing your utmost to keep these short is a good thing, ultimately, as it forces you to think about what's really important in each one. You don't need to tell your reader all about everything that each chapter is doing; the one really key thing is enough. Write many drafts. Revise a lot. Cut, cut, and condense.
But the prospectus isn't over when you've managed to boil the book down to two pages. Most of the publishers that I looked at also want a comparison to existing literature. I got away (or I decided that I could get away) with only comparing my work to four other books; I have no idea whether that's adequate or subnormal, but there you have it. All four were published within the last five years and deal with issues related to mine, but what you're trying to do in this section (and I labeled each section with a little header, by the way) is to show how your book is different from each of the others--what gap in the literature your book fills. So show that you have at least some idea of what's in these other books, but you don't need an extensive summary. I wrote one or two sentences on what each of the books was doing and what it's merits were, followed by a very definite and assertive statement of what my book does differently. Use strong declarative language here--that's the major piece of advice that my advisor gave me on this, and it's important. Show no doubt that your book is unique and significant.
Then you'll need a description of the proposed audience. This doesn't have to be long or detailed, I don't think; "[Title] will be of interest to specialists in X, Y, and Z" is probably adequate. --Although I, incapable of leaving well enough alone, also had a second sentence that explained that it might also be interesting to people in Q, L, and C, even though it seemed a little pretentious to imagine that I have anything to do with some of these disciplines. Whatever. Of course everyone will want to read my book! What could be more obvious?
I think that that's it for the prospectus. I didn't particularly enjoy writing it; it was hard. But I'm happy with what I've got, and with luck I won't need to completely revamp it anymore.
Formatting-wise, I single-spaced my letter and, as I said, 1.5-spaced my prospectus. (It looked better than double- and was more readable than single-.) I also did something that I do on all of my job application materials: I included a footer with my name, the name of the document, and the pages (e.g. "Heu Mihi -- CV -- page 2 of 4"). If a page of your prospectus gets separated from the rest--say, during photocopying--you want it to be as easy as possible for the editor to figure out what it is, right?
Okay, that's that. I hope that this is helpful, if only to provide another set of ideas for how to organize a proposal; I'm certain that this isn't the only way to do it, and I don't know that it's the best way, either. But it is a way. Good luck!