How to Write a Book Prospectus

Man working on laptop at home.
... Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

A prospectus is the core element of a nonfiction book proposal process that pitches your idea for a new publication. Although the term "prospectus" is usually reserved for scholarly works, some academic publishers, such as Harvard University Press, may refer to it as a book proposal. A prospectus is written before the completed manuscript -- as a result of your research directed toward finding a suitable publisher or at a publisher’s request in response to your query letter.

1 Formatting, Tone and Style

A prospectus should follow the appropriate formatting, citation style, and tense structures required by your discipline, such as Modern Language Association for the arts and the humanities or the American Psychological Association for the social sciences. The tone and writing style should reflect those of the book and convey to the publisher a feeling for your expertise as a writer in your subject area. Students who write a prospectus for a course of study in preparation for publishing a dissertation must follow course-specific guidelines, which may include a bibliography.

2 Overview, Purpose, Audience and Concept

Begin the prospectus with a general overview of the subject area, the purpose of your book, and the audience you want to target. Provide a working title for your book, identify the concepts by which the book will be structured and explain how your approach fits in or differs from contemporary, competing books in your topic area. For example, explain how your behavioral or alternative approach to addictive disorders differs from other behavioral or traditional approaches. Publishers often supply discipline-specific guidelines and particulars to include, such as theoretical or empirical frameworks.

3 Expertise, Experience and Research

Discuss how your area of study and experience inform your proposed manuscript and connect its contents to contemporary theory and research. Provide the proposed length of the manuscript and expected completion date. Experts such as Karen Kelsey, former tenured professor at the University of Oregon, advise adding a conclusion that implies how your concept will have a lasting impact on public discourse and scholarship in your field. If possible, back up these claims with reference to your author platform.

4 The Platform

The marketability of your book is based on “your expertise, your platform, and your concept,” according to Jane Friedman, professor of digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. A platform tells the publisher how your professional presence and expertise translates into a marketable base for selling your book. For instance, your scholarly activities, website, blog, followers and e-mail lists are part of your platform. Even a scholarly prospectus should explain how your book is a story that fits with a publishing theme -- the catalyst for expanding your current platform.

5 Outline, Table of Contents, Sample Chapters

Provide an annotated outline or table of contents with a short synopsis of one or two paragraphs that explain what will be in each section or chapter. Some publishers may want several sample chapters in addition to the annotated table of contents. Always review the submission guidelines for each publisher you approach. Also, make sure the publisher will accept simultaneous submissions if you plan to submit your prospectus to more than one press. Include a professional cover letter and curriculum vitae with your prospectus.

A native of New Orleans, Amanda Petrona holds a Bachelor of Science in anthropology/social psychology and Master of Arts in English. She taught writing, research and literature at LSU Baton Rouge. Petrona founded Wild Spirit Louisiana, an organic farm, nature conservatory, and education center for sustainable and holistic living.