Tips for reviewing book proposals?

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In our newest “how can we help you?” thread, ECR asks:

I have recently received my first invitation to review a book proposal, and was wondering what are the main things to consider as a referee. Should I go about in a similar way I would review a journal article, or should I be stricter with regard to originality, potential impact, or other aspects?

This is an excellent question, and I’m really curious to hear what readers think. My (admittedly anecdotal) sense is that the reviewing standards for book proposals are quite different than for journal articles. Because it’s normally taken for granted that an author of a book manuscript will have ample time to revise the manuscript prior after receiving a contract (prior to a final “clearance review” of the final manuscript prior to publication), the job of a book proposal reviewer isn’t to decide whether the book is publishable as-is. It is to give the editors a recommendation as to whether the book seems promising enough to either (A) place a full draft of the manuscript under review, or (B) offer a contract…

But, how should one go about determining whether a proposal is “promising enough” for either of these things? In brief, I don’t think there’s anything like a formula for this, but as a rough first pass one should ask oneself, “Is this proposal interesting enough that it would be worth the press publishing some version of it?”, and, “Given what you’ve read, is there a plausible path by which, given feedback from you, the author could revise/round it into something that would be rigorous and interesting enough to publish?” Here, I think it’s important to bear a couple of things in mind. First, unlike a journal article, which is basically all written and supposed to be polished enough to publish as-is, in the case of a book proposal a lot of this is likely yet to be done: the author may have drafted an entire manuscript, or perhaps only several chapters, but it may in essence be something like a first draft. So, you shouldn’t hold it to the same standards of polish, etc., as a journal article. Again, a lot of the hard work is done after getting a book contract. Second, presses usually ask reviewers a series of questions about the proposal, such as “What are the strongest features of the proposal?” and “What are the weakest?”. As a reviewer, I find these kinds of questions really helpful, and I sort of wish journals gave their reviewers something like them. They not only help center in my mind whether the proposal is promising enough to recommend a book contract (or recommend placing a full manuscript under review to determine whether a contract should be offered). They also are a place where you can indicate to the author what you think they need to do for the work to be publishable.

Finally, to reiterate an earlier point, as a proposal reviewer, you are only the “first step” of the review process, as it were. You’re not determining whether the book will actually be published. You’re only helping the editors to decide whether to place the full manuscript under review or offer a contract. There are often several major stages of peer review after the proposal stage. First, on the basis of the proposal reviews, the editors may invite the author to submit several chapters or a full manuscript for a round of peer review. Second, after the manuscript reviews are received, they may invite the author to respond to the reviewer comments. Third, if they are satisfied with the reviews and author response, they may (finally!) offer a contract that will in turn give the author a certain amount of time (ranging from a few months to a year, etc.) to revise and complete a final version of the manuscript. Finally, after all of this, there will normally be a “clearance review” where the final manuscript is sent out for another round of review–sometimes to the same reviewer(s) as before, sometimes to new ones. So, I think it’s important to bear this in mind as a proposal reviewer. Your role is very different than it would be at these later stages of review. Your task, in essence, is merely to provide a recommendation as to whether the proposal is promising enough that it is likely to be worth the press’s time and energy to move forward with these other stages of peer-review.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts, and I hope ECR finds them helpful. What do you all think? It would be great to hear not only from other people who have reviewed book proposals, but also from any editors who might have the inside scoop on that side of things!

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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