Blog: Writing a stand out Global Development book proposal
Nick Wolterman, Senior Commissioning Editor, International Development, Bloomsbury Academic, discusses how to write a stand-out global development book proposal in this blog
My job is pretty straightforward. It is to read book proposals from would-be authors for Bloomsbury’s international development list (as well as its African studies and economics lists); to determine whether those proposals are in line with strategy; and if they are, to send them out for peer review in order to help determine whether we should ultimately offer a publishing contract. I read and consider all the proposals I receive with care, but some have features that make them really stand out. That is, some have features that enable me to start envisioning the finished product, complete with its marketing strategy, from the time I read the short summary.
In this post, I offer a “top three” list of these features. If you are planning to submit a book proposal to me—or probably to any other international development editor—you would do well to bear these in mind. You definitely wouldn’t want to use this list to overhaul your project in order to shoehorn it into boxes it wouldn’t otherwise fit, of course, but you could use this to frame your project in a strategic way or to emphasise certain qualities already present. Even little tweaks can make a big difference. Here’s the list, in no particular order:
Evident inter- or multidisciplinary appeal
Be it in its focus, method, or authorship, a book characterised by evident inter- or multidisciplinarity will always catch my eye. This is largely because Bloomsbury is committed to publishing and promoting work that engages with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and those goals, by their very nature, require non-siloed, problem-driven research.
If your work already has a strong inter- or multidisciplinary element, and/or if it already strongly aligns or engages with one or more of the UN SDGs, you would do well to highlight this in your proposal. If it doesn’t, it could still help to explain in your proposal, however briefly, how your work might resonate with or complement work in other disciplines, or how it might strengthen or complicate one or more of the SDGs. Note that “engagement with the SDGs” does not necessarily mean “uncritical alignment with the SDGs.” Interdisciplinary critical engagement with the goals is also welcome (and relatively rare).
International development scholars fall into three broad camps: those who work in theory, those who work on practice—e.g. on policy, practitioner approaches, or the private sector—and those who try to balance both. From my perspective, the more balance, the better. As a commissioning editor for academic books, I want everything I sign to be grounded in a coherent theoretical position that will be convincing to scholarly readers. At the same time, I want to publish books grounded in the real world with a potential to make a difference, however specifically targeted, beyond academia. Robust empirical evidence and concrete, intelligent recommendations for policy or practice, then, are always very appealing. A book proposal that manages to tick both the “theory” and “policy” boxes convincingly is a rare thing indeed and will always catch my attention.
That said, I’ve got plenty of time for “primarily theory” and “primarily practise” books, as well, so long as they acknowledge what they are and make gestures towards their limitations and possible further implications. If your project is primarily practice-driven, for example, a couple of lines about how your findings might resonate with relevant theoretical debates would usually be enough to convince me that it might get the attention of a few theory folks. If yours is a primarily theoretical work, some engagement with what your argument might say about practice—e.g. about the SDGs, or the assumptions behind them—would have a similar effect.
Global North/South balance or collaboration
For a number of reasons, historical and structural, Global-South-based authors are underrepresented on the lists of Global-North-based publishers, and those publishers’ international development books are disproportionately focused on development in the Global South. Bloomsbury Academic is in the midst of a years-long push to correct this problem. For example, my colleagues and I are developing a number of initiatives that would increase the representation and visibility of Global-South-based authors on our lists. Among these is Bloomsbury’s new open-access initiative, Bloomsbury Open Collections, which is being trialled on my African studies and international development lists next year. Other initiatives aimed at increasing the number of Global-South-based scholars on the list are in the works and should come to fruition within the next year or so.
In the meantime, however, I am simply doing what I can do to redress the imbalance manually. I am reaching out to research institutions in the Global South, and I am keeping a special eye out for proposals from Global-South based authors or from authors who collaborate with people based in the Global South. At the same time, I am keeping an eye out for Global-North-focused books framed in terms of global development, or for books that fall into the broad category I call, “What the South might teach the North about development.” I’m equally interested in any other attempt to move beyond stereotypical North/South divides. It goes without saying, then, that if any of this applies to your project, you would do well to highlight it in your proposal however you can.
That’s it: the top three things that make an international development book proposal stand out to me. Remember that these are only tips for tweaking, and that the real fundamentals of a good proposal remain the same regardless of field: namely, clear argumentation, rigorous research, palpable conviction, and never to be underestimated, a believable timeline for completion. If you’ve got that much, you’ve come a long way already, and the above can provide the icing on the cake.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or most of all, book ideas, please feel free to drop me an email at Nick.Wolterman@Bloomsbury.com.