How do I get started on a book project?

A colleague recently asked me this question, prompting my post. I’m assuming you have an idea and that you are a good person to do the project you have in mind.

Prep Questions

  1. Have you conducted research in this area before? It would be difficult to write a book on something completely out of your area. If you are breaking into a new sub-discipline, you may want to start with conference papers and journal articles to get a handle on the literature, method, terminology, and other aspects.
  2. Have you published on this topic? If so, do you plan to use published articles as chapters in your book? It’s great to begin a project with a few chapters semi-completed. You will need to get permission for the reprint. Do note that most presses want mostly original content. I recommend not having more than 3-4 chapters based on articles. Exceptions exist, of course.
  3. Is this the right time for you to write a book? As I wrote in my “Book Contract” post, unless you are in a field that requires books, I advise waiting until after tenure to seriously focus on such a time-consuming endeavor.
  4. Did a meeting with an acquisitions editor prompt you to think about writing a book? If so, really consider (as in #3) if this is the right time for you and the right press. Know that you don’t have to go with that particular press unless you’ve signed a contract.

More Prep Work

Before you are ready to completely plunge in, spend time doing your pre-research research for the book. Look over related books, noting style, archives used (if applicable), existing literature, and presses that published on similar topics. Identify people that may be helpful to your project and speak with them. I also recommend seeking a book-writing mentor: someone who has successfully written books before and is willing to offer guidance.

Throughout this time, take plenty of notes, including lists of literature to consult and ideas about your book as they come.

Planning Out Your Book

This is my favorite stage. In fact, I think I write books because I enjoy planning them out so much. Before you approach a press, you need to have a clear idea of what your book will cover and accomplish. Figure out the answers to the following questions. My answers for my epidemics book are in red.

  • What is the conceptual question that drives your book? “How have media products constructed epidemics, both in the moment and in collective memory?”
  • What will its purpose be? “To study all media content available during a particular epidemic, as well as depictions of a disease in contemporary media.”
  • What will your book accomplish that others haven’t? (In other words, how will your book fit the gap in the literature)? Existing books either focused on a media coverage during one particular epidemic or broadly addressed epidemics without giving much attention to media. My book, then, was the first to examine media various roles across epidemics.
  • What are the parameters for the book? What will be included? What won’t be? I took a case-study approach and selected 7 epidemics in American history that were significant for different reasons. Each had a local focus. I did not include international coverage or epidemics outside of the seven selected.

Next, sketch out a Table of Contents for the chapters. Don’t worry about chapter titles, just the topic. Consider how broad you would like to be and what resources you would need to successfully write this book.

On the Timeline

How much time do you realistically need? Book manuscripts can be very time-consuming to write. And it’s not just about writing the book. Conducting the primary research can take months or years, as you take pages and pages of notes. I will do a separate post on breaking down the timeline. In general, though, after the primary research is done, I would allow at least a month per chapter, plus two months for editing/additional work.

What needs to get done before seeking a press

If an acquisitions editor has approached you, great! Skip the next few lines (but know that you’ll have to complete these steps anyway). Assuming you don’t have a specific press, don’t seek a contract until you have sketched out answers to the above questions and written at least one sample chapter. Although book proposals differ by press, they all contain variations of the planning questions that I listed. Don’t waste your time on a proposal yet. Instead, spend time crafting a quality sample chapter or two. I recommend writing the introductory chapter and one chapter that demonstrates the style and content of the bulk of the book. Have 1-2 friends give you feedback on your materials.

Once you have your scope, purpose, parameters, ToC, and 1-2 sample chapters, then you can move to the “book contract stage.” I’ve outlined it here.

Writing a book is a stressful, all-encompassing journey, but it’s also really fulfilling. There is nothing like the first time you see your manuscript published as a real book.

Me with my first book, Television and Health Responsibility in an Age of Individualism.

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