Book Proposals as Persuasion

What makes a good book proposal? Before we can answer that question, we have to take another big step back – what is a book proposal? OK, not that far back; let’s go with “what are the content elements of a persuasive proposal?”

Before even considering the different proposal sections, you must have confidence that the book you propose is unique, needed, and important in some way. Because from this confidence you must build a strong persuasive argument for editors  to even consider the proposal. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Toor argues,

“The important thing to remember is that a book proposal contains an invitation, a seduction, and an unromantic assessment of where you stand relative to others. You have to work to get the editor interested in you, and then outline exactly who will buy the book once you’ve written it.”

I’ve reviewed book proposals that don’t do this work, that just assume the main idea is as clear to the reviewer as it is to the author, so they miss an opportunity to really hook me and want to see a full manuscript.

So like any good writer, you must assess your writing situation and do a good rhetorical analysis that will help feed into the persuasive content in the actual proposal. Basically, you want to ask yourself 5 questions:

  1. What are the main a secondary purposes the book will achieve?
  2. Who is the audience for this book, and why would they care?
  3. Who am I in relation to the intended readers, and why would they listen to be on this topic?
  4. What content is most important to the book, and why?
  5. What context – in the discipline, higher ed more broadly, etc. – might affect how people receive the manuscript?

Or if you want to get really Aristotelian about it, try this process.

Whichever rhetorical analysis strategy you choose, this preliminary step will help you remember that you have to be persuasive in your proposal, not just assume the brilliance of your idea will be obvious to everyone else.

Writing a Book Proposal

I never imagined I would write and publish a “real” book (which old me would have considered a proper academic research book) especially when I chose not to even try to turn my dissertation into a monograph. But as I write this at the end of August 2019, I am have submitted my third book proposal, having previously written ones for Agile Faculty and a co-edited collection on innovation in undergraduate liberal education coming in Spring 2020. The proposals must have been solid because they earned me contracts with University of Chicago Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, respectively (Chicago was the 6th or 7th publisher I submitted AF, to be totally transparent).

The third book I am proposing is about burnout among faculty in higher education, an issue about which I unfortunately have first-hand knowledge. I got the idea for this book as a way of dealing with my own burnout experience. But once I found peace with it and was able to open up to others, I was shocked by how many people had their own stories or knew someone affected. Like any good academic, I did my secondary research and found mostly studies in the higher ed literature about burnout, but nothing that was an authentic, practical faculty development take on the topic. I could see a book about my experience as both a catharsis and hopefully something other faculty could connect to and not feel as alone as I did.

Having already written a single-authored text and co-written/co-edited a collection, I’m imagining this book to be a hybrid that combines my personal burnout narrative, stories from other academics, academic research, and short practical chapters by professionals who support faculty. It’s a genre-bender, so the proposal will have to be really good to make sense for the publisher to take a chance on it.

Since I’m knee-deep in the process right now, waiting patiently for feedback from the potential publisher, I thought I’d start a series of posts about the different aspects of writing a book proposal. Posting this series will also give me some time to get settled in my new role as a Faculty Teaching and Learning Specialist in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech.

Over the next few weeks, I cover deciding if your idea really is a book, finding possible publishers, using publisher guidelines to organize your proposal, inviting outside contributions, and revising and editing a proposal based on peer feedback. By then, I will have submitted the proposal and will hopefully have good news and reviewer feedback to share. When writing a proposal, you have to be flexible, willing to take feedback, and well-organized – some of the core characteristics of Agile Faculty members.

How do you get students engaged and thinking about what they know on the first day of class, especially when most of them just assume you will read the syllabus to them and dismiss early? I use the constellation activity that I first learned in an Agile coaching training course. Constellations are great because rather than asking students to raise their hand an answer questions, you ask them to vote with their bodies.

To get set up for the activity, develop a list of yes/no, agree/disagree statements related to your course. For example, in my first-year writing courses, I’ve used statements such as “I think of myself as a good writer” and “Good writing is all about good grammar.” In my publishing course, I’ve used “To be a published author, you must publish a book” and “The internet will be the death of the book.” These are aspects of preconceived notions I know students come into this class with, so I want to get them out on the table on day 1.

In your actual class, you will need space for students to stand up and move around. I’ve done this by pushing desks to the walls or taking students into the hallway. If there is a clear aisle in your classroom, that works well too. There are two ways to organize a constellation physically: either in a circle with a “home base” in the middle as in the image on the right or more linear scale in which one side of the room is yes/totally agree and the other side it no/totally disagree.

Once you explain to students what the scale is – close to home base mean totally agree if doing circle, left side of the room means totally disagree if doing linear, etc. – read the first statement and ask the students to “vote” with their bodies by choosing an appropriate spot on the scale. After students vote, you can ask students why they voted the way they did and discuss how that statement is part of the learning for the semester. Once you’ve discussed, you can move to the next statement. I usually do 4-6 statements depending on how well the discussion is going.

I love doing constellations on the first day because it gets students thinking about the course, articulating their preconceived notions, and having a voice even if they are shy and wouldn’t usually speak up on the first day. Students start learning on day 1, and you get to model the level of engagement you’ll expect from them during the semester. And no one gets bored reading the syllabus.

Tried constellations? How did it work for you?

(Images borrowed from here.)



A More Agile Syllabus

Interested in doing something different with your syllabus? When we think of syllabi as contracts, we focus less on learning and more on policy – which should evolve from the course and students.Our syllabi can also get unwieldy when we tray to address every problem that came up in an assignment to policy based on past experience teaching a course. That’s about us and not the new students in a course who need the freedom to make mistakes and think for themselves rather than feel wrapped in rules and policies.

I switched to a more visual syllabus last year and had good results. Students seemed to actually read it because it was much shorter and to the point. Here are a bunch of examples and helpful tips for reimagining your syllabus visually.

Curricular and course assessment is important to making sure our students are achieving outcomes that align with our teaching objectives for the course. It can also be really dry and take some of the fun out of course planning. Here’s a quick activity to think about objectives and outcomes by putting the students first.

With the head, heart, hands activity, you simply imagine what you want your students to think, know, and do during the course. It’s as easy as that. Course planning can often end up in us trying to figure out how to fit all the content in, so this activity just asks you to slow down, bring the students back to the forefront, and make sure what we plan will help them achieve what we hope.


Course Design Elevator Pitch

One of my favorite sources for class activities is Gamestorming. While targeted at business and leaders of businesses, many of the activities can be easily adapted for the classroom and committee work (see my review here). I’ve talked in previous posts about how to use user stories for personal planning, and Agile Faculty covers course and assignment design as well. In this post, I want to introduce your to another format from Gamestorming – the elevator pitch.

When we think about elevator pitches, we probably think of that under 30 second synopsis an entrepreneur or sales person uses to get in the door with a funder or buyer. The Gamestorming version of the format is clearly for a business, so let’s reimagine for a course. I sincerely dislike the student-as-customer concept, but that doesn’t mean we can’t frame our courses in interesting and persuasive ways for students.

Thinking about a course you are planning or redesigning for the new academic year, how might you complete the following pitch in a way that helps students understand the value of the course to you and to them in their education?



As I’ve discussed before, the retrospective meeting is the last in the sprint cycle, a time for the team to reflect on their performance in terms of process rather than product. I like retros because they are a built in opportunity for reflection and there are so many activities you can do to keep reflection fresh.

Doing a retrospective on the last academic year or the last run of a course can be a great tool before you start planning for the new year. Most of us know the standard SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. I don’t believe SWOT is a good retro activity because it really isn’t about process. It’s more about profit really.

So instead I recommend a SOAR analysis – strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results. Let’s break that down for a specific course retrospective:

  1. Strengths – what readings, assignments, activities, etc. were most effective the last time you ran the course?
  2. Opportunities – Where in the course are their opportunities for improvement, maybe a different unit or assignment that could be upgraded?
  3. Aspirations – What is your vision for the course in the future?
  4. Results – What heuristic can you use to measure how successful you are in building on strengths and opportunities to achieve your aspirations?

This worksheet from the libraries at the University of Missouri offers a very detailed set of questions to encourage you for each aspect of the analysis.

Time to Face the … Changes

OK, so that’s not quite the Bowie lyric, but the changes I want to talk about aren’t strange. They are totally normal career and personal growth changes that I made rationally for my health and my family’s well-being. Sounds dramatic, but it seems like academics need to justify every career move that would be considered perfectly reasonable to non-academics.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m coming out of an episode of clinical burnout that upended everything I thought I knew about myself and my career. Once I could admit and deal with the reality of the impact my workplace was having on my mental health, I was able to admit without shame, finally, that I wasn’t happy any longer. Hadn’t been for a while.

It took a real wake-up call to admit I was done and that I wanted to do something different. And to see that not as a personal failure, but as a natural stage in a (hopefully) long professional life.

It wasn’t one situation or one experience or one specific person that contributed to my need to move on. It was a slow revelation over time that I simply fought against tooth and nail because, honestly, I had a perfect job – tenured, great colleagues and students, respected institution, etc. So I pushed myself harder and harder, trying to achieve some sort of escape velocity from those feelings. Yeah, that didn’t work.

In some ways, the burnout was like facing my own professional mortality and making peace with the fact that I was not going to spend my entire career one institution. And that was OK. I could find something different, closer to the type of work I really want to be doing now. Part of getting over my burnout was realizing I couldn’t manage everyone else’s emotions and needs over my own.

A colleague once told me years ago that academics are more mobile than we think we are. I didn’t believe them. But it stuck with me. So I tested the waters by applying for a couple of jobs in faculty development just to see if I was marketable and if I should make a full move to be on the market in the next academic year. I didn’t expect to get one of those jobs. But I did, and it felt right for me and my partner, and I made the call.

I’ll be moving to Atlanta and starting my new role in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech in a couple weeks. Transitions are hard, but I’m excited to see where this new start takes me.

To wrap it up, here’s that Bowie I promised you.

For a long time, my scholarly mind has been focused on being knowledgeable and achieving excellence in my field and profession (see last week’s post on values). My goal was to be the go-to, recognized expert for something – ultimately, that became Scrum in student collaboration and faculty development. Publishing Agile Faculty was the cherry on top of that quest; I never imagined I’d write a book in the first place.

After that, I felt like I needed to be an expert in everything I was working on, especially with design thinking, innovative program design, and an edited collection on innovative programs in liberal education that came out of that work my co-editors and I had under contract. It took me almost 10 years of research, teaching, facilitating, and observing to write Agile Faculty, so pushing myself to be the best in these new areas was actually really stressful and brought my productivity to a grinding halt for a while.

For example, I knew I needed to write the introductory chapter for our edited collection, but I put it off for months. I’d tell myself or my co-editors I wanted to wait until I saw author drafts, or I needed to do more reading, or I just had to interview some leaders in higher education who were far more informed than I was on the topic.

This was happening in a few of my projects, including a book proposal I’ll talk about soon, Because I’m trying to be more verbal about my struggles like this, I was open to talking about it with my coach, Katie Linder, and others. But Katie said a sentence to be that honestly fundamentally changed the way I was thinking about the work. She said

“What if you could come from a place of vulnerability instead of strength?”

Vulnerability isn’t a word I like, but I’d been on a path to understand myself better for the last year which included reading more Brene Brown vulnerability and shame research than I care to admit. It took me a while to process what Katie meant, but once I realized I didn’t have to be the end-all know-all of liberal education to write the book introduction, it suddenly made much more sense. I wasn’t trying to prove to my audience that I was an expert – I was trying to show that we three co-editors are normal faculty interested in exploring this topic with others. We didn’t have all the answers when we started, and what we put together is a set of interesting case studies from like-minded academics.

Once that switch clicked, I was able to write the intro to the edited collection very quickly by simply writing to my peers. So in this case, trying to be the strong expert was getting in the way of thinking about myself and connecting with my audience. When I cast myself as their peer, the chapter and the book made total sense.

What are your thoughts on the ideas of strength and vulnerability in faculty work?

I’ve been thinking about values a lot over the last year. Well, rethinking values. My values. I’ve been working with a few professional and personal development groups, and each of them asked us to articulate our values and how they show up in our lives and work.

There are lots of activities you can do to think about your own values, as I talk about in this earlier post (here’s one good list for a quick exercise, and here is another for a more in-depth look).

Honestly, doing the values exercises is always frustrating for me. Because it makes me confront the fact that the majority of my values are associated with success, excellence, being the best, achievement, etc. As much as I want to be able to say things like integrity and happiness and community are my core values, that would be a stretch There’s some shame associated with that, to be so externally motivated.

But I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other hardcore academics might feel the same way. It’s trained into us, even if it wasn’t part of our natural disposition pre-academy.

When the values activities became part of the homework for my personal development group, I was reluctant to do it yet again and see what I already know about myself. After explaining the exercise, the facilitator asked if there were any questions, and after a second of hesitation, I asked, “So what if your values are the problem?” One of the other members laughed aloud because she had been thinking the same thing. The leader smiled and asked us to just lean into that uncomfortable thought and see what happens. Yes, I rolled my eyes (internally) at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that I didn’t like what my values said about me because I was thinking about them as all externally motivated. And in the past, they were.

As I’ve been working on understanding myself better, I realized that my impulses to excellence and achievement are tied to being useful and contributing to a community. If I could define excellence and success for myself, instead of looking for outside validation, those values can be strengths. I could finally say to myself that I had accomplished everything I wanted to as a faculty member and that I was really ready to take the first step into a new career (more about that soon).

So, I encourage you to think about your core values – Can you define them? Can you identify them? How do you feel about the values that rise to the top? How do those values motivate you? Can you turn seemingly “negative” values into positives? Give it a try.