How to Write a Book in 647 Easy Steps (Part Two)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In Part One of this series, I discussed how to decide whether to write a book and offered some thoughts about book contracts.  In this post, I want to discuss the calling card that every potential book author needs to obtain a contract — a good proposal.  Bill Schabas can submit a one sentence proposal that says “I want to write a book about X” and publishers will offer him a contract.  The rest of us, particularly junior scholars who don’t have a book or dissertation under their belt, have to convince a publisher that we have a good idea for a book and that we will be able to actually write it in a reasonable amount of time.

So, what does a good proposal look like?  Although I doubt that one size fits all, my sense is that the structure of my proposal for Oxford (which you can see here) is fairly typical.  Indeed, I adapted it from Rob Cryer and Neil Boister’s proposal for their excellent The Tokyo International Military Tribunal — A Reappraisal, also for Oxford, which they were kind enough to let me read.  (I highly recommend asking a colleague who has written a book in the same vein as yours to let you take a look at her proposal.  You can then base your own on it.)  The primary difference between mine and theirs was length — while Neil and Rob’s proposal was, to the best of my recollection, about six single-spaced pages, mine was 12.  I made a conscious decision to write a more comprehensive proposal, for a number of reasons: Rob and Neil were much more established scholars; they were writing the book together; and Rob had already written a successful book on his own.

In any case, my proposal had six sections: (1) an introduction; (2) the nature of the book; (3) the place of the book in the literature; (4) the audience; (5) a chapter plan; and (6) a short bio.  I’ll discuss each in turn, as well as the process of external review.


After practicing criminal defense and prior to becoming an academic, I worked in Hollywood for four years as a television writer.  Part of that job is the art of the pitch: selling yourself to the executive producer of a show or selling an idea for a show of your own to a production company.  I treated my introduction like a pitch, explaining as quickly and efficiently as possible why the book needed to be written (and published).  I opened by noting that Telford Taylor had wrongly predicted in 1949 that the trials would receive a great deal of scholarly attention in the decades to come; in fact, no book on the twelve trials had ever been written.  I then highlighted the trials’ seminal contributions to international criminal law and the central role that the Holocaust played in them.

Nature of the Book

This section began with my concept for the book:

The proposed book will provide a comprehensive analysis of the 12 NMT trials. The analysis will be primarily legal, exploring the tribunals’ fundamental contributions to international criminal law and situating its jurisprudence relative to the work of the IMT, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, and the British and French zonal trials. But it will also provide the reader with a solid historical understanding of the NMT trials, because many of the tribunals’ most important decisions – particularly the troubling ones – cannot be understood in isolation from the social and political context in which they were made.

I divided the section itself into three parts.  Part 1 (“Structure”) provided a concise outline of the book, one paragraph for each of its four basic sections.  Part 2 (“Research”) discussed the material that I would use to write the book — primarily the 15-volume Green Set; Telford Taylor’s papers at Columbia Law School; and OMGUS records in the National Archives.  This was an important section, because I wanted to emphasize not only that the book would rely on a significant amount of original research, but also that the research base was not so vast that I would be unable to complete the book on time.  Finally, Part 3 (“Timeline”) discussed my estimate of how long the book would be and how long I needed to write it.  My advice: be realistic here.  There is a temptation, I think, for a first-time author to not give herself enough time, whether because she wants to impress the potential publisher with her (planned) efficiency or because she simply underestimates how long it will take to write the book.  I made that mistake, claiming that I could finish the book in slightly more than two years.  That was probably accurate in terms of actual work, but I neglected to take into account pre-existing writing obligations and new teaching prep.  I also ended up moving from Auckland to Melbourne in the middle of the process, which cost me a few months of work.  In the end, it took me almost exactly three years to write the book, requiring me to ask Oxford for two extensions.  John Louth was great about the delay — supportively telling me that it was important not to rush good scholarship — but I still hated asking.  It was the first deadline I had ever missed as an academic!  (And I hope the last.)

The Place of the Work in the Literature

This section was an extension of my introduction, supporting my claim that there was a need for a book-length study of the NMTs’ jurisprudence.  I cited all of the books that had been written about individual trials (all of which focused on either the Medical case or Farben, as I mentioned in my previous post; a recent, and excellent, book on Einsatzgruppen was still a dissertation at that stage) and noted books that included chapters on the trials.  I also pointed out — pitching the importance of my project again — that multiple books had been written on the Dachau trials and the Auschwitz trials, even though they were less important for the development of international criminal law.

The Audience

I think this is a very important section of a proposal.  Academic publishers know that very few of their books will ever become best-sellers.  But they still have to make money to survive — and that means they have to publish books that libraries and scholars will want to buy.  I argued in this section that my book would appeal to three different academic audiences: international criminal law scholars and practitioners; World War II historians; and transitional-justice scholars. (A few educated laypeople might also buy the book, particularly war buffs, but I imagine the number of sales will be relatively small given the cost of books published by academic presses.)

Chapter Plan

My sense is that this is the most important section of a proposal.  Having a great idea is one thing; being able to execute it is another.  So leave nothing to chance here: provide the publisher with a detailed plan for your book.  My plan called for thirteen chapters and was nearly 2,500 words long — between one and three long paragraphs for each chapter.  Here, for example, is my description of the chapter on “general principles of liability”:

Chapter 9 will identify the general principles of liability applied by the NMT. That is no small task: although Law No. 10 cast a wide net – distinguishing between command responsibility, aiding and abetting, “taking a consenting part in,” and being connected to criminal “plans or enterprises” – the Tribunals themselves often either conflated different modes of participation or elided the differences between them. The primary goal of the chapter, therefore, will be to systematically analyze each mode of participation. Two modes will receive particular attention, because of their importance to contemporary international criminal law: joint criminal enterprise and command responsibility. A number of Tribunals, particularly Pohl and Ministries, extensively discussed what is now called JCE II (“systemic” JCE), emphasizing that anyone who played a “significant” role in the enterprise was liable for all of the enterprise’s criminal acts (Pohl), including those who were far removed from crimes themselves, such as officials in private corporations (Flick, Farben), government ministers (Ministries), and even lawyers and judges.

The High Command and Hostage cases also made pioneering contributions to the doctrine of command responsibility. High Command, for example, established that command responsibility includes an obligation to punish crimes committed by subordinates even if those crimes were committed before the commander assumed control; that a staff officer who drafts an illegal order or who takes personal action to see that an illegal order is distributed is liable for the resulting crimes; and that a field commander is criminally liable not only for issuing a criminal order, but even for transmitting an order that was “criminal upon its face.” Similarly, Hostage established that a commanding officer is responsible for the actions of all the forces within his territorial jurisdiction, even if they are not under his direct command, and that a commander is charged with constructive knowledge of all the information available to him, even if he is not personally aware of it.

Writing a chapter plan takes a long time and requires a great deal of research — as the description of Chapter 9 indicates, you are basically outlining the book.  But it’s worth the effort, because a detailed plan will not only convince the publisher that you know how to write the book, it will also make the book much easier to actually write.  Looking back on my chapter plan, I’m struck by how little the final product deviates from it.  The only major difference is that the book has 16 chapters instead of 13, because I underestimated the length of “Trials,” “Evidence and Procedure,” and “General Principles,” forcing me to divide each of them into two separate chapters.

The Author

This is the easy part — sell yourself!  Mention your expertise in the area (practical and academic), the journals in which you’ve published, etc.  If you’ve published a particularly long law-review article, note its length.  Again, the point is to convince the editor that you will be able to turn your great idea into an equally great book.

External Reviews

Once you have submitted your proposal, the publisher will send it out for anonymous external review.  Oxford solicited three external reviews for my proposal; I imagine that number is typical.  All three reviewers recommended publication, but each had different questions about the nature and scope of the project.  (I imagine such questions are typical, as well.)  At that point, John asked me to formally respond to the reviews.  I did so — and put a great deal of thought into my responses.  I made a list of the reviewers’ questions and addressed each of them individually.  (You can see the document here.)  Don’t skimp on this step!  Assuming a generally favorable response to your proposal, this is your opportunity to not only put the reviewers’ concerns to rest, but also to show the publisher that you take criticism well and are easy to work with.  You don’t have to agree with every criticism — but you do have to take them all seriously.  Major publishers don’t send book proposals to people who have no idea what they’re talking about.


Assuming all goes to plan, your proposal and your response to the external reviews will earn you a book contract.  Congratulations — you now have to write the damn thing!  I’ll discuss how to begin that process in my next post.

5 Responses

  1. Once again, very interesting and helpful. I must say that I find it very refreshing to see a scholar “give away” his successful book proposal so that others may learn. In my experience this type of knowledge seems to be something that people try to protect rather than spread… So, again, thanks.

  2. You were a television writer in Hollywood?  I never knew… that’s cool!

  3. Kevin, what about just writing the book and then submitting it or a summary of it? Too risky?

  4. Frederic,
    In my view it’s better not to do the whole thing prior to  submission (unless it’s a doctorate or the like). Publishers often do like to see some sample material, but, as you say, it’s a risk. The main reason to submit a proposal and a chapter or so rather than more is that the refereeing process sharpens the project, as you get input from the referees about how the project might be improved. It is better to get that close to the start., rather than having to reformulate what might by that time be a very lengthy piece of work.

  5. Fred,

    A professor of your or Rob’s stature can safely assume that he will find a good publisher for an even modestly competent book.  But it would be devastating for a more junior scholar to spend a couple of years on a book and then not be able to publish it.  I also agree with Rob that the external review process is very helpful; the reviews I received encouraged me to restructure and rethink a number of sections of the book.  It’s much easier to make such changes ex ante than ex post!

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