Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: The Art of Writing an International Law Book Proposal – Personal Reflections, Tips and Examples

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: The Art of Writing an International Law Book Proposal – Personal Reflections, Tips and Examples

[Barrie Sander (@Barrie_Sander) is Assistant Professor of International Justice at Leiden University – Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs.

Rebecca Sutton (@RebeccaAnneLaw) is Senior Lecturer in International Law at the University of Glasgow School of Law. She is the author of The Humanitarian Civilian (OUP, 2021).]

In international law academia, there are many processes that remain somewhat shrouded in secrecy. Writing a book proposal is a prime example. This is not to say that general advice on writing an academic book proposal is altogether lacking (see, for example, here, here and here). Moreover, most publishers provide guidelines that should be followed when submitting such proposals (see, for example, here, here, here and here). However, in comparison to, for example, journal articles that junior or aspiring academics can look to for guidance in terms of form, style, and substance, there is a notable absence of book proposals made publicly available by international law academics. 

To nurture a wider conversation about what makes a good international law book proposal and to provide some examples for those looking to publish a monograph in the field, we have decided to make our proposals publicly available (here and here) and to make the proposal-writing process more transparent. Writing a book proposal is in many ways a personal experience, so we begin with the major caveat that the following represents our personal thoughts and reflections. We thus encourage others to join in the conversation, sharing additional insights and tips.

1. When and how did the idea of converting your thesis into a monograph begin to take shape for you? Did you have any reservations?

Barrie. When I first began my PhD on the construction of historical narratives within international criminal courts, I knew I would like to publish my research in some form, whether as a series of articles or a monograph. However, it was only after receiving feedback from my examiners (Professor Paola Gaeta and Gerry Simpson) and supervisor (Professor Andrea Bianchi) that I fully committed to converting my thesis into a monograph. In particular, it was the encouragement of my external examiner, Gerry Simpson, that proved pivotal in my decision. 

Rebecca. Gerry is part of my story too! I was one of those PhD students who envisioned the entire PhD writing process as being tied to the production of a book. More than earning a doctorate, what I wanted was to think deeply about, and write, a book on International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian aid workers. I persisted in this stubborn commitment even through the early days of my doctorate, when influential senior academics declared that books were ‘over’ and peer-reviewed articles were the goal. I was lucky because my supervisors in the Department of Law at the London School of Economics, Professor Gerry Simpson and Associate Professor Devika Hovel, treated the book as a viable endeavour – albeit one that should take place post-PhD. The final push I got was from my examiners (Professors Sarah Nouwen and Mark Drumbl), who advised on how to transform the PhD into a book.

2. How soon after completing your PhD did you begin converting it into a monograph?

Rebecca. The monograph was on my mind as soon as I passed the Viva. Despite the fatigue induced by slogging to the PhD finish line, I was struck by a sense of urgency. Either I write the book now, I thought, or not at all. Fortuitously, my office in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford—where I was doing a post-doc—faced the Oxford University Press (OUP) building. This physical co-location made the terrifying jump from PhD to book seem almost somehow inevitable. I was also spurred on by that early-career feeling: I needed to seize the moment because I couldn’t be sure how long my luck in academia would last.

Barrie. After my PhD defence I went for a celebratory coffee with Gerry Simpson, who suggested that I should try to get the book out as quickly as possible; these things so easily get delayed. Yet, while I wanted to get the ball rolling, I still felt I needed some space from the thesis before returning to it – for me the PhD was a long, emotionally draining, and exhausting process. In the end, I took a month away from the thesis (admittedly, not a particularly lengthy period of time – I guess I also felt some degree of urgency!), before returning to it with fresh eyes and enthusiasm.

3. What advice did you receive from others about how to proceed (e.g. how to approach a publisher and how to draft the proposal)?

Barrie. After reaching out to colleagues in the field who had already published monographs, I managed to receive a fair bit of advice and would encourage any aspiring book writers to reach out to their network for tips. Gerry Simpson put me in contact with the publisher, and I reached out for general advice from two academics I had worked with or met before: Professor Yvonne McDermott Rees and Professor Adam Branch. They both shared their own book proposals with me, and Yvonne explained what to expect from the process. Having samples of successful book proposals was invaluable – I personally think it would be great if more academics would consider making their proposals public.

Rebecca. I was initially clueless about how the book proposal process works. Luckily, I was part of a small London-based writing group of female academics, and they workshopped a draft pitch with me. I also had friends who had written books–especially from my Canadian-based network of Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation scholars–who kindly shared their pitches with me. I soon discovered that the academic monograph pitch is a genre of its own, complete with a marketing and dissemination aspect that I would need to embrace. I started to cobble together a proposal. What this initial proposal lacked, I believe, was the assertiveness to stake a claim to a particular corner of my academic discipline. It didn’t convey a sense of urgency about why this book should be written, now, by me. In short, it wasn’t really a proper pitch. Thankfully, I had academic colleagues who lent their time and discerning eyes to the drafts. Through their interventions, the proposal took the form of a persuasive piece of writing.

4. How did you ultimately select a publisher? And how did you go about approaching them?

Barrie. I selected OUP for several reasons. First, several mentors in my close network, including my supervisor and PhD examiners, had published with OUP and recommended them. Second, OUP has a series, Oxford Monographs in International Humanitarian & Criminal Law, which I thought would be not only a good substantive fit for my thesis but also a good fit for me as an early career researcher since the series expressly encourages submissions from “emerging authors”. Ultimately, while identifying a particular series is not typically required when selecting a publisher, finding a relevant one is definitely a bonus as it allows you to clearly position and place your contribution. From this perspective, I think it’s useful to reflect on how your proposed book might sit within the publisher’s existing collections.

Rebecca. This selection process was similar for me. I knew from early on that I would hope to publish with OUP and when I saw the IHL and ICL series (mentioned above by Barrie) it seemed like a perfect fit.  After encountering Merel Alstein at OUP I knew I really wanted to work with her specifically. I had met her briefly when she passed by the LSE, and Gerry Simpson kindly re-introduced us over email after my Viva. From then on, it was for me to take the initiative and move things forward.

Barrie. I didn’t have the good fortune to meet Merel Alstein in advance of the process, so in terms of approaching OUP, my first step was simply to send them an email, expressing my interest in publishing a monograph and attaching my full thesis together with the reports of my examiners. I also made clear that my intention was to revise the thesis to convert it into a monograph (i.e., I wanted to make clear at the outset that the thesis required various changes, both in terms of length and substance). 

OUP got back to me within 2 weeks, confirming their interest and asking me to submit a formal proposal together with 2 or 3 sample chapters (revised from my original thesis). It took me some 8 months to put those materials together – part of the reason for taking this long was due to other postdoc research and teaching projects I was managing at the time (something I imagine is very common). During this period, I wrote a fresh introductory chapter and revised two other chapters, which I submitted to OUP together with the book proposal. These materials were then sent out to peer review – it took some 8 months before I received two peer review reports (my understanding is that this is longer than average). Following some exchanges with OUP on the comments received in those reports, I was offered a book contract a month later.

Rebecca. My timeline was about the same, perhaps ten months total. One thing that I learned by engaging with OUP was that while some monographs closely resemble a doctorate, mine was of the type that I would need to re-write and re-structure almost from scratch. This also reflected the feedback I received from my Viva examiners. They had encouraged me to re-tell the story from the ‘bottom-up’ – starting with on-the-ground practices in South Sudan and ending with the formulation of IHL rules in the Geneva Conventions. I was ultimately asked to submit two sample chapters that could be examined by OUP and by academic reviewers, and to attach to these chapters a clear outline for the final manuscript. All of this took me about four months to prepare. I submitted the proposal in February 2019, and the two reviews came back by June 2019. I had a few weeks to respond to these reviews. OUP then approved the proposal in July 2019, and I had a draft contract by August 2019.

5. What challenges did you encounter in drafting the proposal and how did you address them?

Barrie. I think the major challenge for me was producing a proposal that was framed to ‘market’ the book. In a way, the book proposal is a sales pitch, in which you need to make clear the market need for your book, including the target audiences that will be interested in it. 

Rebecca. Same here. There was something about ‘selling’ the book that felt almost distasteful initially. Beliefs still circulate about academia being somehow outside of capitalism, and it was easy enough to maintain this conviction during the doctorate. I made my peace with this, in the end, by thinking of marketing as something I need to do to get my ideas out in the world. I had certainly been held back professionally before by an unwillingness to hawk my wares, so to speak. If I really thought about it, it was possible for me to imagine that I was ‘selling’ an idea (that of the humanitarian civilian figure) to an audience that would genuinely want to ‘buy’ it. 

On reflection, I also had a foundation for this kind of marketing from my earlier career in the humanitarian NGO world. In that milieu, I had struggled with the idea of writing grant proposals to ‘sell’ humanitarian projects to donors but ultimately embraced that task because it was the only way to resource and sustain our humanitarian activities.

6. What do you think makes a good proposal?

I think the proposal should itself tell a story, drawing the reader into the world imagined by the author and warming reviewers to the big ideas. In terms of the contents, my proposal was itself 5,000 words long or 11 pages. I’ll set out here the sections of my own proposal: 

  • Overview: here I included a snippet of one of the composite encounters that framed each part of the discussion in the monograph, drawing the reader into the set of international actors, spaces, and places that would be the subject of the book.
  • Central claims of the manuscript: here I highlighted the main substantive arguments of the book as well as its core methodological claim which had to do with the everyday life of IHL.
  • Structure of the manuscript: this was in table form, outlining very briefly the titles and sub-titles that made up each of six chapters.
  • Chapter abstracts: this fleshed out the above table of contents, distilling the key points and highlights from each of the monograph’s chapters. These were approximately 150 words each, like a journal article abstract.
  • Situating the manuscript in the relevant literature: a page-length discussion of other relevant books in the sub-field, situating the proposed monograph amongst them and drawing connections from it to published works.
  • Audience: ¾ of a page discussing who might ultimately want to read the book, i.e. undergraduate and graduate students, IHL lawyers and humanitarian practitioners.
  • Reviewers and endorsements: very brief quotes pulled out of my Viva examiner reports attesting to how the PhD could become a valuable book (I also enclosed the full Viva reports)
  • Existing publications: A one-paragraph discussion of (published or forthcoming) pieces I had written that potentially overlapped with the book’s contents, showing that the book is a stand-alone endeavour containing almost all fresh work.
  • Practical information: a quick sentence stating the monograph’s proposed length and timeline: 85,000 words and completed by 2019 (in hindsight: ha ha ha!!!)
  • Author biography: one paragraph presenting my professional background in the third person.
  • Overview of sample chapters: a brief presentation of the two sample chapters to orient readers as to where they fit in the book. 

Barrie. I agree with Rebecca that telling a story and constructing a clear narrative is a good way to approach writing a book proposal. I also think it’s important to identify three or four clear contributions that your book will make to the field – really shining a spotlight on what makes your proposed book significant and stand out. To that end, it’s also important to have a clear idea of your target audiences and how the book is situated within and is distinct from the existing literature on the topic. Particularly for proposals that are based on a PhD thesis, an annotated table of contents will also be key – making clear to the publisher the changes you intend to make to each chapter compared to your original thesis and the anticipated timeline for doing so. Finally, I believe it’s also important to situate the proposed book within the publisher’s existing collections – demonstrating to the publisher that your book is a natural fit and complement to their other publications.

7. In the end, how much did your monograph resemble the proposal?

Rebecca. My final monograph was longer than what I had proposed in terms of word count, but not by too much. Also, the timeline stretched on: I had thought I would somehow complete the manuscript in 2019 (pure delusion!), but it dragged into 2020 and was published in 2021. In terms of substantive writing, I think the final monograph was actually better than what I had planned – the process of writing, re-writing, revising, and editing helped to make it crisper and clearer. That said, I also felt I could almost have endlessly edited it to improve it. At a certain point, I simply had to let it go and put it out in the world. In other words, it was never finished. One thing that remained mostly the same, however, was the overall outline and structure. This is where writing a quite substantial and in-depth proposal later paid off.

Barrie: My final monograph was also longer than I had planned (OUP explained that while they would allow this, it would push the book into a higher price bracket).I totally agree that letting go of the project is one of the hardest parts of the process, particularly when you’ve been working on the monograph for many years. This feeling initially emerges towards the end of the PhD, but you end up going through the same process again with the monograph. What made the monograph a little easier was that, similar to Rebecca, I had my overarching claims and structure on a much surer footing by the time I turned to writing the book – during my PhD, I had developed a propensity to change my structure a lot (so much so that at one stage my supervisor likened the changes to each of my drafts to the twisting of a kaleidoscope). Having a clearer idea of my structure, and having my core substantive research complete (with the exception of some segments that needed to be updated in light of new developments in the field) definitely helped smooth the path for my monograph to cross the finish line.

8. What final words of wisdom would you share with scholars putting together a proposal for their first monograph?

Barrie. My main message would be to use your close networks for advice and support in this process – whether in terms of gaining access to sample book proposals, obtaining feedback on your own draft proposal, or simply asking for an insight into how the process unfolded with a particular publisher. I also think it’s a good idea to surround yourself with books that you admire during the process. I’m a massive fan of the work of Mark Drumbl and had his monograph, Atrocity, Punishment and International Law, close at hand for much of the writing process, often turning to it for inspiration on substance, structure and style.

Rebecca. I think it’s important to get in touch with, and hold on to, your motivations for writing the monograph. What does this book mean to you intellectually, professionally, and personally? In my experience, there were so many pressures–life events, teaching obligations, producing peer-reviewed articles and writing funding proposals to try to survive in early career academia–that could have diverted me from finishing the book. It would have been so easy to give up if I did not have a clear sense of my own ‘why’ for writing it. This grounding is also instrumental when similar books come out ahead of yours, as happens all the time in disciplinary sub-fields where things move quickly. If you truly grasp what your own contribution is, it’s easier to see that there’s room for everyone; your work will stand on its own and be what it needs to be. 

My final suggestion is to find a way to fall a little bit in love with your book while holding onto its ideas lightly. I think it’s useful here to imagine yourself as a writer with a craft. As a PhD student, I diligently highlighted almost every line of Authoring a PhD by Dunleavy, following his advice mechanically to produce a PhD-shaped object. It worked. For the book, though, I longed to leave the student mindset behind. My eye wandered beyond academia, as I drew inspiration from writers of fiction and long-form non-fiction. I also felt the urge to inject some romance into the writing process. By indulging in my favourite writing practices (writing on trains and retreating to little cottages in rural Scotland) I experienced moments of solemnity and of joy in the writing. Had I simply white-knuckled my way towards the finish line and prioritized product over process, I would have missed the pleasures afforded by these moments – fleeting though they may be.

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