The Road to Published: The Making of an Edited Volume (Part Ia — Writing a Prospectus)

I was going to save this for Part II, but when I looked back at my prospectus I decided that a deeper exegesis of what I had done might be useful — I know I floundered quite a bit figuring out what a prospectus should look like, what its tone should be, and so on. So here’s a blow-by-blow look at the prospectus I sent to Pluto Books. I’m not saying this is the best proposal ever, or that I didn’t make mistakes, or that I wouldn’t do things differently today — just that this one worked, for whatever that’s worth.

I talked before about the need for a prospectus that really sells your book proposal. As academics, we’re used to writing proposals that highlight ideas, theories, methods — none of which is all that useful in a prospectus. Although an editor is (hopefully) going to be interested in what a book says, that interest has to be subsidiary to what kind of interest the book will generate and how many copies they can sell. Every publisher has a minimum number they need to sell to break even on a book — your prospectus has to convince them that they’ll sell more than whatever that number is.

Here’s the prospectus I sent to Pluto Books in 2005, modified somewhat to remove personal information. Also, several of the authors originally involved either a) published elsewhere or b) withdrew from the project for various reasons. To be on the safe side, I’m removing references to their work too.

Prospectus: Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War

Dustin M. Wax, ed.

As the Cold War passes from “current events” to the realm of “recent history”, anthropologists are beginning to explore the various relationships between anthropology and the projects and institutions that defined that period. New sources and methodologies and a sense of historical distance have allowed the study of Cold War anthropology to begin to emerge as a distinct field within the history of anthropology.

The book I am proposing is an edited volume of essays exploring this new field. Given the relative paucity of material on this period, the volume will break new ground in the history of anthropology, essentially opening up the explicit examination of Cold War anthropology, bringing together in one place works covering the gamut of approaches and perspectives currently in use.

That’s the introduction; note how I’ve framed a problem (there’s a “relative paucity of material in this period”) and proposed a solution (my book “will break new ground” and “open up” this under-examined area).

The potential audience for a book like this is quite vast. It will be essential for historians of anthropology and of the social and behavioral sciences in general. It will also be a valuable reference for intellectual history in general, including historians and sociologists of science and of the university. Inasmuch as anthropologists were involved in wider post-War political events ranging far from the concerns of academia, the volume will also appeal to historians of post-War history and politics, of the US and of the world. Finally, the book should also be of use to post-colonial scholars concerned with the conditions under which colonial and neo-colonial knowledges are produced and constructed.

The volume will be useful not only for individual researchers but also for coursework in the history of social scientific theory and practice, particularly at the advanced undergraduate or graduate level. Courses that foster a critical evaluation of the central ideas of their disciplines, even outside anthropology itself, will benefit from the examination of seemingly extra-theoretical influences – foundations, governments, political trends, the structure of academia and the publishing industry – on the way science develops and functions. Other courses exploring the post-War rise of the United States will find the involvement of anthropologists – both as tools and victims of the Cold War state – a useful illustration of the way that science and power have colluded and collided.

Within the discipline itself, these potential readers are the subscription base of the History of Anthropology Newsletter and the members of the History of Anthropology Committee in the American Anthropological Association. Outside the discipline, the readership of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences and Isis, as well as the membership of the History of Science Society, Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are all likely to be interested in the material presented.

These three paragraphs are the “marketing” section identifying several potential markets to which the book can be sold. My feeling is that this doesn’t have to be exhaustive but rather suggestive; what the publisher really needs to know is that there’s a larger group of people who care about this topic than just the people contributing to the book. I should add, a lot of this text made its way into my cover jacket copy, which has the same purpose, right? That is, cover jacket blurbs are intended to sell the book by explaining why someone should buy it, and that’s what this section does.

As noted, this volume will contribute to a field of inquiry that is only beginning to blossom. The closest precursor available now is the New Press’s The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years (1998) and Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences During the Cold War (1999). Though crucial to any study of Cold War academia, these volumes tend to rely strongly on personal experience and knowledge rather than an in-depth examination of primary source material.

A recent volume by David Price (one of the proposed volume’s contributors) entitled Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (2004, Duke University Press) is more representative of the sort of critical evaluation represented by this volume. Price examines FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act to detail the acts carried out against activist anthropologists in the post-War years. His essay in my volume draws on this research, greatly expanding events that are only touched upon in Threatening Anthropology.

Other works in history of anthropology, including the excellent History of Anthropology series from University of Wisconsin, have for the most part confined themselves to the years before and during World War II, leaving – with the exceptions already noted – a somewhat open field for scholars of the post-War years. Although a few articles have been published here and there, including a long one by the premier historian of the discipline, George Stocking, in History of Anthropology 9 (“‘Do Good Young Man’: Sol Tax and the World Mission of Liberal Democratic Anthropology”, 2000), articles dealing with the Cold War period have for the most part been scattered throughout various publications. This makes the work I am planning not only essential from a theoretical viewpoint, but also in terms of delineating at least the rudiments of a mature field of investigation.

This part should feel a little more familiar to academics, as it’s essentially a literature review — with a twist. Like a literature review, your proposal needs to place your work in the context of related work, while explaining what new you bring to the subject. The twist is that in a prospectus you’re also defining the competition your book has to contend against in the marketplace. Too much competition and your book looks like a poor bet, especially if you’re an unknown author like me; too little, though, and the assumption is there’s simply no demand for your kind of work. No market demand, that is — your work might be received quite well by other academics in journals or other outlets.

My book falls closer to the “no competition” range, which seems like a good thing but it’s not. So I had to work pretty hard here to outline a field that isn’t very well defined.

Outline and Specifications

As currently envisioned, the book will be roughly 400 manuscript pages (double-spaced). I will compile and edit the submission using Word on a Windows PC, and can submit the manuscript either electronically or in hard-copy. I currently have drafts, in various states of completion, for most of the essays listed below. Once accepted for publication, I will secure final drafts within 180 days, including the solicitation of additional material to flesh out some of the topics not covered by the above essays. The current contents are as follows (in tentative order):

Introduction – Dustin M. Wax (New School for Social Research)


Problems and Progress in Anthropology’s Cold War Historiography — Marc Pinkoski (University of Victoria)

Peasants on Our Minds: Creating the Myth of Peasant Conservatism During the Cold War — Eric Ross (Institute for Social Studies)

Organizing Anthropology: Sol Tax and the Professionalization of Anthropology — Dustin Wax (New School for Social Research)

In the Name of Science: The Direction of Anthropological Research in Africa — Frank Salamone

Paul Radin: Dodging McCarthyism One Step Ahead of Hoover — David Price (St. Martin’s College)


Afterword — Rob Hancock (University of Victoria)

The authors represent a cross-section of well-established historians of anthropology as well as newer voices, and a political cross-section that is often at odds with other contributors, making for a lively debate within and between the various sections of the book.

Technical details, yay! Page count is important for budgeting — a book that is 900 pages published costs more to print and distribute than one that is 180, so that’s going to factor into the publisher’s decision: can they sell it for enough to cover their costs? The 180 days was a best guess — as you’ll see in Part II, it took considerably longer than 180 days to get all the manuscripts together and done.

Speaking of which, you see above that I cut papers out; these authors didn’t come along for the ride. I added two more authors, William Peace and Susan Sperling, to fill those slots. Another piece, David Price’s on Paul Radin, ended up getting used in his book, so he produced an entirely new piece. So, again, these are estimates and approximations; I would venture to say that publishers know this when they review proposals, and are more concerned about the general outline than the specifics — if I say “400 manuscript pages” the know I might come in at 360 or 440, but probably won’t come in at 85 or 870.

Because of the nature of the field of Cold War anthropology, potential referees for this book are limited. [Cut]’s eminence in the field would make [them] an excellent reviewer; other potential referees include [cut] and [cut]:

  • [Contact information for suggested reviewers]

The last section recommends several reviewers for the book — this is the start of the peer review process. Some publishers wait until the manuscript is completed and send it out; Mellin does that, and offers a tentative contract pending a positive outcome of the peer review. You can see the problem — years of your life invested in a project and then back to square one if whoever reviews it gives a “thumbs down”. Pluto sends the prospectus and sample chapters out to reviewers, and only offers a contract after they’ve agreed that it represents a significant contribution. Perhaps this isn’t as thorough a process — there were, after all, several changes between the peer review and publication — but it’s far more practical.

Of course, you know your field better than your publisher does, most likely, so they want recommendations from you about who to contact. Likely they have their own experts “on call” as well, but they need help pinpointing the best people to contact. I went through several weeks of back-and-forth answering questions and providing further sample chapters to satisfy the reviewers’ inquiries, and in return received some pretty helpful input. The process is fairly anonymous, although if you know your field pretty well you can make a pretty good guess about who the reviewers are based on their comments and questions. But I’ve never officially learned who reviewed my texts; I can only hope they’re happy with the outcome when its published, and offer thanks to the world and hope they’re tuned in.

I’ll pick up where I left off, with the process of actually creating the book, next week, or maybe the week after depending on how finals week goes.