Most editors prefer you to have in mind a serious book idea that you have taken the time to think about and develop. Each press will also have advice to potential authors on their websites about how much information, and in what format, you should send to an editor. Conferences can be a great time to be in touch with editors if your idea isn’t fully formed, if you are still drafting your proposal, or if you want to check in with an editor to see if the project aligns with their list.
Sending along a complete proposal, your CV, and at least one sample chapter shows an editor that you have invested time and energy into developing your book and that you are ready to enter the review process. Some editors may ask for revisions on the proposal, but sometimes the project can be found to be a good fit and can then enter into the peer review process.
For further reference, here are the NYU Press Guidelines for Submitting a Proposal:
Please include in your book proposal:
an abstract or a description of your manuscript (1–2 pages)
a description of the intended reader/audience for your book, including primary academic fields likely to be interested and courses for which the book could have adoption potential
a list of three or four competing books, and how your book will distinguish itself from the competition
an annotated table of contents, including brief chapter summaries
estimated length of the manuscript in words, including notes and bibliography
number and type (color, b/w, maps, tables, etc.) of illustrations, if any
estimated date by which the manuscript will be complete
if the book is edited, contributor biographies
Additionally, please include one or two sample chapters (preferably the introductory chapter), your current CV or résumé, mailing address, telephone number, and e-mail address. Please address your submission to only one editor at the press.
—NYU Press, November 2020
You should feel free to approach a publisher at any point during your research, but you should expect that conversations will probably be brief and general until you have a good elevator pitch that you can supplement with a formal book proposal and sample chapters within six months to a year. Editors need to read materials to see whether a book might be a good fit for their list and to determine potential next steps.
—AUPresses Faculty Outreach Committee, April 2020
For more information, you can also consult the Association of University Presses “Finding a Publisher” resources, including an annual directory of members, a subject area grid, and a list of member websites.