The Book Writing Business, part 1

I’ve gotten several questions about how to get into the technical book writing business based on my posting from March 9th.  This ended up being a bigger discussion than I expected.  So I thought I’d blog it in the next three entries.


Nowadays, I enjoy a strong writing relationship with O’Reilly & Associates.  However, I’ve worked with several publishing companies in the ten years I’ve been writing technical books and have accumulated a little bit of experience on the topic.


There are a couple things that are worth noting for the book publishing business.  An overview of the process looks like this:


  1. Write the book proposal

  2. Get a contract offer and negotiate

  3. Write and edit the book

  4. Tech review the book and make changes

  5. Production

  6. Post-production marketing


A good technical book will have a 3 or 4 year life cycle.  But some topics are so time-sensitive that they have to be rushed to production and then quickly fade out.  I try to stay away from topics like that, personally.


First, you really don't need an agent to get a book deal or even to write for magazines and websites.  In my experience, the most notable value-add that agents bring to the table is with white papers and specialized article writing.  Since this pays some of the best fees in the technical writing world, agents are worth the cost for someone who wants to write all the time and often on tight deadlines.  On the other hand, I prefer to write as a side gig to my day job.  So I'm happy without an agent.  On top of that most all of the big technical book publishers have easy to find guidelines posted on their website for submitting unsolicited book ideas. 


Second, the most important element of getting a book deal is a solid book proposal.  Your book proposal should contain:


  1. A clear description of what the book is and who it will reach including:

    1. A one paragraph abstract of the book

    2. Who will be the primary readers of the book

    3. How many potential readers are in that audience

    4. Means of contacting this audience such as conferences, magazines, websites, etc

    5. What books it will compete against

    6. What your book will do differently than its competitors

  2. A detailed table of contents at least two levels deep, with page estimates for each chapter and subchapter

  3. A vitae or resume of you, the potential author

  4. A writing example, whether that be an article, a chapter from another book, or a technical document you've written for your day job


Remember, the idea of the book proposal is to enable the publisher to determine if they can make money on your title or not.  Some authors I've encountered tend to think of the book proposal as a sort of 'demo' of a completed book.  It's really not that.  The publisher will quickly be able to determine if the technical premise has merit.  They usually need help figuring out if the audience is big enough, dynamic enough, and hungry for new content.  That's where your help will make the biggest difference.

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