Choosing a Publisher
If you scan the spines of the software books in your office, you’ll likely see a number of publishers represented. As an author, you need to identify publishers who might be interested in your work and will do a good job of both producing the book and marketing it. Look for publishers who release titles that you like, both for their content and for their visual presentation. (Speaking of titles, don’t get too emotionally committed to your original book title. The publisher might prefer an alternative title for marketing purposes. That's happened to me several times, and not always to my liking.) Also, look for a publisher who might find your book to be a good addition to its line. Large publishers often have several book series on various themes, so you might target your book for inclusion in a particular series. For instance, several of my books are in the Microsoft Press Best Practices series. My book on software peer reviews is in Addison-Wesley's Information Technology series. If you can pitch your book to be a logical fit for a particular series, the series editor might be very receptive to your proposal.
Some of the biggest publishers in the software book business are Addison-Wesley, McGraw-Hill, Microsoft Press, O'Reilly, Prentice Hall, and Wiley. There are many others, of course. Dorset House has a long-standing reputation as a publisher of high-quality books. Pragmatic Bookshelf is a relatively new publisher that has quickly established an impressive lineup of titles, mostly on programming topics. There are pluses and minuses with both large and small publishers. If you're just starting out as an author, you might get more personal coaching and guidance from a smaller publisher. I certainly did from Dorset House, who published my Creating a Software Engineering Culture book in 1996.
To help you select a candidate publisher, you might contact some authors you know who have published with a particular company to see what their experiences were like. Even if you don't know the authors except by reputation, go ahead and write to them. You'll find that most software authors are nice folks who are happy to help an aspiring writer.
I have always dealt with publishers directly. I've never used an agent, nor have most of the other software book authors I know. Word-of-mouth referrals can be helpful to get you in the door. People sometimes approach me with book ideas and questions about publishers. If I know them and their project seems to have merit, I’m happy to introduce them to my contacts at the publishers I’ve worked with. I did seek an agent when I was trying to publish my memoir of life lessons, Pearls from Sand, because I had no visibility or contacts in the self-help publishing world. I didn’t end up with an agent after all, although one agent kindly did point me toward the publisher who ultimately accepted the book.
If you're dealing with a small publisher, your initial point of contact will likely be one of the principals of the company. When dealing with a larger publisher, you'll generally work first with an acquisitions editor. The AE is responsible for evaluating ideas and proposals and landing promising manuscripts for the publisher. Publishers need authors as much as authors need publishers, so don't be shy about approaching a publisher with your idea, proposal, outline, or manuscript.
Opinions vary as to whether it's appropriate to submit the same manuscript or proposal to multiple publishers concurrently. I think it's fine, so long as you don't get carried away. In other words, I think it's reasonable to submit your book concurrently to a few candidate publishers for whom you think it would be a good fit. However, I wouldn't broadcast it out to every publisher of software books in the universe at the same time, hoping for at least one hit.
You start with an idea, a possible title, and maybe an elevator pitch. If you want a publisher to give your idea due consideration, you’ll need to submit a full proposal. Once you've identified candidate publishers, you might be able to find templates or suggested outlines for their preferred proposal format at their websites. Alternatively, if you’ve spoken to an acquisitions editor or other contact person, they should be able to describe what they like to see in a proposal. If all else fails, there's some standard information you should include in your proposal, which I will describe here. If you visit the supplemental content page for this blog, you can see several of the proposals I submitted for various books I have written. I'm not saying they're the best proposals ever, but each of them did persuade a publisher to take the book.
Once you've identified yourself and your position in the proposal, present a concise overview of the proposed book. Make it clear why the world desperately needs your book. Describe its major characteristics and the value proposition for the reader. Include a synopsis of the topics you intend to cover, either in narrative form or in the form of a high-level outline. The publisher doesn't necessarily need to see the full outline that you might have developed to help guide your writing, but he certainly wants to know your topics and how you anticipate organizing them. Estimate the final word count for the book and the approximate number of figures and tables you expect to include. By way of calibration, a 200-page software book probably contains around 60,000 to 65,000 words. My Software Requirements, 2nd Edition book is 150,000 words and 500 pages long. Figures are generally counted as 200 words each.
In another section you might call out the outstanding features of the book, including any hooks you've devised that would give the book a distinctive look, feel, and delivery of the information. If you plan to set up a complementary website with supplemental downloadable materials, describe that, too. The point of these sections is to convince the publisher that you have a uniquely valuable contribution to offer, and that you can deliver the content in a compelling way that readers will find accessible.
Publishers aren't in business just because they love books—they need to be able to sell whatever books they acquire, preferably lots of copies. Therefore, include a section on marketing information to help convince the publisher that this is a good business proposition. Describe any marketing hooks, ways the book can be positioned to particularly appeal to potential buyers. List the benefits readers would get. Summarize your understanding of the audience profile—the kind of people who would find this book irresistible—and estimate how many of them there are. Don't say, "Every software developer and project manager will want a copy of this book, so the potential market is at least two million copies." First, that isn't going to happen. Second, that doesn't help the publisher assess how to position the book in the marketplace.
An essential section of the proposal is to identify the competitive titles that are already on the market, as well as any books in the same space that you know are in preparation. For each competitive book, provide the title, authors, publisher, copyright date, page count, price, and a brief abstract. Describe how your book will complement, supplement, and (hopefully) be superior to the competition.
My book proposals include a section on the status of the work (“the Work” is how the publisher's contract will refer to your book). The publisher would like to reach a comfort level that you'll actually be able to deliver a usable manuscript on schedule. I know some people who write the entire book before approaching a publisher. I have never done that with my software books. Instead, I outline the book, and then I write a chapter or two to see how it feels and to get a sense for how the whole project might go. Then I can approach a publisher with confidence that I know what I'm talking about. In this section, I let the publisher know how much I've already written and my estimated schedule for delivering the rest of the content.
Include a section of author information with your full name, contact information, and professional biography. If you’ve published books previously, list their titles, publisher, year of publication, number of pages, ISBN, approximate sales, and any awards they might have received. Provide references to any articles, handbooks, or eBooks you have published. Even if you haven’t written a book before, publishers need to know whether you can string sentences together in a sensible way.
Along that line, publishers want to see samples of your writing. The general guideline is to submit two chapters that you’ve drafted, neither of which is the first chapter of the book. You want to let the publisher’s decision makers judge the quality and style of your writing. This will give the publisher an idea of how effectively you present material and also an idea of how much work it might take them to edit your manuscript into publishable form. If you haven’t written any chapters yet, make sure the publisher has easy access to some of your articles.
In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about the contracting process.
(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)