Phone the publishers on your list and ask to speak to an acquisitions editor. The acquisitions editor looks for authors, solicits and reviews book proposals, and is the project manager for a book. If you already have an idea for a book, you can present it to the acquisitions editor for consideration and see if she likes it. If so, send her the proposal you’ve drafted. (Be prepared to send a resume and a few writing samples, too.) If you don’t have a specific idea but are willing to write on a range of subjects, approach the acquisitions editor as you would approach any other employer. Acquisitions editors frequently have projects that need good writers, and the two of you are likely to find a project that complements your skills and interests, in which case, she may ask you to write a proposal for a specific topic on her desk. By the way, many publishers prefer to consider new authors exclusively by mail. Be prepared in such cases to get just the acquisitions editor’s name, address, and information on submissions, then hang up and send her your proposal.
If you don’t already have extensive technical writing experience, you may need to prove yourself to the publisher before they’ll consider you as an author. Ask the acquisitions editors if they need technical reviewers. Technical reviewers check the manuscript for technical accuracy and readability. This takes from 50 to 100 hours of time, for which you’ll get paid $400-1200 dollars. The money is not great, but the work isn’t very hard. Technical reviewing gives you and the publisher a chance to evaluate each other.
Once you submit your proposal, the acquisitions editor will consider it for publication. Large publishers usually have an editorial committee, a meeting where all the acquisitions editors discuss the proposals they’ve received and make decisions about which books they want to do. You’ll usually know within a couple of weeks if the acquisitions editor has accepted or rejected your proposal. One possibility is that the acquisitions editor will come back to you and say “We like the general idea, but we’d like to have you write the book for a different audience/with a different scope and purpose/in a different style than you’ve proposed.” This is generally a good sign: it means that the acquisitions editor believes in your ability enough to keep talking and that there are elements of your proposal that she thinks could be profitable.
Tip: Always let the acquisitions editor know that you’re willing to consider writing about other topics as well. My first book actually happened because I was trying to sell another book idea. An acquisitions editor at Osborne/McGraw-Hill said, “Well, we don’t think that your book will sell well enough for us but we like the way you present your ideas. How’d you like to write a book on Microsoft Word for DOS?” I prepared a proposal and sent it in. The editorial committee reviewed it, made some changes to my proposed scope and the audience I was writing for, and I had my first book contract a week later.
If you have a great idea for a book and one publisher doesn’t bite, try another publisher. A rejection doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, simply that they weren’t interested or it didn’t fit. (Do ask why they didn’t want to do it, though; frequently, the information you get about one rejection will give you what you need to refine the proposal so you can sell it to the next publisher.) Keep sending proposals out. Publishers are always looking for new books and new authors. And you might be able to resubmit a proposal to a publisher and have them approve it the second time: what the publisher wants right now may be different from what they’ll want in six months. Don’t submit a proposal simultaneously to different publishers (known in the business as “multiple submission”) until you have a good understanding of the publishing process.
Avoid publishers who are flaky or have very bad reputations for how they deal with their authors (there are a few of these, sadly). If you don’t know and you don’t have someone you can ask, you might try phoning a few of the authors in a publisher’s stable. You can frequently track them down through their biographies on the back of the book. Many authors of computer and other books will add their email or web addresses as part of their acknowledgments or contact information. You can also use Internet-based telephone directories to do simple detective work for tracking down email addresses, phone numbers, or mailing addresses. And as a last resort, you might send a couple of letters to authors via the publisher. Seal the letters, send them to the publisher, and ask the publisher to forward them to the author at her/his home address. It’s as good a way to get to them as any, and it stands a fair chance of success.