Getting started: book ideas and proposals

The first step in writing a technical book is to decide what you want to write about. It’s not necessary for you to write about a topic that’s never been written about before. Look at how many different books there are for almost any topic. Most of them sell, though they all cover roughly the same material. What makes each of these worth considering is that they are approaching the same material in a different way.

You may end up identifying the book you want to write by discovering that there’s no book on the market that addresses the topic. For example, I wrote one of my first books (“Using Computer Bulletin Boards“) because it was the book I wanted to have read 5 years earlier when I was getting started using BBSes and online services. Or you may have a new angle on an old topic that makes it worthwhile: for example, “A Field Guide to Windows Icons” and “Internet for Cats” are fun but helpful guides to a topic that have a novel and humorous spin to them.

Building a Basic Proposal

When you have your idea, you’ll need to create a proposal. A proposal should contain the working title, the scope and purpose of the book, a description of the intended audience, what the reader should know at the beginning and at the end of the book, and a table of contents or outline. Your proposal should also include any salient marketing information; for example, if this book is the first of its kind or if there are several other books that address the subject but this one takes a new slant. Also tell the publisher what you can do to help them market the book. Most publishers are very receptive to having an author work with them on the marketing.

Tip: Many publishers have proposal guidelines on their websites. All of them will require the basic information described above, but many have additional preferences for proposal information. Once you’ve drafted your proposal and have chosen a publisher, check for the publisher’s proposal guidelines to expand and tailor your proposal to the publisher’s preferred style. As you do so, you’ll find that you’ll develop a proposal format that you like to use that’s acceptable to almost everyone.

In addition to information about the book, you also need to sell yourself. Sell your understanding of the topic and your ability to plan and write 300-600 pages in the allotted time, which is never as much as you’d like. Demonstrate that you can write, organize, research, meet deadlines, and stick through the project. (Acquisitions editors live for people who never miss deadlines.)

What if you don’t have a specific idea in mind? You may still have general topics that you’d like to write about. One of the best way to identify potential topics is to identify your own strengths and preferences. For example, I don’t care to write books on software development, but I enjoy doing books on computer and software basics. If you’re already writing manuals or articles, look at what you’ve been writing about professionally. Don’t forget to see if you have other skills that you can add to this list: for example, you may be a whiz at setting up computers, at cooking, or at helping your clients analyze their interior design needs. All of these add depth to your writing and increase the potential for a variety of non-fiction books. Good topic knowledge combined with writing ability is enough to sell most publishers on you as a potential author. So, even if you don’t have a specific book idea to propose, a general list of topics may well be enough to start with. You can focus your ideas later to fit the publisher’s needs.

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