Choosing a publisher–Part 1

With your proposal or topic list in hand, you’re ready to choose a publisher. Like other kinds of freelance work, you should ask people in the business for referrals. One source of contacts is local writing groups. Most of these are aimed at the fiction writer, but you might be able to contact other authors by talking to the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication) or the International Association of Business Communicators. Another organization to check into is the National Writers Union, which is the trade union for freelance writers of all genres. They have a number of resources including model contracts. If you’re doing books about software or high tech, another source to check out is the Studio B website and subscribe to the Computer Book Authors list. You can also make some contacts through the bit.listserv.techwr-l newsgroup, a moderated newsgroup for technical communicators.

As part of your research, you should go to a large bookstore and look at other books on the same or similar topics. You’ll rapidly notice that each publisher has a certain look and feel to their lines of books, designed to appeal to a specific audience. Write down the names and addresses of the publishers whose books you would most like to have your name associated with. Ask your contacts if they know anything about these publishers, or check the current Writer’s Market (a guide available at all large bookstores) for more information about each publisher.

Tip: It’s a good idea to find out if the publisher already has a book on the topic you want to write about. You can check and do a topic, title, or keyword search for all the books on this subject. Don’t be alarmed if you find 30 titles on the subject. Many of these books may be out of print, or dated (books on software and technology can go out of date overnight), or have a different focus than that which you want to do. You can also see if the publishers you want to work with have a book on this subject already in print. Make careful notes on what’s already out there in the market–it can help your case and impress the publisher if you know who you’re competing with–and be ready to show why your book is different from the others. This will go into the marketing section of your proposal.

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.

“Hey, kids! Become an author at home in your spare time and earn big bucks!”

This entire blog takes its name from an article I wrote 20 years about the publishing process and how you, yes, you!, can become an author of non-fiction. The article I originally wrote was supposed to sound like something out of the 50s and 60s: partly from old matchbook covers that said “If you can draw this girl, you could become a commercial artist!” but mostly from the ads in the back of DC comic books and Boy’s Life about “Hey, kids! Make $5-$15/week selling Grit, America’s Greatest Family Newspaper!” Becoming an author really is something like that, without quite so much of the tabloid newspaper elements (usually). You can do it and it’s fun.

Let me start by telling you how I got here.

I got into writing books when I was but a wee sprat. I must’ve been a wee sprat because I started writing books 22 years ago and I still feel like I’m 33, so I must’ve been incredibly young when I wrote my first book. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) I’d been a tech writer for a couple years and someone who had a lot more experience in the biz suggested that I should write a book to broaden my horizons. Well, that sounded like a good idea, so I started thinking about it.

I hit on a topic almost immediately, too: computer bulletin boards. This was 1986, after all, and BBSes were on their way up. I’d gotten into BBSes a couple years before–I still have a BBS list from the Telecommunications Users Group that showed all 20 BBSes in the Puget Sound area at that time!–and I really felt like there was a market for a book on BBSes and how to use ’em. I got some advice from some of the non-fiction authors I knew, notably Grant Fjermedal, and wrote a book proposal, and started shopping it around to publishers.

I learned a lot about shopping book proposals (which I’ll tell you later) but finally, Jeff Pepper at Osborne/McGraw-Hill said “We don’t think this book on BBSes will pay well enough, but stick around, kid, we like the way you do things.” They got me a contract for “Microsoft Word Power User’s Guide,” a book about Word 4.0 for DOS, the first good release of Word, and off I went.

And you know, I really liked writing books! There’s something about it I find terrifically satisfying. No other writing task really lets me sink into the creative reverie so much, nothing lets me get as involved with the writing process, and there’s nothing that gives me so much freedom with what I write, either. As soon as I finished my first book, I was hot to do another one!

I found a publisher who wanted to do my BBS book, did that one with him, picked up another book with Osborne/McGraw-Hill, and then there was no stopping me. At this point, since 1988, I’ve published 26 books. My biggest year saw four books come out. Every book has a story about it, too: fastest, biggest, best-selling, first award, most quoted, most fun, and many other things. I’ve co-authored many of them, contributed chapters to a few of them, but it’s a huge pile of writing. And I really like it.

The point of all of this is that all this can be yours!. Even if you can’t write the Great American Novel, you may be able to write the Great American Manual. There is a huge market for non-fiction–books on software and computers, fixing cars, photography, mountain-climbing, cooking. As this series unfolds, I’ll be telling you everything you need to know about how to talk to publishers, how to pitch an idea, the basics of contracts, if you need an agent, the downside of writing, and what writing a book is like before, during, and after. I’ve even got a recommended reading list to share with you.

The whole point is that becoming an author is not impossible, nor do you have to know a secret handshake to get in. You do need to know a few concepts and how to wend your way through the publishing process, but that’s a lot easier than you might think. I’m going to teach you how to do all of this.

Quote du jour

A thought to carry you into the weekend: This one’s old hat to a number of people in the writing industry, but it’s still lovely. (And if you’re not familiar with Edward Tufte, go look him up.)

Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.
~Edward Tufte

Speaking to a high school class

A few years ago, I took part in a panel discussion for the benefit of a bunch of high school students at Marist High School nearby. The physics/chemistry professor, Ryan Mosier (sp?) invited a bunch of us to come tell his students what they can go on and do with their interest in science.

It was fun seeing the HS campus and seeing the kids, that’s for sure. They were a pretty good group. The other members on the panel were an MIS manager, a hospital lab tech, a pharmaceutical researcher, and a forensic scientist. All of these are interesting occupations. I encouraged the students to consider writing as a career or at least as an adjunct to any other technical career. We got asked about our favorite and least favorite parts about our jobs. I talked about the freedom and not having to commute and being in control of my own hours, which a student told me later produced a somewhat envious look from the other panelists. The students had a number of good questions and seemed fairly interested in what we had to say. For me, the most memorable comment came from the forensic scientist, who observed about the level of care that was necessary in his job. Every time they did something, it tentatively took away from another human being’s civil rights, and, the longer they were in their profession, the more weight their opinion would carry. That’s quite a responsibility and one that I’m not sure I’d care to have.

Writing articles: self-promotion that someone pays you for

In a previous post, I talked about how self-promotion is not just for the self-employed. This post is going to tell you one of the most effective ways in which you can promote yourself and how you can make money doing it.

In their April 1991 issue, Home Office Computing magazine published a really good article on setting up shop as a consultant, “Surefire strategies for making it as a consultant” by Howard L. Shenson. It’s worth reading. (G’wan; I’ll wait.)

The reprint in the archive sadly lacks one thing from the original: a chart that shows the results of a survey of successful vs. unsuccessful consultants. “Successful” in this context was defined as “those consultants making at least 2x as much as the unsuccessful consultants.” That seemed like an awfully good working definition of the two terms and, even 20 years later, it’s still an excellent measure of success. (We’re not in this business for our health, after all.)

The survey was interested to find out what consultants do to drum up business. They found that successful consultants do three things in particular:

  • write articles
  • do public speaking
  • get referrals

In contrast, unsuccessful consultants find their work in more passive ways:

  • advertising
  • cold calls
  • mailings

Let me pause for a moment and say that just because the survey shows that some things tend to work better than other things at rounding up business does not mean that you shouldn’t try all sorts of things. I will digress here (so unlike me!) and tell you a story of overwhelming success.

About the same time the article appeared in Home Office Computing, Steve M., a whiz at sales & marketing, was telling me that he’d wanted to advertise his radio antenna business. (Steve’s a ham radio operator as am I, and did all kinds of antenna erection/maintenance/disassembly work.) He made a flyer that was the antithesis of everything we’ve been taught: he had pictures of balloons, some clip art, lots of exclamation points… the works for cheesy, used-car-lot-salesman sorta flyers. He then made 100 photocopies of this on AstroBrite hot pink paper (even worse!). And then he went to the ham radio stores in the area (Seattle) and shoved all 100 of these under the windshield wipers of cars in the parking lots to advertise his services.

If ever there was a campaign that seemed doomed to failure, this was it.

Some months later, Steve gets a call from someone. The caller was from the Washington State Department of Transportation. All those little low power radio transmitters by the side of the road (“Tune your radio to 1610 AM for road conditions”) needed maintenance, most of which was related to the antennas. Someone had gotten Steve’s flyer from someone else and had faxed it to someone at the WA State DOT. Steve never did find out whom… but Steve ended up scoring a $2M contract to provide transmitter maintenance services across the entire state. His marketing message from all of this: “Do something. It doesn’t matter so much what, but you’ve gotta do something!”

Just because you should really go do something, however, doesn’t mean you should try for the lowest possible thing and expect it to work. I am particularly fond of writing articles as a way of drumming up business for several reasons:

  • Writing is What I Do. Even though I’ve been doing it for so long that I am now capable of committing the perfect crime because I no longer have fingerprints, the joy has not fled. I like being able to pull things out of my head, out of pure air, and make them work. The hours are good and there’s no heavy lifting. Getting people to read the stuff I’ve written is kinda validating.
  • Writing articles tends to pay money up front. And fairly good money as a rule: depending on the venue, I make as much as $1/word, but even at, oh, $.10-.20/word, with a little practice, you can be bashing articles out pretty quickly. Some people have a knack for this and come into it with their engines already revved up, meaning they’re cranking articles out without a lot of warmup.
  • Writing articles has a cumulative effect. You can build a following. Editors will phone you up out of the blue and ask you to write for them. You can even end up doing a column, which means predictable work (and checks!). Depending on what you’re writing about, you can possibly turn your articles into a book, or at least use the articles as a way to publicize other things you’ve written or are doing. And you can peddle things to your fan base.

All this adds up to PR that you get paid for doing and people will say “Thank you” when you turn this stuff in. That’s everything and a Hershey bar in my book.

If you haven’t already written magazine articles and you want to find out more about it, you should pick up a copy of an incredibly complete book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles by Sheree Bykofsky, Jennifer Basye Sander, and Lynne Rominger. It’s an extensively detailed book and, despite one really egregious copyediting error (where around page 60 there’s a reference to “Citizen Caine“–shudder!), it’s a first-rate book about how to write articles and get them published.

If you have already written articles and you’re interested in a specific idea to pursue, here’s something that will give you some really good PR.  I’m the head of a Society for Technical Communication (STC) committee that’s looking for people to write articles about the technical communications profession that are based on survey results we’re gathering about how people view badly-written instructions. There will be survey data available to use to back up a number of statements about the frustrations consumers experience when they pay money for a product and the documentation is hard to use. These articles will be written for people who aren’t technical communicators, but for industry magazines, trade journals, and so on. You get to keep the money, you get your name out there, and you get the credit. Most of what you need to do is to mention the STC and fit in a quote or two about them and technical communication.

I’ll be able to give you data to work with and additional guidelines within a few months from now, but if this interests you, please let me know. I’m particularly interested in finding people with any of the following skill sets:

  • Healthcare: Remote Care Management, Medical Travel, Telemedicine, Wellness, and Aging-in-place
  • Green Technology: Energy Conservation, Alternative Energy Micro-systems, and Water Conservation
  • Alternative Financing: Privatization, Public-Private Partnerships (P3s), Social Enterprises

If any of this grabs you, ping me.  But even if it doesn’t, you should go write articles, do public speaking, and get referrals. You’ll be that much more likely to get work.  Or even try advertising, cold calls, and mail stuff about what you can do. Do something. It’s better than doing nothing at all.

A website for public speakers

There’s a website that I’ve signed up on, called It’s aimed at professional speakers of all stripes. It’s very interesting. I’m enjoying being outside my normal venue. I’d really like to try my hand at more speaking, particularly more well-paid speaking.

I run the SIG within the site for authors, which is the most popular SIG on the whole site. Well, well, well, I tapped into something there!

If you’re interested in hanging out online with speakers and people interested in speaking, sign up. Feel free to ping connect with me when you get there.

You need to promote yourself!

There is no job security.

It’s always been an illusion. Even if you’ve been a captive somewhere for 15 years, you love your job, your boss loves you, and all seems well, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a job tomorrow. The company may outsource everything, get sold, close down, or simply decide to do something else and ~poof~ you’re unemployed.

This happened at my last captive job when the company needed cash to do something-or-other and about 40 people, including Yours Truly, were laid off. (I may have been the only one who was ecstatic about getting laid off. The company gave a really good layoff package and I knew I had more work waiting for me. Nobody else seemed particularly happy, especially the people who’d been there for a decade.)

Right now the competition for any captive job is fierce. When I say “fierce,” I mean fierce. A typical job in a major metro area posted on Monster or Dice can easily generate several hundred resumes in response. It is not unheard of for a particularly sweet job at a sought-after employer to generate as many as a thousand responses. At that rate, you’re not likely to ever hear back from the employer even to acknowledge that they got your resume. As for scoring an interview, forget it.

Whatever the job, you can assume that everyone’s resume will show experience, education, training, relevant jobs, and the like. But what makes you special in the eyes of the person doing the screening? Yes, you’re unique, just like everybody else, so you need to do something to buff your own halo so that your resume stands out above the crowd. That’s where self-promotion comes in.

You need to promote yourself before you need to promote yourself

If you find yourself suddenly unemployed, it’s hard to suddenly have that secret sauce to make your resume special. That work starts before you’re looking for that next job.

Most freelance writers, consultants, and independents are used to promoting themselves in varying ways and with varying degrees of success, and why not? It’s their bread and butter: if no-one knows about them, they don’t get hired. But most captive employees tend towards the “steady as she goes” state, figuring that they’re employed and that if they need to get another job, they’ll apply for it and get it. Self-promotion and marketing, most captives figure, is something they can leave to the independents. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t true these days. (I’m not even completely sure how true it’s ever been, even in times of relative prosperity.)

Promoting yourself can be almost anything that gets you noticed in a positive way. You can network at conferences and through professional organizations, use social media to raise your visibility, write magazine articles, blog, send out a free newsletter, do speeches, teach classes, and dozens of other things. You don’t have to do it every waking moment, but you should put in some time promoting yourself in some way a few hours every week.

Whether you work captive or contract, you need to stand out from the crowd. Good self-promotion gets your name out there and gives you resume credits that add to your prominence. Even in a field as small as a dozen resumes, good self-promotion can easily knock out half your competition right from the start.

(As I add posts about self-promotion, I’ll add links here, just to make your life easier.)

Klingon technical writers

The following lovely little nugget is from Documentia, a tech writing firm in Ontario. #2, 6, 12, and 16 are my personal faves.

Klingon Technical Writers
The top 16 things likely to be overheard if you had Klingon technical writers working on your documentation team:

  1. Klingons do not sit in meetings, we take what we want and kill anyone who opposes us!
  2. Certification?! Taking your head and putting it on a pike in my office is all the certification I need!
  3. I will return to the homeworld and my documentation will arise triumphant in the STC Documentation Gauntlet, leaving all others drowning in their own dangling modifiers. It will be glorious!!
  4. Not returning my review copies by the agreed deadline is a declaration of war. Indeed, it is a good day to die.
  5. These software specifications are for the weak and timid!!
  6. This version of Word is a piece of GAGH! I need the latest version of Framemaker if I am to do battle with this manual.
  7. You cannot really appreciate Dilbert unless you’ve read it in the original Klingon.
  8. Indentation?! I will show you how to indent when I indent your skull!
  9. What is this talk of “drafts”? Klingons do not make document “drafts”. Our documents escape, leaving a bloody trail of SMEs in its wake!
  10. Passive voice is a sign of weakness. Its elimination will be quick.
  11. Proofreading? Klingons do not proofread. Our documents are purified with pain-sticks which cleanses the documents of impurities.
  12. I have challenged the entire Marketing and R&D team to a Bat-Leh contest! They will not concern us again.
  13. A TRUE Klingon warrior riddles his document with bullets, leaving it to beg for mercy.
  14. By changing the layout of my manual, you have challenged the honor of my family. Prepare to die!
  15. You question the worthiness of my grammar? I should kill you where you stand!
  16. Our users will know fear and cower before our suite of manuals and online help! Ship it! Ship it and let them flee like the dogs they are!

“Relentlessly cheerful”

I was reading stuff I’d written about myself in the late 90s and one of the things I’d described myself as was “relentlessly cheerful.” I don’t think that’s entirely true anymore–I can do “grouchy” really well when I get impatient with idiots who are wasting my life–but it’s still largely true. About 20 years ago, my ex-wife gave me a cartoon that shows a man looking happily at a glass with a couple tablespoons of water in it thinking “Hey, my glass is 1/32 full!” And this is still an accurate description: My life works on optimism. Things happen serendipitously. Things manifest when I need them. The universe frequently lines up to make the shot easier for me. I win things. All of these things happen as a result of my belief that they will and that they should.

I’d tried to explain this to people for a number of years, because it really is the best way to go about things. My dear, departed friend Sharma said once that she had decided working with counselling patients that the optimists tended to see things through rose-colored glasses. The pessimists see things exactly as they are, which is to say, pretty crappy. Life is hard, “nasty, brutish, and short,” as the saying goes. Optimists tend to be happier and more resilient to life’s slings and arrows. She was trying to help the pessimists be more optimistic, which kinda boiled down to getting them to relax and be in a bit of denial about the reality they saw so clearly.

There’s a book by Martin Seligman that’s been out for about 20 years that can help people get to this point. It’s called “Learned Optimism” and the whole focus of the book is teaching you how to do these things for yourself. Most of the book shows you that you deserve to have what you want.

But there’s another element to this that I like sharing. A magazine article I read years ago described “power thinking,” a phrase that’s horribly overused if you care to look at Google to try to find the article I read. The gist of the article is a key to optimism and serendipity: you can’t close things off. You have to give the universe room to work. If, for example, you say “I’d like to buy a new car, but I can’t afford the payments,” you’ve already beaten yourself. Maybe you can’t afford the payments and maybe you can, but the presumption of the second half is that because you can’t afford the payments that life’s ready to stop and no further discussion is warranted. Very simply, the author said, when you find yourself saying “I want A, but B,” you should change the “but” to an “and,” so the sentence reads “I want A and B.” The assumption in the second sentence is that the second half is merely an obstacle or a condition that must be dealt with, but it’s not the final obstacle that Stops All Further Movement. From this, you might say “Well, if I can’t afford a payment, how can I work out a deal to obtain a car without having to make a big payment or even any payment? Can I trade something? Can I get a car and then sell advertising space on it? Can I share a car with someone else?” A wide variety of other possibilities may spring to mind when you say “and.” I like this technique a lot. I encourage everyone to try it out on their next three problems.

Failing any of this, you might just want to hope for the best. Things can and do happen. And be sure to buy at least one state lottery or Powerball ticket in the next week. It’s only a buck and wotthehell?