In general, publishers prefer to work with people by email when they first meet them, as it saves time in the long run for everybody. (By the way, unless you know an acquisitions editor from previous experience, just send your proposal to the Acquisitions department at the publisher. They’ll make sure it gets routed to the appropriate people. The publisher’s website has information about making submissions.) Once you have a bibliography, you’ll be able to approach publishers directly, but it’s better to start by email. As such, you’ll need to start your book proposal with a cover letter that introduces you to the publisher, pitches a brief idea of the book you want to do, and sells the publisher on your ability to complete the project in a timely fashion.
The documentation plan (discussed later) gives a detailed explanation of the book, but as part of the cover letter, you need to come up with a brief statement of what the book is about. For example, all of these are probably adequate to get the editor to read more of your proposal if they have a niche for your book:
- This book introduces the reader to the undocumented features of Windows 7. It will have a conversational style aimed at the intermediate user, with graduated steps to increase their skill level so that they’re able to take advantage of the more powerful undocumented features.
- This book teaches gardeners how to identify useful weeds and wild plants, and cultivate them as companion plants, or food and ornamentation crops. There will be a reference section in the latter half of the book with line drawings of many of the more common useful wild plants in North America.
- This book is a tutorial on how to program using the new Adobe AIR language, with an emphasis on experienced developers who are learning this to build AIR applets. The book will contain extensive examples and exercises, and will have links to a website of sample code and a number of open-source and 3rd-party AIR development tools.
- This book is aimed at intermediate to advanced quilters who want to create their own patterns for their programmable sewing machines. The book will give a brief description of the general features currently available in programmable sewing machines and what to look for if you don’t already have one. It will then discuss how to create effective designs and how to avoid the eight common mistakes made when transferring a paper design to a programmable sewing machine. There will be a special section on creating very large designs and quilting patterns for programmable long-arm sewing machines.
Make sure that your idea is right for the publisher. You can’t sell books on computers to a publisher specializing in books on sailing… but you might sell a book that tells how to use computers when building wooden boats. Having an angle like this is often the best way to bridge the gap into a field of writing in which you have no direct experience.
Radiate your enthusiasm for the project. Refer to the writing samples and the resume items that show your depth of knowledge for this particular topic. Mention anything you’ve written on this subject before (and include it in your samples if at all possible). It’s very possible you’ll get asked for sample chapters of the book you’re proposing, so you may want to write something prior to submitting this. (This also has the advantage of helping you clear the cobwebs out and see what it’s like to start writing the book. It’s amazing how different the book you envision can be from the book you write.)
Also talk about things that you might have done with this topic or field, too. Be ready to sell your credentials here. It’s not enough to show the publisher that you have a good idea; you need them to know that you are the most qualified person to write this book.
Most importantly, you need to sell the publisher on your ability to meet your deadlines. Because of the topical nature of book publishing these days, it is extremely important for book publishers to get books out quickly. If your manuscript isn’t already finished–and it usually isn’t–you’ll need to produce it on a schedule that rarely allows for many delays. Depending on the type of book and the need for speed, the time between getting an idea approved and seeing the book on the streets can be as little as 7 months. Allowing 2 to 3 months for final editing, indexing, production, and printing, you’ll need to write the manuscript in 4 months. Fast work is 4 months from idea to street; really fast work is 3 months. Conversely, a “slow” book is one that takes 9 months or more. Large reference works may take this long, but the amount of time should be carefully documented and justified in the schedule.
It’s worth noting that publishers of types of non-fiction books that don’t deal with technology, politics, or current events—such as cooking, travel, or do-it-yourself books—have differing and more generous schedules than the computer book industry, but all publishers are speeding up their publishing cycles to be the first on the market. Any publisher will be impressed by your ability to turn out a book quickly. Nobody ever seems to complain about work done ahead of schedule.