Creating a cover letter for a publisher

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.

How to prepare a winning book proposal

The previous series of posts introduced you to the general ideas and concepts for being an author. Now I’m going to give you some details on an important piece of this: how to create a book proposal that gives you the best chance of selling your book idea to the publisher you want.

Preparing a winning book proposal is very similar to bidding on many other freelance documentation projects. In fact, as you read this, keep in mind that you’re going to be able to use this information to create documentation plans with the same information. (At the end of this series, I’ll also be providing a complete template you can use for creating book proposals and documentation plans.)

A book proposal is more than an outline and a schedule. A well-written proposal is a package of material that not only communicates how you intend to do the project, but also demonstrates your writing and organizational abilities. Moreover, a good proposal tells a prospective publisher that you have carefully planned all aspects of the book and that you’re ready to hit the ground running as soon as the book’s approved. And if you are one of several authors being considered for a specific project, presenting a solid, well-considered proposal can frequently be the deciding factor in getting the contract.

There are four parts to a book proposal:

Each of these pieces will be covered in the upcoming blog posts.

Repost: Revenge of the Technical Writer

For Friday, I’m reposting an excellent article titled Revenge of the Technical Writer from When Life Gave Me Lemons, I Made Lemonade… And Choked on the Pulp. It’s very apt.

This coming Monday, I’ll be starting a series on writing a winning book proposal. This picks up from the previous series on becoming an author. This series will show you how to develop a book proposal to pitch your ideas to a publisher. At the end of this, I’ll be providing you a template for creating book proposals.

Here’s the nicest part: You can also use this template for creating really boffo documentation plans as well with very minor changes. Trust me, you’ll love it.

Lessons in leadership from the Death Star

Several people were tweeting recently about Lessons in leadership from Design Star at the Leadership With Style site. (For those of you who don’t know, Design Star is kind of a cross between Trading Spaces and The Apprentice, but there’s no Donald Trump. Teams of interior designers go at it to compete for the best design.)
What prompted my post was that when I read the tweet about “Lessons in leadership from Design Star,” I misread it as “”Lessons in leadership from the Death Star.” This is arguably a much better show idea, so I wanted to put some ideas down in case there’s the potential for a Hollywood contract.
  1. There are no mistakes. Ever. If your employees know that they’d better not screw up about anything makes them that much sharper. “Apology accepted, Captain Needa!”
  2. There is no room for anything but complete and total loyalty. Expressing the slightest doubt about something you’ve said or done is completely unacceptable. “I find this lack of faith disturbing.”
  3. Once you’ve honed a fine edge of fear on your team, strop it to a high gloss by threatening them with even greater retribution from higher up the chain. “I hope so, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.”
  4. If people haven’t completely dropped the ball, it may be worth your effort just to kick butt and take names. They’ll get the message and will serve as a further example of the value of meeting your expectations to the other employees. “You may dispense with the pleasantries, Commander. I am here to put you back on schedule.”
  5. Package yourself as a personality, not a person. Go for the mystique. “You don’t know the power of the dark side!”
  6. Don’t delegate. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. “No. Leave them to me. I will deal with them myself.”
  7. Only negotiate from strength: it’s your way or the highway. “He will join us or die, my master.”
  8. Keep your word only to the extent that it suits you. “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”
  9. Always be ready to submit to the greater power of superiors you cannot directly buck. “What is thy bidding, my master?”
  10. On the other hand, never miss an opportunity to subvert and overthrow them to advance your own career. “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”
  11. Cultivate powerful minions who will be useful to you as you plot to move up the ladder. “Luke, you do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.”
  12. Mark your territory. “You should not have come back!”
  13. Gloating when you have the upper hand is acceptable (and very satisfying). “I have you now!”
  14. Remember that, at the end of the day, it’s all about you and you alone. “The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master.”
(Thanks to Larry Kunz for management tip #5.)

Add this clause to your next contract

C. Responsibilities of Consultant

Consultant shall observe and abide by all laws, rules, and regulations of the federal, state, city, and municipal governments (and subdivisions or agencies thereof) as they apply to the work described herein and shall assume all liability for loss by reason of neglect, error, mistake, omission, or violation of such laws, rules, and regulations.

Consultant agrees to marry the daughter/son (as appropriate) of the poorest member of the Engineer’s clan and to kill all enemies opposing the proposed project. Choice of weapons and means of burial are determined by the Owner in accordance to Section 25-A. This Agreement to indemnify and save harmless the Owner and the Engineers shall extend to include all expenses incidental to subsequent investigation, defense, and settlement of such claims (including claims to Workmen’s Compensation) of any person or corporation, including claims of the Owner, Engineer’s clan, or the agents or employees of each of them. Trophies taken from the bodies of the dead found at the site of the project or taken in field studies will remain property of the Owner.

Recommended reading list

There are several books on writing that you should add to your library:

The basics of contracts and what agents do. Required reading before you sign your name to a book contract. If you get interested, you should also buy the author’s Beyond the Bestseller, a clear look at the publishing industry and how it works.

The most commonly available source of information about publishers and magazines. There are profiles of hundreds of publishers and magazines, their focuses, and contact information. There are also profiles of a number of agents.

An exceptional guide (updated annually) for people looking for information about publishers and agents.

John Kremer’s book will excite you with the opportunities for marketing your books. Most of the ideas are ways to market your book over and above anything your publisher might be doing for you (though you can frequently get your publisher to do more by pitching ideas to them).

This book is a 12-week self-taught course on creativity. You can do it by yourself, but it really works best with a small study group both for the commitment and the interaction and insights. This is a vital component of examining and understanding your motivation prior to making a career change… and choosing to write books as a large part of your professional life is definitely a career change.

Although this is slightly tangential to being an author, this is an amazing book for the independent worker. Gerry makes his points by telling stories and creating aphorisms, maxims, and rules that stick with you, like “Rudy’s Rutabaga Rule: Once you solve your number-one problem, your number-two problem gets a promotion.” You’ll want to read this book every year.

An amazingly helpful book on how to keep clutter out of your life. Don Aslett runs a multi-million dollar cleaning organization and writes dozens of fun, approachable books on cleaning and organizing. This is a book no author should be without.

None of us are in this business for our health. This book gives you the basics on how to become rich and it won’t put you to sleep while you read it (unlike most other books of this kind).

Closing thoughts on becoming an author

Writing technical books sharpens all of your writing skills. Your ability to plan projects improves. Most authors notice that their writing speed increases dramatically the further they get into a book, usually to between 10-15 finished pages a day in the last stretch.

Writing technical books can be profitable. Furthermore, royalties are “found” income. You can expect royalties for several years after the book is published in addition to your current salary. Publishing a book also looks very good on the resume and impresses clients greatly.

Most importantly, writing technical books is fun. Although I like to joke that writing books is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer (“Because it feels so good when you stop!”), it’s been an incredibly valuable experience for me. When I got my promo copies from the publisher, I had a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Seeing my first book for sale in the bookstores was one of the great joys of my life, and it will likely be one of yours, too.