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Writing a book proposal: A multihyphenate manual

Writing a book proposal: A multihyphenate manual

There are countless reasons why a person might want to write a book. Maybe there’s a new tech topic you want more of your colleagues to understand; perhaps you want to establish your reputation as an authority on a subject; maybe you just love to write. But before you can get your name in print and your thoughts into the world, you will, most likely, need to write a book proposal.

And while it may appear daunting, the world of publishing—especially on topics surrounding IT—is much more open than you might think. “The opportunity to be published in the tech world is like no other genre,” says Jonathan Gennick, an acquisitions editor at Manning Publications who has been reading book proposals for more than two decades. “Most editors are more than willing to talk to authors. We want to publish people.”

Below, we talked to Gennick about everything you need to get your book out into the world by starting in an important place: honing a concept and a book proposal.

First things first: What is a book proposal?

A book proposal is a well-curated document explaining what your book will be about is your most important tool in convincing an acquisitions or commissioning editor that your book is worth their time.

“Book proposals communicate to the editor the vision that the author has in their head,” Gennick says.

About 20 years ago, Gennick himself wanted to write a book about a certain tech topic he’d been interested in at the time. Having already published a book, he called up his editor and pitched her the idea. “Her response was that they already had another author writing that,” Gennick says. “I said OK and moved on.” About a year later, that book on the same topic came out, but it was a reference book — not at all the same kind of book Gennick had intended to write.

"Book proposals communicate to the editor the vision that the author has in their head."

“The editor had formed a vision in her head of what my book was going to be,” Gennick says. “If I had sent a proposal instead of just pitching her the idea, I think I would have been able to write the book I wanted to.”

What should be included in a book proposal? 

While novelist hopefuls almost always have to have a finished manuscript before even thinking about querying an agent or publisher, non-fiction writers only need an idea — albeit, a very well thought-out one, curated deliberately into a cohesive document.

Many technology-centric publishing houses have created guidelines for what they want proposals to look like, which can often be found on a page on their site (titled something along the lines of “Become an Author” or “Write With Us”). Some publishers even have forms that allow you to simply fill in the blanks, succinctly feeding the editors exactly what they’re looking for.

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If you’re submitting to a publishing house that offers that kind of assistance, “take those instructions seriously,” Gennick says. Submitting a sloppy proposal or one that falls outside of their protocols is a surefire way to have your idea passed over.

In the case that your prospective publisher does not provide any guidelines, there are some general things all book proposals should include:

1. The book’s working title and subtitle, if applicable 

This may change through the writing process, but a clear title helps draw in an editor. 

2. A topical overview

Give a brief summary of what your book is all about.

3. Importance and timeliness 

In order for a book to sell—or have much relevance to a reader—it needs to satisfy a need. It helps if it deals with a trending topic, growing in importance. Give yourself a leg up and thoroughly explain in your proposal what makes your book essential in today’s world. 

4. Why you're the best person to write this book

Tell the editor a little bit about yourself and, more importantly, what on your resume makes you an expert in this category. Be sure to include how the editors can find you online and get in touch with you.

5. The audience you'll be addressing

Is this book for developers who are just starting out in the field, or for engineers with PhDs and decades of experience? What information do you assume they already know? By the time they finish the book, what will your reader be able to do? 

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6. The competition (and how you'll differentiate)

Do some market research to find out what books have been published already that are similar to yours, and make it clear how yours will be different.

“It is fine to compete for a piece of the pie, and having a different angle or take on a topic can help to differentiate a book and garner a slice of the market,” Gennick says. “But if there are 20 books out there about the same thing, you don't want to write the twenty-first.” 

7. A chapter outline

Having a chapter breakdown prepared in your proposal will give editors confidence that you know where the book is going. Understandably, this is perhaps the most daunting part of writing a book proposal, but it is also one of the most vital. List out your chapter titles, in order, accompanied by section headings within those chapters.

“​​Having an outline says to the editor, here’s the entire book as I see it,” Gennick says, noting that in the writing process there is typically more leeway to make adjustments.

8. The nitty gritty

This is where you can dive into the details, such as:

  • How many pages do you think the book will be?
  • Will there be illustrations?
  • Will there be any indexes or appendixes?
  • How long will it take you to write it?

What are editors looking for while they read the proposals? 

While every editor is different, Gennick shared a few general qualities that help proposals stand out from the rest.

1. Enthusiasm for the topic

One turnoff for many editors is the question: “What kind of topics are you looking for?” Instead, they are more attracted to working with a writer who feels passionate about a certain idea. “I’m looking for excitement and enthusiasm to come through,” Gennick says, as a book typically ends up being better if the writer genuinely cares about the topic.

2. Proficient writing skills

Unless you’re writing a memoir or other lyrical prose, most non-fiction writers don’t need to be the next William Shakespeare. It is important, though, to be able to write competently. “I have to look for whether a person can write a book that’s engaging, exciting, and flows well and logically,” Gennick says. “That’s also a cost issue for us; it’s much less expensive if we don’t have to hire a copy editor for a really hefty edit. We can’t afford to rewrite every sentence.”

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3. Marketability

The goal of an acquisition editor is to find content that’s good and engaging—and will also sell. For Gennick at Manning, this often involves focusing on topics trending in the industry, or “something people are currently excited about, with any external force that would tend to motivate people to read the book,” he says.

4. A willingness to make it work

Even if your initial proposal isn’t quite a fit, many editors are willing to work with an enthusiastic, proficient writer to hone the topic and package it into a bankable book idea. “Always be open to the publisher’s advice,” he says. “If an author has experience and vision and something to say, then I want to be speaking with that author to help craft a good book.” 

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