How to find a publisher for your tech book

How to find a publisher for your tech book

Writing a technical book takes more than a good idea. You need to know a bit about how the publishing industry works.

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You've got an idea for a technical book—congratulations! Like a hiking the Appalachian trail, or learning to cook a soufflé, writing a book is one of those things that people talk about, but never take beyond the idea stage. That makes sense, because the failure rate is pretty high. Making it real involves putting your idea in front of a publisher, and finding out whether it's good enough to become a book. That step is scary enough, but the lack of information about how to do it complicates matters.

If you want to work with a traditional publisher, you'll need to get your book in front of them and hopefully start on the path to publication. I'm the Managing Editor at the Pragmatic Bookshelf, so I see proposals all the time, as well as helping authors to craft good ones. Some are good, others are bad, but I often see proposals that just aren't right for Pragmatic. I'll help you with the process of finding the right publisher, and how to get your idea noticed.

Identify your target

Your first step is to figure out which publisher is the a good fit for your idea. To start, think about the publishers that you buy books from, and that you enjoy. The odds are pretty good that your book will appeal to people like you, so starting with your favorites makes for a pretty good short list. If you don't have much of a book collection, you can visit a bookstore, or take a look on Amazon. Make a list of a handful of publishers that you personally like to start with.

Next, winnow your prospects. Although most technical publishers look alike from a distance, they often have distinctive audiences. Some publishers go for broadly popular topics, such as C++ or Java. Your book on Elixir may not be a good fit for that publisher. If your prospective book is about teaching programming to kids, you probably don't want to go with the traditional academic publisher.

Once you've identified a few targets, do some more research into the publishers' catalogs, either on their own site, or on Amazon. See what books they have that are similar to your idea. If they have a book that's identical, or nearly so, you'll have a tough time convincing them to sign yours. That doesn't necessarily mean you should drop that publisher from your list. You can make some changes to your proposal to differentiate it from the existing book: target a different audience, or a different skill level. Maybe the existing book is outdated, and you could focus on new approaches to the technology. Make your proposal into a book that complements the existing one, rather than competes.

If your target publisher has no books that are similar, that can be a good sign, or a very bad one. Sometimes publishers choose not to publish on specific technologies, either because they don't believe their audience is interested, or they've had trouble with that technology in the past. New languages and libraries pop up all the time, and publishers have to make informed guesses about which will appeal to their readers. Their assessment may not be the same as yours. Their decision might be final, or they might be waiting for the right proposal. The only way to know is to propose and find out.

Work your network

Identifying a publisher is the first step; now you need to make contact. Unfortunately, publishing is still about who you know, more than what you know. The person you want to know is an acquisitions editor, the editor whose job is to find new markets, authors, and proposals. If you know someone who has connections with a publisher, ask for an introduction to an acquisitions editor. These editors often specialize in particular subject areas, particularly at larger publishers, but you don't need to find the right one yourself. They're usually happy to connect you with the correct person.

Sometimes you can find an acquisitions editor at a technical conference, especially one where the publisher is a sponsor, and has a booth. Even if there's not an acquisitions editor on site at the time, the staff at the booth can put you in touch with one. If conferences aren't your thing, you'll need to work your network to get an introduction. Use LinkedIn, or your informal contacts, to get in touch with an editor.

For smaller publishers, you may find acquisitions editors listed on the company website, with contact information if you're lucky. If not, search for the publisher's name on Twitter, and see if you can turn up their editors. You might be nervous about trying to reach out to a stranger over social media to show them your book, but don't worry about it. Making contact is what acquisitions editors do. The worst-case result is they ignore you.

Once you've made contact, the acquisitions editor will assist you with the next steps. They may have some feedback on your proposal right away, or they may want you to flesh it out according to their guidelines before they'll consider it. After you've put in the effort to find an acquisitions editor, listen to their advice. They know their system better than you do.

If all else fails

If you can't find an acquisitions editor to contact, the publisher almost certainly has a blind proposal alias, usually of the form proposals@[publisher].com. Check the web site for instructions on what to send to a proposal alias; some publishers have specific requirements. Follow these instructions. If you don't, you have a good chance of your proposal getting thrown out before anybody looks at it. If you have questions, or aren't sure what the publisher wants, you'll need to try again to find an editor to talk to, because the proposal alias is not the place to get questions answered. Put together what they've asked for (which is a topic for a separate article), send it in, and hope for the best.

And ... wait

No matter how you've gotten in touch with a publisher, you'll probably have to wait. If you submitted to the proposals alias, it's going to take a while before somebody does anything with that proposal, especially at a larger company. Even if you've found an acquisitions editor to work with, you're probably one of many prospects she's working with simultaneously, so you might not get rapid responses. Almost all publishers have a committee that decides on which proposals to accept, so even if your proposal is awesome and ready to go, you'll still need to wait for the committee to meet and discuss it. You might be waiting several weeks, or even a month before you hear anything.

After a couple of weeks, it's fine to check back in with the editor to see if they need any more information. You want to be polite in this e-mail; if they haven't answered because they're swamped with proposals, being pushy isn't going to get you to the front of the line. It's possible that some publishers will never respond at all instead of sending a rejection notice, but that's uncommon. There's not a lot to do at this point other than be patient. Of course, if it's been months and nobody's returning your e-mails, you're free to approach a different publisher or consider self-publishing.

Good luck

If this process seems somewhat scattered and unscientific, you're right; it is. Getting published depends on being in the right place, at the right time, talking to the right person, and hoping they're in the right mood. You can't control all of those variables, but having a better knowledge of how the industry works, and what publishers are looking for, can help you optimize the ones you can control.

Finding a publisher is one step in a lengthy process. You need to refine your idea and create the proposal, as well as other considerations. At SeaGL this year I presented an introduction to the entire process. Check out the video for more detailed information.

About the author

Brian MacDonald - Brian MacDonald is Managing Editor at the Pragmatic Bookshelf. Over the last 20 years in tech publishing, he's been an editor, author, and occasional speaker and trainer. He currently spends a lot of his time talking to new authors about how they can best present their ideas. You can follow him on Twitter at @bmac_editor.