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18 posts from April 2005

Fiscal Year-End

We put the wrap on another fiscal year at Wiley today. Over the course of the last 12 months, our group managed to put out some very successful titles including The Art of Intrusion and Hacking Windows XP. While the numbers on these and many other books came together quite nicely, I’m making this post for another reason…

I’m very fortunate to work with some of the best talent in this industry. I’m surrounded by a team of acquisitions editors, development editors, marketing managers and a support staff that is second to none. You’ve already heard from a few of these people in earlier “guest appearance” posts and you’ll hear from more in the future.

I just wanted to take a moment and thank the entire team. Everyone worked extremely hard this year and I’m very grateful for your efforts and the results. Here’s to a great FY05 and an even better FY06!

Author Tip: Get to Know Your Editor

Your editor is your spokesperson to the rest of the publishing company. How well do you know your editor?

What level of communication works best for you and your editor? If you prefer e-mail and they prefer phone conversations, you better figure out a workable compromise. Trust plays a big part in all this. If there can be a strong author-editor line of trust, both parties will be more comfortable dealing with less formal communication. It’s a two-way street, of course, which is why I didn’t simply say, “the author needs to earn the editor’s trust.” You’ve got to have enough of a dialog before the contract is signed to feel the editor has your best interests in mind as well.

What if you run into a problem? What if you’re about to miss a deadline? Unfortunately, many authors choose to sit on bad news, partly because it’s human nature. Resist that temptation. The earlier you give your editor a heads-up about a possible issue, the more time the two of you have to troubleshoot the problem and take evasive action.

What if there’s a promotion tied to your title and the availability date is critical? First of all, your editor should tell you about that as soon as they know. Assuming they’ve done their job, it’s important for you to alert your editor if you anticipate any problems meeting the deadlines you’ve been given. Keep in mind that accounts will drop your book from a promotion in a heartbeat if the date is missed. That can mean the difference between getting 4-5 or more copies (per store) into a large chain vs. only having 1 or 2 copies in the chain’s top stores.

Missing a due date is a serious problem, but not the end of the world. I say that reluctantly because I don’t want to encourage authors to start blowing off dates. Give yourself and your editor the best chance to succeed though, and keep an open line of communication.

P.S. – Don’t let your editor bully you into delivery dates you can’t possibly hit. Take a realistic look at your schedule and make sure you know what you’re committing to. If the editor truly values you and wants you involved in the project, they’ll find a way to make the schedule work for you. Every publisher would prefer a well-written book a bit later to a poorly written one that’s “turned in on time.”

Writing a Book Proposal

Each publisher seems to have a slightly different take on what’s required for a good book proposal. Most of the key elements are the same, but some are emphasized more than others. I think the best way to learn how to write a great proposal is to study ones written by others. If you’re already in discussions with a publisher/editor, ask them for a sample of one they really like. More importantly, ask them why they really like the sample.

If you’re just starting out though, take a look at what Jeremy Wright has posted. He was kind enough to make his entire proposal document available for review. Here are the three things I like most about what he’s done:

  1. First, it’s crystal clear that he took the time to do the job right. He says he spent 20 hours on it and I don’t doubt it. If there’s one immutable law I’ve learned in this business, it’s this: “Authors who cut corners on the proposal are highly likely to cut the same corners on the manuscript.”
  2. Four pages of competitive analysis! Again, another sign that he’s done his homework. Note that he’s not just spewing facts (e.g., title, author, ISBN, etc.) He’s going to the trouble of formulating opinions of the all the existing titles. The rightmost column of his competitive analysis table is the most important. It explains why his book is different. Remember your audience when you to this though… Jeremy cites an upcoming Wiley book from Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. I don’t buy into Jeremy’s claim that the Wiley book “will be strongly focused on form over function”, but I respect him making the observation.
  3. Marketing and promotional plans. Excellent. An author who really understands that this isn’t exclusively the job of the publisher. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, author platform has never been more important than it is today. If you’ve got a platform to work from, be sure to spell it out in the proposal.

Are there any other authors out there who are willing to post their proposal documents so that others can learn from them?

Radar O’Reilly

No, this isn’t about the character from M*A*S*H. It’s about a fairly new blog set up by Tim O’Reilly & Co. I’ve added it to my list of must-read blogs and you probably should too.

A recent post is titled “Book Sales as a Technology Trend Indicator.” It’s a great summary of the computer book market, sales trends over the past couple of years, what’s hot today, etc. It’s important to note, as a reader already commented there, that the data presented is more of a “lagging indicator” than a “leading indicator.” Nevertheless, it’s all good information.

Here are a few of the more interesting points:

  1. The market appears to have hit bottom. A chart is used to show how 2004 sales were down vs. 2003, but that 2005’s sales (through March) are mapping well to 2004’s levels.
  2. Hot topics include Photoshop Elements, iPod, Sharepoint and Filemaker. Topics heading the other direction include Mac OS X, Dreamweaver and Flash, although Tim points out that each of these are now on older versions and are likely to pick up again with new releases.
  3. Red Hat was a topic called out separately. As Tim rightfully notes, the book market changed dramatically when Red Hat first released Fedora. He says the Red Hat book market is down 29% while Linux as a whole is up 32%. I can vouch for the fact that Red Hat books aren’t as dominant anymore, and that our general Linux Bible and our SuSE Linux Bible are both doing quite well now. I guess that in an odd way, we have Red Hat to thank for that.

Author Tip: Know the Competition

I spend a good deal of time each week reading through author proposals. It’s disappointing to see a well thought-out proposal that has almost no information on the existing competition. I’m not just talking about a simple list of titles, authors and ISBNs – just about every proposal has that skeletal information covering “what” is out there. I’m more interested in the “how” and “why”, as in “how do those books stack up to what you’re proposing” and “why does the world need another book on X?”

With all the resources available today, it’s inexcusable to submit a proposal without detailed information on the competition and why your book will be different/better. Go to one of the online retailers and read the reviews. What are customers saying about each of the existing books? Are there any clues to what might be missing, an approach that might be better, etc.? What sort of overall ranking do the books have? (For what it’s worth, it’s often hard to get excited about a computer book on Amazon unless the ranking is in the hundreds rather than the thousands.) Are any existing books hitting bestseller lists? If not, is it already an overcrowded market? I’m basically looking to see if an author did their homework and has formulated an opinion about the state of the topic.

That’s all well and good if you’re proposing a book on a topic with existing competition. What if there are no books out there on the product/technology? That’s even better, but it might require a bit more research. For example, how certain are you that no books are in the works? Have you searched Amazon, and even Google? Don’t stop there. Stop by each of the major publisher’s websites and search for the topic. If you come across a book or two in the works, list them in your proposal. If the competing book is in an existing series, you can at least assume it will have a similar approach and elements to current books in that series. Use that information, as well as anything you can uncover about the author’s previous work, to explain how your book is better.

Finally, “competition” isn’t limited to books. You might be proposing the first book-length work on the topic, but what information already exists online, for example? If there’s plenty of material freely available on the web, how does your book either add to that or replace it? It’s been said that “Google is our biggest competitor.” When you write your proposal, keep in mind all the existing online resources available to your prospective reader – if you can create an approach and provide rich enough content to cause someone to pay money for your book rather than simply Googling for the solution, you’re probably on to something.