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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Choosing a Publisher, Part 1

Youíve got this brilliant idea for a book, you sat down last night and wrote an outline and a chapter, and now you feel ready to look for a publisher. There are many publishers out there, and itís hard to know where to start. Hereís what I tell my clients to do.

 

The first thing to do is take yourself to the local bookstore with a large section on your topic. (If there is no section for your topic, think againóif the distributors donít know where to shelve it, they canít sell it.) Bring a pad and pencil or your trusty computerized device, and be prepared to spend the whole afternoon.

 

Once youíve found your bookís future home, take a copy of each book on your subject with you to a nice table or chair, and settle in. If your subject is a product that is still in development for the first version, find a subject that is similar enough that you can draw some parallels.

 

First, make piles of the books youíve pulled out, sorted by publishers. On the backs (or sometimes the front) of most technical books, the publisher tells for what level of audience the book is meant. Your own opinion may be required for accurate grouping.

 

You may see that one publisher does only entry-level books, another only certification, and another focuses on development tools. Or it may be that some publishersí coverage is comprehensive. Make note of what each publisherís level seems to be. Be aware that some publishers have more than one imprint (several publishing companies that all report to the same parent company).

 

Next, reorganize your piles by audience level. (You can mix publishers now, pile-wise.) Look for gaps and make note (there might be fifteen books at the power user level, four at the developer level, and only one introduction). It could be that your store is just out of certain books, so look on the Internet later to make sure of your findings. Again, you are trying to determine where the publisherís focus is.

 

If you have a good sense of the audience for whom your book is to be written, thatís great, but donít get too fixated on it. It may be that the publisher already has some big-name author doing a book at your level. Or it could be that they want you to ratchet it up or down a notch to fit into their planned line. For this research, start with the pile of the books at your same target audience.

 

Take notes as you flip through the books. Document how many pages are in each book, whether the fonts are large and the leading (the space between the lines of text) is wide, and if the publisher bulked up a short book with thick paper. Books for developers, for instance, are expected to take up a certain amount of shelf space, so watch for this trick. You could take a few books with the same page count and stand them together, to see how common it is to bulk up with fat paper.

Also notice whether there are icons and other features of a series that you like or donít like. Usually, text is plopped into templates, and you donít get to pick which series template is used on your work. Series templates prescribe cover art, fonts, graphics, and page thickness. They can also limit the number of pages per book. So you might as well target a publisher that you think is suitably solemn (or not) for your topic.

 

Repeat this exercise with the books at other levels than your targeted audience. As you go, look for ways that your book will be different from the existing ones, assuming that publishers will revise for a new product version.

 

Books on previously uncovered topics are easier to get distributed if they fit into an existing series. Publishers starting a new series try to bring out several books at the same time, just to get shelf placement. One reason for this is that the salespeople from the publisher get about an hour to present their whole product lineóit could be a hundred books or more. The more ďbucketsĒ of information they can use to explain their product, the more products they can explain. So, as a first-time author, your best bet is to identify several existing series into which your book can fit. Once again, donít get too married to an ideaóthe publisher could think your book fits into a new series idea, or perhaps a series you didnít like. The more you know about what the publisher already produces, the more reasoned your arguments will be on this topic.

 

Thin the pile of books, identifying books that appeal to you. Make note of the publishers whose books youíve selected and why. Copy down Web site information, phone numbers, and, if itís listed, the name of the Acquisitions Editor, from each of the books youíve chosen. Also make note of the price, page count, physical size, and accompanying CD contents for each.

 

Once youíve identified a pile of books from various publishers whose series could accommodate your book, itís time to start reading. Read the table of contents and make a judgement about whether the book meets the promise of the title or series description. Look at the voice by reading bits here and there, notice how much white space is in the text, and see what sorts of interruptions are offered.

 

Take a break by watching other shoppers for a while, seeing what they read when they pick up a book. Are they heading straight for the index? Do they study the table of contents or the back cover? When they read text, do they seem to be reading figure captions and tables, maybe notes and warnings, but not actually settling into text? How much do they really look at before they tuck the book under their arm and head for the cashier? How many books do they seem to compare? Now look at your pile of books again, and see what sorts of elements you find compelling toward purchase.

Go ahead and read through the index of each book in your short stack of preferred books. Do it in context of the table of contents, and see if you can determine anything about the contents from only these two aspects. Compare the index from one book to those of the others. Is one longer than the others? Does one seem to go to a deeper level? Is there cross-referencing?

 

Next, pick a subject that is covered in each of your preferred books, and read the chapter that covers it in each. (This should not be an introductory chapter, but something that develops an idea to maturity.)

 

From this reading, you should be able to determine many things, including:

 

 

At this point, you should be able to see some trends. It would be really great if you could repeat this same study for another topic, so you could be sure to have a full-spectrum look at the books.

 

Now itís time to go home and look at the publisherís Web sites. Before you do, though, please reshelf all those books. If you saw my name in any of them, please reshelf at eye-level. J

 

In Choosing a Publisher, Part 2, Iíll discuss the online portion of your research.

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