Long Read, Publishing a book in a year, Teaching Stories

Publishing a book in a year: February

So, you want to write a book. And so, it’s time to put pen to paper and get writing. Right? Wrong!

Before you write the book you need to find a publisher. And to find a publisher you need a proposal (and maybe a book chapter).

Experience has taught me this. The first book I wrote I just wrote it. I had no idea of the publisher, or the target audience, or how many copies might sell. I just wrote it. It felt good. I really enjoyed the writing process. And the 5 people who have read it said lovely things about it. But it remains unpublished.

I learnt a valuable lesson right there. Before you write your book you need a brief. Articulating the brief in the form of a book proposal is really important. It helps to define what the book is about. Who is it for? Who is it not for? What is the competition? Why are you the best person to write it?

So, this month we will be submitting a book proposal to a publisher. At the end of this article is that proposal. But before we get there, I thought it might be helpful to breakdown the proposal form. And explain my thinking behind each section. This is just based on my experience, publishing in engineering, so please don’t see it as universal, as you can see from last month, I have had more failures than success’s. But I also hope it’s helpful.

Publisher

Before you fill in a proposal you need to decide who you want to publish with? There are many things to consider here, size of the publisher, they’re area of expertise in relation to the book, do they publish in this area (a good sign), do they publish a competitor book (may not be a good sign). Finding the right publisher is tough. But it is important to look around and then take the time to tailor your proposal to them. Do they have a standard template? In which case you need to use it. Do they have their own advice page (many do) in which case you need to read it and if you are planning to do the many things they tell you not to do either don’t do them (harder than it sounds), or find another publisher.

For our book we will start with the Institute of Structural Engineers. The book will be aimed at Structural Engineers, so it’s a good fit. And we have now built up a good relationship with them. However, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure we will be successful as the book may be a little outside their comfort zone (some days it feels outside of mine) so we have some other backup plans as well.

Proposed title

I am terrible at writing titles. I rarely get them right at the proposal stage, and I always change them before the book is published. All of that is to say if the title isn’t right, don’t panic, you can fix it. Right now, this is your elevator pitch. But you have 5 seconds, not two minutes. So, tell me what is the book about. In less than ten words. We are going for Regenerative Design for Structural Engineers. Boring, I know. But it hopefully says what it is on the tin. Later on, we might change the name. But right now, for our proposed publisher, this feels a good fit. Of course, if we look for another publisher, we might tweak it.

Author name/s

So, you are obviously writing the book. But do you want to share the experience? There are lots of really good reasons for including different authors.

You can bring in different expertise – I am just finishing a book on Reliability Based Design. It’s a book I wanted to write for years, but it was only when I realised I had a team with the right expertise that I was able to make it a reality.

You can share the work – Writing a book is a lot of work, by bringing in others, you can share the workload. This comes with a note of caution. Not all authors write their chapters in a timely manner. Some of the effort you have saved in writing will need to be redirected into managing, chasing, haranguing and sometimes writing it anyway!

You can share the kudos – Writing a book is a big deal. By inviting other people to do it with you, you also get to share the kudos with them. You may want to consider this carefully. This is a great opportunity to look beyond the normal suspects and find people who could both do an excellent job and would really value the opportunity. I try and carefully consider the diversity of my team and ensure a variety of voices and people to share the kudos with.

You can get different perspectives – If you write the book alone – the book is likely to contain your views. By having multiple authors, you can widen that perspective. For our book on Reliability Based Design I asked Alix Dietzel to write a chapter on ethics. Alix is not an engineer but a lecturer in Politics. However, I asked her to join the team because I wanted that different perspective on what is a tricky conversation. I’d love to think I consider the diversity of my team when writing a proposal – but in honesty this is more a growing edge for me. There is also another dimension to consider. What happens if you don’t agree. For our previous book on Conceptual Design of Buildings there was a lot of experience that was brought to the content. As a result, we didn’t always agree. Rather than resolve this tension, we were honest about it and made it clear that different authors had written different chapters, hopefully making a virtue of this tension (which many graduates experience when working in industry). This approach won’t always work however so it’s good to think about.

For our new books the authors will be just Oli and I. This goes against much of what I’ve said above. I’m not sure I am the best person for the job (Oli is much better qualified than I am) and we are certainly not a diverse team as two white, middle-class, middle-aged men. So why are we approaching it like this? The answer is simple. Urgency. We feel this book needs to be written now. The need is urgent. And so, we are going fast. We have both committed time, resource and mental energy to getting it done. Punk rock style. The final author list may grow. People may join us. But we don’t want to delay the publication. We hope it will be the first book on this subject, but not the best. That others will write better, more considered, slower, books after ours. But right now, we need to start the conversation.

Previous experience

This is your chance to explain why you are the perfect person to write the book. A mini and highly tailored CV so to speak. Once you’ve written a book or two it’s easy to point to those, but for your first book you will need to consider pointing to other forms of writing. Magazine articles, blogs, academic papers etc. Try and create a portfolio of work that matches with the book style. And if you don’t have much to point to, maybe start smaller. Write a few blog posts, send in magazine articles (I once published a running article in “Like the Wind” for example).

Timescale (approx.)

Publishers have targets and workflows. So, part of their question will be can we deliver the book? Be honest. Explain where the risks are. And also say how flexible you are. We want to publish the book in a year. If the publisher can’t work on it (editing/layouts/pagination etc etc) until 2024 then it is not going to work. Which is OK.

Synopsis

In a short paragraph what is your book about. Don’t just write what first comes in to your head (although I must confess I have done exactly that), but work on it. Make each word count. Make it clear and understandable. Get some feedback from friends and colleagues. Make sure nothing is lost in translation. Tweak it. Try and make it shorter. Clearer. In honesty this is the hardest part of the form. Allow a few blocks of 20 minutes to keep going over it. But also at some point you just have to send it – after all it’s not the finished book.

High-level chapter overview

Before you write a book you need a plan. I’m a visual person. So I like to draw diagrams. Lots of them. I start by dumping everything I think should be in the book onto a large page of paper. Next I group it into ‘chapters’. For each chapter I then draw a circle in the middle of the page with an arrow and I start to add the content. The aim is to ensure the story is logical and to minimise forward referencing. It takes a few iterations. I do the same for the chapters. Sometimes I draw large complicated diagrams that show multiple ways the structure can work. Often my books aren’t obviously linear, and yet I need to plan out the order the words appear on the pages. So at some point it needs to become linear (even if it can be read in a variety of ways). This process takes time. A good chunk of time. I went on a training course where I was told that you should spend as much time planning the writing as you do writing it. Whilst I have never done a time in motion study to see if that is true, when you have a good plan laid out the writing comes easily.

So first plan the book.

Then write out the list of chapters and provide a couple of sentences to say what each chapter will be about. And if you have multiple authors working on the book say who is writing which chapter. And include them in this process (I must confess I tend to write the chapter outlines first and then ask the authors if they seem OK? We then revise. On reflection that seems quite controlling!)

And then don’t be surprised when the proposal comes back that the publishers says yes, but you need to add a chapter on XXX. That has happened to me every time.

Anticipated word, image and table count (very approx. is fine)

It’s hard to know before you start how long your book will be. I now estimate my next book based on my last one. So, for ‘Conceptual Design of Buildings’ the answers were roughly:

  • Pages – 269
  • Words –90,000
  • Figures – 125
  • Photos – 37
  • Tables – 39
  • Calculation Pages – 33

Now unless you are writing a structural engineering design guide it is unlikely your numbers will be the same. So, before I wrote my first book I reviewed the competition. I didn’t just look at the content, I also looked at how many pages, words and pictures they had. I even tried to analyse the sentence length and review the number of long words to see how readable they were. This is a good way to get a sense of how long your books should be. 

Intended readership

Who is your book for? Who is it really for? And, despite our hope that all of humanity will want to read it (this was my mistake on my first, unpublished, book), who will actually read it. This is an important question. Its important for the publisher, they want to know if they will be able to sell enough copies, but it is also important for you. Before you write the book you need to work this out and write the book for them. Pick someone. Draw a picture if you like. They may or may not be a real person (it’s up to you) but you should have some shared language and experience with them. This will help you understand the level at which you want to write the book. My new book is for structural engineers. These are my people. I get them. I hope I know how they think. So when I write, I am writing for them. I am trying to answer the questions they’ll have. I know of their deep love for Lego and how much they enjoy building flatpack furniture!

Brief competitor analysis

It’s time to look at what else is out there. Who will your book sit next to on the shelf? If there are no other books in the space maybe that is a good thing (no competition) but maybe it’s a bad thing (no one is interested in this space). Ideally, there should be books that are similar that you can share a shelf with, but at the same time your book is unique and it’s uniqueness is important. There are lots of books on regenerative design for example. I am trying to read many of them. There aren’t any specifically for structural engineers. This may be good (I have found a niche market) or bad (structural engineers aren’t interested – after all as far as I know there are no crocheting for structural engineers books, so why does this topic need a book for structural engineers).

Suggestions for Steering Group

Finally, if your book is going to be published who should review it. I think there are some important dimensions here.

Who is your target audience? Find at least one of them to review – their question is do I get it and is it relevant to me.

Who are the experts in this field? Find a few of them to review it – their question is do I agree with this and what can you do to improve it (as I said earlier – I was asked to add extra chapters).

Both of these perspectives will help you make the book better. Reflect on their comments. Don’t be defensive (once you get over the initial gut punch of this isn’t perfect!) and try and incorporate their suggestions as much as possible.

Read James’ book proposal here.

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