Chapter 1: So You Want to Write a Book?

A Guide for New Authors


Overview of the Publication Process
A Word About Ourselves
Our Major Book Series
What Topics Are We Interested In?

If you have ever thought, even half seriously, that you would like to write a practical book about computers or computer software, then you probably can. Moreover, given the proper editorial and publishing support, you can probably write a successful book. It's all a matter of doing the right things in the right order. And it helps a great deal if you have a publisher willing to do everything in its power to help you along. That is how we at O'Reilly understand our job.

The first thing that must happen, however, is for us to hear from you--your wild and crazy idea, or your carefully analyzed proposal. We may tell you that what you want to do is indeed crazy, or that your detailed analysis is off the mark. But then again, we may say, "Let's see what we can make of this thing." In which case, together we are off and running.

Overview of the Publication Process

But first things first. Here's an overview of the publication process, from beginning to end:

  • You send an email query to asking if we're interested in a book on such and such a topic. Your query need not be a full proposal, but it should give enough of a sense of the book you want to write and your relevant skills and experience that we'll be intrigued enough to ask for a full proposal. Before sending a query, you should review our catalog or website to be sure that we don't already have a book on the topic you propose. If we do, but you think you have a new angle on an old topic, be sure to explain why your approach will be unique and valuable. Be sure to include the topic in the subject line. We hate queries and proposals labeled simply "Book Proposal."

  • We let you know whether or not we're interested in seeing a full proposal. Be warned that this may take a few weeks. We get thousands of unsolicited queries and proposals a year, and sometimes they get backed up. We'd like to be able to get back to you in a few days, but sometimes it takes quite a bit longer.

  • You submit a book proposal to us. Your proposal should contain an outline of the book, a discussion of who will buy the book and why, an analysis of any competing books showing why yours fills a real need in the market, and a tentative schedule. If you have not previously published a book, we would also like to receive a writing sample from you, though in some cases the proposal itself will serve as an adequate sample. For more information on what constitutes a good proposal, see Chapter Two of this document.

  • We consider your proposal, and perhaps talk it over with others who understand your topic. At this point, we might reach a simple decision, or else we might enter into a series of exchanges with you, asking for further information, seeking your opinion about problematic aspects of the book, inviting your response to criticisms, and so on. Eventually, this all leads to a go/no-go decision.

  • Having decided to run with the book, we sit down together with you and work out a contract. This might involve payment of an advance against royalties, and also places certain schedule constraints upon both of us. We like to think of ourselves as more flexible than other publishers--able to to accommodate the peculiar needs and conditions of a particular author or project. We always look forward to sitting down with you and "working it out." That being said, we want authors who are committed to getting the book out as planned. Some topics are more time-critical than others, and in some cases, missing the schedule will make the book unpublishable.

  • You are now ready to begin writing. You will probably use Microsoft Word, FrameMaker, or XML, although we can work with manuscripts in certain other formats as well. (Internally, we convert most books to FrameMaker before publication.) See Chapter Two for details on the accepted formats and for infomation on getting the appropriate templates from us. A particular editor will have been assigned to your book, and as you complete the first draft of each chapter, you forward it to your editor. He or she in turn will, as needed, provide editorial guidance, and you will be expected to revise the chapters you submit until the editor agrees that they are acceptable. In some cases, if the individual chapters you submit appear to be exceptionally well written, the primary editorial work may wait until the first draft of the entire manuscript is completed.

  • We then subject your book to a thorough editorial and technical review, calling upon experts in the field, as well as our own staff. In many cases, we may begin the technical review on a chapter-by-chapter basis before the first draft is complete; in other cases, we may wait for a complete draft before sending it out for review. It is then your responsibility to revise the book in accordance with the critical commentary you receive. There is much room here for some back-and-forth discussion, and many ways in which we can be of assistance.

  • When you have completed your revision, the book goes back to the editor. There may be some further, more rapid iterations of the edit/revision process now, but the hope is that we will soon have a book ready to go into production.

  • Our production and design people prepare the book for printing. This includes converting the material to its final format, putting it in the appropriate interior design, bringing the text and graphics together, final copy editing, and proofreading. You will have an opportunity to review the book before we send it to press.

  • Meanwhile, our marketing people have been getting out the word about an exciting new O'Reilly title. They will have contacted you early in the development process and asked you to fill out an author questionnaire, which asks you not only for information about you and your book, but also for your ideas about how and to whom we ought to market it. Now you will see the fruits of that dialog. There will be notice in our own catalogs and newsletters, together with reviews in trade journals and many other forms of advertisement. We may ask you to write articles promoting your book on our website, attend or even speak at trade shows or conferences, and participate in other promotional activities. Your willingness and ability to do these things can be an important factor in the success of your book.

  • All that remains, we fervently hope, is a long and successful sales run for your book! This sales run will be punctuated, most likely, by periodic revisions that will keep it at the forefront of current technology. If you are documenting a fast-moving technology, you might want to start planning immediately for how you will keep the book up to date.

A Word About Ourselves

If you have seen many of our books and catalogs, or have had dealings with us before, you will know that O'Reilly doesn't quite fit the usual publisher's mold. For one thing, few of us come from a traditional publishing background; we started as a small group of writers and engineers working primarily in Unix research and development environments. For another, our editors are "computer people"--remaining thoroughly immersed in the technical community. It is almost certain that your particular editor will be exercising the software you are writing about--if not testing your examples, or even rooting around in the source code.

This leads naturally to a certain "feel" of our books. We would like our readers to learn in the same way we ourselves have learned most effectively: by having the opportunity to look over the shoulder of an expert who is sitting at a terminal and carefully, patiently explaining how something works. And so we like our books to flow in a rather informal, helpful, and friendly manner. This is, after all, not incompatible with rigor and thoroughness. Expertise, yes; obscurantism, no.

This same style infects our own organizational manner. While our company has grown with extraordinary rapidity over the past twenty years, the "rules" governing our interactions with each other and with authors remain informal. It's just a question of focusing on the task at hand and working together to do whatever has to be done.

Our Major Book Series

Before submitting a proposal, it is worth familiarizing yourself with some of our major series, or types of books. These include:

"Animal" Books

To many of our readers, all of our books are "animal books"--after all, In a Nutshell references, Pocket Guides, Cookbooks, and Essentials titles all have animals on the cover--but internally, we think of the animal books as the the classic, in-depth O'Reilly books on specific topics. Our goal for each of these books is for it to be the definitive work on the program in question. Think Sendmail, DNS and Bind, or Programming Perl. Sometimes the title includes the words "Definitive Guide" or "Definitive Reference", and sometimes it will include a word like "Mastering," "Programming", or "Running", but it will usually include, in big letters on the cover, the name of the technology animal the book aims to tame.

If a topic is complex enough, we might approach it with several volumes -- for example, consider Learning Perl, Programming Perl, and Advanced Perl Programming. But this is the exception rather than the rule. More often, if the topic deserves more than one book, it is likely to be by way of "drill down" rather than by the addition of some audience-level modifier to the title. So, for example, we continued to expand in the Perl market by publishing ever more specific books, such as Mastering Regular Expressions, Perl and LWP, or Mastering Algorithms with Perl.

So if we've already published what seems to be the definitive book in an area, think about whether there's a more specific topic inside the main area. (Of course, you have to think whether there's enough meat for a book, and enough demand for people to buy it.) When we started publishing in the mid-80's, our competitors did top level books on "Unix," but we did books on sed, awk, vi, and a host of other individual Unix utilities. We like to get below the buzzwords that the marketroids know, and instead find the ones that are meaningful to people "in the know."

We're taking this same approach to the technology topics of today. If you're a working programmer or system administrator, you know which tools matter to you--and which ones you wish there was a book on.

While in most cases, you want to think of an animal book being about a specific program or tool, such that the animal on the book cover could become associated with the program in the same way that the Camel has become identified with Perl, it's also possible for there to be a book aimed at a particular job role. So, for example, the Armadillo on Aeleen Frisch's classic Essential System Administration refers not to any specific program but to the role of the sys admin.

(And of course, for historical reasons, because we published them before we got our branding act together, some books that are "animal books" in style and approach don't have animals on the cover at all. For example, our Linux books have wild west themes, and our security books have woodcuts of various types of security objects. But they share all the other characteristics of animal books.)

Animal books are expected to be definitive. Our primary audience is already very technical. They're programmers and system administrators or students aiming for one of those careers. They're tinkerers; they want the inside information that lets them learn new technologies quickly. They want the straight dope, with no condescension and no fluff. They have high standards for quality and practicality, and they send us scathing criticism when they don't find those virtues in one of our books. On the other hand, they are loyal, and when our books are good, they love them and tell us so. When our authors attend conferences and tradeshows, they can sometimes be treated like rock stars.

"In a Nutshell" References

Our very first book was a quick reference, Unix in a Nutshell. We've followed with similar books for most of the interesting technologies over the last ten years: Linux, Java, Perl, Windows 95, 98 and XP, Web Design, Visual Basic, C#, Oracle, and many others. These books are a keystone of our technical publishing program, containing the material that experienced users will want to refer to again and again throughout their career.

In a Nutshell books sport just the head of the animal, reminding you that the intent of this series is an abbreviated, quick-reference format.

We're always looking for new "In a Nutshell" books covering interesting technologies. If what we're looking for isn't clear to you, get copies of Unix in a Nutshell, Java in a Nutshell, and either Web Design in a Nutshell or Windows XP in a Nutshell and ask yourself what they have in common. Then think about how to apply those principles to a new area.

Pocket Guides and Pocket References

Some topics can benefit from an even more abbreviated treatment than an "In a Nutshell." Pocket References like the HTML Pocket Reference contain just the syntax for things that even experienced users still need to look up. Pocket Guides, on the other hand, are "books for smart people in a hurry." Assume that you've got a really competent user. Assemble all the stuff they might find useful in transferring their skills to a new area. The Mac OS X Pocket Guide and the Word Pocket Guide are good examples of this format. The Pocket Reference or Pocket Guide for a technology usually sports the same animal as the book that we consider the principal book on that technology, relying on its small pocket size for differentiation.


Sometimes, a topic isn't ready for the definitive treatment. The subject is moving fast, and we want to get out an "early look" to help our readers evaluate the technology. These books have an animal, but the title ends with the word "Essentials", as in .Net Framework Essentials or IPv6 Essentials. These books are intended to be replaced later by a larger, more definitive work, usually by the same author. (We do, however, have books that use the word "Essential" in some other way, as in Essential System Administration, a book that is among the more comprehensive of all those we publish. Sorry for the confusion, but sometimes we don't think ahead far enough about overlap between titles, and an unexpectedly successful book leads to follow-on books, and thus a new "series".)

Digital Studio

Because graphics and multimedia topics require a different type of layout and treatment than programming books, we created a separate series for design, digital photography, and digital video books. The Digital Studio series explores the tools that occupy the modern artist, designer, or filmmaker's studio, such as Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. Learning Web Design and Designing with JavaScript are good examples of this format.

The Missing Manuals

Published in conjunction with David Pogue, the Missing Manuals are O'Reilly's "consumer" line. Packed with in-depth tips and tricks, they nonetheless start at the beginning and walk users through every feature of a software package or operating system. With David Pogue's classic sense of humor and approachable teaching style, they are a fun way to learn. For consumer software products, this is "the book that should have been in the box."(TM) Mac OS X: The Missing Manual is the book to emulate if you want to write for this series.


While the animal on the cover tells you that this is an authoritative, in-depth treatment for developers or sys admins, the "Cookbook" in the title tells you that this is a reference book in a special "Problem/Solution/Discussion" format. Designed to explicate common programming or system administration techniques, these books are filled with hundreds of specific code sequences that you can effectively cut and paste into your own programs. The Perl Cookbook is a good example of this type of book. Cookbooks are one of our most successful new types of book, and we are interested in developing Cookbooks for most of our major topics.

Hacks and Power Tools

The difference between computer "hackers" and ordinary users is that hackers are always trying something new, something we may not yet know how to do, whether it is for solving an urgent problem, feeling the joy of pushing boundaries, or just, as the poet Wallace Stevens once said, "searching the possible for its possibleness." We experiment, we try things. We ask our friends what works for them when we hit a snag. We have fun with this wonderfully complex toolmaking tool, the computer.

We've always wanted to publish books that capture the essence of the hacker experience. Our animal books embody all the knowledge of a single expert. But we've always wanted a format that made it easy to present lots of small but useful tidbits--tips, tricks, and dare we say, hacks. Our first crack at this problem came in 1993, when Tim edited and co-authored a book entitled Unix Power Tools. Tim conceived it in the early days of the World Wide Web as a kind of "hypertext in print" that would make it possible to present a collection of tips harvested from the Net and from a community of experts, in a way that was both easy to search and fun to explore.

Unix Power Tools went on to sell several hundred thousand copies, and we've heard from many readers that it's their all-time favorite computer book. Nevertheless, despite several attempts, we've never followed it up with more books in the same format. We just couldn't find authors who had the time or encyclopedic depth of knowledge to pull off a massive tome containing thousands of tips and tools.

Recently though, Dale Dougherty and Rael Dornfest independently reinvented a book with a very similar format. It started out with the idea for a focused collection of "Google hacks" - advanced search techniques, scripts for driving the Google API and tips from search experts. We soon realized that the format they were working on was very similar to Unix Power Tools, but by choosing narrower topics, they were able to make the projects more manageable. What's more, with the Web now widespread, the books could actually be developed as a collaborative authoring project using a shared private weblog.

We're interested in doing more "tips and tricks" books along the line of Unix Power Tools and Google Hacks, Mac OS X Hacks and Linux Server Hacks. Check them out and see if you have any ideas. The Hacks books are smaller, on more narrowly focused topics, and they always contain 100 hacks. We wanted a title that didn't lead people to expect another 1000-page encyclopedia with a software CD. And besides, we wanted to do our small bit to reclaim the term "hacker" from those who've redefined it to mean "unauthorized intruder" rather than "computer equivalent of a great jazz improvisationist."

Community Press

Sometimes, a developer community has created a body of online documentation that's well-worth putting into print. Often, as with the Linux Network Administrator's Guide or Using Samba, we work with the community to expand and improve their documentation and publish it as an animal book. But in other cases, such as the MySQL Reference Manual, the online reference documentation makes a great book in and of itself, without added O'Reilly editorial work. In such cases, we'll publish the documentation as part of the Community Press series.

What Topics Are We Interested In?

We continue to be interested in publishing new books in almost all of the "core" areas we are known for -- Internet and open source technologies such as Linux, Perl, MySQL, PHP, Python, Apache, as well as Java, Oracle, networking and security, and system administration topics in general. Some of the newer areas we've been working in include XML and web services, Microsoft's programming and sys admin technologies, including .Net, and graphics and multimedia. If you are at all clued-in to what we publish, you're likely to think of us if you have a book to propose in any of these areas.

We'll always want more good books on these topics. In general, we want proposals that are tightly focused; we need to know who's going to read the book and why they need it. We are not interested in "melting pot" books that throw a bunch of unrelated topics between two covers and pretend that there's some relation between them. (On the other hand, if you can really show how to integrate two different areas in a compelling way, we're definitely interested.) And we're not interested in books that rehash "the same old stuff."

We are interested in filling out our line of Cookbooks and developing collections of tips and tricks for the Hacks series. Because these are new series, there are opportunities to revisit some of our "old" topic areas with a fresh approach. In particular, we'd love good "Web Power Tools" and "Network Administration Power Tools" proposals.

In addition, there are some topic areas we are interested in that you are not as likely to associate with O'Reilly. These include:

Mac OS X

OK, we lied. You probably do think of us for Mac OS X, since we've quickly become the dominant publisher in the space, but we're still looking for more proposals in areas like AppleScript and Mac networking. We're also mindful of the fact that Apple is doing a lot of innovation right now, and we want your help to stay on top of all the coolness that's coming out of Cupertino.

Digital Photography, Digital Video, and Design

When Perl programmers start making mock "Switcher" commercials at our Open Source Convention, we know that digital video has hit our core audience dead center. We've gotta be there. This is also the future. And of course, once you start messing with photo and video, you'd better learn the principles of effective design for rich media.

Consumer Applications and Operating Systems

O'Reilly is not just for hackers any more. With the success of the Missing Manuals, we're looking to raise the sophistication of the average user. But even beyond the Missing Manuals, we are looking to provide Hacks, Pocket References, and Pocket Guides that will take users of consumer operating systems and applications to a new level of expertise. After all, almost everyone has to use Word and Excel at least some of the time. Knowing how to get the most out of these programs is the best revenge. We're particularly interested in developing some advanced books on Excel and Access. And, in addition, we're looking at some books on web sites that are so widely used that they can be considered "killer apps" in and of themselves.

Adobe's developer and design/dev technologies

Adobe's engagement platform continues to grow, comprising AIR, Flash, Flex, ActionScript, Acrobat, and even the Creative Suite. Many of these tools and technologies also work in conjunction with open-source standards and tools; we're interested in how developers and the growing legions of designers doing IA and development are using Adobe's products to build rich media solutions. Our titles in the Adobe Developer Library address many topics in this area, but we're always looking for more perspectives.

Information Design and User Experience

Getting the presentation layer right is critical to building successful products and services; *design* itself has a whole new meaning (Experience design? Interface design? Service design?) well beyond the make-it-look-neat mandates of a decade ago. As well, *how* we consider data and information and present it to a world of interconnected users--thus making it possible for a social web to discover innovative (or just fun and intriguing) uses for that data--is the next wave in computing. What do you have to teach the rest of the world about this growing space?

Wireless Networking

Networking has always been a cornerstone of our publishing program; Unix administrators became network administrators by reading our books on the topic. We're interested in most solid technical networking proposals, but we're particularly interested in wireless development. We want to write about the hard part of the networking infrastructure. Wireless security is also a key topic. We also want to think about the user interface implications of wireless, including new concepts like "rendezvous" and the way that peer-to-peer and wireless are going to change user expectations of how applications ought to work.

Web Services

Our Web program has covered the major protocols and topics (CGI, HTTP, HTML, and so forth), but it seems to us that we're entering an exciting new area of development: web services. We're interested in the next level, the way applications are distributed and delivered across the net. Of course, XML-RPC and SOAP, with their associated technologies, are already overhyped, but new developments are taking place every day. We believe that we really are engaged in building "an Internet operating system", and that the ways that people build services out of distributed components and data sources is going to be a major new focus of the computer industry. We expect to see more Napster-scale surprises in the future, as people figure out how to put the Internet to new uses and build new rich-interface clients with Internet back ends.


Our security program started with Computer Security Basics in 1991. We've built a whole security program since then. As the Internet becomes fundamental to all business operations, and as new developments like peer-to-peer, web services and wireless come on to the scene, security is more important than ever. Sensitive data traveling over public or shared lines is a key part of most businesses, an area that causes many sleepless nights to system administrators and businessmen. We want to tell our readers how to protect their data in these powerful but dangerous environments.

Software Engineering

We're entertaining proposals for books on UML, Design Patterns, XP, Aspect-Oriented Programming, and so forth. We're also seeking to strengthen our line of C and C++ books, and we're specifically interested in proposals for a C++ Cookbook. We're also interested in programming books that go beyond just being a "how to" book, and that impart hard-won programming wisdom to newer programmers.

Bioinformatics and Other Applied Sciences

Bioinformatics is the application of computer power to problems in genomics and the life sciences. We believe that bioinformatics, cheminformatics, and other applied sciences (as well as underlying disciplines such as machine learning) are going to be one of the major growth areas for the computer industry in the 21st century. MIT talks about "the three Os: bio, info, nano." We do too.

Big Picture Technology, Social Impact, and Geek Culture

Technology is changing the world. Our goal is to document those changes not just with hands-on books for practitioners but with ones that help the general public to understand the implications of technology. This includes books like Database Nation, which serves as a wake-up call about "the death of privacy in the 21st century," The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a seminal work of the Open Source movement, and Free as in Freedom, a biography of Richard Stallman. We'd like to do selected additional books like these. Some of the titles we wish we'd published (but that went to other publishers, because we weren't actively pursuing them) include The Cluetrain Manifesto, Emergence, and Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

In addition to these single-author works, we've done a number of successful anthologies, such as Open Sources and Peer to Peer, which showcase key leaders, concepts, and projects in important new areas.

In addition to these serious works, we're potentially interested in "geek culture" titles like Smileys and User Friendly.

What We Don't Know

We know there are topics out there that, in spite of our editors' best efforts, some of you will know about before we do. Let us know what interests you, and why. Surprise us; we're insatiably curious about interesting new technologies.

Go back to Table of Contents.
Go on to Chapter 2.