Proposing a Book


When proposing a book, please consider whether it is a good fit for O'Reilly. While we look at every single proposal carefully, barely 10% pass the initial review process to receive more detailed consideration, and less than 1% survive to become books. You can increase your chance of success by familiarizing yourself with our series to see the kinds of books we publish and where your book might fit.

We've long been known for publishing books for working developers and system administrators--that's the heart of our brand -- but in recent years, we've begun publishing books for designers, office users, and consumers. Because the books with animals on the covers have become identified with the hardcore "geek" audience we've served for so long, books for other audiences tend to have other branding, and a unique approach.

While we do publish "one off" books, most of our books fit into a series of some kind. For example, our "Definitive Guides" cover a technology from soup to nuts. Our "In a Nutshell" series contains no-nonsense quick references that typically condense information that might be found in multiple separate volumes. Our "Learning" books provide an introduction to technologies we might cover in more depth in other animal books (Perl and Java are good examples here). "Head First" books are tutorials using a unique teaching methodology developed by Kathy Sierra. Our "Cookbooks" offers modular recipes for intermediate to advanced developers. In almost all cases, we look for authors that can contribute hands-on material, not superficial overviews. Even our "Essentials" series, which provides overviews of new technologies, goes into enough depth to give a real technology evaluation. "Missing Manuals" are comprehensive tutorial/reference books for end users. "Annoyances" focus on solutions to irritating problems in widely used program. "Hacks" teach clever ways to use programs or to master a set of real world tasks by combining programs in unexpected ways.

The best proposals are written by people who understand the O'Reilly approach and book list (i.e., catalog of books). Proposals tailored to our publishing philosophy are the most likely to be accepted. Your proposal should explain why you want to write for O'Reilly and why we're the most appropriate publisher. We expect our authors to be familiar with our existing books. If you're not, go buy some and read them. You can also check out our books via our online subscription service, Safari. 14-day free trials are available.

So You Want to Write a Book, which we created as a pamphlet for would-be authors but now publish as a web document, provides useful background not only on what we expect in a proposal but also the terms of our contract, and our overall publishing process.

As noted above, we accept very few of the thousands of unsolicited ("over the transom") proposals we receive each year. However, many of our best books and best authors have come to us this way. If your proposal is well written, we'll consider you as an author for other books on our wish list. If you're an experienced author who can learn something quickly and write well about it, tell us about your areas of interest and expertise. We may have some projects for you.

In our professional publishing program for developers and system administrators, we're most likely to publish books on topics with these characteristics:

  • Covers standards-based technology (or is so widely used as to be a de-facto standard).
  • Shows grassroots adoption and a community surrounding it.
  • Has hard problems for users that can be solved by better documentation.
  • Is not already covered by a lot of existing books.
  • Has an author with real expertise.
  • Covers new technologies that might not be on most people's radar but are on the brink of wide adoption or importance.

In our consumer and graphics publishing program, we're most likely to publish books that:

  • Cover widely used programs or tasks
  • Are authoritative (with more substance than most of what's on the market) but are still accessible, readable, and fun
  • Fill a hole in the market, either because of the topic they cover or the approach they take.

We're NOT looking for:

  • Books that overlap too heavily with our existing books.
  • Books on proprietary technologies that don't have a huge user base.
  • Books on miniscule (i.e., personal or nascent) products, even if they are open source.
  • Books on topics that have dismal sales despite quality books being available. (If you're addressing a topic where good books have sold dismally in the past (for instance, LISP, LaTeX, or Web-based training), you have a much higher threshold to clear with your proposal. Convince us why there is a revival of interest in your topic, or why your approach to a deadly topic will provoke interest nonetheless.)
  • Books that have been rejected by other publishers, in most cases.

Regardless of the topic, we consider the proposal itself to be highly indicative of the author's competence.

Good proposals:

  • Are well-written.
  • Demonstrate that you've researched the market and identified a meaningful need.
  • Are submitted in a timely manner. If you approach us about a topic and then fail to provide a proposal, we're not interested in hounding you.
  • Include attachments in plain text, HTML, or MS-Word format. (Zip large attachments. But don't send us huge attachments until they are requested.)
  • Use meaningful names, not simply "bookproposal.doc".
  • Use meaningful email subjects, such as "Java Cookbook by Ian Darwin."
  • Aren't over-hyped. Very few book ideas are original. If there are no books on the topic, it is usually because there is no market for one.
  • Specify a page count and approximate schedule.
  • Stay focused on one topic. We like focus.

Here are some sure-fire ways to have your proposal rejected (we're not joking; these come from actual proposals):

  • Confuse us with another publisher (we love that).
  • Include plenty of spelling and grammatical errors (misspell "O'Reilly" at every opportunity).
  • Omit the topic of your proposal and be as vague as possible regarding what you want to write about.
  • Send a proposal along with a request to sign an NDA before reading it. Or better yet, send the NDA before sending the proposal.
  • Propose a series of books, preferably a ten-volume series.
  • Admit to or demonstrate a poor command of English.
  • Provide an outline with no detail (chapter headings only).
  • Propose a 1,200-page book without justification, or propose an all-encompassing book that would have to be 3,000 pages or be superficial.
  • Include lots of banalities such as "Technology is always evolving."
  • Omit your qualifications. Assume you are so famous we'll know you by smell alone. (Unless you are that famous!)
  • Rehash what can be found in other documentation with no effort.
  • Overlap heavily with a book you've already written for another publisher.
  • Misuse technological terminology. It's "object-oriented," not "object-orientated."
  • Approach the topic so that it is comprehensible only to someone who already knows the topic.
  • Propose a book with 10 authors.

All joking aside, the last thing we'd want to do is discourage you from contacting us. There are great proposals for types of books that we haven't anticipated--but they do have to be really interesting to get our attention. The outliers on our list usually cover bleeding-edge technologies or issues with high social and technological impact. But it's also true that some topics get on our radar because we get repeated proposals (or requests from readers, who send mail to the proposals address telling us they want the book but don't want to write it!)

We always welcome book proposals from people who are the clear leaders in their field and have something important to say. Being a leader means that you are an active participant in the community, that people recognize and rely on your expertise, and that you know the technology well enough to write a valuable book on the subject. We avoid authors who are non-native English speakers unless they are the premier experts in the field. However, our partners abroad publish original books in German, French, Japanese, and other languages.

Unlike some publishers, we welcome proposals from authors without agents. In fact, we get many of our best proposals directly from authors. If you are an agent, you'd be wise to limit your submissions to those likely to fit the above characteristics and encourage your authors to tailor proposals accordingly.

If we don't accept your proposal, don't be discouraged. Often we already have books planned on the subject or existing books that overlap heavily. Some technologies don't merit the investment because they are too old, too new, won't gain traction in the marketplace, or are outside our editorial focus. The marketplace evolves and existing authors sometimes falter, so we may reject a proposal today but contact you six months later.

Regardless, we don't have an immutable list of books to publish nor will we publish a book on every hot trend. We prefer to spot trends before they are even on other publishers' radar. To that end, we recognize that great technology books require great technologists with the pulse of the developer, designer or end-user community. We work with both experienced authors and first-timers who have an important story to tell. We look forward to hearing your story. . . .