You can do it!

An old maxim states that “Every person’s life is worth a novel.” (This has been ascribed to Flaubert, which is strange because he had one of the most boring lives on record.) I hold a corollary that goes, “Every engineer’s career is worth a technical book.” Well, I’m exaggerating. But apply it to yourself—think about whether you may be one of those people who have a unique perspective to offer.

Those may all be indications that you have something valuable to offer the world.

Why write a book?

In the technical world, books are written more for prestige and the love of one’s subject than for money. Our sales are still decent even during the general downtown in the publishing industry, and we can proudly say that—unlike many publishers—we actually earn enough to pay royalties to nearly all our authors after they earn back their advance.

But still, it would be hard to prove that the royalties compensate you for the time you took to write a book. Nearly all our authors could make more money by putting the same number of hours into consulting.

Yet writing a book, especially for O’Reilly Media, is still worth the effort. It gives you a great deal of credibility and recognition. It may well help you get your next promotion, job, consulting contract, or teaching engagement. And it often leads to offers for speaking engagements, journal articles, and other things which also don’t pay much but which enhance your image in the computing community. Our authors are in demand.

One of my authors, who wrote a book right after getting his Bachelor’s degree, said its publication led to many job offers. He eventually became one of the founders of a Web development firm. Another author worked for a computer consulting firm when he wrote his book for me; the exposure that it gave his ideas led to enough sales of his software to let him start his own company and hire nine staff.

One author not only saw his consulting business in embedded systems skyrocket, as a result of publishing his book with us, but he was invited to be a special community representative on a major industry standards committee. Other authors have told me about bringing their books to job interviews.

In brief, you might choose to write a book because:

And in all these cases, you will be most effective by passing through the rigorous O’Reilly process of getting your proposal accepted, working with one of our editors, and benefiting from our professional production and marketing.

We rarely work with professional writers who cast around for lucrative subjects; instead, we choose active practitioners of an art who have a fondness for a particular technology. This could well be a different technology from the one they use at work every day: for instance, one of my Perl authors programmed only in Java at his job, and someone who wrote about open source software got most of his income as a Windows NT professional.

Creative ideas

The most obvious way to come up with a book idea is to find a new product, a language, utility, or library. Many of our Nutshell books, as well as other books in the computer field, describe a clearly delimited topic like that.

But in this crowded book market, look also for new ways to structure your experience that aren’t obvious. For instance, the collection of tools and strategies that form TCP/IP Network Administration didn’t stand out as an obvious topic—it may now, but not when the project started. Similarly, there’s no single topic behind Running Linux. Its collection of topics was made very carefully by the authors, who drew on long experience with Linux and the needs of its users. Both of these books are very popular—they’ve clearly met a need.

So think about the things you do with your computer, the context in which you do them, and the potential audience for a book. That’s what we’ll do when we evaluate your proposal. Also stress what’s exciting about the topic you’re discussing—why would people want to read about it, if they aren’t being forced by their employer?

When you undertake to educate other people, you have to be good at conveying both a simple overview and the hard-core technical details. This is a wide gap that requires some talent; some people are good at doing one but not the other. We look for authors who are like the ancient Greek character Daedalus, who could tunnel about in the labyrinthine depths of the system, but also soar above it and take in everything at a glance.


O’Reilly Media is becoming an international publisher. Do you feel more comfortable writing in another language We have editors in Köln, Beijing, and Tokyo who may be able to work with you. And if we think your book appeals to a broad market, we’ll translate it into English and other languages.

So what am I interested in?

It’s only fair to give you some idea of the topics I’m looking for. But the best ones often come without my anticipating them, so don’t be afraid to write with yours.

A lot of new technologies are putting forth shoots. Usually, O’Reilly is not interested in a topic until it has practical uses. Books about theory and standards are not of interest in themselves—we want theory and standards to be applied to real life. For instance, it took a long time to find a practical book on embedded programming, but I’m impressed with what we finally came up with.

O’Reilly’s hottest topics change from year to year. One year it might be web performance, another year it’s big data, and then DevOps or analytics. Languages are usually of interest, but the hot language seems to be different every 6 months. I think new interfaces are going to become critical: for instance, voice, AR/VR, bots, and affective computing.

O’Reilly Media is broadening into more and more computing topics over the years. Just make sure that you have something practical to say—that some group of users will have better lives because of your book.

(Thanks to generous volunteers, this page was translated into Hindi on March 6, 2018.)

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