So, you want to write a book19 Feb 2016
So, you want to write a book. Awesome! What follows here then, are the assorted ramblings of someone who has maybe written a few. Specifically, we will be talking about what it takes to get your first technical (and IT specifically) book out. Whilst geared towards first timers, maybe you’ll find some advice in here helpful on a second or third book as well.
Before we start
Take all of this with a grain of salt. Do some additional research, reach out and talk to folks (I’m almost always on twitter, skype, email, etc). Get a mentor (cough vSensei cough) and such. What follows here, are my experiences, across authoring or co-authoring 4 books and tech editing many others.
So you want to write a book?
Excellent! This first part of the post, will dig into a number of the most common questions. How hard is it, will I make money, who will publish me, and so on.
What is your motivation?
This one is huge, and it will come out in your writing. That is, if you are doing this as part of a publish or perish mandate, or ‘to get rich’, well… your writing will reflect this.
Not that it’s particularly bad, mind, just that, given the amount of time and energy you will be pouring into the book, examples, lab environment, diagrams, and other materials…
For me at least, I needed stronger stuff. Love what you do, love what you are writing about, and love the community of supporters, both current and future. Your writing will reflect this and you’ll experience much less fatigue / burn out.
What is the time investment?
This will vary from book to book and contract to contract. It will also vary based on how well you know the material, and a number of other factors.
In the four books I have been a part of, even as a co-author, you can count on it being a second job for the duration of the contract, + 3 months.
Yeah. This includes time spent writing, rewriting, editing, building and testing lab examples, then doing that again, building diagrams, examples, code, and more.
In the coediting sense, this could mean time waiting on getting access to the git repo you are all working from, or because of blocking tasks.
It is important to not underestimate this point. This will be A LOT of work and can(will) cause burnout, both in your personal and professional lives. Be careful not to burn too many bridges here, and discuss it with your family and workplace.
How much money will I make?
tl;dr - It’s not a lot, maybe a few tanks of gas, or if you’re really lucky, enough to refresh the homelab when you’ve finished.
The longer version is, you’ll be paid in royalties that are contingent upon book sales. The average, at the time I am writing this post, is 15%. There are some publishers, like Pragmatic bookshelf that offer as high as 50%.
There is some wiggle room on this point as well. That is, if you are fairly well known, or the book is going to be on a super hot topic, or some combination of the two, you can push for more. The flip side to that, is that you be ready for criticism as well.
There are also advances that are worth noting here. That is, an advance will be used as an incentive to help you meed deadlines, and is a check the publisher will write you, in ‘advance’ of having sold any copies of the book. It’s worth paying attention to the fact that your advance counts against your royalties. That is, you will not see a royalty check until you have sold enough books to meet your advance.
Publisher? Self Published?
This is a personal choice really. Having only worked with publishers, I can’t vote one way or the other.
What does(should) a publisher bring to the table?
Depending on the publisher, you should expect:
- An acquisition editor
- A project manager
- A development editor
- Technical Editors
- Marketing Support
- Sales Channels
So, in order:
This will likely be the first person you meet. They will take your idea, table of contents, and proposal, and give you some first pass feedback. Once that is solidified, they will then shop this proposal around internally at the publisher, as well as with experts in the field. Depending on the feedback received, they will either help you with the contract process, help you refine the proposal, or tell you ‘no’.
This is exactly what it says. Generally you meet your PM after the contract is in place. They will help decide deadlines and coordinate the various reviewers, and other launch activities.
Not every one write good. That’s where the developmental editor comes in. They will help you work on grammar, style, formatting, and importantly, helping decide what goes into and doesn’t fit in the book.
Depending on the publisher and how new the topic area is, they will either supply some technical editors for your project from a pool of industry experts, or ask you to help source some. That, or some combination of both.
The role of the technical editors is to make sure that your writing is factually correct, and that your code examples work, make sense, and illustrate the concepts clearly and concisely.
Because this can take a while, particularly if the examples are broken, or don’t work on the myriad of platforms out there, tech editors generally get your content before everyone else.
This is where promotions, discount codes, and all of that falls. The specific activities will be dependent on the project and publisher, but my include webinars, interviews, speaking engagements and so forth. Marketing support is also where you will request give-away copies for events.
It is worth noting here, that you are just as responsible for marketing, if not more so, than the publisher. You want it to be big? Get out there and hustle.
This has changed some in the days of Internet book sales, but the publisher will help coordinate various channels where the book can be sold. Be that academics or book stores, translations, and the like.
What to expect
The process varies some, and what follows is my experience in working with publishers. There are several great posts on self-publishing around.
- Table of Contents
- Market Research
Well, if you didn’t have an idea you wouldn’t be here, right? For me, I generally will chase a few criteria:
Are there books already? Do they cover the material? What about the docs and community? How difficult is $thing? Can I help simplify it?
This sort of happens at the same time as the first part. What would be great to see in a book about $thing, what things should be left out, what approach should we take? Instructional? Story telling? What audience do we want to approach? That is, do we want to dissect packet dumps or introduce them to the idea of a packet?
Keep a notebook, whiteboard, etherpad, goog doc, or something around to record this.
Table of Contents
Now that you have a bunch of things written down. Walk away from it for a while, then come back and try to fit it into a ToC. The ToC in this case, will look much like the outlines you did with roman numerals from highschool writing class. These will correspond to your chapters, and headings. It will also help you wrap your head around how the book should flow.
Yes, you should do this part before the ToC. For the most part, it’s an iterative process. Google, Amazon, Google scholar, the communities, vendor documentation, mailing list archives, and such, will all help feed into your understanding of what is out there and where your book fill fit. You will also want to understand addressable market size. Take the VCP for example, there are some thousands of VCP’s out there. If you are writing a study guide for the next version of the exam, that and then some is the addressable market.
Most publishers will either have a web form, or a .doc file, or combination of the two, into which you will put your ToC, as well as the market research and a few variations of elevator pitch about your book into. At this step, if working with a publisher, you will want to find or make a direct connection to an acquisition editor, rather than just deal with an email box.
If they like your proposal, you will start talking contracts at this stage. This is where you will negotiate copyright, royalties, first right of refusal, and deadlines.
While I have no experience in negotiating copyright, the last three points can be flexible, however, much like any negotiating, it can get hairy here. Do not be afraid to stand up for yourself, however.
A note on “first right of refusal”. There is a clause (15 or 16 in most contracts that I’ve worked on), where the publisher demands the first right of refusal for updates, editions, and most importantly, any other works you are considering. It is up to you how you want to handle this point, but it rubbed me the wrong way.
This is the easy part. Really. It’s long, you will waste many a night staying up to meet a deadline, but then, you have a passion for the material, so the words will generally flow.
If they don’t, see the section on self-confidence and motivation.
This is where things get really draining. Rewriting will generally start once you have the first 3 or 4 chapters in to the publisher. At that point the tech editors, and likely some of the other editors will have seen, and made comments or corrections on your manuscript. Basically, while trying to meet one deadline, for possibly the hardest sections of the book, you will now have to address the feedback in a timely fashion.
Feedback can hurt. It can be cutting, and hard to hear. Understand, however, that everyone in this process wants to see your book in the market, and are trying to help you write the best book possible.
So this isn’t exactly waiting, but, once you are done with writing and rewriting, there are a few more steps, where you will have to review proofs before they get sent off to print. You’ll need to be careful errors don’t creep in here, but there is largely nothing you can do to stop the presses at this point.
OH Snap! Your mom found your book on Amazon, with no prompting and called you to congratulate you. How good does that feel? You’re done, mostly. The marketing bits never end, but dammit, when that first physical copy shows up at the house, and you are holding it in your hand… that feels so good. Go celebrate!
Self Confidence & Motivation
You are the expert, and what you are doing is important.
Read that again, and maybe a few more times.
Both self-confidence and motivation are super critical to have along the way. After your fourth or fifth consecutive all-nighter, you will wonder why you ever wanted to do anything. At all. Ever. Depression will set in, or some flavor of imposture syndrome. This will often be coupled with anger and sadness in equal measure.
This is all before the tech and grammar reviews start coming in. That is, when you see your work, that you’ve spent so much time to put out into the world, come back to you marked up like crazy… well, it can be crushing.
Having a good support system in family and friends, and the ability to work with the publisher to step aside for a few days will be critical to helping restore balance.
Do’s and Don’ts *
Here are some things that did not really fit well into the other areas.
- Do not be afraid to do late stage revision. The publisher wants to get the book to market. Your job, is to get the right book to market.
- Do use your voice. Yes, technical writing is formal. Yes, you should have proper guideposts in it. That said, there is no need for it to be dry and stilted.
- Do not take that too far. That is, no F-Bombs, innuendo, and the like.
- Do not use contractions. Your writing will be much clearer without them.
- Do listen to your editors
This post isn’t comprehensive, and rambles at times, but should help you get an realistic idea of what all is involved in getting your first (or next) book out there. Ping me on twitter or at bunchc (at) professionalvmware . com if you have any questions, need a tech editor, or any other assistance in getting your idea into the world.
*This one broke me. After spending some time on google: “Style guides and usage books don’t agree. The Chicago Manual of Style and others recommend dos and don’ts. The Associated Press and others recommend do’s and don’ts. Eats, Shoots & Leaves recommends do’s and don’t’s” - Grammar Girl