business,  code

Should You Write a Tech Book?

Are you considering publishing a book with a company like Apress, No-Starch, or O’Reilly? Maybe you have been contacted by someone who noticed a blog post that you wrote or a YouTube video?

I’ve been down this road a few times now and there are some things that you need to know.

Jump Right To…

How I Became an Author

Years ago I ran a blog where I talked about my iPhone app business. My audience grew fairly quickly to a peak of 5,000 visits per day because at the time apps where a new thing. This traffic was enough to get noticed by people who are scouting for writers to write books on technology.

After about two years, I started to get calls and then I accepted a book deal from a big publishing company. I did this because as a kid I always idealized writers and writing a book seemed like a rock-star accomplishment. That book deal eventually fell apart, but I did go on to publish 5 books with another one in the oven right now. I self-published one of these books, but the others were published by international publishing companies.

What You Need to Know About the 10 Phases of Publishing

When I went through this process for the first time back in 2010, I wasn’t ready for the amount of work and frustration writing a book would really entail. My first attempt was a complete failure, but I learned an enormous amount that I managed to leverage in future projects.

But, first let’s outline about the process of getting a book published with publishing company:

1. The Reach Out

Just like in dating, in publishing someone needs to make the first move. I’ve worked with two companies and in both cases they reached out to me. For my part, I attribute this to the blog I ran during that time as well as the full-court social media press I had been engaged in for two years at that point. So when publishers started looking for talent, I at least came up on their Twitter feed and they were able to read my work. So they made the first move.

Hi Matt,
#### here from ####.
 I'm writing because we haven't got even one book on our list about developing iPhone apps.
 I see that you're selling an ebook and I wonder if you might be interested in working with us to explore additional channels, like the trade book market and perhaps other electronic venues.
 I hope to hear from you.
 Thanks,
 ####

Basically, what happened both times is that I got an informal email (and later LinkedIn notification) where they started a back and forth. At this point in the process, we talked in general about writing and the topics that they were interested in. This only really took a week or two.

2. The Virtual Handshake

In the next stage, I was shocked for the first time. After we decided to go through with the projects we discussed terms. We had to agree on the scope of the project, what the schedule would be, what the content would be, and finally what the payment would look like.

At this stage, terms were general and there was no contract in place. In fact, what I didn’t realize was that at some point I would have to craft a proposal which I really didn’t expect.It seemed like people were reaching out to me in an effort to reach out to them to pitch an idea.

The first shock came when I realized that in all cases the payment for the work was far lower that I expected given the scope of the work. My first book deal had an advance of $15,000 and my second was $3,000. The two other books I’ve worked on were a smaller scope and only had an advanced payments of $500-$750!

While the first amount may seem high to some people, keep in mind that book was quite expansive and I would have needed to spend 50% of my time working on it for a year. This was during a time when it was common for iPhone Boot Camp instructors to get payments of $10,000 for just teaching a three-day class.

Strictly speaking, from a financial perspective it was just not worth my time. In later years, the situation proved to get even worse.

However, in all instances I decided to move on with these book projects for reasons other than just money (which I will talk more about below). So I shook on it.

3. The Pitch

This was also a shock to me since I really had no idea what a pitch was. But, once we informally agreed to move on I found out that I would have to pitch a book project to the company. I had naively assumed that the person who reached out to me had the final say on the project, but that was far from the truth.

Instead, I was asked in all instances to come up with a book idea that included a detailed list of chapters and content. In some cases, I was given extremely detailed parameters to fit into. Once this proposal was complete, it had to be reviewed and accepted by a Board of Directors.

Other than the initial shock, what I found unsettling at this stage was the loss of creative control this early in the project. In most cases, I was merely filling in the blanks into a structure that was provided to me. Since I had been used to self-publishing and blogging this was disorienting.

Yet, I continued the process even though this was a red flag. Honestly, it had to do with ego at this point. In my first project, I simply wanted to be a “real writer” and published a book “officially”. In the second case, I simply wanted redemption after failing at my first book project.

5. The Contract

After I make a pitch, I would expect that a yes/no answer would come back in a week or two. At this point, my contact person would draw up a contract and send it over to sign. This stage takes about a month and formally cements all the elements in place.

This is your last chance to attempt to negotiate things like your advance, percentage of sales, and maybe something like inclusion of your business branding on the book cover.

There shouldn’t be any surprises at this point though. Once you sign the contract, you are essentially on the job. You can informally start the work, but things don’t really start until you are contacted by your editing team.

6. Interacting with Your Editor

At some point, you will be handed over to an Editor who will be your main point of contact. Essentially, your book will have people assigned to it to do grammar editing, art preparation and so so. You make also have a co-author or technical reviewer collaborating with you.

This Editor will set you up in your publisher’s system and make sure you are oriented. He or she will also set a schedule: that could be that you deliver one new chapter a week, review changes from an old chapter each week, and more.

7. Working with the Publisher’s System

Some of the projects I worked on had shockingly bad systems in place. One early project in particular, really depended on using MS Word, SharePoint, and a patchwork system of formatting templates that I had to try and shoehorn my work into. This process alone made me regret moving forward with some of my projects.

That being said, as time went on the system became more informal and things with my last and current books have gone much smoother. I can only assume that I was not the only author who has complained about this.

But, even with today’s improved systems there are still a lot of things that I am expected to do that don’t involve simply writing: editing screenshots and art files, formating to fit editor’s templates, file formatting.

The rigid nature of these systems along with the rigid nature of the actual content that I would agree write for these is a real downfall. It does seem sometimes that I am a just trying to push words out into a low-cost process optimized to create page counts.

8. Pace of Work

Generally speaking, once I get started full throttle on a book I am writing one 20-30 page chapter every week or two. Sometimes this work goes smoothly because it covers content I’m familiar with, but just as often I may have to do research or even develop a codebase to write about.

That two week window starts to shrink really quickly and considering I work full-time and have a young family it really becomes a struggle to stay on track.

On top of that, somewhere in the middle of this writing process I will start to get asked to do additional work that early on I didn’t anticipate: technical reviewers will have suggestions for revisions, I need to ok grammer reviews, edit art files, provide keywords, package source code, and give final approvals.

Often times, source code with it’s particular formatting and sometimes lengthy lines gets mangled during this process. Editors will at times take issue with the conventions of the programming language that I am trying to represent.

Sometimes, I just don’t have enough time or energy to address the issues and yet the publishing machine will demand that we move on.

9. Level of Support

Another thing I noticed in all of my book projects is that the actual support for the book that I may expect to get is spotty. While I’m sure that many employees are good people who sometimes have suggestions, they always seemed rushed and there is little thoughtful discussion; this is a far cry from what you might expect after watching movies with writers in them. Often I’ve suspected that they depend heavily on cheap offshore labor.

There have been times where I have gotten negative feedback about my books (with my name on them!) that are clearly due to lack of quality editing.

This is shame, because for a long time I would justify the negligible payout of writing books like this based on the fact that I would have professionals editing my work. But, that’s barely the case in my experience.

10. Marketing

At some point, the stage of writing the book is complete. This is after you have given all your approvals. You would have received half your advance after the first three chapters are submitted and the remaining money once the manuscript is complete.

At this point the book disappears from your world for months while it is being published. Eventually, you will hear from your initial contact who will provide you with a few copies of your book for free and you will learn when the publish date will be.

Around that time and over the next year, the publisher will claim to help market your work. In reality, this also appears to be the bare minimum effort on their part. I have investigated this in the past and I did find that my book would appear briefly on banner ads on websites; but my work was competing for attention with the thousands of other books offered by the publisher.

I’ve never seen my books appear physically in a bookstore and it’s even difficult to find my books on the publisher’s website itself. And I’ve never seen much evidence that a book had been given any special marketing push other than being plugged into their ad system.

At this point you will have physical book that people can buy (more or less). In a few months, statements will start to appear showing you roughly how many copies are being sold. Once you sell enough copies and the publishing company recoups your advance, you may start to see small amounts of money trickling into your bank account. This takes years though.

Almost all the books I wrote did recoup the advance money eventually, but none have made any additional significant income. Every other quarter or so I may see a $12 payment show up. And that is basically what it is like to be published in tech.

Publishing Myths Busted

Before I got into publishing, I had a lot of ideas about what publishing was really about. I had some really unrealistic thoughts about what publishing a book would mean for my career, my business, and my finances. Here are the big myths that got busted for me when I became a writer.

1. You Are Going to Make a Living as a Writer

Before my first book contract, I assumed that writers would get contracts that paid them enough money to take a hiatus from their job so that they could put all their attention into their work. So I imagined that a writer would be advanced $50,000 and be expected to provide a finished book ready to be edited in a year or two.

In reality, the advance I received from my last book was $500 which is enough to take maybe a PTO day or two to focus on my work. Honestly, the money for writers in publishing is so bad that you may as well not even get paid.

Considering that any tech writer would be in a high paid salaried or consulting position where it would not be unheard to earn $500 in just one day, I don’t see how any publisher convinces anyone to write for them.

The issue is not just the advance either. As you probably realize, book authors get paid in two ways: a percentage of book sales and an advance. The Advance is like a cash withdraw against future earnings and not a payment in and off itself. So if a publisher offers you an Advance of $500 that means that they will not pay you any earnings until after that $500 balance is paid off.

Clearly, the publishing companies have models that tell them how much they expect to earn from a book. That means that if you earn 10% commission and your book costs $25 to consumers, then the publisher thinks that they will sell only 200 copies of your book. If they could offer more, they probably would because it cannot be easy to recruit writers.

Even if they sold double the amount that they expect, then that is still just $1,000. Clearly, the math does not work out for most writers and for me I think this shows a fundamental weakness with the paper publishing industry.

2. Writing a Book Will Help Your Brand

Maybe some people sign a contract with a $500 advance hoping to write a bestseller. But, more often than not a lot of us get roped into this idea that writing a book will somehow unlock amazing career opportunities that were unreachable before.

That was the case with me, because I idealized writers as a kid I assumed that any tech writer would either run their own startup or be a highly sought after worker. I imagined job interviews with HR reps swooning over my list of published titles.

That has not happened once.

Never has anyone reached out to me because they read my book or have seen that I’m published. When I mention the fact in job interviews, all I get are blank stares or mumbles of “that’s nice” or “good for you”. When I included my books in my biography for my current job, my manager removed them.

The only thing that job interviewers have ever cared about was my previous job experience and how I could use that in the position they were filling.

So much for branding.

3. Writing a Book Will Help Promote Your Business

This is another one I fall for every time. The idea is that if you have a consulting business or if you teach an online course, then having a book published by a real world publishing company will give you credibility in the marketplace. Even more than that, you might hope that as a side effect of the book being promoted your business may get a little shine. Maybe readers will look you up or maybe you mention the business in the book.

Again, it doesn’t seem to happen that way and it’s related to the marketing efforts I mentioned earlier. The publisher will not promote your book as much as you will promote your business. In fact, I suspect that publishers are hoping that things move in the opposite direction, that you business will help promote the publisher.

And yes, I have been asked about my Twitter following in the past…

In the years I was in business, all of my leads came from my blog, my mailing list, or content that I self-published. I’ve never had a client tell it that I earned their business based on them reading a published book.

I’m not sure what to make of this. At the end of the day, when I have complete control over the content I write I can tailor the content to my audience they get the honest story and they can decide if they like it. These published books, which require so many other voices with dictated agreed on content that must be fit into a template and a schedule just seem less effective at bringing people in.

Still, on paper I still feel that this should work. But it doesn’t.

Should You Write a Book?

Look, here is my take: no. And I realize that I’m not taking my own advice here, because I am literally in the process of writing a book as we speak. But I have to tell you, every single time I write a book I regret taking the contract. Somewhere in the middle, I realize that there are a hundred better uses for my time.

When you look at the cost-benefit analysis, writing a book is almost all cost. The financial benefit is almost nil and when it comes to branding there are probably a hundred better ways to help your brand out. Writing a book to help you get a job is literally crazy, it’s way easier just to interview and get a job with having a few portfolio projects to show off; I’ve learned that IT doesn’t seem to care if you are a writer.

Should you do it for the sake of accomplishment? Maybe. That was always a small part of my reasoning. I think that if you can manage your expectations, then completing a book can be a matter of personal pride.

This must seem rich coming from me, I get that. I’ve written books hoping for a variety of effects and I’ve missed the mark in almost all cases. The purpose of my first book was to help save my business that came under increasing pressure as the Apple App Store got huge in 2013. It didn’t help. I wrote two of these books solely because I was unemployed and needed something to do. I had something to do, but the books didn’t help me find a new job or help my bank account.

I guess I would say, writing a book like this may be worth it as a one-time experience. I think if you have a book idea that is a little outside the box than what these big publishers typically are interested in, give that a shot. The game that the publishers play is the safe one were they think they will have at least a minimal payout.

Take The Pragmatic Programmer as an example. That was a book that really bring something new to all of us. It became a bestseller, but I doubt it was the kind of book most publishers would have gone after. But, if you have a groundbreaking book like that in you then I would go for it.

Please Question and Comment

I would love to hear what you have to say. Have you considered or even published a tech book? What are your thoughts? Was your experience similar? Please comment down below.

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Matt is the author of five Apress books including Learn RStudio IDE, Quick, Effective, and Productive Data Science, Objective-C Recipes, Swift Quick Syntax Reference, Objective-C Quick Reference, and the upcoming Pro Data Visualization with R and JavaScript. He has over 20 years of experience in technology, psychometrics, and data analytics working in major higher education institutions such as The College Board and Educational Testing Service. He has earned a Master’s degree in Information Systems Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Quantitative Psychology.