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Writing a Technical Book - First Contact

I have never written a book before. This past November I managed to write fifty-thousand words, which is by some measure a novel (hence National Novel Writing Month), but, at best, was the beginning of a story; barely even a first draft. Aside from this annual foray into writing, the thought of writing a book likely wouldn't have crossed my mind until next November.

But then I got noticed.

It may just be for a technical book, but its still exciting to me. As I said, I have never written a book before.

It's time to change that.

I'm not (likely) the only person who has wanted to write a book before, and while I can't argue that what I will learn will apply to all aspects of publishing, I do think that what I learn could be useful to someone. As the process progresses, I'll be doing my best to explain what goes into publishing a (technical) book.

Before I start, there is some advice from a programmer I admire that I might seem to be ignoring. Yes, it does make more sense to write something for the web and self-publish if you are so interested, but to me, this is a learning experience that requires "less effort" (comparatively) than self-publishing. I imagine that will be a topic for a whole other day though.

For the purposes of these articles, I'm assuming you've already decided that you want to take the 'publisher' route (vs. self-publishing). That being said, let's dig into how things have gone so far!

"Book Trek: First Contact"

I was contacted without any prior interest. Because of my work on StackOverflow, I was contacted by a company called Packt Publishing about writing a cookbook on Highcharts, a javascript charting library that I happen to answer a lot of questions about on StackOverflow.

My first thought when this all took place was, "is this legit?". Certainly, people don't get contacted at random to write about books, or do they?

Yes, they do. As I tried to curb my excitement (but nonetheless posted for everyone to see) I learned that the same company had also contacted other people I know about writing books on niche libraries. That did deflate my ego a bit, but more importantly, it began a process of asking a lot of questions. Many of the questions I would have would (fortunately) be answered by the publisher's site for authors and details about royalties, but I nonetheless went out and read as much as I could find on writing a technical book (and I would stronly recommend reading over those articles).

But this is more than just a narrative about how I was contacted, and in no way do I want to leave this process of imagining what questions to ask to the reader: Regardless of whether or not you're approaching a publisher or they're approaching you, there are some questions you'll want to ask yourself about your book:

  • What is this book about? What is it not about? What might it be about?
  • Who am I writing the book for? Who is the audience?
  • What does the reader need to know before hand? What is the reader's background?
  • What are the most important things that I want the reader to learn about?

For a many of these questions, I already had the answers (an "Author Relationship Executive" provided them through our early communications), or the publisher was kind enough to provide tips and documents to help me flesh out the details of the book; they even included a whole package for authors outlining a lot of details about writing a book, and how their process works. However, there were some questions that I needed to ask the publisher:

  • How much is the advance, and when is it paid out?
  • How much are royalties?
  • What is the timeline of the book?
  • Would I be the sole author of the book?
  • What is the editorial process of writing the book?
  • How will the book be promoted?

Many of these questions were easy for them to answer, and gave much needed context for me. I learned that the advance is paid out based on the progress of the book (1/3 after the first drafts are completed, 1/3 after the final drafts are completed, and 1/3 when the book is published), that they were looking at 6 months for all first drafts to be completed, and a lot of other important details to let me know what I was getting into.

However, given that I still didn't know a lot about publishing, more research was necessary:

  • How much are royalties / advances typically?
  • Is this a good publisher? Have other authors had problems with them in the past?
  • Is anything deducted from royalties?

There are likely other questions that you'll have, but they can always be answered further down the line. This is just a chance to ask questions before really digging into the book. This isn't about setting things in stone, it's about getting an idea of what the book is and getting a feel for the publisher and publishing process

And, while this information is all great, you might be wondering what to do if you haven't been contacted by a publisher. From what I've found there are at least two other publishers who (fortunately) include details about becoming an author with them: O'Reilly and Apress.

"The Outline Limits"

After I'd had the chance to ask a few questions, I (and likely the publisher) was be eager to continue on with the process. The acquisitions editor let me know that the next step was to fill out some information about myself for the publisher, which I suspect was for some sort of proposal or to let them know what else I could write about in the future, and to prepare an outline for the book.

This seemed like a reasonable request of me. I quickly learned it was not.

Writing a book is hard work; that is not surprising to me. However, writing a cookbook-style book is different than writing an 'ordinary' book: Cookbooks have recipes. Recipes are easy to write, but writing an outline for a cookbook is hard because you need to know the recipes before you write the book. Writing the outline meant that I needed to think up all the scenarios that a person may want to use or integrate Highcharts into their project. Yes, they had suggested a few topics, but it is still very difficult to imagine how someone might use a special purpose library: we're not talking about a language, or a framework, but a tiny little library that makes really cool charts.

He had suggested three working days to submit the outline, and given that I was busy, I didn't put much thought into it at the time. When I actually sat down to write it, the outline took me nearly fifteen hours to write. Is that indicative of all outlines or projects? No, certainly not. It does illustrate that its important to give the outline some thought. Fortunately, I imagine that the actual writing of the book should be more straightforward since all the recipes are decided.

At this point, a schedule was suggested, basically a draft of each of the twelve chapters every two weeks. Is this reasonable? I don't really know. What I did learn is that the publisher is usually somewhat flexible. I was originally going to ask for a two week headstart, but instead opted to ask for a month headstart, which was not a problem.

I'd strongly recommend putting a lot of thought into your outline. Since it is the backbone for your book, it will be a big factor in whether or not people will want to pick up the book or not. Also, the more time you spend on the outline, the less time you'll have to think about the actualy writing (at least, for a cookbook). Negotiating with your editor is important, and will become more apparent when I talk about...

"The Contract"

Admitedly, I'm still working through this stage. The editor has received my outline and proposed schedule, has given the green light, and all that's left (aside from the writing of the book) is signing some paperwork, including the contract.

The contract is a really long document, and it likely has a number of terms that you don't agree with. For example, mine had a clause about future works, claiming that I would have to provide Packt with the first option to publish my next two books. Since I might consider self-publishing for my next books, and since I don't know how this whole process will end up with Packt, I asked to have the clause removed, which they did.

You can't get everything changed of course. The document is to outline what you're to deliver, what the publisher is to deliver, and what protections both of you have so read it carefully. Some of the documents I pointed out earlier can provide better details about contracts, and I'm sure I'll provide more detail when I've made it through the whole way.

That's where I'm at right now. I'm sure I will have more detail as I actually dig into the writing of the book, and make my way through the first drafts, but hopefully, this has given some insight into the publishing process so far.

Nicholas Terwoord

A self-titled software developer, "code archaeologist" (whatever that means), and professional geek. Spends too much of his time coming up with new projects, and not enough time working on them. Likes video games, board games, anime, manga, and Pathfinder / Dungeons and Dragons (GOTO: Line #1 - Geek).