A blog that needs work

Close Encounters of the Book Kind

Last we left our less-than-intrepid writer, he had made contact with the great and powerful publisher. The publisher was well-prepared, with arcane scrolls in hand, quill at the ready to lay out the contract, set out the terms, and begin a profitable venture for both parties. The outline completed and the ink dry on the contract, our writer parted ways along the path to success and fortune.

... Or something like that.

What can I say about the rest of the process of writing a technical book? As I write this, it has been almost three months, but I'll do my best to piece the process together.

"I'm just talkin' 'bout practice"

After the contract was done, which layed out the production schedule, the ball was in my court, so to speak. In that sense, producing the drafts is relatively straightforward: get draft X done by date Y.

Getting started writing a book is, admitedly, difficult. Though I have a number of technical books around (including some cookbook-style books), that doesn't mean I just want to copy other people's style. Given that this was my first book, I didn't even know if style was a thing.

The first few drafts were the worst, as I didn't have any idea what it should sound like, or how long it would take to get a draft done. I imagine this is true of typical writing, but its a bit compounded by the fact that you also have to include code samples both in the chapter and for distribution with the book.

Even after getting a few chapters done, I didn't really get into the swing of writing the book until I was nearly done. By that I mean, I missed deadlines a lot; usually, not by much, but I missed almost every deadline. The important part, in this case, and as part of the whole process, is communication: Let the publisher know what is going on in your life that might delay things, and when you expect to be able to provide what you've committed to. I was fortunate in that my publisher was very understanding, but I imagine others may not be.

How badly off the mark was I for deadlines? Well, for the drafts...

Chapter Deadline Delivered Late
1 2013-08-13 2013-08-15 +2d
2 2013-08-27 2013-08-26 -1d
3 2013-09-09 2013-09-10 +1d
4 2013-09-22 2013-09-24 +2d
5 2013-10-04 2013-10-09 +5d
6 2013-10-18 2013-10-20 +2d
7 2013-10-31 2013-11-02 +2d
8 2013-11-12 2013-11-13 +1d
9 2013-11-26 2013-11-26 +0d
10 2013-12-10 2013-12-09 -1d
11 2013-12-24 2013-12-30 +6d
12 2014-01-07 2014-01-14 +7d

On average, that's ~2.15 days per deadline. Just a little bit late. Because each missed deadline really only penalized myself, the production schedule was only off by the last deadline, so it was pushed back by a week.

That lateness is a result of inexperience, I think. I underestimated the amount of work it took do write a chapter initially, which means on at least two ocassions I actually took a day off of work to meet my deadline (or let it slip less). As I dug into the meatier chapters, I also learned that some o the recipes I set out to do were much harder than anticipated, leading me to either greatly revise the scope of the recipe, or drop it entirely.

The Final Stretch

After the drafts were wrapped up, things got pretty easy. A number of editors and reviewers would go through the various chapters, and include comments and suggestions for the book. Most of which made sense (e.g. some were bugs) and many made the book better. A lot of them were stylistic changes, and by that I mean enforcing of the book styles. I'll bring that up separately...

As I was saying, drafts take up a lot less time after you understand what to expect. The first few set of edits resulted in me writing the chapters to meet a certain style of writing consistent with other Packt books. Of course, after that, I just applied what I learned when I was writing the other chapters.

I should mention that edits would come in periodically while I was writing chapters, so their developement was often interspersed with book writing. Eventually, with the edits and drafts done... that was it. I was sent pre-finals, which are PDF copies of what would go to print with some very minor revisions, and then... the book was published. Hooray!

More numbers and thoughts

How long did this take anyway? Looking at my records, this is what I've got.

Chapter Writing Edits Total
1 13.00h 2.50h 15.50h
2 11.25h 3.83h 15.08h
3 12.00h 2.25h 14.25h
4 6.50h 2.25h 8.75h
5 9.00h 2.75h 11.75h
6 6.00h 1.50h 8.50h
7 11.00h 3.50h 14.50h
8 13.66h 7.25h 20.91h
9 8.50h 4.25h 12.75h
10 5.25h 1.50h 6.75h
11 8.50h 2.25h 10.75h
12 13.50h 1.75h 15.25h
Other 5.00h - 5.00h

For a grand (approximate) total of 159.74 hours. If the minimum wage is $11 per hour (In Ontario), that would be... $1757.14. Given that I was paid $3000 USD as an advance (and for the moment, we'll ignore the exchange rate), that actually works out to about $18.78 an hour. Of course, as I said, the hours are likely underestimated, but that's not terrible.

What did I learn from this?

  • I hate using LibreOffice / OpenOffice / MS Word for editing. Since we all used different applications, the styles were messed up every time a different reviewer received the drafts. As well, markup is super finicky. I don't know LaTeX, but I much would have rather used that, or Markdown, or anything over MS Word / etc.

  • I would definitely do this again. Maybe not with the same publisher, but I know that I am capable of writing a book (as I think anyone is). If I did it again, I would self-publish, which would give me more freedom as to how I write. Packt wasn't very restrictive, but my initial chapters were more conversational, and I think I like being able to write in that style, but its hard to say. However...

  • Getting a publisher means you get paid, etc. I didn't do any marketing for my book. None. Bupkis. Despite this, I still got an advance ($3000 USD) paid out partially in regular intervals as defined in the contract. I'm not saying that I'm incapable of marketing my own book, but getting that advance was immensely helpful.

  • Writing a book is really helpful. Sure, you learn a lot about writing, and working on your own, and you can say you wrote a book, but it really helped me when applying for work. I could say "Oh, and I wrote this book". People see that as a big achievement (even though it really isn't that hard to do) and it gives you a story to talk about in interviews. I was really surprised how big of an impact my book was in interviews.

So I wrote a book. Hooray!

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).