This week, I’ve talked about the economics of writing books, interviewed Robin Goldstein about The Wine Trials, and interviewed Tom LaRock about his upcoming book. This week I’m finishing off the series with my thoughts about the mental costs involved in writing a book.
First Things First
When my book contract with Wiley/WROX was initially drawn up, I devoured every line of it. I’ve been in business long enough to know that every line of a contract exists for a reason; somebody got burned once, and they want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
One of the lines specified the order of the authors on the cover of the book. To put them in a SQL statement:
SELECT LastName, FirstName
ORDER BY QtyChapters DESC, LastName, FirstName
A little light bulb went off in my head. You know those WROX books that look like a police lineup with half a dozen head shots? (Don’t even get me started on the bad Photoshop jobs where they’re all shadowed from different directions and their head sizes don’t match up.) Suddenly I realized that the guys who were listed first were the ones who contributed the most. I went through all of the books on my bookshelf to find out who the workhorses were.
Later on during the revision process, the contract had to be revised a couple of times. Authors’ schedules changed, and people who initially signed on for multiple chapters weren’t able to get the work done. Life happens. Did you know that not everybody who writes content actually makes the author list? In our book, only the people who’d written 2 or more chapters were called “authors.” Cindy Gross and Jonathan Kehayias also contributed chapters, but they’re not on the cover.
During the contract changes, though, I noticed that my name sank down the list inappropriately – I was suddenly listed later than I was supposed to be. I asked the publisher why, and they said they’d simply copy/pasted names in without regard to the exact order.
I said okay, you’re fixing that, right?
They said no.
At first I thought there was a misunderstanding, but after raising the issue a couple of times, I hit the roof. This is the content business, after all – if an author made a mistake and copy/pasted something in wrong, and someone else found it, the author would be expected to fix it. Why wouldn’t the publisher be held to the same standard? I felt like a bitchy diva for putting my foot down, but I did, and I was prepared to abandon the whole project if the publisher wouldn’t get this detail right. I didn’t care whether I was going up or down in the list order – I just wanted the order to be accurate. They ended up fixing it, but as it turned out, this mattered a little less because WROX changed the way it did book covers.
Judging a Book by its Cover
WROX’s covers were among the most recognizable ones on bookstore shelves. O’Reilly had its animal drawings, WROX had the police lineup of authors, For Dummies was yellow and black, and everybody else was kind of a jumble. When I saw the author photos on the cover, I knew I was buying something from someone who was really proud of the work they’d done. They didn’t just put their name on it, they put their picture on it. Those guys must be real pros.
Midway through the writing process, we got word that WROX decided to dump author photos from book covers. I was shocked, but now that I work in marketing myself, I figured there was probably a really good decision process behind the scenes. The more questions I asked, though, the less satisfied I was. Part of WROX’s rationale was that the author photos were scaring off readers. Rather than investing a little money in getting good author photos, WROX threw the baby out with the bathwater.
Authors don’t make much of any money writing books, and the authors I talked to all gave the same reason for writing: they wanted the exposure. Exposure to more readers meant more consulting opportunities and a higher billable rate. Taking the photo off the cover meant less exposure to readers.
Of course, when I saw our book’s cover, a race car, I was instantly placated. That was just epic win. I needed to let the graphics and marketing folks do what they do best, and focus my own efforts on my job – writing content.
How Publishers Reduce Your Workload
I used to think that writing a book meant locking yourself in a room, banging out hundreds of pages of quality content, and then hitting Print. I thought authors had complete and total control of their content, and that the content on the page was a brain dump directly from the author. They had amazing technical accuracy and great command of English grammar, and they were handy with Visio to boot.
My first shock came when Christian Bolton (the head author) told me not to put too much time into the illustrations. Just get the basic idea down in Visio or whatever, and then the technical illustrator would come behind us and redo all the diagrams.
Wha? Seriously? Did Christmas come early?
I wish I would have had a webcam on when I read that email, because I bet my expression was just like when I used to find money under the pillow from the Tooth Fairy. I was giddy with excitement. When you’re pouring your heart out into writing a book, and you’re under a time deadline to get your content finished, every hour you can save is a really big deal. The quality of the finished illustrations was icing on the cake – I would have been fine with amateurish stick figures drawn with crayons on a napkin (“Here’s Mr. Raid!”) but these were great.
Working with a publisher means that a lot of people are involved in your book. Every additional person involved means less work for you, but at the same time, you lose a degree of control. The best example of this is your editors and technical reviewers.
How Publishers Increase Your Workload
After each chapter is done and you send it to your publisher, they forward it to a team of editors. Some editors focus on your grammar, and other editors (usually your peers) focus on your technical content. They don’t just read it and nod – they dive in and criticize it. You get back a Word doc with lots of comments in the margins. The editorial grammar comments are pretty easy to take, because most of us know we suck at grammar, but….
I need to take a second here and talk about the interpersonal skills of IT people. We didn’t get into this field because we’re really good at interacting with people – we got here because we’re good at making machines jump through hoops. We have a reputation for talking to people the same way we talk to machines: raw commands in all caps. There is no “PRETTY PLEASE” modifier in T-SQL or C#. As a result, the editorial comments I got back were frustrating. I took the criticisms personally, and I found myself hollering at the screen. Almost everything in the authoring process is a matter of opinion, and we had a lot of differences of opinion.
For example, because solid state drives are becoming more popular, I went to great lengths to call the other ones “magnetic hard drives.” I know that term isn’t used commonly in IT because the vast, vast majority of drives today are magnetic, but I wasn’t just writing for today – I was writing a book that I hoped would sit on the shelf for years to come. Right now, people are still buying ten-year-old SQL Server 2000 books. In the year 2019, if someone picks up my book, the storage market is going to be dramatically different, and I wanted to plan for that.
Every time I got back a marked-up chapter, I cringed, because other people were revising my work, changing my vision. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time they were great critiques, but I still found myself taking a lot of the remarks personally – especially when they were phrased in the brusque language of IT workers. The upshot is that the finished product is of much higher quality than the first draft I turned in. Editors and technical reviewers really made a difference, but authors need to be aware that they cause you more work.
All This Help Has Costs
Editors fix your grammar. Technical reviewers hone your content. Additional authors help you finish the book faster. Graphic artists add pictures worth thousands of words. Publicists send copies of your book to bloggers and magazines. Lawyers make sure everybody – okay, well the publisher – is protected. Reps make sure everything happens on schedule, or as close to schedule as possible.
In my post about the economics of writing a book, I explained that this stuff costs money, but today I want to emphasize that it has a mental cost too.
When you write a book for a publisher, you’re a part of a big production. You’re a big part, but you’re not the only part, and you’re going to have to interact with a lot of people in order to make it go smoothly. You’re going to have to negotiate and motivate other people, and you’re going to have to do it in your spare time – times when you might rather be hanging out with your friends, relaxing with your family, or just sleeping. From the time I signed the contract for my book until the day the publisher told me my chapters were done, I felt horribly guilty when I did anything other than work on the book.
In theory, self-publishing reduces these mental costs because you’re the only one setting the schedule and making demands. If you decide to relax and postpone everything for a month, nobody’s going to tap you on the virtual shoulder asking how things are coming. The downside, though, is that your workload multiplies, and you’re even less motivated to finish it.
If you’re thinking about getting into the book business, I’d highly recommend working with a publisher for your first project.
More Thoughts About How to Get Published
Some of my posts include:
Here’s a few posts by published authors that you’ll like: