Book Week: The Politics of Writing Books

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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.

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

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
FROM dbo.Authors
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.

You Missed The Bus

You Missed The Bus

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.

WROX’s choice of sample covers certainly didn’t help their cause.  The cover of Professional XHTML, CSS and JavaScript had a guy running for a bus.  The message: readers missed the bus, which is slang for being too late to catch an opportunity.  It could have been worse, I suppose – the bus could be driving over the guy.  The cover for Beginning Active Server Pages featured a worn-out wheel that wasn’t properly painted and looked dangerous to touch, as if you’d get splinters of paint on your hands.  Everything about this whole thing screamed, “CHEAP STOCK PHOTOS!”

Professional C#

Professional C#

Professional XMPP

Professional XMPP

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:

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • Excellent post, Brent. I guess I should really get after the publisher who spelled my name 3 different ways, shouldn’t I? =^)

    -Kev

    Reply
  • Curious, Say a hypothetical criticism were to come back like: “Introduce this idea first before diving in to that detail and hold off talking about that diagram until you can focus on it here”.

    Who would that criticism come from, the Editors, or your technical peers? It kinda seems like it would fall in between.

    Or maybe such critiques weren’t common.

    Reply
    • Oh, that’s a great question. Criticisms came in from all sides. Technical reviewers would sometimes correct my grammar, and editors would sometimes ask for clarifications on technical issues because they’d seen so many technical books.

      Criticism is just opinion – sometimes it’s right, and sometimes it’s wrong. There were times when I had to step back and say, “That criticism is wrong, but the fact that somebody took the time to voice it means that other readers will think the same thing, and I have to clarify my stance.” I had to flesh out more parts of the text to explain why I recommended something or why I felt a particular way. I wish I’d have had months more just to elaborate on some of the stances I took.

      For example, RAID 5 is a perfectly acceptable compromise when your money is tight and storage isn’t your biggest bottleneck. As a DBA, you have to look at the whole system and spend your money wisely in the areas that will benefit you most.

      Reply
  • Excellent series Brent!

    Thanks for the links!

    :{> Andy

    Reply
  • I completely sympathize with you on the order of co-author names. I had the same experience with the second ed of my book. The publisher had bizarrely “decided” to list the five names alphabetically – by first name. However, this dropped my name to third billing. Since I had written the lion’s share of the content, this was unacceptable to me. (Curiously, if they had alphabetized by last name, I would have been at the top.) I also had to stomp my foot and demand that I be moved to the top as well. My co-authors were a little miffed… especially the fellow who was originally first. My attitude was, and remains, “When you write a book, your name can be first!”

    I’m completely enjoying this theme, by the way. Keep ’em coming.

    Matt

    Reply
  • Very nice, Brent. I am enjoying this series.

    Reply
  • I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like writing a book, but a lot of what you say (especially regarding the editing process) hits home, making me think back to when I wrote a bunch of articles for FoxTalk and FoxPro Advisor in the 1990’s. Sometimes the things they changed drove me nuts. The worst part, though, was what they chose for the titles of the articles. I still cringe when I see the title “Display and Enter Dates the Right Way”. Zzzzzz…. Yawn…. How boringly vanilla!

    Plus, it would take forever from the time I submit the article to when it finally appears in print.

    I love the freedom and immediacy of blogging… What an entirely different experience.

    Anyway, congrats on the book… I shake my head in amazement at the time and dedication it must take to put something like that together. Thanks for the posts on your experiences.

    Reply
  • Brent: These are great posts, thanks for sharing this experience. I’m especially glad to see that when we made a mistake (the author name order) and you pitched the proper fit, we got it fixed. Mistakes happen, fixes take some work.
    The whole cover process has also been interesting to me to see how much people read into stock photos, even placeholder stock photos. Glad you like your racecar.
    Thanks for being part of Wrox!

    Reply
  • Great post, Brent. In particular, the last section on “mental costs” really hit home; I found myself nodding as I read it. It wasn’t until I myself began writing that I gained a true appreciation for the time and effort that goes into generating the final product. Calling it an “eye-opening experience” would be an understatement.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and insight!

    Reply

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