I’m often asked by people about what it like to be author of books. Whilst I was on holiday recently I started to think about my experiences, and the way technology is changing
and how that will influence the way might write in the future. I became an author by accident really – from writing free guides around ESX2/vCenter1 that evolved into writing a book with Ron Oglesby and Scott Herold about Vi3. It also happened because I had the time to do either as a freelance instructor or later as full-time writer for TechTarget and on my RTFM Blog. In later years as I started to 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions of the work I increasingly opted to donate my royalties to charity. That’s because I’ve never seen my books as way to make a living, and the saw money raised to do more for a good cause, than it could sitting in my bank account.
It’s all about time…
So in my experience a lot of people overly focus on the technical side of writing when they think about writing a book. There’s a lot of anxiety here about whether the author has the technical abilities to write. In my experience this isn’t normally the challenge. People generally underestimate their technical abilities – especially as we are endlessly surrounded by reminders of how little we know – given the vast vistas of the IT landscape. The biggest limit is TIME. You need time to work on a book, and its difficult to balance the demands of regular day time job and a commitment to write a book, especially if you have publishing deadlines. Think about this way. When your perusing a IT certification. How do you balance the time between work, family and study?
One one piece of advice about this is this – is start writing a book about a technology that is still in a beta format. In fact getting on a beta program should be your first step. Write your book around the beta and look to release it very shortly after the GA if possible. This will extend the shelf-life of your book to the maximum. In the case of VMware their release strategy is now based on a minor 5.1 release in one year, followed by full 6.0 by the next. That means between the GA of a 5.0 product, your book will have shelf-life of just 2 years before it becomes “superseded” by newer release. This makes getting on the beta program when it opens and writing content during the beta program an absolute must. As we will see in later parts I personally believe these increasing narrow time frames from one release to another – signals the inevitable decline of the paper-based, physical book towards an era of digital delivery only, and subscription based models. As former student of American and English Literature, I don’t think that signals the immediate decline of the paper-book. I think this format will stay around for many years, and it will certainly there when I shuffle of this mortal coil. After the “book” hasn’t been a single entity since it was created. Early books were actually manscripts written by scribes usually funded by the church or the King or Queen. They were predominantly not in even in the language of the people – but in the language of the church (Latin). Since Guttenberg we have seen the democratization of the written word – and I see these e-book readers as simply another form-factor that people can consume the written word. Far from being the “death” of book, we could see a re-vitalization of literacy and reading which has seen a hit in recent years…
Is it worth it???
Just like in the world of fiction or literature – the desire to write comes from within. That’s especially important in the world of technical authoring because to be brutally honest – technical authors aren’t in it for the money – and if they are they are sadly deluded. As you might gather the shelf-life of IT book is particular short and the royalties per-book aren’t overwhelming. In my mind the only people who make real money out of writing and publishing books are the Dan Brown’s and J.K Rowling’s of the world who have their works translated into every language and made into a movie. Now, with that said when the royalty cheques do land on the Welcome mat, they are just as welcome – money is money after all. But I believe the real motivation should be that you have uncontainable urge to pass on your pearls of wisdom to those willing to read. You should actually find the process of writing enjoyable – I do. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be writing this blogpost would I? What I’m getting at here is the main reward is the work itself – It is in the actually writing, and the sense of achievement once you have finished your work. One of by product of writing is that does wonders for technical knowledge as well. Something I saw when writing about ESX2/3/4 – my worry is that if I don’t write a book on ESX5 or ESX6 my techknowledgey won’t be as good as it once was.
I would also say that in our competitive world, it hasn’t harmed my career one little bit that I have six books under my belt – four of which have been self-published. Being author has helped differentiate myself from others. When I started blogging about VMware you could count on one-hand the number of people who were doing the same. As the companies star rose that increased the number of other folks doing exactly the same as myself. Writing books for the likes of McGraw-Hill, Pearson or the VMware Press – separates you out from the rest of the crowd. It puts you in a unique group (I won’t say elite because that would be egotistical!), and gives you as an individual, a personal USP. Additionally, I would say writing a book is a bit like doing PhD. The mere fact that you had the personal drive, commitment, and sheer gumption is testament that your something beyond the norm (it means your abnormal). Add on top of that you handle the distribution and promotion of your work – marks you out as a kind of authorial entrepreneur.
Should I go with a publisher or self-publish?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Lets talk about the advantages of both approaches first. The great thing about having a publisher is they get you the distribution to many avenues (Amazon, Safari, Barnes & Noble et al). You also get the backing of a professional proof-reading and production process which ensures that your content is as free of typos as is humanly possible. They also handle the arrangement of a technical review of the book, and might even facilitate contacts with the vendor your writing about. Although if you following my advice to the letter, you early access to the beta program probably means you have better hooks into the vendor or ISV than you publisher has. Getting vendor sponsors and buy in as is the case with VMware Press can make a significant difference to your remuneration package. I will say no more. If you working with a publisher who doesn’t have a relationship with the vendor – you should see royalties of $10-15 per book sold. As European I made sure that my royalties were same regardless region. I don’t see why should make less on books sold in Europe, than they are in the US.
The advantages of self-publishing is that your 100% control of the look, feel and content. You also have 100% control over deadlines and so on. You also make 100% of the profit margin as well. It’s the author who decides when the content is ready. That also means you have to design your own cover, acquire an ISBN (without it neither Amazon or a public library will stock your book) and promote it to your peers.
To my mind there are merits in both approaches. I embarked on the self-publishing route mainly because I thought it would be fun and interesting to do. I also was being very practical. I wanted to write about VMware Site Recovery Manager back when the product was only an alpha release. I knew the customer based would be small when compared to say Vi3 or vSphere4. So I knew I would be up against it when it came to trying to convince a publisher to back the project back then. I must say I enjoyed the process greatly, and there was a great sense of achievement when I finally had the book in my hand. Here was something I’d created where I’d been intimately involved in every aspect of the production.
Where I went wrong with self-publishing when I started was pricing. I was trying to see if I could “beat” the publishers at their own game, and make more money by self-publishing. For a moment I lost sight of my original point – don’t do it for the money. I think I over priced the 1st Edition of my SRM 1.0 book at $49.99 – and put off buyers. I also didn’t make the book in a PDF format at reasonable prices either. I moved far more copies of the SRM 4.0 book when the hard-copy was only 29.99 and the digital version was $10.
In my next part in this series – I will be talking in more detail about what its like to work with a publisher, and try to offer budding technical authors some tips and tricks about the process.