In my previous part in this series - I talked about what its like to be an author – in this part I want to focus more on the process of writing for a publisher. So if you have decided your going to write and you would like to go through the conventional publishing route. Here’s some tips and tricks for any aspiring writer going down that particular path.
There are number of things you can do before you approach publisher that can make you look more professional and credible. The more professional and credible you are the more the publisher is likely to see you as viable author. It also helps improve your status with them when it comes to negotiating a deal. So have a good idea on a topic or technology that’s not been previously published. There are loads of technologies from VMware that no-one has staked out as their territory. These represent virgin opportunities. Pick a technology that fills your belly with fire, and try to make yourself the leading independent go-to-guy for it [Do spot a pattern there?]
Always write to the newest software release, as I stated earlier write under the beta programme – assuming you can get on it of course.
Write a “Table of Contents” together with estimate of the total page length (including graphics). The table of contents should be relatively easy to build out – and the publisher will expect 2-3 levels to it to show you know what you doing. See the publisher as big Hollywood production house, and your a director with your screenplay and storyboard. Just like the guys in Hollywood they need to see that you have clear idea of where you are going… If you not sure how the ToC should look and no idea of word length – pop-down to your local bookstore (sic) and check out their computer section (sic), and use an existing book of the size, form-factor and length that you think your topic merits. A big-thick weighty tome like my vSphere4 book or the PowerCLI reference book runs to about 650-750 pages (of text & images) whereas my first SRM book (back when I had no storage vendors covered, and it was a 1.0 book) came in at about 300 pages.
If your book is going have LOTS of images and screen grabs – warn your publisher upfront. My work tends to have lots of screen grabs, its the way I work. Many publishers assume technical books will have just 10-20 screen grabs. They might be in for shock when you book has 50 screen grabs per chapter. Bear in mind all these images need managing, manipulating, captioning and processing – so it could have a massive impact on the publishing schedule.
Get the publishers Author’s Kit:
Once you have agreed terms – get hold of their standard authors template as soon as you can – most publishers provide a “authors kit” which includes a Word template. If you intend to start writing before you have signed a contract just use a bog standard template, and use it consistently. When you come take your template and match it to the publishers standard it will be much easier process to get your content to match their style. With that said you will be surprised at how ignorant publishers are about basic features of Wordprocessor. I once had to explain what a “style” was in Word – something I thought I’d stopped doing back in 1994.
Images can be a PITA:
Whilst most publishers don’t mind you embedding screen grabs and diagrams in the Word document – these will be eventually be removed from the manuscript as its converted from Word to some sort of DTP system such as Quark. In the extreme case the literally copy you beautiful formatted document into Notepad (thus removing all the formatting) and then paste it into Quark – putting the formatting back. Incidentally, this formatting will be to their standards, not yours. So I would keep you bold & italics to a minimum because they might not survive the final imprint anyway. Tough!
So make sure you keep every image as a separate file (ideally .TIFF without lossy) with a numbering system like “Figure 1.1″. When you write your book – the publisher will expect captions about max of about 3 lines for each and every image. They will also expect you add leading text such as “…as can be seen in Figure 1.1″. This is because where your image is in the manuscript might be on the opposite page in the final print, or even over the page if the text falls on 341, and image is on page 342. In my experience images are the biggest PITA. That’s because no publisher seems to have devised a method – to allow you to easily add new images – and reset all the numbering in the text and all the filename held in the .TIFF format. It can get so bad that you start to avoid adding new images after the first draft because of the volume of work it entails. In fact in some case I’ve hired my step-daughter or step-son (who were students at the time, and therefore easy to exploit) to do the hard graft for me!
How many co-authors should you have?
There is a quick answer to this. Just you! Seriously, writing on your own gives you the ultimate freedom to express your content as you see fit – including structure and order. It also means continuity of style from one chapter to another. It means you can work towards a book that make sense when read end-to-end (although its unlikely that anyone reads a technical book from end-to-end). There downside of working on your own, is that all the weight and pressure is on your shoulders, and your shoulders alone – with no-one else to share the burden with.
I’ve written twice with co-authors – with the Vi3 book with Ron Oglesby and Scott Herold – and then more recently the VMware View 5.1 book with Barry Coombs. I must admit I enjoyed the experience both times. Even though in both cases – we merely cut the book in half and wrote independently – it did feel better to have another person on the project. Writing on your own can be a lonely process. Psychologically working with a co-author makes you feel as if the workload has been halved – even though you have do 100% of you own writing. I know for sure I wouldn’t have released the VMware View 5.1 book without Barry’s assistance. I was just so busy with the SRM book last year, the idea of starting yet another book in the same year on my own was more than I could bear. With the re-write of the VMware View 5.1 book I opted for change from the first-person (I and My) to the third-person (We and Our). That did mean looking at again at places I where I had expressed very strong personal opinions – and either removing them, or couching them in less strident English! When writing with with co-author I feel its important you take a “collective responsibility” for the content – so its important to discuss areas of contention (normally what’s considered a best practice) and iron these out early.
Where I have seen it go wrong is where there’s been too many authors. It’s the old case of “too many cooks spoil the broth”. Where it really shows itself is where you have two writers with massively different styles of writing. So you go from from “Well, folks lets see what happens when you click the bad ole OK button”, to what sounds like a University Professor talking about an obscure areas of quantum physics. It’s a bit of jolt to the reader. It’s worth bearing mind that the royalty on any books sold would normally be split between the co-authors. More authors doesn’t mean more money – its means the money in the pot being increasingly split. But of course, your not in it for the money are you???
In the main I would say the “Rule of 1, 2, 3″ applies here. Four authors is too much, and it complicates matters when dealing with the proof-reader and reviewers.
Finally. If you are co-authoring pick your buddy carefully. Many a book has faltered with 3 authors, where 2 authors make the deadlines, and the 3rd bails halfway through leaving your book project heavily delayed, and the project looking doubtful.
How Advances and Royalties work…
As far as I can tell few new authors understand how the business of print-media publishing works – and even few readers do. I’ve lost track of the number of folks who have asked me if I’ve bought a new Porsche with my royalties. If only they knew the realities.
Firstly, very few technical writers receive an advance. I have twice, but as far as I know its actually quite rare. Lets be 100% clear on what an advance is and how they work. It’s essentially payment upfront of the royalties. This means whatever the cheque states – you will have to “earn” back it in book sales. So if the advance is $10,000, and your royalty per book is $10 then you would have to sell 1,000 copies of you book – BEFORE you earn any more royalties. Advances are NOT free money that publishers pay to reserve your services or because they like you.
Why are advances so important to authors? Well, the process of normal payment of royalties is somewhat convoluted, and such it can be quite sometime until you as the author see any wonga. Here’s why the publisher (the manufacturer) has weird relationship with the books (online retailers like Amazon, or physical stores like Barnes & Noble). In this relationship the publisher provides N copies of your book (usually at some massive discount to Amazon). The retailer has the right to return any copies they couldn’t sell or that returned by the customer. Personally, I think this is very odd setup. For example if ran a store full of sweeties and newspapers, which I later found I didn’t sell – I would see that as my problem. I wouldn’t go back to the wholesalers or cash&carry – and say, I’m sorry I couldn’t sell these boxes of Snickers – can I have my money back?
This is the reason your royalties don’t come through very quickly. The publisher has to minus the amount supplied from the amount not sold or returned – to work out the actual number sold. In this relationship the publisher subsides and reduces the risk to the retailer. This is probably neither fair or equitable, but that is the nature of the business. But hey, your an author - remember your plankton, and Amazon is the killer whale…
For this reason advanced are excellent for the author – because its away of bypassing this dysfunctional relationship between publisher and retailer. It so dysfunctional you’d think the publishers would have thought of way of becoming their own retailers. They didn’t. The retailers became publishers instead using the ebook as the cost affective way of cutting the publisher out of the loop. Now in fairness I am bashing the publishers here a bit too much. Many publishers do have their online retail outlets such as Pearson and the VMware Press. BUT… when compared to the market domination of Amazon, there attempts do seem somewhat small-scale. Sadly, Amazon has captured the mindset of the customers – need book fast = Amazon.
In my experience the BEST deals don’t come from publishers. They come from software or hardware vendor who’s technology your writing about. I’m thinking of people like VMware Press, Cisco Press and Microsoft Press. Often this vendor backed “presses” are merely relationships with mainstream publishers like Pearson or McGraw-Hill. But your project will be back by a vendor who has deep pockets – and will often give you much better technical support than a publisher on their own could offer. Also it changes the relationship where the vendor is customer of the publisher. If you have a very good relationship with vendor – that can spill over to the way they handle you. They are much nicer to you. I think some time publishers are guity of seeing authors as a hired hack – your just-another-author to them. However, if their client (the vendor) indicates a strong preference for you to write a book then this can do much enhance your status in the publisher eyes. You are now pivotal to the project.