A tale of publishing cluelessness

Since it’s Friday, let’s pause for something fun. I’d like to share a tale of publishing cluelessness. All the names have been removed.

In 1992, I got a call from an editor at Macmillan. (Okay, not all the names have been removed. but it was 20 years ago, so WTH? I don’t remember the editor’s name and I wouldn’t identify him if I did.) He had seen something I’d written for Windows magazine on hard disks and wanted to have me write a piece-for-hire for one of their books.

Just to fill you in, there will be many times when you have someone do a contributing piece for you in a book. You need someone to do a specific chapter that requires an understanding you lack or you may just get busy and need help to hit the deadline. This hole in your technical knowledge doesn’t have to be deep and profound; it can be something you don’t care to write about or even something you just don’t do nearly as well as someone else. (One of my co-authors still flips me attitude periodically over the fact that I can’t program the time on my DVR. Damn young whippersnappers, anyway!)

In cases like this, what you do is find someone who can write the chapter for you and you give them, like, $500 and an acknowledgment for their contribution to the book and a couple copies and the right to say “That chapter was mine!” on their resume (which can be very helpful both when applying for writing jobs and when breaking into publishing). In return, you get all rights to the chapter and you make your deadline. It’s done all the time, mostly with people who are new to the book-writing biz or they’re friends and they can be tapped for a favor. I’ve done it myself on a number of my books. It’s no big deal.

The editor explained they need to have someone write technical material on hard disks in the next few weeks for a book. They saw my article in Windows magazine and figured I might be interested. This was going to be hard technical writing where I had to dig out specs on a lot of different hard disks with many phone calls to engineers at various companies. I’d then build tables of the information and submit it to them on a tight deadline. It was a very substantial piece of hard technical writing he was after. Even though he was calling it a “chapter,” it was not your typical chapter-for-hire. This was real work.

Based on his build-up, which emphasized the fame that would accrue to me, I figured he was going to lowball me. Whenever fame comes up as a major selling point, it means “We’re not going to pay you much, so here’s everything else I can ring in to get you to say yes.” You may be willing to accept the fame–assuming there really is any–but it means that I should hold on tight to my wallet when they name the price. And Macmillan, at least the technical side, had a well-deserved reputation in them days for treating their technical authors very poorly. The words “cheap” and “abusive” kinda summed it up. (I have no idea what it’s like there now, so it could be lots better. I hope so.) I was running numbers in my head on how long this would take to write to see what it’d be worth to me while the editor was talking about the gig.

The editor had laid the groundwork for his pitch and said “We’re after 50 pages of technical material on hard disks by Friday after next and we’re willing to pay you”–there was a very slight pause for effect–“TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS!”

Okay, I had expected that they were going to lowball me but this was preposterous. I exploded laughing.

And I couldn’t stop.

I mean, I really couldn’t stop.

After about 20 seconds, I thought “Okay, I was prepared to be a little schnarky if he got cheap, but this is really silly!” And I managed to damp the laughing down to the point that I stopped.

And then the absurdity of his offer hit me again and I was whooping and snorfling into the phone again.

I damped the laughing again and then started laughing again. After a couple more tries, I finally stopped laughing. All this lasted about a minute.

The editor said calmly “I take it that’s not enough?” This set me off laughing again, but I managed to stop and I said “Well, let’s see: typical technical writing takes 4 hours a page but I’m a hot shot so I can do it at 2 hours a page, this is hard technical material and you want 50 pages, which is 100 hours, so if you’re going to pay me $250 for this, on a real rush schedule, that works out to two dollars and fifty cents a page, so naaaaaaaaaaaah”–right through the nose on that–“naaaaaaaaaaaah, I think I’ll pass.”

The editor–who was treating me far more civilly than I probably deserved–said “How much would you do it for?”

I said “Well, you could add a zero to that number and we’ll talk.”

“No, I can’t go that high.”

“How high can you go?”

“A thousand dollars.”

“That’s a better number, but that’s still only $10/hour, so I think I’ll pass. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you and I’m really sorry I laughed so hard, but it was funny.”

And we didn’t do business.

Is there a moral? Two things. First, don’t do business with people who aren’t going to pay you decently. $10/hour at the high end might’ve been barely enough if I was hurting or had nothing on my plate and was interested in the work for some reason, but starting the offer at such an incredibly low number was just insulting. The other moral is that I can be a real jerk on occasion. The editor was very polite to me and I don’t think I deserved it after laughing at his offer like that.

But it was funny.

Publishing a 3rd-Party Book: intellectual property agreements

Most companies have you sign an intellectual property agreement when you start, saying that anything you do under the auspices of the company that relates to the company’s business belongs to the company. Make sure that the publishing contract states explicitly that you, as the author, receive the author royalties and also make sure that you get something from the company that says that, notwithstanding your intellectual property agreement, you are the author of this book and that you are entitled to the royalties. If you don’t get this amendment, the company could legitimately come back to you and say that you owe them your royalties because of your standing agreement with them.

Speaking of intellectual property agreements, I should mention that I’ve always altered these when I am signing them. The line that says about how all intellectual property I develop that’s in any way connected to the company will belong to the company I make an insertion on and add the following:

This statement does not include, nor is it meant to include, books, magazine articles, training materials, or documents written for other companies.”

Depending on the company you’re dealing with, they may ask you to write down the names of the books and magazine articles you might be working on. Be as prolific and vague as possible because you just don’t know what you might find yourself doing in a year and a half.

It is easy to justify this by saying that you do all kinds of things for the STC, for writing students, and for other people. You also have a number of miscellaneous writing projects in the background that you work on occasionally, so it would be inappropriate to assign the rights to these, particularly if you’ve come up with these prior to coming to wherever it is that you are now. Only rarely have I ever had any kind of quibble; most people think it’s very cool that you’re an author and cut you a surprising amount of slack. (Hot tip: When discussing this, never use the word “moonlighting.”) The big thing about maintaining clear intellectual property rights is never to do anything outside the scope of your duties on company time or with company equipment: not only will that violate the agreement with the company, it’s just bad form.

Publishing a 3rd-Party Book: Being an employee

If you’re actually working for a company as an employee, there are several ways you can approach this. The first is to pitch this as an outside project, over and above your day job. I don’t recommend this! Unless you’re young and in good health and really like chronic sleep deprivation, this is a Bad Idea.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, writing a book will be the single biggest professional undertaking in your career to date. If this is your first book, you just have no idea how much work this is going to be. And if you’ve written books before, you’re still not figuring on how difficult it is doing a fulltime job in the day and then trying to put in another 6 hours of writing at night. You get pulled in multiple directions and that’s even assuming that you’re going to be working only a 40-hour week at the day job. (The only writers I know who end up working 40-hour weeks are hourly employees with tight overtime restrictions.) Your work in both venues will suffer, so don’t do it. Lay out for the company just how much time and energy it takes to write a book. Treat it like any big project and don’t let them whittle you down. (Use the facts and figures in the previous series of posts about the likely timetable.)

Now, you might be able to do something if you a guarantee in writing that you’ll be working half-time while you’re doing the book. I did this once when a database company I worked at was going through a cost-cutting phase and tried to get everyone to take a salary reduction (basically because the guy who ran the company was a fool who thought he knew how to manage money). I went half-time for several months and wrote a book with the other half of the time.

If you work for a company, I suggest that you pitch the idea of a book this way: you write the book. You get assigned the task of writing the book as your official job. You get your normal wages. You also take care of coordinating things with the publisher and doing all the legwork to set up the deal, and you get the royalties as described in the previous series of posts.

Typical questions and answers are:

Q. Why should we pay you a salary AND royalties?
A. First, because this requires special skills that are far above what you normally have me do here for salary, and second, because this will be more than an 8-hour day, particularly at the end of the process. I will definitely be earning the royalties. [Note: you really will, I promise. This is going to be grueling.]

Q. Why shouldn’t we get someone cheaper?
A. You can always get someone cheaper, but the value of having me do it is that I already am heavily familiar with the product I’m writing about and I know where to go for all the internal information. Any other author you get, even if they’re local, will not have the product history I do nor the knowledge of the people in the company. Expertise is not something you can pick up overnight. Also remember that I have product knowledge, I know how to put the publishing deal together, and I have the internal company contacts. Each of these skills can be found elsewhere, but it’s very difficult to find all three of them in one person. And if you do find them, it’ll be clear to them that you need them very badly, so their price will probably go way up. The bottom line to all this is the bottom line: you’ll get the book you want faster and better with me than with anyone else.

What I’m describing is going to require a fair amount of negotiating skill on your part, but it’s worth it. And FWIW, this is no worse than the negotiating you need to do with publishers if you don’t have an agent. Don’t doubt me when I say that you’re going to earn all the money. It’s an awful lot of work you’re setting up for yourself.

It’s possible that you’re going to deal with management that’s too cheap to want to pay you anything other than your salary. At that point, look at the deal and ask yourself how much writing a book is worth to you professionally. Be prepared to walk away from the table and say “No, this is way too much work and I’m not going to do this for just my salary. Thanks all the same.” (I’ve done this on book deals: if the money’s not good enough, I’ve told them that I don’t work for that little.) In particular, get a signed deal that you won’t be working more than 40 hours a week: books can easily become The Job That Ate My Brain.

Publishing a 3rd-Party Book: NDAs

I got a comment on the recent series about publishing a 3rd-party book about your company’s products that said:

I’m not sure about where you work, but almost everywhere I’ve worked, such a book would either violate my non-disclosure agreement, or any profits I earn on such a book would belong to my company under the terms of my employment contract.

Great question! Let’s talk about this. In fact, I’ve written so much that I’ve got several blog posts to add by way of answering this question.

When you write a book for publication about anybody’s product whether you work for the company or not, you’ll be privy to internal information that will be covered by a non-disclosure agreement. If you’re writing about a new release of a product, it’s almost certain you’ll need to sign an NDA because what you find out before the product is released will be valuable information to the company. But the important part is that none of this will be going into the book.

The things that are covered by the NDA that you need to know are things like:

  • What the new version of the product does before it’s released (but after it’s released, it’s not a trade secret)
  • How many people use the product and what percentage of those upgrade to a fancier product? (This information doesn’t go into the book, but it’s important to know to help focus the book and to pitch it to the right group.)
  • Are there similar products in the company being developed that may affect this book? Can you do a similar book for a “lite” version that may be about to be released?
  • What sales/marketing pushes are coming up that you can piggyback on? (Once the push happens, it’s not a secret either.)
  • Is the company about to buy another company that would have products that are supporting/competing with this one?
  • Is the product you’re suggesting to write about going to be discontinued soon?

As you can see, this information is vital for planning the book and writing it, but it’s not something that ever needs to go explicitly into the finished book.

More thoughts on readability

I had a few more thoughts on readability to share. Making sure your text has a low Gunning Fog Index is not the only thing you can do to improve your readability. There are broader things that will help as well.

The first of these is good structure. The old saw about telling someone what you’re going to tell ‘em, telling ‘em, then telling ‘em what you told ‘em, is still true for good technical communication of any kind. Give your readers enough information to whet their interest and to give them a mental framework to understand what’s coming soon. Then give them the explanation that they’re there for, and close with a summary of what they learned.

The next idea is parallelism. Parallelism sets your readers’ expectations and fulfills them. If you’ve told ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em at the start of the last four chapters, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be looking for the same thing at the start of the fifth chapter. And when they get there, they’ll be able to get the hang of what you’re doing that much faster. Parallel structure in your writing is comforting to the reader. There’s a general rule of “no surprises!” that works really well. (Yes, you can break the rules periodically, but you need to follow them most of the time.)

Hand in glove with parallel writing is an established and understandable format. Make the format support the writing. Don’t use too many fonts, make the hierarchy in the heading levels self-explanatory, and have plenty of white space. Just to let your readers know what to expect, have information up front in the introduction in a “How to Use This Book” section that lists all your formatting conventions. Show what bold, italic, underlining, different fonts, and so on mean. Give examples of notes, tips, cautions, and warnings.

Illustrations and graphics are very good. They add a measure of interest to the text and give the visual learners something to latch on to. The “Dummies” books are very good examples of using margin art to support the text. Even a set of standard graphics to highlight heading levels, notes, and definitions will give your readers a level of visual excitement that can turn a good book into a dazzling book.

And, as Richard Hamilton pointed out on yesterday’s post, just because you use a small word, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best or most understandable word. I was in a meeting Thursday where the leader used the word “onus.” It’s a wonderful word and it was perfect for the venue (another good, short word, come to think of it), but it’s a high concept word that may actually decrease readability. “Responsibility” would’ve had generated a higher grade level on a purely mechanical readability score, but it would’ve been a better word for most audiences to give them better comprehension.

Those are all the thoughts that I had this morning before caffeine had seeped into my brain. What do you think adds to readability?


I know people working at a contract right now with some specific house style requirements. Some of the house rules are:

  • Avoid using “that.” Most uses of “that” are actually unnecessary.
  • Ditto “all.” There are some cases where it makes sense, but the typical usage is something like “Sort all the parts in the bin.” In this case, “all” is really not adding anything.
  • Avoid “you” when writing. (Years of writing books make this one scrape my nerves.)
  • Avoid contractions. (Again, it’s a little tighter and friendlier with contractions.)

All this (or just “This,” as some would have it) brings me to a discussion of readability.

Readability is simply a measure of how easy it is for your readers to understand you. There are a number of metrics for measuring basic readability, all of which look at the sentence length, word complexity, and punctuation marks, and then do something arcanely mathematical with these data points.

There are a lot of different readability indexes, including Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning Fog Index, and several dozen others. The first two of these are available in Microsoft Word in the proofing options. The Gunning Fog Index is available here. You just plug a chunk of text in and hit “Calculate.” Most tests measure in grade level—what grade would you expect someone to be able to read this?—but some measure in 1 to 100. I prefer grade level, as it’s easier to envision this how the writing will be received by my audience.

I’m not going to tell you what formulas these use, as it’s not important. You’ll find online testing options for most of these on the net, so when you have a method you prefer, you can plug sample text in and see how it reads. It doesn’t matter which you use as long as you’re consistent. With all of them, the lower the score, the easier the text is to understand.

It is rarely a problem having your readability too low. In fact, the lower your readability, the better the chances your audience will understand things. My favorite example of how you can communicate big ideas with small words is a great piece of writing that describes Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in words of four letters or less. (Go look; I’ll wait. It’s worth it.)

What is so totally cool about this piece is that the Gunning Fog reading level on this comes out to about 5.5. That’s incredibly low for technical writing of any kind, but Brian did a great job. You still get a clear picture of how relativity works.

I know a number of people, including academicians, government workers, and doctors, who really love saying things with big, meaty words. The reading level of their writing is frequently in the 20s and it’s largely impossible to figure out what they’re saying. I’ve asked them about this and there are several factors for why they like writing so much dense garbage:

  • Big words prove that they’re qualified to write this. (Absurd, but do go on.)
  • Big words ensure that I, the reader, am qualified to read this. (They should be happy I’m even trying without making me want to hurl their stuff across the room.)
  • Big words prove that they’re smart. (That’s not communicating; that’s just shoving their college degree up the reader’s nose.)

Anybody can write drivel. Many people do. It takes a qualified writer to produce something intelligible. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive belief in these folks that they won’t be perceived as qualified or smart if they don’t write such dense crap. This may even be true, but it should be noted that you may just be dealing with a whole lotta phony assholes hiding behind their degrees, too.

You don’t have to bring everything down to “1984”-style Newspeak, where things are doubleplus good and you have to drink victory gin while writing. But when you’re selecting choosing words, you will communicate make your point better with your audience readers if you use words that aren’t as esoteric strange and are more comprehensible easier to understand and more concise shorter.

Where do you get your ideas?

As I wrestled a bit to get back in the saddle of writing this blog after moving, I thought “I need some more ideas for blog topics,” and this idea almost immediately popped up as an obvious topic. So let me talk about fiction writers a bit and then I’ll get to nonfiction writers. Trust me, it’ll be a pleasant journey.

Fiction writers get asked “Where do you get your ideas?” all the time. Many of them have written about this, somewhat in self-defense. My favorite classic answer is that of Harlan Ellison, who, when asked this question for the thousandth time, replied “Schenectady.” This rapidly evolved to a whole shtick about a post office box in Schenectady that was home to a circular of ideas that you could subscribe to and use. Locus Magazine, the zine for SF & fantasy writers, used to run this one into the ground on a regular basis for decades. It was fun.

Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful essay about coming up with ideas. He recounts many of the schnarky answers he’s given to people over the years, but he’s finally just started telling them the truth of where they come from: “I make them up. Out of my head.” He talks about making an appearance for his 7yo-daughter’s class and telling them “When I was your age, people told me not to make things up. These days, they give me money for it.” Gaiman also said “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it. You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just What if…? Another important question is, If only…?”

(Go read it. It’s a very good essay.)

Sidenote: At Worldcon last month, Dean Wesley Smith was on a panel and said “I get paid to sit in a room and make stuff up.” Chris York, who was on the same panel, replied “I write mysteries. I get paid to kill people.” We get to make stuff up and get paid for it.

Orson Scott Card once gave a workshop at an SF con in Seattle entitled “1000 Ideas in an Hour.” The focus of this was not that ideas are the hard part; most writers have far, far more ideas than they can ever use. To prove it, he spent an hour working with a fairly large audience riffing on all sorts of things, all of which could make for interesting stories or novels. I remember that there was a whole extended set on an alien race that was intelligent 4’ long alligatory things. He suggested overpopulation, climate change brought about by indiscriminate use of natural resources, taboos related to reproductive urges, and probably another half-dozen ideas about how one could take this concept of alien gators and do interesting things in a story with them. (20-some years ago and this one session sticks in my mind.)

But all of this is about fiction writing, where people have a certain amount of free range in the things they can come up with for ideas. Where do NONFICTION writers get their ideas?

Well, for me, it’s just like Neil Gaiman says: I make them up. Out of my head.

There are a few differences in the process. For one thing, I’m generally not allowed to write about intelligent saurians unless there’s some way I can tie this into something real. (That pesky nonfiction dictum gets in the way again!) But I also get to write things that fiction writers don’t get to write, such as a coffee-table book of the history of men’s ties. Or the development of indoor plumbing (which is a fascinating story.) Or a million possible things on cooking (whether using saurians as an ingredient or not). All of these things are possible book ideas, worthy of consideration for at least a moment.

Neil Gaiman’s suggestions for saying “what if?” and “if only….” are both very relevant. For example, I got into writing books by saying “If only there were a book that showed people how to use about bulletin board systems.” At the time, there’d been a few books that hinted at the edge of what I was wanting, but there was nothing that really sat you down and said “Here’s how you do it!” Similarly, my fifth book, “Winning! The Awesome & Amazing Book of Windows Games Tips, Traps, & Sneaky Tricks,” started by me saying “What if there were a book about the Microsoft Games (which were currently shipping without documentation of any kind) that told people how to play them, how to cheat at them, and interesting things they might want to know?” (FWIW, if you ever saw anything about how to cheat at Windows Solitaire or Minesweeper, you learned it from this book, even if indirectly. NOBODY knew how to do it until I looked up the developers and talked to them.)

Some of this can be mundane: “There’s a new version of Word out; I’ll write a book on it.” But fiction can be a bit mundane in that regard, too, with follow-on volumes to a preceding book or series. Much of the heavy lifting is done with character and world development and you can rely as much as you like on elements you’ve already established.

The what-ifs and if-onlys can be simple: What if there was a book on using Firefox? What if I could just give my youngest a book of lifeskills when she went off to college? What if there was a basic guide on socializing birds so they make the best pets? If only I knew how to set up sound systems and connect them to my computer, I could get music and digital video throughout my house. If only I could figure out how to decorate the house on my own, I could save a ton of time and money and be sure that I’d get something I really liked. If only I could brew my own beer, I’d have good beer in the house whenever I wanted.

Because nonfiction is also about teaching people things, you should add another standard question to the list: “How can I…?” How can I get an executive-level job without a college degree? How can I bake sourdough bread? How can I tune and maintain my car by myself? How can I learn to paint watercolor landscapes? (“I want to know….” is closely related to this, but it includes histories, biographies, books about films, and many other kinds of passive knowledge.)

Possibly the biggest difference is that the books that I (and most nonfiction authors) write are oriented somehow towards the idea of “Will this book make money?” Sure, there are nonfiction books that one could write for the satisfaction of doing so, but it’s my casual belief that nonfiction authors may be geared more towards making money with their writing than fiction authors. I’m not saying that we do make more money, but we may think about it more. I could be completely wrong on this: most fiction authors I know are keen on the idea of selling what they write, but unlike me, they may not know to whom they’re going to sell it before the fact. Since nonfiction writing is usually aimed at a specific audience or publisher or magazine before the fact, the question of sales has frequently already been dealt with before characters show up on the screen. (Again, I may be pulling this completely out of my hat. Feel free to disagree vehemently.)

But the point is that, just as with fiction, ideas for nonfiction books are cheap. Ideas are lying on the street like stray pennies. You can find them everywhere about literally anything. (If only I could get a job as an international courier, I could see the world for nothing.) There’s no telling what might trigger you to think of something, or when. (How can I reduce the number of drugs I take for my diabetes?) It’s the implementation of the idea that makes most of the difference. There might not be a market for a particular book, but that’s a second process. A new book on understanding the internals of the Commodore 64 is not going to ever see the light of day but a book on how to buy junked Commodore 64s and build a quick-and-dirty network to run the entire operation of your family farm or business for a total cost of a dollar-three-ninety-eight might actually be interesting. Determining the value of an idea is different from coming up with it in the first place. And FWIW, as you get more practice with generating ideas, you can start to generate better ones just through experience.

If you don’t think of yourself as generating a lot of book ideas, try this: carry a notebook and write down every idea you find yourself thinking of that would make a nonfiction book. Don’t edit this for things you think would be good nonfiction books; just go for ideas. Chances are you won’t make it an hour or two before you realize just how many ideas you’re generating. Most of them won’t be worth more than the amount of time you gave them when you wrote them down, but you don’t need even one good idea a day to have all the ideas you could need to keep your plate full.

Your ideas aren’t coming from a PO box in Schenectady. They’re always there in never-ending abundance, right in your head.

Serial commas? Definitely!

I’ve always been a huge fan of serial commas, even before I knew what they were. It comes from growing up reading older books that all used serial commas religiously. There is a push by many to eliminate them as “unnecessary” and I disagree. It makes comprehension less clear for the reader. I’ve seen many examples of this, such as the classic apocryphal book dedication lacking a serial comma–“I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”–but this example adds a good visual element to drive the point home. Thanks to whatever uncited soul did this picture, btw; I found it on FB and I will gladly provide full credit and links to whomever did this in the first place.

Why you need the Oxford serial comma
Serial commas are a good thing!

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Summary

The advantages of doing books about your company’s products are many: you can control your marketing niche, you establish yourself as a force to be reckoned with in your field, and you will reduce your support costs while increasing customer satisfaction. Keep in mind that, if the author’s point of view is that writing a book is a lot of work with only minimal amounts of fun during the process, coordinating the effort necessary to create the same book is at least as much work… but probably with most of the fun removed. Nevertheless, creating a book for your company’s products is a lot like having a baby: when you finally see it, you tend to forget all the pain and effort that went on in the months before and you say “I’m so proud! This has to be the most beautiful one in the whole world!”

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Splitting the difference

Earlier, I described how it probably wasn’t worth your while to self-publish. Depending on your needs, though, you may be able to split the difference between self-publishing and the three-corner deal described in the previous posts on this subject. For example, for a couple hundred books, you might use Lulu.com. The production quality and formatting won’t be anything fancy, but it’ll be a book with a slick cover. (Lulu.com books are pretty good and I like them, but buying something that looks really good can be very expensive per copy.)

If you want to do a run of a couple thousand books (or more), you may be able to talk to a small, specialty publisher. For example, Double Tall Press, XML Press, and Scriptorium specialize in smaller niche markets. There are dozens of other small publishers that may be able to provide you with boutique services but still keep your per-book costs down on smaller runs.

The biggest disadvantages to most of these is that they don’t have big departments and budgets for distribution and marketing. However, if most of what you need is someone to help you produce a book and you can then market yourself, this may be a viable option.