The downside of writing books–Part 2

You need a lot of personal tools to be a successful author. Over the years, I’ve developed a whole array of tools, including the book proposal format I use (which covers everything about a book you’d need to know before the fact–I’ll be talking about that in the next series of articles and even giving you an annotated copy to play with for your very own), a large network of people I can call upon with technical questions of all sorts (including a good friend who’ll periodically come over and fix my computer late at night in exchange for a sushi dinner with me), and my boundless optimism. These are some of the tools I have, but you won’t necessarily have any of these to hand. Part of your choosing to write a book should be to identify the resources you have available and how to solve some of the problems that may come up. Listing everyone you know, or at least, listing your technical contacts, will be helpful. (BTW, if someone does help you, even if it’s only answering a single question some evening, mention them in the acknowledgments.)

Tip: Don’t count on corporate support for a book when you’re looking at resources. Just because you’re writing a book about a product that will provide marketing for the product, improve the users’ ability to use and enjoy the product, and will let the company sell more of the product, you can’t expect the company to help you. Like many of the other things we do for clients, this doesn’t have to make sense… but it’s reality. Just because your book is a great idea and it’ll help the company and they like the idea, too, you still can’t count on the company’s help for ANYTHING. As one example of several, I’ve written a series of books on accounting software that do all of these things and the company refuses to support the project or acknowledge that the books exist because they have a “not invented here” attitude. I make money off of these, but the company has been enormously irritating to deal with over the years.

A lot of people who contract (me included) like the freedom of assignment combined with the large paychecks. But we still have a lot of structure in our lives, even as contractors. We’re hired to accomplish a fairly specific task by a specific deadline. The format, writing style, and content are largely predetermined. By contrast, writing a book has no safety net. It’s completely free-form. The format and writing style will be broadly dictated by the publisher, but there’s not a lot of structure beyond that. And, unlike contracting, you’re working with people in remote locations who you will probably never meet face-to-face and who may not have a great deal of understanding of what you’re writing about. As a matter of fact, YOU are usually the subject matter expert for the book, not the developer down the hall. The publisher will have a technical editor working on the book, but they’ll expect you to know what you’re talking about.

Probably the most important thing to consider is your significant other and family. You single people don’t have to worry about this–you’ll probably just remain permanently single while writing books–but people who are in relationships have to consider the effect that their absence is going to have on their significant other and family. Be sure to make some provisions for taking your sweetie out for dinner/movies/a weekend on a regular basis during the project and be extra nice to them when you’re done. I’m still learning to balance this one myself, but it’s important and will save you a lot of friction. Make a contract with your significant other and stick to it. And don’t be that surprised if halfway through a book, your SO announces that they are fed up with you being absent. Be prepared to negotiate some more if that happens.

One final downside that you should keep in mind: you can write a brilliant, award-winning book that’s critically acclaimed, lauded in the New York Times, and is quoted for 10 years thereafter… and it can still die on the vine and never earn out its advance, let alone make any money. It’s happened to me. Never spend your royalties before you earn them.

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