Do you need to know your topic when you start writing a book?

In a recent post, I described how you don’t need to have an idea to get a book. Yes, it can help, but it’s not necessary; there are plenty of books floating around publishers that need an author to have them assigned to. Easily half of my first dozen books were assigned to me by the acquisitions editors I was working with. They’d suggest ideas for books to me. Some of the ideas I said “No” to: I don’t know enough about programming to write programming books, for example. Others just didn’t grab me or didn’t grab me enough with respect to some of the other projects available to me at the time.

But let’s suppose you like an idea that’s been lofted by the ack ed and want to pursue it. They ask you for a proposal, you say “Yes,” they hang up, and you suddenly realize that you don’t really know the product or the software or whatever very well. Are you doomed? No, probably not. And unless you’ve gotten yourself into completely deep water far out of sight of land, chances are that you’ll be okay.

What you’re going to be doing is writing to learn, as William Zinsser described it in his book of the same name. (I recommend that you buy a copy of this and read it, btw. Zinsser’s books are very approachable and really quite entertaining.) You won’t know a great deal about the topic when you start, but you’ll learn an awful lot as you write the book.

My technique for writing on a topic that I don’t know much about is to take it apart and figure out what skill sets I need to master it. Once I’ve gotten the skill sets identified for the topic, I match my skill sets with the skill sets for the topic and do my best to “surround” it. I then start making connections to the remaining skills I need. In the case of software, I frequently will find that I have most of the skills necessary to use the software, but need some conceptual knowledge and a chance to play with the software to get an idea of what I’m doing. (Picking up software quickly has been an essential ability for me.)

Here’s another place where networking is going to help you: it’s a good idea to cultivate friends who know things you don’t so when you have a question or need someone to give you a quick rundown, they’re able to help. And never discount the wealth of resources on the Internet: look for training materials, exercises, documents, and FAQs. Many colleges post their course materials online. Googling for the topic plus “training” or “classes” can produce a surprising number of relevant hits.

You may not realize it, but you’re already writing to learn. If you write technical manuals or magazine articles, chances are that you’ve written about something you didn’t know everything about when you began. You might have known the previous version of whatever or the topic your article was about, but your research and experimentation filled in the holes in your knowledge. That’s writing to learn, too!

As I’m building the outline for something I don’t know very well, I rely on the structure presented in other books, in training materials, and anything else I can find to get an idea of the structure I want for the book. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever run into something that has the same outline and flow that I’d like to use for a topic.

Writing to learn may sound risky. It’s certainly more work than writing about something you’ve already mastered. But it lets you write a book and stretch yourself intellectually while doing so. There isn’t nearly as much risk as you might think, either. You’ll have an early measure of your ability to do this for a given topic: how well you do on your proposal. When you’ve created the detailed outline, you’ll have a feeling for what you can and can’t do. You can then make plans to fill in the holes in the outline and your knowledge.

On the other hand, if the topic’s too far afield and you can’t gain enough knowledge to feel comfortable, the proposal simply won’t happen. The proposal’s kind of a safety release in that way: if you can’t figure out enough of the material to create a good proposal, then you couldn’t possibly create a good book. In that case, apologize to your ack ed and say that you just don’t have enough knowledge on the topic to do well. It’s possible that your ack ed may nevertheless feel that the topic is something you can master (and they can give you some pointers on what you need to learn specifically) or that you might do well with a co-author who’s got product knowledge but lacks your writing skills… in which case, you’ll learn a lot about the product from working with an expert.

Writing to learn works. It takes some extra effort, but if you think about it, chances are you’ve already been doing it for a lot of other writing assignments.

“But what do I write about?”

I’m finally past the hump of having been to South by Southwest, getting home, and unpacking. Life’s been busy with learning how to get a book listed on Amazon and other busynesses, but I’m able to at last turn my attention back to the blog.

One of the many great things I attended while I was at South by Southwest was a party put on by Peachpit Press. Peachpit is a wonderful company that’s been in business for about 25 years. They’re based in Berkeley. Peachpit focuses on smaller technical books that are incredibly well-designed, short, and informative. I’ve never been dissatisfied with any Peachpit book I’ve read. I had the honor of writing two books for Peachpit 20 years ago, too. They’re lovely people to work with.

While I was at their party, I was chatting with a new author who’s written one book and really enjoys it. He was saying that he’d like to write more books but he wasn’t sure what to write about. It sounded like a blog topic and I said as much to him. (I touched on this briefly in an early blog post, but there’s more to be said.) The question is “Do need an idea to become an author?” The answer is “no, not necessarily.” Here’s why:

Many people have the technical skill to be an author and know that they’d like to get into this silly business; their problem is that they’re not sure what to write about. You can still identify general topics you’d like to write about and personal strengths in your writing. Even if this doesn’t point you at a specific set of topics to write about, it’ll help narrow the field. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, I do very well writing books about computer and software basics, stuff for the 1st– and 2nd-tier users. I wouldn’t do nearly as well for the senior developer because I don’t think I have enough coding knowledge these days… although I might be able to co-author a book on that topic with an author who does have the technical chops to do coding examples and so on. I also know that I’ve got a long history of co-authoring books and I rather like that. I have even batted clean-up in a few cases: gone in to pick up a project that someone else had been working on and had gotten jammed up and couldn’t work on anymore. All of these things go on my list.

With this in mind, I pitch an acquisitions editor saying that I can do all of this nifty keen things and does s/he have a project that needs an author. And you know… sometimes, they do. It’s easiest to approach a publisher if you have a book proposal in hand about a specific topic, but it’s also true that publishers will have ideas for books lying around on their desks that don’t have authors assigned to them. My very first book happened that way, in fact: I had pitched one book and they didn’t like it, but they said “Stick around, kid, we wanna work with you. How’d you like to write a book on Word?” Sure, what the heck? And lo! I became an author shortly thereafter.

If you want to try this bookwriting stuff out but you don’t have an idea in mind, don’t despair. If you’re already writing manuals or articles, look at what you’ve been writing about professionally. Add whatever other skills you can add to this list: for example, you may be a whiz at setting up computers, at cooking, or at helping your clients analyze their interior design needs. All of these add depth to your writing and increase the potential for a variety of non-fiction books. Good topic knowledge combined with writing ability is enough to sell most publishers on you as a potential author.

So, even if you don’t have a specific book idea to propose, a general list of topics may well be enough to start with. The publisher will be able to aim you in the right direction for the project they have in mind. They might say “Hmmm… I need a proposal on a book about muckle manufacturing in Lower Slobbovia by Thursday” and if you want to take a crack at it, you can grab that book template off the blog here and whip one out. They’ve provided you the basic idea and will tell you who they want you to write it for and how; all you have to do is figure out how you’re going to do that and write it. (Simple, huh?)

Do you need an idea to become an author? Nope. It may make it easier to get in the door, but it’s more important to be able to write and know where your strengths lie. Everything else you may end up making up as you go along.

Do you want to self-publish or go with a traditional publisher?

One of the questions I get asked a lot is “Should I self-publish or go with a traditional publisher?” A good friend asked me this today and I decided it was time for an article on the blog.

There are lots of good reasons to self-publish… and just as many to go with a traditional publisher. My answer is always “It depends on what you want to accomplish.”

Take the following simple test. Rank your desires for doing a book by numbering in order your reasons for doing a book:

  • Making money
  • Being famous for what you’ve written
  • The thrill of having a book to your name
  • Having someone else do all the layout/editing/printing/publishing/distribution
  • Having a product to sell as part of presentations or through one’s website

All done? Good. Okay, here’s how these things tend to work out.

Making money is a key question. If you have any market at all (and a way of reaching that market), you’ll make more money by self-publishing. For example, if your book is selling for $39.95 and you go with a traditional publisher, you’ll get between 10-15% royalty on the publisher’s net receipts on sales (generally about 50% of the cover price). This works out to about $2 to $3 a copy for you.

On the other hand, if you’ve printed the book yourself, you keep all the money for yourself. If you go the full route and print the books yourself, you can get 1000 books printed in China for $3 each, delivered to the US. Selling them at $39.95 means you get to keep $36.95 as gross revenue. You’d need to sell only 100 copies of that first 1000 to be in the black for your physical costs. Sell all 1000 copies of the book and you’ll have grossed maybe $35-37K, 12-18x as much money as through a traditional publisher. And that’s without distribution through Amazon. Self-publishing is all about the money.

You might not have space for 1000 books in your house or apartment or want to invest the $3K up front to print them. If so, you can go with print-on-demand (POD), where a POD vendor has a PDF of your book and the cover art and does onesie-twosie printing each time they get an order. This has the advantage of you not having to buy books up front nor store them. The POD vendor also handles the order fulfillment, which can be a pestiferous job in its own right. The POD vendor takes more money for all of this (maybe $9-$15 depending), but you’re still making oodles of money more than if you have a traditional publisher.

You may also want to write a book because you want to get your ideas out there. It always seems a little foreign to me, who likes the money, but there are people who want to write a book because they feel like they have something important to say. (I do, too, but it’s frequently a variation on the theme of “I’ve written something so cool that you just have to give me money for it!”) For people who just want their book out there, a traditional publisher is likely to be a better way to go. The traditional publisher has better publicity and distribution in place and they’ll get economies of scale that individual authors can’t manage.

A related reason for writing books is the thrill of having a book to your name. This can either be personal branding, where you’re publishing the book to establish your personal brand, or a “publish or perish” situation, where it looks good to have a book on your resume. Both are good reasons for writing a book. This one’s a gimme: you can publish a book either way and accomplish this goal, but it’ll get down to cases if this is your prime motivation.

You might want to go with a traditional publisher because you just like writing the stuff! I’ve had this feeling on several books. I just wanted to write it and not worry about anything else. If you don’t want to do all the work associated with producing a book, that’s just fine. But you may want to consider learning more about the process so you could do it if you wanted to; look at the potential for money if you do. You might split the difference and self-publish, find someone who can help you package the book. You hand them your ms. and they do all the rest of the work for a few. There are many companies that do that for people. Shoot, I do that for people. Talk to me. We can both make money.

An increasingly popular reason for doing a book is to have something to sell through your website and/or as part of presentations or courses that you offer. This is closely related to personal branding, but it’s more about the product aspect… and in this case, you definitely want to do this yourself! If you’re selling a book as a product, then you’re looking to make the most money you can.

What’s the right choice for you?

The big advantage of self-publishing is money. You can easily make 10x as much self-publishing as with the same book through a traditional publisher. The disadvantage of self-publishing is the amount of work you have to do on your own. Anything that needs to get done, you either have to do yourself or hire someone to do it for you.

The big advantages of a traditional publisher are exposure and simplicity. The traditional publisher will likely have a wider reach for marketing and distribution. The publisher also handles everything that’s not part of the writing… and if you’re mostly interested in just writing the book and not having to do anything else, that’s the way to go. The disadvantage of a traditional publisher is that you don’t make nearly as much money. If you’re in this to make money, it’s not as fast or as profitable.

Deciding what’s right for you is a function of your desires and your circumstances. FWIW, my last 26 books have been published with traditional publishers. The book I’m working on right now is going to be self-published (and I’ll be saying more about that as time rolls on). There’s no reason you can’t self-publish some books and go with a traditional publisher for others.

If you’ve got a niche market and a built-in clientele and mailing lists or lots of web traffic, self-publishing may be the way to go. If you don’t want the trouble and you don’t care about the money, talk to a traditional publisher.

Note: Okay, you may decide that you’re happy with a traditional publisher doing your book. Unfortunately for you, the traditional publishers may not feel the same way. This frequently happens if your book doesn’t have a big enough target market. A niche book that’s never going to sell more than 4000-5000 copies will get passed over by a traditional publisher, but that’d be a fortune for you if you self-publish. If that’s the case, embrace the opportunity to make a lot of money and learn more about the publishing process. And if you don’t want to do anything but write and are willing to pay someone else to handle the rest of the publishing process, for goodness sake, call me!

Repost: Revenge of the Technical Writer

For Friday, I’m reposting an excellent article titled Revenge of the Technical Writer from When Life Gave Me Lemons, I Made Lemonade… And Choked on the Pulp. It’s very apt.

This coming Monday, I’ll be starting a series on writing a winning book proposal. This picks up from the previous series on becoming an author. This series will show you how to develop a book proposal to pitch your ideas to a publisher. At the end of this, I’ll be providing you a template for creating book proposals.

Here’s the nicest part: You can also use this template for creating really boffo documentation plans as well with very minor changes. Trust me, you’ll love it.

Recommended reading list

There are several books on writing that you should add to your library:

The basics of contracts and what agents do. Required reading before you sign your name to a book contract. If you get interested, you should also buy the author’s Beyond the Bestseller, a clear look at the publishing industry and how it works.

The most commonly available source of information about publishers and magazines. There are profiles of hundreds of publishers and magazines, their focuses, and contact information. There are also profiles of a number of agents.

An exceptional guide (updated annually) for people looking for information about publishers and agents.

John Kremer’s book will excite you with the opportunities for marketing your books. Most of the ideas are ways to market your book over and above anything your publisher might be doing for you (though you can frequently get your publisher to do more by pitching ideas to them).

This book is a 12-week self-taught course on creativity. You can do it by yourself, but it really works best with a small study group both for the commitment and the interaction and insights. This is a vital component of examining and understanding your motivation prior to making a career change… and choosing to write books as a large part of your professional life is definitely a career change.

Although this is slightly tangential to being an author, this is an amazing book for the independent worker. Gerry makes his points by telling stories and creating aphorisms, maxims, and rules that stick with you, like “Rudy’s Rutabaga Rule: Once you solve your number-one problem, your number-two problem gets a promotion.” You’ll want to read this book every year.

An amazingly helpful book on how to keep clutter out of your life. Don Aslett runs a multi-million dollar cleaning organization and writes dozens of fun, approachable books on cleaning and organizing. This is a book no author should be without.

None of us are in this business for our health. This book gives you the basics on how to become rich and it won’t put you to sleep while you read it (unlike most other books of this kind).

Closing thoughts on becoming an author

Writing technical books sharpens all of your writing skills. Your ability to plan projects improves. Most authors notice that their writing speed increases dramatically the further they get into a book, usually to between 10-15 finished pages a day in the last stretch.

Writing technical books can be profitable. Furthermore, royalties are “found” income. You can expect royalties for several years after the book is published in addition to your current salary. Publishing a book also looks very good on the resume and impresses clients greatly.

Most importantly, writing technical books is fun. Although I like to joke that writing books is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer (“Because it feels so good when you stop!”), it’s been an incredibly valuable experience for me. When I got my promo copies from the publisher, I had a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Seeing my first book for sale in the bookstores was one of the great joys of my life, and it will likely be one of yours, too.

Writing the book–after

You dragged yourself across the finish line and the manuscript is safely in the publisher’s hands. It’s time to start wrapping up.

  • Put the book contract and any legal paperwork in your safe or safe-deposit box. You may want to keep a photocopy around for reference, but treat the originals with care in case you need them.
  • Make a final backup of all the files on your computer related to the book, including email, source files, proposals, illustrations, and chapter drafts, and copy them to CDs or DVDs. Make two copies of everything. Label the disks carefully with the date and the book name and store them in separate sleeves/holders (because you never know when one will go bad or get scratched). I strongly recommend just copying the files rather than using a backup or zipping program. If you use a backup program, you may not be able to recover the files five years later when the backup program’s gone away with that version of the operating system. (I had to do this once. It was a pest.) Wrap them in a plastic bag or two so they’re moisture-proof. Plan on keeping the files of your final chapter drafts on your computer for at least six months so they’re easy to refer to.
  • Next, make a stack of all the remaining paperwork for the book–chapter drafts, printouts, add the backup CDs/DVDs to the stack, and bag all of this in two or three layers of plastic grocery bags as a protective against water and mildew. If you’re in a particularly damp climate, put the double-bagged bundle(s) of paper in a large black trash bag. Squeeze the excess air out of the bag and fold it over, then put that in a box. Label the box with the book’s name and the date and store it on a high shelf. Plan on keeping this box indefinitely. You’ll first want it for legal archival purposes, then for a sense of history to show what you’ve done.
  • Send “Thank you” notes to the people who had to put up with you while you were writing, including your editor. I will frequently send assorted baklava from Shatila. It’s hard to go wrong with a tray of assorted baklava and it’s very inexpensive. Flowers, chocolates, and a dinner for your significant other are definitely appropriate. The wife of one author I know has a “Welcome Back” party for her husband every time he finishes a book. It’s something like a groundhog seeing his shadow. (If you do, it means six more weeks of revisions.)
  • Do something nice for yourself that gives you a sense of closure on the project. You’ve just completed a major effort; you deserve a little time off.
  • Start thinking about your next book. Once you’ve gotten one book under your belt, you’re very likely to want to start writing another one right away. See if the publisher has any projects coming up that you can work on.

Writing the book–during

You’ve got the contract, you’re banging out chapters, life is good. Here are some things to keep in mind during the writing process.

  • Store your backups away from the computer. If a fire breaks out in the office, it’ll toast whatever is there. If someone steals your computer, they’ll also take whatever disks, tapes, and/or CD/DVDs are lying around. Publishing contracts invariably make you responsible for maintaining a copy of your manuscript in a safe place. Also consider buying a small safe for more secure storage, but remember that fireproof safes just keep the contents from burning up. In a fire, the temperature in a fireproof safe goes high enough to erase disks and tapes.

Note: Don’t rely on a single backup format. These days, I use Carbonite (an automated online backup service I like), I periodically burn backup DVDs (which I’ll keep most of here and mail some of to friends in other cities), and I’ll even email files to myself because the files will then stay on the email server wherever it is. You can use Gmail and other free email services for this kind of offsite backup system: just attach a zip of files to your email and send it to your Gmail account and voila! I also have taken to using a 1Gb flash drive to hold an entire project’s files and carry it with me whenever I leave the house.

  • Learn your editor’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, several of my editors on computer books have been relatively unfamiliar with computers. This caused me some frustration at first trying to explain things, but I soon realized that this was a great asset. Whenever I presented a concept that was technical, I had to be able to explain it to a live, non-technical, person first, rather than just say, “The reader should be able to figure that out.”
  • Keep a journal of how you’re feeling about the project. Although this probably won’t help you during the first book, you’ll be surprised at how your patterns will repeat from book to book. Once you know your patterns, you can make more accurate plans and estimates based on your working style. After years of writing books, I know that I always hit a slow spot somewhere around chapter 6, after which I have relatively smooth sailing until just before the last chapter, at which time I need to take a long weekend off before the final push.
  • Make sure that the sound system in your office is in good repair. Buy a few extra CDs or treat yourself to something extra on iTunes, Pandora, or Hearts of Space.
  • Take a lot of vitamins. Take a 20-minute walk once a day to relax and to get exercise.
  • Keep a list of the people who have been helpful to you and remember them in the acknowledgments. Be sure to include everyone on the staff at the publisher who had anything to do with the book, even if it’s only a lump acknowledgment with a long list of names (which should be in alpha order for this kind of acknowledgment, by the way). Make sure that everyone’s name is spelled correctly and (oddly enough) that they want to be acknowledged in print–some people don’t.
  • Budget time after the manuscript is complete for questions, revisions, corrections, and reviewing the page proofs. Some of this will probably happen while you’re writing the book, but most of it is after you’ve handed off the last chapter to the publisher.

Writing the book–before

Writing a book (at the beginning) looks awfully simple. Here are some tips for the writing process that will keep it from being simply awful.

  • Let your calls roll to voicemail! Kiss your family and social life good-bye for a while. Explain to your friends that you can’t make social commitments right now. Prepare as if you were going to be away on vacation for a month or two. Figure out what you will have taken care of by other people. Don’t make any commitments for the month before or after the scheduled handoff.
  • Make sure that you have adequate disk space on your computer to keep the entire project online at once including first drafts, sample documents, spreadsheets, supporting programs, and so on. Also make sure that the computer you have is adequate to the task. Is it in good repair? Do you need a 21″ monitor? A color laser printer? A second CD-ROM drive or a DVD burner? If you’re writing about software, make sure that the computer also has enough processing power to really run the program as opposed to limping along.
  • Find out where you can make good, cheap photocopies in the middle of the night. You’ll probably need to, sooner or later. Also look into buying one of the inexpensive all-in-one printer/fax/scanner/copier units with a document feeder.
  • Be prepared for all contingencies: computer loss or breakdown, unavailability of anything and everything, loss of manuscript or art originals. For example, I had a hard disk crash in the middle of writing my first book. Because I had been making daily (and sometimes hourly) backups of critical files, I only lost the six hours it took me to restore everything to my other hard disk. No writing was lost, and I finished the chapter on schedule. You might even consider getting a second computer to drive your printer with and to act as a backup system if your primary computer goes down.

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.