Writing Tech Books 101

March 2, 2009

In lieu of a topic more focused on technical subject matter or practical application, I decided to take a post and detail some of my experiences in writing a book. It's not actually published yet, but I do have an agreement established with an excellent publisher and I should be turning in the edited manuscript come next month. It's been quite the long haul, but I think being able to hold a copy of it in my hands will make it all worth it. So, here is the process as I've learned it from my own perspective.

Be Serious

Writing a book is a nice idea to mentally toy with, but if you resolve to actually commit to doing it, be serious about it. The process of writing a book generally takes months upon months of work. In my case, I'm trying to get it done while holding down a full-time job, helping to maintain a household, and (really trying to) have a semi-balanced family life.

To be quite blunt, writing this book been a black hole for what little free time I had before I started writing it. When I'm not working or helping to wrangle the kids, I'm writing. While I try to intersperse some more recreational activities into my schedule, it's difficult to do with a deadline looming. So, bottom line, don't commit to the idea if you aren't willing to follow through on it.

Know Your Reasons

While the purpose of technical books is mainly to propagate knowledge to an interested audience and produce profit for authors and publishing companies in the process, the reasons behind the task of writing technical books have a bit more variation to them. Whether you're going through a publisher or self-publishing, it's important to know why you want to write a book before you commit to doing so.

One of the bigger mistakes you can make is publishing a book and expecting it to produce a big pay-off. There's very little money in technical books. Their sales are generally lackluster at best, even when the author is fairly well-known.

By and large, the reason to write a technical book is for credentials. It's an accomplishment that looks impressive to industry peers and prospective employers, and rightfully so for the amount of work and the meager monetary benefits involved. Draw upon the experience of others to get a sense of what you're getting into before you commit to it.

Have a Concrete Idea

Nailing down what you want to write a book about isn't as easy as it sounds, but trying to proceed without one is only going to result in frustration and wasted time. Coming up with a general topic is easy, but specific subtopics takes some deeper thought.

Books generally have organization to them, like chapter and section subdivisions and so on, which make the book easier to consume in portions and grok in general. So, it wouldn't be in particularly good form to have your hypothetical work come across to prospective publishers or readers as you putting brain dumps on a page.

Even if you plan to self-publish, the preliminary documentation that publishers generally require from potential authors is a useful tool to help you tighten up your initial idea, so start there.

Put Pen to Paper

Write a synopsis of the book. Think of this as what's likely to go on the back cover of a published copy. Its job is to present an elevator pitch to prospective readers by summarizing the book's premise and why they should read it.

Make it concise (a few hundred words) but informative. Only hit the high points of what you intend to cover in the book itself. This together with the market analysis are what publishers are likely to look at first, so make them both good.

Draft a chapter outline. Include titles and bullet point lists of subtopics. Try to limit each point to a sentence or two summarizing what areas the chapter will cover. This doesn't necessarily have to be set in stone once you actually start writing or get a publishing deal (though in the latter case it depends on the terms of the deal).

Put some hard thought into what information you'll present and how you'll organize it. Your goal is to minimize the level of difficulty involved in readers consuming it. Try to establish a logical progression of high-level concepts.

Do Your Homework

Prepare a market analysis. This doesn't have to be as fancy as it probably sounds. Look around popular online bookstores (or more inconspicuous ones and see what books already exist that relate to your topic.

How will yours be different to distinguish itself in the market? Would it end up just rehashing what's already out there? How saturated is the market or how much competition would you have against other books?

Also, who is your target audience? What subtopics are they likely to want to know about? Answering these questions will give you a rough idea how well your book would fare once it was complete and on the market.

Shop Around

Examine closely what your options are for publishing. While you may not be out to write a book for profit, that's no reason not to try to maximize the potential for profit. While self-publishing has the benefit of yielding a lot more profit to the author, it also contributes little or nothing in the way of promoting your book.

Publishers may offer help here, but it depends on the publisher and what channels they may have access to in order to make your target audience aware that your book exists. What you make per sale and the availability of promotional avenues are both important considerations. Some popular publishers with a focus on technical books include O'Reilly, Apress, and Wrox.

Also look at publishers specific to your area, such as (php|architect if you're going to be writing about a PHP-related topic. Which publisher to go with versus self-publishing is a good discussion to have with peers who have already authored books.

Find Editors

At this point, you should know which publishing avenue you're going to follow. If you're going through a publisher, they may assign you someone on their staff to serve as your technical editor. They also may simply tell you to find your own editor and simply hand them the edited manuscript by the deadline you've established.

The value of a second pair of eyes on your work is not something to underestimate. Ideally, this person will be someone you get along well with, someone who is reliable and mirrors your commitment to turning out quality work, and someone who is already at least somewhat familiar with the intended subject matter of the book.

In my case, I had to find a technical editor for myself, and I just lucked out and got an awesome one.

Nose to the Grindstone

So now you've got your idea, your publishing avenue, and your technical editor. You're all set to crank out the book.

There's no silver bullet to time management or pulling the content out of your head. The time required to do it varies with you, your daily schedule, and the length and complexity of the book.

The only sure-fire approach is to find the time, put your nose to the grindstone, and write and edit until you've got a polished work that everyone agrees on, your deadline has passed, or you keel over from sheer exhaustion. This is certainly the bigger and more difficult part of the process, but certainly not the end even when the final manuscript is turned in.

That's Not All, Folks

Some publishing contracts even go so far as to stipulate that the author will have some responsibilities with regard to promoting the book. There's a reason for this: even outstanding technical books can flounder in the market without adequate promotion. While some sales may come from word of mouth and the merits of the book itself, promotion is where the bulk of the sales will come from. So how do you accomplish this?

  • Industry conferences are a great place to interact directly with your target audience and promote your book, particularly if you submit a paper and get accepted to be a speaker. If you do speak, include it in your slides and mention it verbally to attendees.
  • Put a link on your professional web site or blog to a page from which a prospective reader can purchase your book quickly and easily.
  • Cite the book in your résumé. (One of the major perks of writing a book, so take advantage of it.)
  • Put it on your business cards. (You do have those, right?)
  • Include it on your profile and communications on social networks like Twitter. If they give you the means, watch public communication channels for opportunities to promote your book to people who seem interested in the topic (though be sure to follow rules of engagement when doing so).

Go Forth and Write

Hopefully this blog post has given you some insight into what the process of writing a technical book is like, what to look for, and what to expect.

While its tone may be a bit on the pessimistic side, don't take that as an indication that I think writing a technical book is a bad idea. Just make sure you're doing it for the right reasons, that those reasons are your own, and that you want it badly enough to put in the time and energy required to see it through to completion.

I look forward to seeing your name on a book cover one day. Until then, keep an eye out for my book (aiming for the second quarter of this year) and hopefully I'll see you at a conference very soon.