Hacking Computer Books

I’m in the middle of ‘proofs’ for Adding Ajax, which is never a terribly fun experience. You can only fix errors during proofs, because the layout of the book and the indexing can’t change. You don’t have time for anything major; to spend a lot of time rewording phrases you might not be as happy about. It’s also typically the time when a computer book author will see ‘content editing’, whereby someone in the publisher has ‘polished’ up the writing –a process that can leave you feeling disconcerted. Even a little down.

It’s discouraging, at times, being a computer book writer because we’re not really treated as ‘authors’. Someone like David Weinberger will take 2 years to write Everything is Miscellaneous, get a nice advance for doing so, have a rollout party, and then lots of people will write reviews. The publisher will send him around to places to talk to folks and typically pay the tab. The only time computer book authors get ‘sent’ to a place to talk is if we pick up the tab, and usually we have to have another reason for being at an event–such as doing a presentation, if we’re so lucky as to have our proposals accepted. Being an author is no guarantee of acceptance.

As for the tech community, I’ve had so many people ask me what open source projects I’ve been involved with. What have I done to give back to the community, I’m asked. I point to my books, many of which are on open source technologies. Writing isn’t the same, I’m told. The code we lay down in the book isn’t ‘really’ code, and therefore we don’t garner any ‘street cred’ for writing about technology–only creating something.

Ask all but the ‘star’ computer book authors, of which I am not one, and I bet they’ll all say the same thing: typically, we’re not taken seriously. One link to an application is worth more than five links to books written. But in the book community, we’re just ‘hack’ writers, writing to a formula.

Yet for all that we’re writing to a so-called formula, it’s an enormous amount of work to write a computer book. We not only have to write, we also have to create little mini-applications all throughout the book. We have to second guess what our readers are going to want to see; balance the use of word and code so that neither is too much; use the right amount of bullets and figures; and basically try to mix in enough of the human element to keep the writing active and entertaining, without compromising its quality. Our code must be error free and innovative. Once finished wih the code, we’re faced with other problems related to syntax: would that be better as a colon? Comma? Period? Sentence too long? Sentence too short?

All of this gets packed into 3-5 months, depending on the size of the book. This for a book that is effectively double the size of David’s Everything is Miscellaneous.

People will say that David’s book is ‘different’. Somehow, his writing is more creative, his ideas broader, his reach further. More people will be impacted by his book. It is somehow grander in the scheme of things. This is highlighted at every facet at the book publication process, and when the computer book author rolls a book out–other than reviews at a few sites, a note at the publisher, and comments at Amazon–there is no major drum roll to announce the book. No rollout parties. No press. It’s just another computer book.

Then, from time to time, you get a note in your email. Someone will tell you how much your book helped them. These notes are our champagne bottles, our corks going off. I guess everything is relevant in addition to being miscellaneous.

Enough of such maundering. Back to the proofs.

This entry was posted in Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Hacking Computer Books

  1. That’s one reason why I haven’t really pursued books. Face it, if it’s not something that you’d see on Oprah, then it’s hackery. No matter the work, sweat, and yes, creativity you put into it, it’s not “real” writing.

    Computer Books are the literary version of the Fantasy Art Ghetto.

  2. I know how you feel, Shelley. Writing computer books can be a good living and you often hear from readers who appreciate your work, but it’s completely absent the kind of attention that more popular authorship attracts.

    On the plus side, a successful computer book can make a lot more money than a bunch of other genre authors.

    But these days, if I find a technical subject worthy of becoming a book, I think first about whether it would be more successful as a blog.

  3. … get a nice advance for doing so …

    I suspect he didn’t really get all that much, in a relative sense, and any significant size is more a function of his own marketing network than any other factor. To give David his due, he’s notably open about the mechanics of his business (my phrasing), and books aren’t the money-makers. The books are mainly promotional brochures for his corporate marketing consulting. And they integrate with his being a conference-animal.

    You could try to do something similar – use the computer books to promote yourself as An Expert, get guru-sized consulting rates. Again, the key point is that the money doesn’t come from sales of the books themselves, but that the books are the way you get a corporation to pay you lots of money for your expertise on the subject.

    Note people don’t just give him this attention – he tirelessly works the attention-circuit on his own too. For example, his function at the Berkman Center is essentially to market them, and in return, they will market him. It’s a great attention-exchange for both.

    If you wanted to do something similar, you’d need to find some think-tank to give you a prominent position. Note – with full awareness of the issues – e.g. the BlogHer folks are addressing this problem to some extent.

    Of course, it is not easy, because there are lots of other people with the same idea :-(.

  4. Shelley says:

    “Note people don’t just give him this attention – he tirelessly works the attention-circuit on his own too. ”

    I agree, Seth, and know that David works hard at this. I’m not knocking the attention he gets so much as demonstrating the differences in the publication process with both types of books.

    No matter how much attention I attempt to generate, it won’t make a difference, Seth. I’m writing computer books. About the only marketing effect I’ve seen be successful within this industry is the For Dummies books and the Head First books. Even now, both series are losing their
    ‘oo, shiny’ feel and though both still do very well, it’s not phenomenal, as they once were.

    Even then, most people don’t even bother to read the author’s names associated with any of the books.

    So what you’re saying really doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless I want to write a book about the technology industry…but not about tech.

    Not ‘real’ writing — there’s a lot in that statement.

  5. Shelley says:

    Rogers, I’m not so sure that writing computer books and making a good living are synonymous. I’ve had one bestselling book that paid enough in a year to be a ‘good living’. I can guarantee it wasn’t the book on RDF.

    My books seem to do well, but I’m not rolling in dough.

  6. Shelley, I think computer book writers can get the kind of ‘cred’ you’re talking about if the book in question is the first/only/best one on a topic with a self-identified community.

    So a ‘dojo’ book, or a ‘jquery’ book would likely get you significant cred within those communities. Which is useful as long as those libraries are ‘hot’.

  7. Oh, one other thing… a definite way to get cred in an open-source community is to write free documentation. This is *definitely* appreciated as a contribution to the project.

    The bias against book-code is a knee-jerk reaction to the assumption that a dead-trees book will be out of date very soon, and no-one will be able to fix the examples because the code isn’t under an open license.

    I’ve seen several free documentation projects that were then picked up and published as dead-trees books. The authors got extra cred for the two-fer.

  8. I’m not so sure that writing computer books and making a good living are synonymous. I’ve had one bestselling book that paid enough in a year to be a ‘good living’.

    It’s a good living if you churn out the books and have the good luck and/or talent to have some perennial best-sellers. But it’s also cyclical, and the boom sparked by HTML in the mid-’90s is long gone.

    I’m more of a web publisher these days because I couldn’t write books fast enough to stay on the hamster wheel of prosperity.

  9. Shelley, I didn’t mean you could get Public Intellectual Cred. I meant Fat Consulting Fees.

    This is an underexamined part of what drove the RSS vs. Atom wars (not the whole of it by any means, but I think people who sneered “ego”, and stopped at that point, were missing an important aspect) – and also part of why there is a Grip Of Death on the RSS 2.0 specification, even unto the tiniest clarification.

    Being known as The Expert on a technology can be profitable – NOT in terms of selling books, but in terms of companies who hear flavor-of-the-month is hot, and want a guru on board to advise them and oversee their implementation.

    I have to disclaim I haven’t gone down this route myself, but I’ve seen enough of it to get a sense of the economics and how one works the market. Conferences are a big part of it, because that’s where the Gurus pitch the Executives as to why the latter should hire the former. And books – computer books are the brochures there.
    (this is also part of the “un-conference” idea, why pretend you’re there to do anything other than pitch, just do it outright, and eliminate the formal conference organizer’s cut of the costs).

  10. Laura Lemay says:

    Oh right. I had forgotten about that little stab in the heart. About how writing about technology makes you a failed writer AND a failed technologist. Yay. Sob.

  11. Shelley says:

    Seth, grip of death on RSS 2.0 is right. Long live Atom. No offense, Rogers.

    As for channeling book authorship into something profitable…oh my that sounds lovely.

    Laura, some day you’ll have to write that long post on why you quit writing computer books. I’m beginning to get a feel where you’re coming from.