Writing Hacks: Desist

The book progresses, but not quickly enough. I’ll have to reach to meet my deadline. My biggest challenge from a time perspective is trying to find relatively fresh, fun ways of looking at topics, which have been discussed to death online and in other books. Especially since I’m not known to be either a great photographer or graphics artist.

No, this isn’t fishing for compliments, or reassurances. I have no wish to be a great photographer or a great graphics artist. I enjoy the world of web graphics because, unlike my programming, I’m not dependent on any of it for a living. I’m free to try new things, to tinker around on my own, and just generally have a lot of fun. That’s actually the whole point of the book: having fun.

We don’t seem to have fun with our use of web graphics, and I include photography in this. We’re all too damn earnest. We’re passionate about everything we do, and there’s few things that will destroy fun and a sense of personal exploration more than being both earnest and passionate. I’m rather hoping my book will stand out because it is neither earnest nor passionate on the topic of web graphics.

Oh my, I sound like Jeff Atwood and his don’t buy my book refrain, don’t I?

In his latest, Atwood–after having gone through one book writing process and looking back on the whole thing like the wise old gray beard that he is–writes how tech books are nothing more than dead trees. Don’t buy them, don’t write them, he exclaims.

I particularly liked the part where he states how anyone can be an author:

Even if books make no financial sense, perhaps the ancillary benefits can make the effort worthwhile. I won’t lie: you’ll get a little thrill the first time you ego-search Amazon and see your book in the results. There is a certain prestige factor associated with being published; people are impressed by authors. To me, these are ultimately empty accolades. Anybody can write a book. The bar to publishing a book is nonexistent; with sufficient desire, any would-be author can get published. Just because you’ve published doesn’t mean your book is worth reading. It doesn’t mean your book matters. It just means your book exists. Far from being impressive, that’s barely meaningful at all.

Just to be sure that he hasn’t convinced you enough that all book writers are hacks Atwood re-emphasizes:

In short, do not write a book. You’ll put in mountains of effort for precious little reward, tangible or intangible. In the end, all you will have to show for it is an out-of-print dead tree tombstone. The only people who will be impressed by that are the clueless and the irrelevant.

There is some truth in what Atwood writes. A lot of books don’t earn out their advances in order to get post-publication royalties. Unless you’re one of the few to have a huge best seller in the tech business, you’re not going to make any serious money; you’re barely going to break even with the hourly rate paid babysitters.

Some truth, too, with Atwood’s note about people no longer being impressed with book authors. Too many of us weblog–the old saw about familiarity breeding puppies, or some such thing. He even goes so far as to ensure you’re careful not to exhibit any respect for book authors by stating that those pitiful few who might give respect to authors are both irrelevant and clueless.

Marketing’s the thing, now. Marketing and attention. Don’t have to take my word for it: look at that the so-called Techmeme ‘leaderboard’ and you’ll quickly find that no amount of hard work, quality, or interest can compete with middle aged men having petty temper tantrums because they’re not getting their share of the lollies.

Books that are how-tos, help, or guides just don’t hack it today. Many of the better selling so-called ‘tech’ books don’t offer any practical advice. Most are formed from rants, both for and against, the technology many of the authors don’t even understand. Books have become more clan entry than helpful guide; you share your affiliations by the reviews you write.

Why do those of us who write tech books continue, then? That is the question, isn’t it?

One must, however, take Atwood’s rant with a little salt. After all what better way to generate noise about a book on a subject where too many books exist than to write something controversial at the same time you begin to promote the book. It’s just unfortunate that Atwood has chosen to promote his work by throwing those of us who have written tech books–for whatever reason–under the bus.

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11 Responses to Writing Hacks: Desist

  1. Arthur says:

    Who is Jeff Atwood?

    Oh wait, I remember: wasn’t he part of the Linux kernel hacking group?

    Three times a charm, sorry. Now I remember: Fizz-Bizz.

  2. He even goes so far as to ensure you’re careful not to exhibit any respect for book authors by stating that those pitiful few who might give respect to authors are both irrelevant and clueless.

    Sometimes the irrelevant and clueless have money and can be persuaded to give it to me. This is a Good Thing™.

    (incidentally, finding an entity that would work for that was annoying. Why doesn’t ™ work?)

  3. Oh, and ObNitPick: FizzBuzz.

  4. Shelley says:

    Arthur, I’d actually forgotten about that bit.

    Michael, to be honest, I think the only clueless person involved in all of this is Jeff.

  5. madame l. says:

    just recently started using snapz pro x and it seems to be good so far. but i’m using it mostly for video. i’ll take a look at snag-it as well. i’m still just on a trial period.

  6. That was one of the few Atwood posts that I skipped – I didn’t get farther than the opening. Good to know my instincts were right.

  7. Scott says:

    Having read Jeff for quite some time and had several blog conversations with him, I think that he actually does believe what he’s saying and he’s not just link/book baiting. I can’t speak to his motives for writing the book. It sounds like he got to collaborate with his friends and have fun.

    I did like the part about creating your content online and then publishing it. A few good books (Raymond Chen’s “The Old New Thing” comes to mind) have come about that way. And it’s probably the only way I could ever write a book.

  8. Robert says:

    It is a little surprising to see a tech point of view (Atwood’s) fail to ‘get’ books — isn’t the usual scenario the other way round these days? You see, it is not the medium that matters, and clearly Atwood (and I am not referring to the writer of the same surname: Margaret) is confusing medium with message.

    Sometimes tech books seem to require a Medium to understand their message, and that is why I have always gravitated towards O’Reilly books. Most IT books’ margins are filled with little invented iconographic languages, and white space, lots of white space. I, however, already speak (and read!) a perfectly useful language: English. O’Reilly books, on the other hand, seem to respect typographic and publishing conventions, which, in my humble opinion, is a good thing.

    IT books as a whole seem too eager to forgo the lessons that several hundred years of experience in the print world have taught us. For example, never let an author edit their own book. Always have a second reader (or third, or fifth). An index is not a table of contents. You know them already, the countless chestnuts that your high school English teacher taught you. Does the wisdom of these customs change when the medium is electronic? Yes, true, now everyone has a printing press in the form of the web, but somehow I think that vanity, a most pressing concern for many of us, will not vanish in either new or old mediums.

    One of my favorite technical writers is John McPhee, who writes lyrically about what could be a tedious and dry subject, geology. In Basin and Range he follows the formula that Herman Melville used in Moby Dick: tell a story, then give some technical background. Repeat until you’re done. That’s one way of doing it, and it works.

    In Basin and Range McPhee manages to convey the concept of deep time in an incredibly moving way, which is no small feat, especially given that all who attempt to do so must begin with James Hutton’s (the 18th century Scottish expositor of the idea) prose as a boat anchor (bag of rocks?) hung around their necks.

    Does it matter whether any of this is written on clay, stone, papyrus, parchment, on scraps of paper smuggled out of jails, with printing presses, electrons, or is simply spoken? Not a whit, I say.

  9. Aruni says:

    “We don’t seem to have fun with our use of web graphics, and I include photography in this. We’re all too damn earnest. We’re passionate about everything we do, and there’s few things that will destroy fun and a sense of personal exploration more than being both earnest and passionate. I’m rather hoping my book will stand out because it is neither earnest nor passionate on the topic of web graphics.”

    What an unusual comment. Why can’t being earnest and passionate also include fun and a sense of personal exploration. I think if anyone can throw in humor/fun when sharing their passion has a leg up on those who deliver anything (tech books or otherwise) up with a mind to teach someone something. Hmmmm.

  10. Seth Gordon says:

    My impression has been (correct me if I’m wrong) that an author’s ROI on writing a tech book comes from being able to parlay the popularity of the book into jobs (we had the author of Mapping Hacks working for us for a while), consulting gigs, running a training session at a conference, etc., etc., and any royalties from the book itself are just gravy.

    Sort of like, umm, the ROI from having an A-list blog. I guess if you can pull of one you don’t need the other.

  11. Seth, that’s how it works out in practice for a lot of authors, but there are some twists.

    For example, while having written a tech book is a great way to narrow the field when applying for a job, increasing your chances from 10% (one of ten candidates) to 50% (“do we get the book guy or one of the others?”), it is not a guarantee.

    Also, your readers can frequently assume you are unavailable for hire, or that your rates will be higher than they can afford, and won’t even try contacting you (After all, you’re a published author! You MUST have work coming out of your ears!). I ran into this all the time when answering job ads. I’m unsure if A-list blogging has that same problem (probably not, as it is easier to include a subtle commercial message and link to contact info on each page).