Allow me a moment to discuss the business of computer book publishing with you. It’s a fascinating business, an extremely profitable business, and a business that is in desperate need of a re-alignment of purpose and thought because some computer book publishers are short-shafting their readers. If you’re thinking of writing a computer book, read on. If you’re thinking of buying a computer book, you definitely need to read on…
(Disclaimer: I’m no lawyer. I’m no bonded Agent. These are my personal tips and tweaks on what happens in the computer book publishing industry, so taking all of this with a grain of salt and taking none of what I say here as law or even fact will keep us both safe.)
First to Market
Right now, the thing that matters most to many publishers is being the first to market because they can bring in the big dough by being the sole book on the shelf addressing a piece of hot software — these are The Slaughterhouse Publishers — and they must be shunned because they treat writers (and their books) like meat — they bring you in, chop you up and toss away your carcass the instant you hand in the last page. One publisher is infamous for beating everyone to market, but their books are outlined by staff editors and hack writers are hired to slam through the book — much like monkeys pecking random keys on a typewriter to create sentences. I don’t know any author worth a damn who writes for that publisher and the quality of the books they publish reflect this lack of author expertise and sculpted written drama.
Best to Market
This flinging desire to land first on the shelves with a topical book means that book is based upon beta product, it is hurriedly written and the bottom line rules the desire and compassion of the writing. Being first to market may mean ten percent more book sales over the book second to market, but I have yet to read a first to market computer book that was worth the beans paid to print it.
There are a few publishers who push quality of writing over speed to market and they take the position that being “Best to Market” instead of first to market will sell more books. This ideal is quite worthy and interesting and vital to the continued growth of computer books. The buying public are getting tired of shelling out $40 for a lousy first to market book that barely helps them while the killer book that will be on the shelves in another month or two will be worth twice the price of the “first to market” book. When ALL publishers realize that good writing is the key to selling a lot of books, the better off we’ll all be because every book with be worthy of every dollar earned to buy it.
Write Your Fingers Off
I’ve written computer books as the lone author, as a ghost writer and as a “fixer” of a book in danger of missing its publication date. I can tell you from personal experience that no matter how fast you write, it won’t be fast enough for some publishers. It is not uncommon to find a publisher who wants an 800 page book in three months. That’s fast! I can’t write that fast no matter how hard I try because the writing becomes mindless and about simply filling up a page (two screenshots roughly equals one printed page and one single-spaced page with New Times Roman as your base font in Microsoft Word roughly equals one printed page).
Know Your Limits & Stick to Them!
My limit as a computer book author is 50 pages a week (10 pages a day with the weekend used as a safety valve in case something goes wonky during the week like an illness or an emergency or a delay in getting vital information) and that means I’d finish an 800 page book in four months. Not fast enough! There are, however, quality publishers who will give you five or six months to write a 300 page book and they’ll pay you well to do it, too. It is those publishers who rule the hearts and minds of the best computer book writers in the business. I stick to my 50 pages a week rule no matter how much money I’m offered to write a book because I know I can make that quota and I won’t budge from it if I’m writing a book alone.
Your Outline Will Save You
The key to staying on track as a computer book author and making your deadlines is creating a quality outline with A and B heads. Publishers love long outlines (15 pages and over will serve you well) when you pitch a book to them because they can see the scope of the book in full before they buy it. Detailed outlines also help you not be surprised during the writing process. Planning is all, the writing will flow naturally when you know from page one where you’ll end up on page 800. If there’s ever a dispute about the progress and direction of your book with a publisher — that original outline will be an Arbiter — so make certain the outline you create is the book you want to write, or you’ll be deeply sorry.
Keep the Faith
Remember that you are your book. As the author, don’t lose Faith in yourself or in your ability to handle the task at hand. Don’t burn yourself out. If you’re stuck, take a break, love yourself, take pride in the work you’ve already done.
On the Train
Once you hand in the first quarter of your book, a train begins rolling that cannot be stopped or slowed down without risking the death of the book. Once you give your publishing house your raw pages, the Editorial Review process begins. Your Editor will hand your chapters off to a Technical Editor, the Art Department will begin to create your graphics and shape up your screenshots, your publication date will be set at the printing house and if you begin to start missing deadlines, your Publisher will either replace you as the author or bring in “help” in the form of other writers who will finish your book for you. Allow me to repeat my mantra once again for you here again: Know your Limitations, Write a Detailed Outline, Stick with your Deadlines, and Keep the Faith.
Another issue for the aspiring book author to consider is getting as much money up front in an “advance against future royalties” as possible. Let me tell you why. Up front money is dough in your pocket. You won’t have any worries wondering if you’ll ever see another dime from your book. Then, once you have that advance money, don’t expect to make another dollar. If you do, great!
What is “An Advance Against Future Royalties?” It is the amount of money your publisher will give you in advance for writing the book and the advance is usually broken into four payments: 1. Upon signing the contract; 2. Upon completion of 1/2 of the book; 3. Upon completion of 3/4 of the book. 4. 100% completion of the book. Beware that some Publishers cancel books during the writing process for various reasons beyond your control (and might not have one whit to do with the quality of the book you’re writing) so make certain your contract will include Kill Fees and the fact that you will NOT return any advance money already paid to you.
The amount of money you get as an advance against future royalties is based upon your reputation as an expert, how well you write, and how much the Publisher expects to make from the sales of your book. Some writers can get a $40,000 advance for a 300 page book, while other authors have difficulty in getting an $8,000 advance for an 800 page book. A good agent can help you get a better deal, but your track record as a published author and expert in the field will be your biggest bats for hammering home a larger advance.
Royalties are the percentage of the price of a book that you will be paid for writing the book. Royalties can range from 10% to 17% depending upon your reputation as an author. Royalties are stepped up in increments depending upon how many books you sell: the more books sold, the higher you royalty will be. Let’s do some quick math. If your book sells for $40 and your royalty is 10% per book, you’ll be paid $4.00 for each book sold. Not bad money. If your advance against future royalties was, say, $12,000 dollars, you wouldn’t be paid any more money until you “pay back” that advance with actual book sales at $4.00 a pop. You don’t actually pay it back, per se, you just wouldn’t see any more royalty money until 3,000 copies of your book were sold (3,000 copies multiplied by $4.00 per copy equals $12,000 — the total you were paid to write to book as an advance against future royalties). Publishers pay royalties two times a year.
Some authors prefer to take no advance against future royalties and want to be paid from book sale one. I advise against this, because you have no guarantee your book will sell — you’ll be at the mercy of your Publisher and that is not a position of strength and wealth. Get money up front. Make sure you’re paid for the work you do.
Other authors will actually lower their royalty percentage on the back end in order to get more advance money up front. Agents make their living off percentages, so keep that in mind when you’re dealing with an agent — they’ll advise you to take less money up front for a bigger back end payoff. I come from the theatre where no back end money is guaranteed, so I try to get as much money up front as possible because that is dough you can bank on immediately.
Do you need an agent? Probably. They are familiar with the standard boilerplate contracts Publishers will try to make you sign as a new author and Agents can get changes made to that basic contract. Agents can also usually squeeze out more money for you in advance money and royalty percentages. Agents get a 15% commission for books (they’d take $1,800 of your $12,000 advance and the Publisher pays your Agent and your Agent pays you) and 10% for magazine articles. Is it worth the extra money to pay an Agent to represent you? I think so. Your Agent will play the Bad Guy with your Publisher if necessary and your Agent will crunch the numbers and mediate any disputes. I have an Agent because I like the idea of having a business partner who is interested in helping me make money. Agents don’t necessarily find you jobs, but they can serve as a great broker and sounding board for the motivated writer.
You should be aware, however, that writers are a dime a dozen and that some Agents are more loyal to the book publisher than the writer because the relationship that makes them continued money is the relationship with the publisher and not the writer; and don’t think the Publisher doesn’t remind the Agent of that fact every day. Choose carefully when you look for representation. Finding a good and loyal fit with an Agent can be a difficult and trying process.
Read Your Contract!
When I was a graduate student at Columbia University, I had a meeting with playwright Christopher Durang. Durang told me, shouted at me, actually — that I MUST read my contracts before I sign them. Durang said that you and you alone as the author of the work must live with the terms of that contract for the rest of your life. Your agent does a dozen deals a day, but your contract will rule your relationship with everyone involved in that project and contracts are rigid, lifeless and cold. If there’s any trouble or any wondering about the scope of the project during the life of your project — you will be slammed back to that contract no matter what someone may have told you over the phone or in a meeting. Your contract can also protect you from having to do work you didn’t agree to do in the first place, so a contract can (and all fair ones should) cut both ways if daggers must be drawn.
The contract is the blood that binds you — know what it says, understand it, if you don’t like or don’t comprehend what it says — ask before you sign! It’s your name and your reputation on that dotted line and you are the one who must be comfortable with its terms before sealing the covenant.
The National Writers Union
If you don’t want to hand over 15% of your book sales to an Agent for the life of your book, then you might be interested in joining a consortium of writers who have banded into The National Writers Union. The National Writers Union will review your contract for free (if you’re a member) and they will advise you on what to include and what to fight to have removed from the contract. The National Writers Union has a lot of muscle, they’re militant, and they’re good to have on your side even if you have an Agent! Unlike The Dramatists Guild for Playwrights, The National Writers Union is an actual hardcore Union affiliated with UAW Local-1981. You can visit them online at http://www.igc.apc.org/nwu/.
Other Writers Are Your Allies
Remember that other book writers are your friends, not your competition. Unlike other media adventures like screenwriting and writing plays, there are more than enough computer book projects to employ every good writer who wants to write a computer book. There is strength in unified numbers, so share information about publishers and editors with your author allies. Share your royalty information and advance money info as well.
Book Publishers and Agents hate it when authors do this because it undermines the Publisher’s goal of low balling you on your advance and royalty and sharing info can embarrass an Agent if you know another Agent got a lesser writer a better deal than your Agent got for you! Information exchange is vital for ALL writers to share because the experienced writers can help lift up the new writers so there is parity and a basic fairness in all contracts offered to writers. This “strength in the knowledge of numbers” must be the War Cry for all writers in any field. Let’s make it so from this moment on!
The Tragedy of a Terrible Index
There will be many disappointments along the way as you compose your book. Try not to let any of it get you down. You may not like the quality of the paper you book is printed on and you may not like the cover design. Those are issues really beyond your control, because the publisher claims to have intimate knowledge of what will and will not sell in the marketplace, so don’t worry about what you can’t influence.
You can, and should, however, fight for an excellent Index. Even if it’ll cost an extra $3,200 (good Indexers charge $4.00 per page Indexed) to get a professional Indexer to work on your book. You must fight your publisher for this advantage. Too many Indexes are extremely poorly done because your book isn’t read and processed by human eyes and a brain for context! Your pages are simply run through a computer program that alphabetizes and orders “unique words” and what page those certain words appear in your book. Boring! Not helpful to a curious reader!
You must make a living Index that can direct your readers to the information they seek. If your publisher refuses to pay for a professional Indexer, then tell your Publisher you will Index the book yourself. Don’t let them turn it over to their “in house” Indexer or you’ll be doomed to boredom and inaccuracy. Pick up any computer book right now and check out the Index for context as well as a page number and I bet you 99.9% of books will not have this sort of personal, drilled-down and pinpointed information that all excellent Indexes have.
Propeller Head Style
Another big problem with the present glut of computer books is that they read like math problems. Do this. Do that. Get this. There is no spirit or style or sense of discovery and invention. The books lack personality! The reason for this sort of dead book is the “first to market” syndrome… publishers pick Propeller Heads who know the topic and can bang out pages like monkeys with keyboards… but there is no insight or higher purpose of unity to these books. Avoid them at all cost. Vote your pocketbook. Demand excellent and engaging computer books!
5,000 Books a Month
Each month there are over 5,000 computer books in print. Realize the odds you’re up against in writing a bestseller (over 100,000 copies sold) and you can see that the competition is great. You’ll run up against folks who won’t buy your book because they can’t find it in the store. You’ll tell them to order it, and they won’t. Somehow these readers believe that if the book isn’t in the store, it isn’t in print. That’s a disappointing reality that we all must strive to overcome by educating the computer book buying public.
Hit The Shelves Out of Date
Another irony about many of these “first to market” computer books is that by the time they hit the shelves, they’re horribly out of date since they’re based on beta code and not released code. Many Publishers don’t mind books based upon beta code, but you — as a writer and a reader of computer books — should demand that these books be based on the code you buy in the software store!
Sadly, some publishers don’t care if their books are based on beta product… how much time do you spend with a computer book before deciding to buy it? 30 seconds? Five minutes? One publisher even demands half the book be screenshots just to lure in the “page through” buyer in a bookstore with pretty images! Unfortunately, it is only after the money has been spent and the reader is at home reading the book for hardcore information does the reality come into being that the book does not wholly apply to the released product.
This should not be a pitfall of computer book publishing, it should be a disgrace to those who try to sell these “beta books” to an unsuspecting readership. These “beta books” are DOA (Dead On Arrival) the moment they slide on the bookstore shelf and that death is due to the nature of publishing books… three months to write… a month of production and another month to print and distribute and we’re talking around six months from the moment the book was started to when the book finally appears in print (and that’s actually an incredibly fast turnaround!)
The world can change a million times in six months — no wonder why many of these “first to market” books reek of crib death. Why do people buy “first to market” books? Because they don’t know any better. Now, with your help, they do know better. Why do Publishers want to be first to market? Because they want their books to be available the same day the software they’re covering comes out — unfortunately, that methodology ensures the book will be based on the non-release version of the software.
The “best to market” books, conversely, are evergreen because their purpose of being is to be the definitive source and a quality reference — and that scope and purpose is the very difference between immortality and everlasting morbidity.