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First-time author seeking publisher

By duncan bayne in Media
Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 02:22:37 PM EST
Tags: Help! (Ask Kuro5hin) (all tags)
Help! (Ask Kuro5hin)

I am writing a book - the subject of which must unfortunately remain confidential at this stage, as I've not sent any proposals to publishers as of yet. I can say however that it will involve Linux and Linux desktop software, and be targetted at a primarily non-technical audience, but should prove equally useful to experienced technical users.

What I need is a publisher, and suggestions on how to get my work published. I'm posting to enquire whether any Kuro5hin readers have any advice for me.

I am not an experienced author, at least not in dead tree format. I have much experience as technical writer, having been responsible for documenting systems and software since I was in High School. My problem is - how do I make the transition between technical writing with an organisation, and actually having a book published?

Obviously, the first thing that sprung to mind was electronic publishing - put the book online, available in plain text and HTML, and have people download it. Unfortunately, I don't see this being such a viable plan, because my three goals for this project are:

  1. retain as much control over the book as possible
  2. have as many people as possible read my book
  3. make money

Without wanting to start an online-publishing flame war, I don't see any way of accomplishing item two above, while publishing online. I certainly want to put some of the book online to act as a teaser and an online reference (in the same way Joel Spolsky has done with his book User Interface Design for Programmers. In fact, his book (and indeed his site) have been something of an inspiration for me, but that's another story.

I'm looking around at a number of publishers, including O'Reilly and APress, the publisher Joel Spolsky used. However, I'm a bit concerned by this write-up about APress - I haven't found anything yet complaining about O'Reilly, except for some (ill-founded AFAIK) gripes about royalty rates. However, as O'Reilly is a technical publisher, I don't know whether they'll be interested in my proposal.

So, to the questions. Have any Kuro5hin readers:

  • tips, hints, or suggestions for aspiring writers in the IT field?
  • a publisher to recommend I investigate, or stay well away from?
  • informative experiences about writing / publishing to share?


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First-time author seeking publisher | 51 comments (20 topical, 31 editorial, 0 hidden)
O'reilly out (4.16 / 6) (#9)
by onyxruby on Sun Feb 17, 2002 at 11:04:32 PM EST

My father was about 60% done with a book (IT project management for the real world) he was writing for O'reilly when they cancelled almost every contract for a book they had. From what he was told, their were something over 100 books cancelled, essentially any book that was not in post production. The authors were all allowed to keep their advance payments, but were otherwise out of luck on expected royalties. They blamed the downturn in the economy, in particular the badly hurting tech sector. Simply put, techs stopped by tech books. Whether or not O'reilly intends to pick up the partially finished books when things pick up or not is something I don't know.

The moon is covered with the results of astronomical odds.

Agreed (4.00 / 2) (#29)
by skim123 on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 01:53:40 AM EST

I wrote a book for O'Reilly that came out in September 2000. It's first two quarter sales were strong and then it went flat. Dead flat. To the tune where my quarterly royalties for that book were significantly less than my monthly royalties on a book I had authored an entire year before the O'Reilly book. And my latest O'Reilly statement was pegged at $0 - more returns than sales. I have friends who are writing books for them now, so I know they haven't totally bailed out of the IT sector as you have said, but they have sure cut back due to offensive sales.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

[ Parent ]
sweet! (none / 0) (#40)
by streetlawyer on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 01:33:53 PM EST

The authors were all allowed to keep their advance payments, but were otherwise out of luck on expected royalties

Forgive me, but you seem quite naive. Keeping the whole advance and junking the project 60% complete! Gimme some of that action! I bet that O'Reilly even allowed you to sell the book to someone else. This is about the best thing that can happen if you're writing for money. As I said above, royalties are shit; they're nothing but nature's way of telling you to ask for a better advance next time.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]

My contracts held me for 18 months (none / 0) (#41)
by georgeha on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 02:30:42 PM EST

any books I wrote on the same subject had to be given rights of first refusal to my original publisher for 18 months. IANAL, but it seems as if I could resell the same book (almost) every 18 months.

[ Parent ]
Unlikely to be the whole advance (none / 0) (#42)
by Kellnerin on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 04:09:44 PM EST

I don't know of any publisher who pays the entire advance before delivery and acceptance of the final manuscript at the very least, if not publication. So it's not just saying goodbye to future royalties (which, yeah, never happens), but probably a decent chunk of the advance.

--got to be a way to make it sweeter, little more like lemon meringue--
[ Parent ]
Update (none / 0) (#44)
by onyxruby on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 05:21:46 PM EST

Having just talked to my Father about this (it's was his book, not mine as I stated earlier) I have the details. The book was 75% complete and he was allowed to keep the advance that he had received up to that point, but lost the remainder (majority of advance) of the advance that would have been due upon final editorial approval.

I must correct the publisher though, it was not O'reilly as I thought but Corolios. They have the rights to the book for a term of one year, after that it could be published by another house. If the economy picks up, then it is entirely possible that the book will still be published. Considering how close the book is, I think it is a fair possibility.

The moon is covered with the results of astronomical odds.
[ Parent ]

No, this is typical (5.00 / 1) (#50)
by ucblockhead on Tue Feb 19, 2002 at 01:00:25 PM EST

If the publisher junks the project (as opposed to the author bailing out), the author typically keeps whatever advance money he got.

I know this for a fact, as I was in the middle of writing "Go Forth on the Macintosh" when Apple decided not to release the Forth language. Obviously the book become instantly pointless. The publisher said "have a nice day", and I kept my advance check.

Since this happens when the project is junked for business reasons, it typically means that there is little market for the book, so for the author, taking the work elsewhere is usually an exercise in futility.

Note that if the author bails out, it is a whole different matter. (I did this once as well, and returned the advance.)
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]

Another book project cancelled... (none / 0) (#48)
by cleo on Tue Feb 19, 2002 at 02:58:19 AM EST

I've had two separate book projects cancelled prior to publication. The first publisher, WROX, pulled the plug on an advanced Java programming book at a time when their entire Java catalog was selling slowly. They were pretty honorable, though - as the project was very close to completion, all of the contributors were paid our advances in full.

The second time I contributed several chapters to a book on Windows CE programming to a now-defunct publisher that was absorbed into the IDG empire. Shortly after my last chapter was accepted, my editor went AWOL. He stopped answering mail and phone calls from all of the authors. None of us received compensation or even a "thank you for your time".

This kind of thing happens all the time, especially in the mercurial tech publishing industry. You have to go in knowing that there's a fair-to-middling chance that your project won't make it and that your labor won't be rewarded. That's why it's imperative that you research any publisher thoroughly before roping yourself into a contract. Find out if they have a reputation for dealing honestly with authors - because it's much easier to turn down a suspicious publisher's deal than it is to try to recoup your losses if that publisher screws you later.

[ Parent ]

Talk to other published authors (4.50 / 6) (#14)
by FattMattP on Sun Feb 17, 2002 at 11:12:51 PM EST

Your best bet is to talk to other published authors. I would suggest subscribing to the Studio B mailing list and asking your questions there. Studio B is a group of agents who represent computer book authors. You can also browse their mailing list archives.

Just have (3.00 / 2) (#16)
by duncan bayne on Sun Feb 17, 2002 at 11:21:07 PM EST

Thanks - I've just subscribed. Hopefully it'll shed some more light on the topic.

[ Parent ]
Wait wait! (4.25 / 4) (#32)
by SwampGas on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 05:06:33 AM EST

You made me smile. Congrats :)

My father has published 2 martial arts books and has submitted another book to a publisher about overlooks (coming out late this year). From what I remember him complaining about, allow me to go through your list:

1. retain as much control over the book as possible

Not going to happen. Nice try. My father is an editor himself (been one for 30 years)...the publisher's editors rip it apart anyway. It's THEIR book, not yours.

2. have as many people as possible read my book

That's entirely up to the publisher...it's just like radio. The record label cuts deals with a ton of stations, puts you on MTV, lets you open for a big act, etc...if you suck, then you never make it. A word of advice from a fellow reader though...I read the summary on the back (or in the inside cover). If it doesn't attract my attention, I pass it by regardless of how great it is.

3. make money

That is what made me chuckle. The publisher makes money...not you. I've seen dear daddy's royalty checks...only a couple bucks ($20...$30) here and there. Pretty bad considering he sold a few thousand copies.

Go submit your stuff to linuxdoc.org and don't quit your day job.

contracts and contracted books (4.33 / 3) (#33)
by guet on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 08:17:45 AM EST

I used to work for a publisher, and can second this view from the inside - writing books is more a labour of love/hate than a way of making money. Unfortunately the points you list as desirable
  1. retain as much control over the book as possible
  2. have as many people as possible read my book
  3. make money
are usually (in my experience) mutually exclusive, ie if you retain complete editorial control (highly unlikely) the publisher is not going to take a risk, or is a small publisher, and will not print many copies. Most contracts I'm aware of will give you an advance (say UKS4-10k ) which is then taken off your royalties - so you don't get substantial royalties unless the book is very successful, and reprints. Often print runs, especially in niche markets, are very small, under 10k copies.

I'd also add, if you want to make a living from publishing, try doing some contract work - you'd be surprised how many technical books are contracted from a writer by the publisher, rather than submitted as fully formed books in the first place. This doesn't allow you as much creative freedom, and often you'll sign away any rights to royalties, but it's a far more reliable way of making money. Your background in in-house technical writing should help there.

This would then leave you free to pursue your own projects, and give you *far* more credibility with prospective publishers than someone who's walked off the street.

[ Parent ]
royalties (5.00 / 1) (#39)
by streetlawyer on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 01:31:06 PM EST

I've seen dear daddy's royalty checks...only a couple bucks ($20...$30) here and there

What kind of an advance did he get? I've never seen a royalty check in my life, but once supported a decent lifestyle on the proceeds of a household of two writing books. Royalties are God's way of telling you that you didn't negotiate a big enough advance.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]

Not entirely true (none / 0) (#51)
by ucblockhead on Tue Feb 19, 2002 at 01:08:03 PM EST

Advances are a way of reducing risk for the author. If there were no advances, most first-time authors would not be able to afford to write. You have to live on something. However, the publisher then takes on the risk that the book will not earn out its advance. Because they take on this risk, the author who gets the big advance will get lower royalties.

(Though there's another wrinkle in that a publisher has more incentive to push a book that they paid a large advance for.)
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]

How about an agent? (5.00 / 3) (#36)
by georgeha on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 11:42:59 AM EST

Having an agent really helps, as they know the various book publishing businesses, and have contacts with them.

In my case, a friend dragged me into co-writing the Samba Administrator's Handbook. From the same mailing list I met ed, he recruited our agent (who also has about 20 books under his belt). From another mailing list, we recruited a third member, Lisa, who was a tech writer with several books under her belt.

Then, ed and I wrote up a proposal and submitted to a few companies. They came back with counter-proposals. We accepted a counter-proposal, then wrote up a chapter outline, and a first chapter. IDG (aka Hungry Minds) accepted us, and sent us a contract.

So, the three of us co-wrote the book, with ed using his 8 years of Samba experience, me doing the Linux/Solaris/FreeBSD gruntwork, and Lisa making it readable.

If you want, I can forward an email note to my agent, my email is ghaberbe@frontiernet.net . You will have to give up 15% of your advance, but you will be taken more seriously. Also, your book idea may get turned and twisted around to what the publisher thinks will sell, as opposed to what you think will sell. Finally, you will be on a deadline, and they will want to book done in a few months.

I can go into greater depth if you have more questions.

Getting Your Book Published For Dummies (4.00 / 1) (#43)
by phobos18 on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 04:44:20 PM EST

Seriously. Getting Your Book Published For Dummies is a great valuble resource in learning how the whole publisher deal works. It is an indispensible tool for first timers. It has helped me a lot where I would have had no idea what to do.

DYI publishing/vanity press (3.00 / 2) (#45)
by coffee splash on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 05:28:22 PM EST

My ex works at trafford.com, who basically charge you to publish the book, and put the onus on you to sell it. Not the traditional paradigm, granted, but you're not at the whim of a traditional publisher that way. The control is _entirely_ yours, and the money you make is _entirely_ related to how many you sell. The good thing is that they only print what you sell, so there's no inventory to pay for up front. Of course, the downside is that you need to do your own marketing, but you're already thinking of putting some of it online, so you're not going to piss off your publisher by doing so.
If they publish a book, they put it into the online catalogues of Amazon, B&N, etc, so that might help you with your #2 criterion.
Dunno if that's what you're looking for, though.

More on Self-Publishing (none / 0) (#46)
by johnny on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 08:48:51 PM EST

Self-publishing is a daunting but doable proposition. The odds aren't great in your favor, but if you have luck and talent the payout can be spectacular.

Your post was vague about the nature of the book that you have in mind, so I don't know where to send you. For general technical/how to, you might start with the Small Publishers of North America. It's a pretty staid and boring outfit, but they have a record of sucess in advising and fostering mutual support among self-publishers. (I'm a member, $90/year). SPAN's focus is on making money.

If your book is more polemical, start with NoMediaKings (home site of Jim Munroe, who was heavily implicated in the early Adbuster magazine, may the lord shower blessings upon him). Jim's focus is on resisting corporate control of the universe of discourse. I love this guy.

And of course for my own adventures as a self-publisher see my website, and check out any of my K5 diary entries that mention "Paddy One-tune."

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.
[ Parent ]

Oy, don't know how to link to my own website (none / 0) (#47)
by johnny on Mon Feb 18, 2002 at 08:52:39 PM EST

Try this.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.
[ Parent ]
Getting Started as a New Author (none / 0) (#49)
by cleo on Tue Feb 19, 2002 at 03:17:46 AM EST

You might consider working as a contributing author on a few projects before you jump in and try to land a contract for a solo book. This is how most authors (including myself) broke into the tech publishing industry. There are many advantages to this approach:
  • It's much easier to land a contributing author deal than it is to convince a publisher to bet on a brand new author to deliver an entire book. Also, many technical books today are written by several authors in parallel because this allows them to reach market sooner. You've got to be prolific and have a brilliant idea to get a book deal all to yourself. Being famous doesn't hurt either.
  • It gives you a taste of what the publishing industry is like. It's a lot more stressful than technical writing at a salaried job - especially since most people have to keep their day jobs while they wait to see if their book takes off. See if you enjoy writing chapters before you sign a year of your free time away on an entire book.
  • If you prove yourself to be a competent and responsible author and you enjoy the work, you'll be in a much stronger position to pitch your own book proposal.
I've run across offers to write book chapters in the oddest places. The very first time, I was desperate for income and I began writing to book publishers in search of tech review jobs. Tech reviewing pays a very low per page fee but it saved my life in my early college days. Not only did I get to tech review but I was also offered a chance to write a chapter. You can probably do the same thing today - look on the Web sites of major publishers like Sams, WROX, O'Reilly, etc. Most of them publish contact information for prospective writers.

I've also been approached by publishers on the strength of my Usenet posts (I used to be very active on the comp.lang.java.* groups). Finally, I've pitched for and received jobs with a portfolio of various random writing I've done professionally and for fun.

Good luck with it. Despite all of the words of warning that people (including me) have posted, writing is not all bad and it's extremely rewarding once you've completed a project.

First-time author seeking publisher | 51 comments (20 topical, 31 editorial, 0 hidden)
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