If you've published a book, why, and how'd it go?

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Gutenberg press in 1568 from WikimediaI have a few friends who've written non-fiction books and had them published, including Darren and Julie, Tris, Susie and Shane, Dave, and Kris. I haven't, and while I'm not planning on writing one, I do wonder what the experience is like. If you've published a book, how did you find the process, and why did you go through it?

I ask because I've copy-edited and proofread books, and written many booklets (PDF file), brochures, technical documents (PDF file), proposals, manuals, magazine articles, and other publications—and people often say to me, "You should write a book!" Maybe about photography, maybe about podcasting, maybe about my cancer experience. I even have a Diploma in Applied Creative-Non Fiction writing, so I could be considered academically qualified for the task, whatever that means.

But my question is always, "Why?" Because none of the people saying I should write a book has been someone wanting to publish it.

Yes, there's still a lot of prestige in being a Published Author and having a printed and bound copy of your work on a shelf, but publishers large and small have been in trouble for awhile now. Many writers, from Salon's entertaining aviation columnist Patrick Smith (whose 2004 book Ask the Pilot is a great read, but won't see a printed update anytime soon) to my friend and former podcast co-host Paul Garay (who wrote an entire huge book on Logic, the digital recording software, only to see it never get published at all), put in a lot of work and receive little but frustration in return. (Then again, even back in the print-heavy 1800s, Mark Twain found it necessary to supplement his considerable publishing royalties with public speaking—though that was mostly because he invested his other money very badly.)

So, I'm curious what motivates non-fiction writers today. (Fiction is a whole other ballgame, but that would be interesting to find out about too.) I want to know, if you've had a book published, why did you write it? How did the process go? What benefits did you get from it, direct or indirect? Would you do it again, and if so, what would you change?

12 Comments

I co-wrote a book under trying circumstances in 1997, Here it is. It was essentially a contract gig as I had been acting as a tech editor for a number of friends' books for a year or two prior, and though the book had begun before I was brought in it hadn't been going well.

For me it was a way to underscore my experience to that date -- obviously writing a book about web design in 1997 actually was a pretty compelling thing, and the book sold fairly briskly. More importantly when I went to pitch prospective clients I could dump my book on the table, published by a huge global company, and my expertise was never questioned.

In financial terms, however, the book was not a success. Despite the book's popularity we never recovered our advance -- which was only $5K each to deliver about 15 chapters or 175 pages each -- including graphics, diagrams, sample code, etc. We did the whole thing over the course of a very stressful 3 months.

I would do another non-fiction book again, but this time without A) a co-author, B) an editor, or C) the expectation of a financial windfall. The co-author and editor force you to work at a negotiated pace and on negotiated terms, and the expectation of big money rarely pans out. Nowadays I have enough of a handle on the market to understand what people want to read and how to position it, which apart from being a taskmaster is the real benefit of having an editor.

By my observation most book authors are credited as experts AFTER penning their tome. Particularly when published by a major house, it is a way to establish oneself as credible and unlocks respect and prestige (justified or not) on par with successful entrepreneurs and investors. So... if you don't have any money and aren't particularly motivated to start and run a business, authoring a book is the fast track to attaining the respect of your peers, for what that's worth.

You do it because you enjoy it. Writing solely for money isn't a winning proposition. This ties in with Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism; people doing fruitless tasks to achieve a high level personal fulfillment.

If it's solely a matter of enjoying writing, why not just write a blog, where "publishing" is as simple as a click of a button.

I wrote a blog post comparing traditional publishing with ebook publishing that may be germane:

http://bit.ly/84Nvxa

I've always wanted to write a book, so that's one reason. Another is, as you indicate, a certain endorsement (dubious as it is) that you're an 'expert' if you write an actual book on actual pages.

I did want to correct something that Ned said: "Writing solely for money isn't a winning proposition" simply isn't true. Hundreds of thousands of people (Millions? Probably) make a living principally off writing. I did for a number of years, as a technical and marketing writer. I still make some smallish portion of my income out of writing. I'm pretty sure that if I wanted to live somewhere inexpensive, like, say, Malta or Morocco, I could make a satisfactory living off of writing, say, four short ebooks a year.

My degree is a BFA in Writing, so publishing a book has been a life goal. As a writing student at UVic, I sure wouldn't have guessed that my first book would be a "how to" for social media marketers!

Despite being highly motivated, the process of writing the "dead tree" book was grueling. The army of editors, proofreaders, indexers and marketers from No Starch Press worked alongside us and called for numerous rewrites, reorgs and further fact checking. This made the process long and arduous, but most certainly resulted in a much better book. I can't stress how key our editor was in helping us shape and polish "Friends with Benefits".

As a writer, going through the publishing process with a publishing company is a remarkable experience. Would I do it again? Yes. But, I'd make a lot of changes in my approach. For starters, I'd take time off from my day job to write a book. Writing 90,000 words (with co-author Darren Barefoot) was beyond an evening and weekend project. It was too heavy a load.

My primary motivation for writing the book was to go through the official publishing experience. The result is a book to wave around, but we also earned the "expert" label, which has been beneficial for our web marketing agency.

hi derek,

i write books as a way to differentiate my web design business from the many others out there, and because i find the experience of producing something tangible ultimately quite satisfying. i also like being able to help others. as a credibility creator, the books are successful -- i get speaking invitations, job queries, new business, and many other opportunities from having written a "name-brand" book.

i'm not trying to earn a living as a book author, and of course i couldn't do so on the few books i've done, but some of them have been successful financially. some have not. since earnings aren't the reason i do them, i'm not particularly concerned by that.

the process -- for technical books, at least -- is time-consuming and intense. you need to be a quick writer, and it's a lot less painful if you're reasonably solid on the first pass, since going back through and re-editing can significantly increase the amount of time you spend on the book. i like having a co-author, but i could get away with not having one if i stopped doing my regular job while writing the book.

if i could, i'd change two things about the process: the speed at which the book has to be written (generally three months), and the laborious process of acquiring permission to use screenshots. oh, and i'd earn bazillions of dollars, please.

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