So You Want to Write the World’s Best Computer Book?

Few days go by when I don’t hear someone say, usually once they hear what I do for a living, “You know, I keep thinking I should write a computer book. Most of the ones I read are just too darned tough to understand.”

But all too often, this is said by someone who does not quite understand what is involved. You don’t just need the patience of Job, a typing speed of 250 words per minute just to handle the required pace, as well as an almost encyclopedia knowledge of the material at hand. You also need to enjoy all night work sessions, eating crow (even when you didn’t serve any), checking your ego at the virtual door, and dealing with editors who clearly have never, ever authored a technical book in their lives.

The first myth to dispel, however, is that you’re going to get rich writing a book. In fact, the number of folks who make big money on any kind of book is fairly low. Computer book rates are often below the standards paid for other work. Break the time spent into a per hour rate and you may be looking at 1967 minimum wage standards. I wish this was a joke, but it is not. Although a few people have done very well with computer reference books, these are the rare exceptions rather than the rule. I know plenty who have written 60 or more texts who will quickly tell you, “Don’t ever quit your day job!” With this said, it’s great if you decide to write one just because you think there is a real need for what you have to tell users. But whether that is enough for you to proceed is open to question. Plus there is more you must factor in.

Unlike standard books, computer books are usually not widely marketed by individual titles. You won’t usually be asked to go on a book tour or even sign copies of your work for the local bookshop – that is, unless you know the owner and you’re willing to pester him or her into inviting you to do so. If you want any notices to go out to the media about your new title, you better write and deliver them yourself. If you have money to burn, you can hire a publicist. What you can’t do is expect that the publisher is going to go out of its way to promote your title. This just does not happen.

Now there’s the little matter of the topic of your book. Considering the many hundreds of computer titles that come out each year, you’re going to have a real task ahead of you to find a topic not already adequately covered in a few dozen other titles. While some authors made very good money writing some of the first “Dummies” books, for example, most of the good titles there are long gone. Unless you’re ready to write “Brain Surgery Using a PC for Dummies” – one title that has not appeared anywhere – you need to find and develop a unique idea. Then you must be prepared to develop a winning proposal that will sell the acquisitions editor who contracts for new books for the publisher.

One of the first questions an interested editor will ask you is, “How long will it take you to write the book?” If you respond, “Not longer than a year or more”, be prepared for the editor to either laugh hysterically or grimace. Computer books are written in weeks, not months and certainly not years. The average is often two to three months, but I once had to write a 700 page book in less than three weeks and to revise someone else’s 1200 page tome in less than 10 days.

Whatever you tell the editor, understand that a deadline is sacred. You will make a publisher very, very unhappy if you miss your deadline; most publishers schedule books very carefully and a slipped date can affect every other book they plan to publish that season. You don’t just hold up your editor, you inconvenience a large team of people that are involved behind the scenes on your project with some teams as large as a dozen or two people. One failed deadline can ruin a career or at least make it far less likely you will be signed to do another book for that publishing house.

If you expect to be treated like the expert you believe you are, think again. While editors are often very nice before you sign your contract, the only thing they generally want to hear from you after the fact is that your book is on schedule. You will be expected to answer their phone calls and email before they even send them, but aren’t very good at responding to your inquiries.

Also appreciate the fact that the terms of your book contract really only exist to spell out your obligations to the publisher. I’ve had publishers fail to meet every payment deadline they had, for months on end, but expect my deadlines to be met with a smile, even if I was scraping by to keep the office running until they finally cut a check. Even though I contract with an agent to try to keep payments flowing and on schedule, I’ve yet to see an agent get a payment out of an editor any faster than I could probably do it myself. An agent has to keep the publisher happy so that agent can sell more book ideas, so the agent is not going to lean very hard for payment or better treatment of an author. It’s sad, but true.

Prepare to be part photographer and part artist for the book. You may think the publisher will hire a great photographer or graphic artist to illustrate your work, but you would be wrong. Increasingly today, many computer books focus on the pictures to tell the story (“visual” in a title is often a clue to this) and you as the author are expected to supply all art. The art must not only look good, it must look very clear even if the book is published in black and white on less than perfect stock paper. You may need to provide additional copies of every figure, too, with callouts or diagrams to indicate where the important part of the picture lies. With some books, you could easily shoot and have to individually mark 100-300 images. If you have to change the order of a figure or one is cut for space, you’re also going to have to renumber every figure and every reference to it in the text.

So, you might wonder, how much will you be paid for this extreme effort? Probably a lot less than you might imagine. Some technical books pay as little as a few thousand dollars from which you pay all your own expenses. Very few authors make more than $15,000 for a single book. Royalties, or the percentage of book sales paid to an author, are sometimes non-existent, especially in technical books where a single title may not sit on store shelves long enough to sell enough copies to earn you royalties. Usually, royalties kick in only after the book has been on sale for a year or more or after a set mark is met, such as 40,000 copies. While $2,000 to $15,000 might sound like a nice chunk of change, it really is not for the 100 hour work weeks you usually must endure for the life of the project. Most writers need to juggle multiple writing projects at once just to keep enough money coming in each month to cover basic expenses.

To be a good computer book writer, you need to have the knowledge of Bill Gates and the world’s best technicians, combined with a large amount of user experience and knowledge about how consumers or workers use a product. Expect to do a large amount of research, regardless of how well you know what you write about. However, unlike Bill Gates or very good technicians, a good computer book writer is not paid well. That’s life.

If, after all you’ve just read, you still want to write that book, then you want to sit down and develop a proposal. This document must include:

– your proposed title and topic
– your bio and why you’re the best choice to write it
– Table of Contents which lays out the book, chapter by chapter, down to how many pages you expect each chapter to run
– the audience you target
– competing titles (take a look on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble at bn.com for anything similar then check how well each has sold)

Your proposal should also include your contact information and the length of time you think you will need to write it. Once you put this together, have at least two other people review your material. Always spell check it, too – lots of typos or grammar errors will not endear you to a publisher.

While you are not required to have a literary agent, some publishers will not accept proposals directly from authors. However, if you visit the Web site of some of the technical book publishers you’ve seen, like O’Reilly, Wiley, and Sams, you can often locate information there that tells you how to contact them with proposals. Depending on what they require, you may need to edit your existing proposal to meet their guidelines before you submit it to them. It may take weeks or months before they respond to your proposal – and some simply won’t contact you at all unless they want to sign you to write the book you pitched.

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