So You Want To Write a Tech Book? By Jason Bell
If there’s one question I get asked most of all, it’s not about what I actually do for a living or specific tools like Kafka and Hadoop, it’s this: “What’s it like writing a book?”.
Well it’s certainly an experience, it has highs and lows. It is a good calling card when it comes to your career though. In the intro to the first edition of my first book I wrote about being given a choice to either do a PhD or write a book. I took the book option and I’ve not regretted that decision.
If you have enough knowledge in your field and you can communicate in a clear way then there is nothing to stop you writing a book, it’s as simple as that. With traditional publishers there is a process that is involved.
Everything starts with an idea, the proposal gives you the opportunity to break down what the book will impart to the reader, what the takeaways are and who the intended audience is. It’s also at this point early on that you define what chapters the book will have and the number of pages in each chapter. Depending on the publisher they will stick to this chapter outline when it’s signed off.
You’ll get asked about what you will do to promote your book, social media following, meetup talks and conference speaking are all helpful at this point. The acquiring editor will give you feedback on your proposal if it needs tightening up or amending. Once done they will pitch your proposal to the board and you will get the thumbs up or feedback as to why it was rejected.
Ah the sordid question of coin. This really depends on the publisher you are dealing with. Some will offer you an advance against the royalties you will get from future sales, others may not offer you an advance at all but will give you a more generous percentage of royalties on sales.
Yes you will sign a contract with a publisher. The contract will have the breakdown of your royalties for each format (print, ebook, Amazon sales etc) and, if you’ve agreed on one, how the advance will be split and paid to you. Once signed and both you and the publisher a copy then you can get started.
As well as you being the author you will be assigned a project editor, they will keep the flow going so it’s a good idea to keep them in the loop as much as you can. You’ll have timed your chapter delivery with a bit of wiggle room for delays and so on. If the book is a technical book then it’s a good idea to get a technical editor that you know. Any code they can review and get working, they may have insight that you might have missed.
The First Draft
Write this as fast as you can, not so rubbish that it makes no sense at all. But it gets the core of the points you are trying to teach while sticking to your page plan. The publisher will usually supply document templates so get used to the idea of writing on Microsoft Word, with most large publishers Word is the only thing they’ll accept.
If you are showing code in your book then a Github repository will be vital, it also means that you can share this with your technical editor, they can test and give feedback. It’s rare that you would complete an 100% first draft then move on to editing, editors are usually on your first draft chapters as soon as they arrive. This is when the juggling starts.
During your first drafts you’ll start seeing chapter reviews come in, the editor will agree a time to get the reviewed chapters back. At this point the project editor and the technical editor will have gone through the first draft, most questions are corrected at this point. After a period of time you will see another layer of chapter reviews, this time from another team who will look at the readability of the chapter, if something doesn’t make sense then they will ask about it. They may ask you to reformat code if it doesn’t look right as well. If you want to make minor changes do them now, you’re near the point of no return.
The final editorial review is usually the final page mock up in PDF format. This gives you a final chance to re-read everything you’ve done. There’ll be the odd comma placement picked up by the editorial team. If you don’t like something you can suggest the change but it would only be a minor change.
One thing I’ve learned, the final edited page is going to be shorter that your first draft. It’s worth adding more content and editing down. The first book I wrote ended up being sixty pages short after all the edits, I ended up adding two new chapters.
How Long Does This All Take?
The first edition of my book Machine Learning: Hands On For Developers and Technical Professionals started on New Year’s Eve 2013 and finished towards the end of September 2014. The was a bit of a break when I needed an operation. All in all it took seven months from drafts, editorial and technical reviews. The second edition took six months from July 2019 to November, the final edits were completed in early December.
It requires discipline to write, I set myself a specific number of pages to write a day, usually in early morning before work and the weekends. It can be a long lonely slog but that’s how it is. I bought a small laptop just for writing so I could take it with me, libraries are wonderful places to write, coffee shops not so much, I could never concentrate properly.
The Finished Product
When the finished printed copies arrive at your doorstep, well it’s a good feeling. The publisher will give you some author copies to hand out to peers, friends, your critics and all that. Obviously, you won’t have forgotten anyone from the acknowledgments page, arguably the hardest page to write, you will forget someone and you will kick yourself when you notice.
Over time the publisher may licence your book to other publishers for foreign language versions. The licence fees will be credited to your publisher royalties.
From here it’s up to you to push your product. If you make a fortune from it, even better! Good luck!