I wrote a book. Another one.
Even though I had sworn off ever doing it again, I somehow convinced myself that it wasn’t going to be too hard since this book was going to be much smaller, and I already had a lot of the content anyway.
Cue me being proven wrong.
I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, as I felt that people knowing meant that I would be expected to actually produce something at the end of the process. In the back of my mind I was always hoping someone would tell me I didn’t have to do it after all. So when the book came out, everyone was surprised at how I had kept something like that under wraps.
Judging by the reactions I received, writing a book sounds like some kind of mysterious thing that is mostly out of reach. I don’t think that’s the case, so I wanted to talk a little bit about the process of writing a book.
Let me say this first: writing a book is hard work. It eats up all of your free time and mental space. It makes you feel like you are forever procrastinating and producing very little. It makes you not enjoy any free time. It’s like having a dark cloud hanging over your head at all times. At. All. Times.
Kicking things off
For my first book, which I wrote together with my friend Antony Kennedy, we had the idea in the pub after a couple of drinks and decided to pitch it to Friends of ED (an imprint of Apress) since we knew a few people who had written books with them, and also because they had an easy-to-use idea-pitching form on their site.
To our surprise, they wrote back to us and were interested in the idea. This was followed by some time developing a proposal and table of contents.
The second time, I was approached by Apress to write a short book on a topic of my liking. I had been doing some talks and written about the process of converting an existing site to being responsive. I was interested in the subject and already had some content so I thought I’d give it another go (even though I had swore never to do it again).
Proposal, table of contents, and contracts
If you are dealing with a publisher, you don’t go from having your idea to starting to write the book. First you have to create a formal proposal complete with a detailed table of contents (TOC) of what exactly you are going to do. This proposal will have to be approved by the powers that be before you can start.
You also have to agree on the terms of your contract, schedule, fees, etc.
This process may be different from publisher to publisher, but I assume there are similarities among different publishers.
Looking back, for the first book I wrote, Antony and I should have probably spent a lot more time creating a table of contents than we did, but we thought that the writing would inform the TOC, instead of the other way around. The thing is, though, when you spend a decent amount of time researching and thinking about what content you’re going to include in your book, how the topics will flow, what to leave out, etc., it makes it easier to plan your writing schedule, to have realistic deadlines and also to know what to keep in and what to keep out while you’re writing your first draft.
The second time around I spent a little longer on the proposal and TOC, but still not long enough, I think, as the constant changes to the TOC that ensued proved.
I won’t go into detail regarding contract and fees, but I can say that my negotiating skills were not very good.
The money you receive is negligible compared to the effort you put in — I don’t believe anyone who writes technical books on an ad-hoc basis does it for the money. I did buy my son a very fancy highchair and my husband a new pair of Ray-Bans (even though the hours he put in on the book himself were worth a lot more).
Writing the damn thing
So your proposal is approved, the contract is signed, the schedule is agreed. Now what?
As I mentioned, I had some content that was related to the topic of my second book that I could reuse. Maybe 20-30%, I thought. I was wrong. I had no more than 5%.
Once I started doing the maths, my estimate was that I had to write about 50,000 words (maybe less if had loads of images) to meet the agreed page count.
For most of the writing, I tried to follow a very loose version of the Pomodoro Technique, which, in short, means you are supposed to work completely focused for 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break.
This technique worked really well for me: it’s easier for your brain to accept that you have to work for 25 minutes than for hours on end.
The first few thousand words of each chapter were the easiest. I would write without thinking much about making mistakes, just making sure everything that was in my head was put down into words.
At this stage, in a 25-minute block I could easily write between 500-700 words. But after a few of these, I slowed down considerably, sometimes only adding 50-100 words at a time.
I wrote mostly at weekends and evenings, which meant no family time, and leaving my husband to look after my son by himself after he had a busy, tiring day himself. If you have kids, having a supportive partner that will be willing to take the bulk of the childrearing and that will be happy to enjoy free time on his/her own is vital.
Although he denies it now, my husband played a big part in convincing me to write another book, which meant that many times, unfairly, when he needed some help but I had to write I would tell him “this is all your fault”. Be prepared for moments like this. It’s not pretty.
Some people might be able to afford to take time off to write, though, which I suppose makes things a bit different as you’re not so constrained with time. I’m not sure how that would have played out for me, as I can only write for a few hours every day before I start to get extremely distracted and tired of my own words. And I’d bet that most people can’t afford to take time off their jobs to write a book.
Fixing all your mistakes
Writing a book is not the same as writing lots of blog posts for your blog. If nothing else, when you write for yourself you don’t have to go through editorial and technical reviews until your writing meets their standards.
Some online publishers, such as Smashing Magazine or A List Apart, have a review process in place, which is not dissimilar to what happens when you are writing a book. I have written for both sites, and I can say that the standards are just as tough to meet!
If you’re thinking of writing a book, and want to have a taste of what it’s like to have your work reviewed and receive feedback on your writing, I’d give a go at writing for a magazine or site which has a review process in place.
Going back to book-writing, I think it’s very important to have one or more trusted people who will read your drafts before you send them for review. If you’re writing a technical book, it helps that they know the subject, and it also helps if they have a good grasp of the language you’re writing in. Sadly for my husband, he meets both criteria, and he lives with me, so I’ve invariably volunteered him for this role, which, let me be very clear, takes a considerable amount of time.
Putting everything together
I don’t think writing a book is a fun process, and my least favourite part is probably when I have to gather all the assets necessary for it to be composed. These can be images, diagrams, illustration, screenshots, etc.
Luckily, when dealing with a large publisher they are likely to have dedicated people who will make sure all images and illustrations are designed and formatted in the same way. But I still find this step painful.
This last time, there was some back and forth regarding the rights to use some of the images I intended to, and I had to cut out a couple of them for which we didn’t get permission in time for print. It was a bit disappointing, but at this point I just wanted to be done, so I compromised quickly.
Review process: from draft to book
In terms of the official review process, I can only speak from my experience, but it might give you an idea.
In my case, the drafts were reviewed by a technical reviewer (TR) and an editor. After they reviewed each draft, I’d go through their comments and address them all, making any changes necessary. This takes time, and I don’t find it particularly nice having to rewrite my words, but it helps to clarify a lot of things that might sound weird, are not clear, lack detail or references, or might be wrong.
After the editor and TR are happy with the drafts (which can take more than one revision), the draft is sent to a copyeditor who will make sure there are no typos, grammar mistakes, sentences make sense, ideas are completed, etc. After each chapter was copyedited, I had to, once again, address all the comments and make any changes necessary, and send it back.
The final step that I had any involvement with was reviewing the PDF proofs, which were by this point composed and looked like the final book. This doesn’t sound like too much work, and compared to the other steps, it isn’t. What makes it less than pleasant is that any mistake that you spot, or anything you think could be better written, it’s likely staying like that since any changes at this stage wouldn’t be trivial.
Let the money roll in!
Haha! Joke! There is no money!
It’s likely that the publisher will want you to do at least a little bit of PR for your book. At least making sure you blog about it, tweet it, ask a few people to review the book and tweet about it themselves.
I must confess I almost completely erased the second book from my memory the moment I was finished, which I know sounds terrible, as if I’d abandoned a baby. I did check Amazon to see if there were any good reviews, but that only made me feel worse because the only review so far is a 1-star complaining the book doesn’t have enough code and focuses too much on setting up your team and planning your project. Excellent! I’m not bitter about it at all.
If you’re thinking of writing a book, a recent episode of the Shop Talk Show podcast includes a panel of authors talking about this exact subject. It was interesting to hear how most of the experiences are so similar but also how some details differ. Have a listen.
Anna Debenham also wrote a super interesting article on self-publishing her “Front-End Style Guides” book.
Finally, Apress’s site explains the process of becoming an author.
I could have expanded some parts of the process a little bit, but I didn’t want this post to drag on too much. I could have told you that I used WriteRoom to write the initial drafts and Microsoft Word for all the edits (at the request of the publisher), for instance, but I didn’t.
If you’d like to know more, do let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll write a follow-up to this post.