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Publications > Dateline Houston > January 2004 > Feature Article


Volume 43, Issue 4

January 2004

"Hey, Kids! Become an Author at Home in Your Spare Time and Earn Big Bucks!"

Part 2

by John Hedtke, Principal, JVH Communications, and STC Associate Fellow

Editor's note: The first part of this article was published in the December 2003 issue of Dateline Houston.

The Downside of Writing Books

Before the stars in your eyes and visions of accepting the Pulitzer Prize block out any view of reality, I need to show you the dark side of the mirror. First of all, you're going to be alone when you're writing. This is not the same as contract technical writing. Even if you're working offsite for a contract, you're in contact with people. But your acquisitions editor is not like your project lead. You may not talk to your acquisitions editor even once a week. You will possibly talk to the project editor once a week and even once a day as the book is getting close to done, but the project editor is interested only in page count, style, and editorial and mechanical questions, rather than process and production questions.

You have no idea of what "alone" means until you're two-thirds of the way through a hard book contract period and you're running a month late. It's just you in your office, staring at the monitor, and (you hope) writing brilliant prose. You may be a writer that likes a TV or stereo on in the background, but it's still going to be just you and the computer. The bottom line is that you just won't have much contact with people while you're writing a book except when you're not writing.

As a result, you can get depressed easily, particularly if you're having trouble with a chapter that's just not gelling. You can also procrastinate easily. Before you start a project, you should be completely honest with yourself about what kind of procrastinator you are. You can get derailed easily. Set goals for writing productivity and be absolutely honest with yourself. (You don't need to show this to anyone else, with the possible exception of your therapist, but you need to track your progress.)

One publisher I know says that up to 75% of all computer books are delivered from one to six months late. The reasons for this are many and varied, but most commonly, it's because the authors lose focus, they get overbooked (one project runs late and slides into another), they get depressed, their support system breaks down (or their significant other loses patience with the enforced solitude), or because they discover they just can't do this one.

You need a lot of personal tools to be a successful author. Over the years, I've developed a whole array of tools, including the book proposal format I use (which covers everything about a book you'd need to know before the fact),a large network of people I can call upon with technical questions of all sorts (including a good friend who'll periodically come over and fix my computer late at night in exchange for a sushi dinner with me), and my boundless optimism. These are some of the tools I have, but you won't necessarily have any of these at hand. Part of your choosing to write a book should be to identify the resources you have available and how to solve some of the problems that may come up. Listing everyone you know, or at least, listing your technical contacts, will be helpful. (By the way, if someone does help you, even if it's only answering a single question some evening, mention them in the acknowledgments.)

One hot tip: don't count on corporate support for a book when you're looking at resources. Just because you're writing a book about a product that will provide marketing for the product, improve the users' ability to use and enjoy the product, and will let the company sell more of the product, you can't expect the company to help you. Like many of the other things we do for clients, this doesn't have to make sense... but it's reality. Just because your book is a great idea and it'll help the company and they like the idea, too, you still can't count on the company's help for anything . As one example, I've written a series of books on accounting software that do all of these things and the company refuses to support the project or acknowledge that the books exist, because they have a "not invented here" attitude. I make money from these, but the company has been enormously irritating to deal with over the years.

A lot of people who contract (including me) like the freedom of assignment combined with the large paychecks. But we still have a lot of structure in our lives, even as contractors. We're hired to accomplish a fairly specific task by a specific deadline. The format, writing style, and content are largely predetermined. By contrast, writing a book has no safety net. It's completely free-form. The format and writing style will be broadly dictated by the publisher, but there's not a lot of structure beyond that. And, unlike contracting, you're working with people in remote locations whom you will probably never meet face-to-face and who may not have a great deal of understanding of what you're writing about. As a matter of fact, you are usually the subject matter expert for the book, not the developer down the hall. The publisher will have a technical editor working on the book, but that person will expect you to know what you're talking about.

Probably the most important thing to consider is your significant other and family. You single people don't have to worry about this--you'll probably just remain permanently single while writing books--but people who are in relationships have to consider the effect that their absence is going to have on their significant other and family. Be sure to make some provisions for taking your sweetie out for dinner/movies/a weekend on a regular basis during the project and be extra nice to them when you're done. I'm still learning to balance this one myself, but it's important and will greatly reduce friction. Make a contract with your significant other and stick to it. And don't be surprised if halfway through a book, your SO announces that she or he is fed up with your being absent. Be prepared to negotiate some more if that happens.

One final downside that you should keep in mind: you can write a brilliant, award-winning book that's critically acclaimed, lauded in the New York Times , and is quoted for 10 years thereafter... and it can still die on the vine and never earn out its advance, let alone make any money. It's happened to me. Never spend your royalties before you earn them.

Starting about 2001, the market for a lot of computer books, particularly the low-end books (of the "How to Write Your First Paragraph with Word/Absolutely Anything for Dummies/The Internet for Anybody Who Hasn't Heard About It Yet" class) pretty much died and went away. There's still a market for higher end books, such as "Web Server Administration Tips for People Who Never Sleep" and "Programming Your Own HAL9000 in XML," but you'll probably need a specialty to capitalize on if you're going to write general computer books. The market for lower-end books will probably start picking up again around 2005.

Writing the Book

Writing a book (at the beginning) looks awfully simple. Here are some tips for the writing process that will keep it from being simply awful.

Before

    • Buy an answering machine and start using it! Kiss your family and social life good-bye for a while. Explain to your friends that you can't make social commitments right now. Prepare as if you were going to be away on vacation for a month or two. Figure out what to have other people take care of. Don't make any commitments for the month before or after the scheduled handoff.
    • Make sure that you have adequate disk space on your computer to keep the entire project online at once, including first drafts, sample documents, spreadsheets, supporting programs, and so on. Also make sure that the computer you have is adequate to the software you're writing about. How much processing power does the program really need, as opposed to running the program slowly on a stripped-down computer? Do you need a 21" monitor? A color laser printer? A second CD-ROM drive or a CD-ROM burner? Make a list of what you need and find out how you can get it.
    • Find out where you can make good, cheap photocopies in the middle of the night. You'll need to, sooner or later. Consider buying a $59 scanner to make quick photocopies.
    • Be prepared for all contingencies: computer loss or breakdown, unavailability of anything and everything, loss of manuscript or art originals. For example, I had a hard disk crash in the middle of writing my first book. Because I had been making daily (and sometimes hourly) backups of critical files, I only lost the six hours it took me to restore everything to my other hard disk. No writing was lost, and I finished the chapter on schedule. Consider getting a CD-ROM burner (they cost only a couple hundred dollars) for your computer so you can automate the backup process. You might even consider getting a second computer to drive your printer with and to act as a back up if your primary computer goes down.

During

    • Store your backups away from the computer. If a fire breaks out in the office, it'll toast whatever is there. If someone steals your computer, they'll also take whatever disks, tapes, and CDs are lying around. Publishing contracts invariably make you responsible for maintaining a copy of your manuscript in a safe place. Also consider buying a small safe for more secure storage, but remember that fireproof safes just keep the contents from burning up. In a fire, the temperature in a fireproof safe goes high enough to erase disks and tapes.
    • Learn your editor's strengths and weaknesses. For example, several of my editors have been relatively unfamiliar with computers. This caused me some frustration at first in trying to explain things, but I soon realized that this was a great asset. Whenever I presented a concept that was technical, I had to be able to explain it to a live, nontechnical person first, rather than just say, "The reader should be able to figure that out."
    • Keep a journal of how you're feeling about the project. Although this probably won't help you during the first book, you'll be surprised at how your patterns will repeat from book to book. After you know your patterns, you can make more accurate plans and estimates based on your working style. After years of writing books, I know that I always hit a slow spot somewhere around chapter 6, after which I have relatively smooth sailing until just before the last chapter, at which time I need to take a long weekend off before the final push.
    • Make sure that the sound system in your office is in good repair. Buy a few extra tapes or CDs.
    • Take a lot of vitamins. Take a 20-minute walk once a day to relax and to get exercise.
    • Keep a list of the people who have been helpful to you and remember them in the acknowledgments. Be sure to include everyone on the staff at the publisher who had anything to do with the book, even if it's only a lump acknowledgment with a long list of names (which should be in alpha order for this kind of acknowledgment, by the way). Make sure that everyone's name is spelled correctly and (oddly enough) that they want to be acknowledged in print—some people don't.
    • Budget time after the manuscript is complete for questions, revisions, corrections, and reviewing the page proofs. Some of this will probably happen while you're writing the book, but most of it is after you've handed off the last chapter to the publisher.

After

    • Put the book contract and any legal paperwork in your safe or safe-deposit box. Put all of the remaining paperwork for the book—chapter drafts, printouts, general correspondence—in a couple of boxes. It's a good idea to put the paperwork inside a couple of plastic bags as protection against water and mildew. Label the boxes with the book's name and the date and store them on a high shelf. Plan on keeping this box indefinitely. You'll first want it for legal archival purposes, then for a sense of history to show what you've done.
    • Also make a final backup of all the files on your computer related to the book, including e-mail, source files, proposals, illustrations, and chapter drafts, and store them to diskettes using a standard backup program. Label the disks carefully with the date, the backup program you used, and the book name. Wrap them in several plastic bags (so they're waterproof and moisture-proof) and store them in the box with the drafts and correspondence. Keep the files of your final chapter drafts on your computer for at least six months so they're easy to refer to.
    • Send thank-you notes to the people who had to put up with you while you were writing, including your editor. Flowers, chocolates, and a dinner for your significant other are definitely appropriate. The wife of one author I know has a "Welcome Back" party for her husband every time he finishes a book. It's something like a groundhog seeing his shadow. (If you do, it means six more weeks of revisions.)
    • Do something nice for yourself that gives you a sense of closure on the project. You've just completed a major effort; you deserve a little time off.
    • Start thinking about your next book. After you've gotten one book under your belt, you're very likely to want to start writing another one right away. See if the publisher has any projects coming up that you can work on.

Summary

Writing technical books sharpens all of your writing skills. Your ability to plan projects improves. Most authors notice that their writing speed increases dramatically the further they get into a book, usually to between 10 and 15 finished pages a day in the last stretch.

Writing technical books can be profitable. Furthermore, royalties are "found" income. You can expect royalties for several years after the book is published, in addition to your current salary. Publishing a book also looks very good on the resumé and impresses clients greatly.

Most importantly, writing technical books is fun. Although I like to joke that writing books is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer ("Because it feels so good when you stop!"), it's been an incredibly valuable experience for me. When I got my promotional copies from the publisher, I had a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Seeing my first book for sale in the bookstores was one of the great joys of my life, and it will likely be one of yours, too.

Web Resources for Writing and Publishing

Copyright 1990-2002 by John Hedtke (john@hedtke.com). One-time serial rights granted to STC newsletters to reprint the article in entirety in exchange for advance notification and permission and two copies of the printed final version. All other rights are reserved by the author. To request reprint rights, contact the author at john@hedtke.com.

 

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