Pittsburgh Tech Fest June 1, 2013 Hello and welcome to “How to (not) Get Rich Writing Books”. My name is Larry Ullman, and I’ll be your host for the next 40 minutes or so. To start with a show of hands, how many people here think they would like to write a book? And have any of you already written a book? I need someone to verbally answer this next question: how much, as a ballpark, do you think a writer makes per book sold for a $40 MSRP book? Show of hands: how many people think you’ll make more than that? Final show of hands, between traditional publishing and self-publishing, how many people think that self-publishing will earn you more money? I titled this presentation “How to (not) Get Rich Writing Books” and I start asking about money ﬁrst, for a very good reason. Of the handful of facts I’d like you to take away from today’s presentation, the ﬁrst is this: writing is a terrible way of making money. If you’re looking to earn, there are so many better options. Let’s look at the economics of why.
order to appreciate the ﬁnancial terms, one has to understand how writers get paid per book sold. With traditional publishing, this is dependent upon your royalty rate. Say your book has a MSRP of $40. When a merchant, like Amazon or Barnes and Noble buys the book, they’ll pay about half of that. So, $20. You earn your royalties on that amount. If your royalty rate is 10%, then you earn $2.00 for the sale of that book. Note that this is for the sale of the book to the merchant, not to the end customer. Although when an end customer buys the book, hopefully the merchant will order another, which is another sale for you. The answer to that question of how much a writer typically makes on a traditionally sold book is about $2.
$8,000 2,250 $4,500 $ (3,500) $ 0 1,475 $2,950 $ (550) $ 0 600 $1,200 $ 650 $ 650 Mercifully, most publishers will give you an advance to write the book. Most technical publishers, at least. The amount of the advance will depend upon you, the publisher, and the book. It could be as little as $4 or $6,000, or as much as $12,000 or more. Once the book is available to be sold, the publisher starts by recouping their advance, based upon the number sold and the royalty rate. Once you’ve sold enough books that you’ve earned more than your original advance, then you begin earning more money. If you’re earning, say, $2 (USD) per book, this might mean you have to sell 4,000-5,000 copies before making any more money. The average computer book sells about 4,500 copies in its lifetime, which means that, on average, you’ll make a total of just more than the advance. A really strong selling book will sell 7-9,000 copies. Very rare exceptions will sell more than 50,000 or even 100,000 copies. If you play this out, that means that, on average, you might be able to hope for earning approximately $8000 or so on a book. If all goes reasonably well. And that may seem like a decent amount of money, but it’s for months worth of work and paid out over years. And remember that this is on average. You could make less.
out 12 years ago. It was on PHP, and I deﬁnitely wrote it at the right time. When my third book came out, a friend of ours quietly asked my wife if we were rich. Ha! I’m currently writing my 24th book, which I’m self-publishing. I’ve just signed a contract for my 25th, to come out later this year through my most frequent traditional publisher. I’ve written more books than J.K. Rowling. Like twice as many! I’ve sold over 350,000 copies. I’ve been published in more than 20 languages. A couple of my books are best sellers in their categories. But I’ll never get rich writing books. Never. I’ve worked hard and written a lot of books. I’ve written good books. I’ve written popular books (relatively speaking). But I’ll never get rich writing books. I make a ﬁne living, and the writing provides some decent income, but rich is out of the question. The last one, in the lower right corner, is one I’m self-publishing, which I’ll talk about later. One thing I’ve learned is that the books that DON’T sell well, that DON’T make you a lot of money, are just as hard to write as the ones that do sell well. Moreover, just writing a good book is not enough. I’ve had multiple people say that my Ruby book is better than the Pickaxe book, which is blasphemy. Undoubtedly “Programming Ruby” has earned those authors multiple times what mine has earned me.
Gain knowledge Prestige ✰ The most important question of the day: why do you want to write? Your reason for writing a book, or anything, dictates how you should go about doing that. By that I mean through a publisher, self-published, whatever. Moreover, the reason why you want to write will predict your odds of success. I’ve come up with four possible motivations: making money, sharing your experience, gaining knowledge yourself, and prestige. If you learn anything today, learn that writing because you want to make money is a guaranteed to leave you disappointed. It’s easiest to be successful with this endeavor if your goal is to share knowledge or gain personal experience. Those are very achievable goals. If you’re looking for prestige, there are better ways to obtain that, such as working on an open source project. For example, John Resig made quite the name for himself by creating jQuery. Finally, you’ll see I’ve stamped this slide. There are four key ideas that I’d like to make special note of today. Each of those slides is stamped like so. As you drift in and out of sleep today, try to perk yourself up for those ideas. They’ll justify the price of admission!
Self-Publishing Get Writing! @LarryUllman www.LarryUllman.com www.facebook.com/larry.ullman.5 In terms of today’s presentation, I’ve already explained that you’re probably not going to get rich writing books, all that’s left is to explain HOW you don’t get rich writing books. I’m talking speciﬁcally about writing technical books, but much of what I’ll say does apply to writing other types of books or even writing articles. I have ﬁve topics, and will spend a few minutes on each. At the end, there will be time for questions, although you can always ask me questions later on today, or after the conference via Twitter, Facebook, or email. There’s at least one component of the process that’s missing here, and that’s agents. I’m not planning on talking about agents today, but if you have any questions about them, you can ask those later, too. I was represented by an agent for a couple of years, but I have not been represented for years now.
ISN'T ABOUT WHAT YOU LIKE AND BELIEVE IN, YOU MIGHT AS WELL MANUFACTURE SAUSAGES." - ROBERT GIROUX If you’re writing a book through a traditional publisher, the ﬁrst step is to get a book contract. This is one of many mysteries that non-writers have about the process. Let’s crack that code.
jumping Negotiate I’ve come up with four steps for getting a book contract. First, you need to deﬁne the book itself. I’ll explain that more next. Then you submit your idea to publishers. Hopefully, the third step is to jump through some hoops. And ﬁnally, you negotiate the contract, if all goes well to that point.
guidelines Submit the book to publishers. This is the “don’t be stupid” step. It’s my opinion that many people blow their opportunities because they did something stupid here. You have two things to do: - Find the right possible publishers for your book - Follow their submission guidelines If you bring an idea to a publisher that doesn’t publish in that area, or that has already published in that area, the publisher is going to say no. This is a very common mistake beginners make. You need to spend some time researching the right publisher for the book you’ve envisioned. Keep in mind the right publisher may not necessarily be your favorite publisher. Fortunately, ﬁnding the right publisher is very easy to do: go to a library, a bookstore, Amazon, or the various publisher sites. What books has that publisher put out? Would yours ﬁt in? Would yours compete with an existing book of theirs (which would be bad)? The most important step in getting a book deal is ﬁnding the right publisher for your book. Next, follow the publisher’s guidelines for submitting book ideas. They all have these policies clearly stated on their Web sites. Follow them exactly. If you can’t follow simple directions, you’re not really indicating that you can do something as complex as writing a book. Most publishers will want you to submit a general sense of your book, its market, competing books, a table of contents, etc.
at your proposal, they’ll probably want you to jump through some hoops before offering a contract. This is especially true if you’ve never published a book before or never worked with that publisher before. Hoop jumping is most commonly a matter of submitting a sample chapter. A sample chapter gives the publisher a baseline of what they’ll be working with. As I’ll suggest later on, you should have a sample chapter on hand before you start the process anyway. But hoop jumping is part of the process and one of the ways that the publisher covers themselves for the investment they’re about to make in your book.
to the publisher’s satisfaction, they’ll offer you a contract to write the book. Contracts are negotiable, but most people don’t know what speciﬁcs are negotiable or what’s reasonable to ask for. Let’s quickly look at three categories: ﬁnancial terms, rights, and other. Before going into details, keep in mind there are very small margins in publishing. Publishers are successful only by being very good at knowing how many copies of a book they can expect to sell and at what price. The contract terms are based upon those calculations.
2,000 5,000 5,000 10,000 10,000 $8,000 $6,000 $8,000 $6,000 $8,000 $6,000 10% 12% 10% 12% 10% 12% $12,000 $10,800 $18,000 $18,000 $28,000 $30,000 Earlier I had explained how royalties and advances work. These are the two key negotiable ﬁnancial terms. When it comes to negotiating, understand that in general, if you want a higher advance, you’ll get a lower royalty rate. If you want a better royalty rate, you’ll get a lower advance. So which is better? In my mind, the royalty rate is king. Here are some sample numbers. If your book does not sell well, a higher advance is better. But you don’t want a book that doesn’t sell well. In all other cases, a better royalty rate is as good, if not better than, a higher advance in the long run.
the most obvious contract term to negotiate, but the advance and the royalty rate are not the only two factors that can affect your income. Another big category are the rights: what, exactly, is the publisher buying? The contract may stipulate that the publisher is buying just the English language rights for the United States, or are buying all rights. All rights would include the ability to sell electronic versions, translations, and to publish parts of the book in various other formats (such as in excerpts online or whatnot). When it comes to negotiating, the fact is you’re not going to make much of your money in these other areas. But, again, they’re negotiable. Consider, though, that if you retain the translation rights, then you would need to ﬁnd publishers to handle the translation and distribution of your book in other countries. You probably don’t know how to do that, and even if you do, it’s probably not worth your time. Also, publishers factor these other rights into the offer they make. Trying to retain these rights may make the book unpublishable in the publisher’s mind.
color Your free copies Right of ﬁrst refusal on the next book There are a few other things you can negotiate. The book is going to have at least one deadline–when the entire book is due, and possibly more than one (e.g., incremental milestones). Make sure the deadline is one you can make! If don’t make the deadline, the publisher will likely have the right to ﬁre you and have someone else complete the book, or just not pay you the full advance even if they do let you complete it. As a negotiating point, you can even request a bonus advance (e.g., an extra $1,000) for meeting the all-in deadline if that’s important to you. The services include the indexer and technical editor. Some publishers take these costs out of your advance; others don’t. The costs combined should be less than $1,000. The cost of manufacturing a book will be impacted by its number of pages and coloring. Shorter is cheaper, as is black and white. Partial color and full color are more expensive. As these decisions impact the book’s cost for the publisher, your advance and royalty rate will reﬂect the decisions made in these areas. But if you feel strongly about these issues, you can negotiate. The publisher should give you a certain number of copies of the book for free (speciﬁcally not for resale). That number may be 10 or 25, but it’s negotiable. The publisher will not necessarily provide you with electronic copies of the book unless you speciﬁcally ask for them. The publisher may also request the “right of ﬁrst refusal” on your next book as part of this book’s contract. This just means you’ll go to them ﬁrst with your next idea. That’s not so bad, but it’s not something you have to agree to, either. If this is a subsequent book with the same publisher you’ve used before, make sure this book’s sales and payments are not tied to any other book. For example, if your ﬁrst book doesn’t do well, the publisher may want you to recoup that advance through this book before receiving extra payments. Don’t agree to it!
understanding of your approach A table of contents Maybe written a sample chapter With technical non-ﬁction, you normally don’t begin actually writing the book itself until you’ve already: Thought about, in great detail, who the book’s audience is Though about, in great detail, what the book should say Created a table of contents If it’s your ﬁrst book, you may have already written a sample chapter, depending upon the publisher. Other than that, though, you now have to write 200, 300, maybe 500 pages of material. That’s 40,000 to 100,000 words (although you can use the same word more than once). And you have to come up with all of the examples. And manufacture all the images. Oh, and did I mention you have about 3 months to do it?
all that? How do you actually write a book? Well, I’m working on my 24th book, and the best answer I can provide is that books are written bird by bird. This phrase comes from Anne Lamott’s excellent book for writers. In other words, you just do it: a word at a time, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter. People think there are tricks to writing, or that you have to be inspired, but no: writer’s write. That’s all there is to it. Writer’s write. If you can’t force yourself to sit in front of a keyboard for a couple of hours at a time and just keep moving that cursor to the right, then you can’t be a writer.
Managing Editor Rewrites Compositor Managing Editor Managing Editor Proofreader Review Compositor Printer To understand the mechanics of writing a book, let’s look at the publishing process. First, you write a chapter and submit it, along with all the images and other materials (e.g., scripts), to your editor. The technical editor will review the chapter for technical accuracy and make comments. A copy or line editor will review the chapter for grammar, punctuation, and clarity, and make edits. The project or managing editor will review the chapter to look at the work of the technical and line editors, plus make sure the writing ﬁts in with the publisher’s style, the series style, etc. (The managing editor takes care of the big picture, including the schedule, payments, and so on.) The chapter is returned to you for rewrites. You rewrite the chapter, taking into account all of the above, as well as any other changes you’ve thought of since you ﬁrst wrote the chapter. The chapter goes back to the managing editor, who will do a ﬁnal clean up and pass it to the compositor. The compositor takes the writing, the images, the scripts, etc., and lays it out in proper page formats, adding book styles, page numbers, icons, and so forth. The end result is a PDF that looks like the printed book will look. The managing editor reviews the PDF for any layout issues. The compositing editor reviews the PDF for any layout issues. A proofreader reviews the PDF and ﬁxes any remaining grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. You review the PDF to catch any last problems and to address any comments or questions raised by the above. The compositor takes into account all the edits and outputs a second version of the PDF. The managing editor, the compositing editor, and you all review the PDF for any issues at all, and to make sure that the previous issues all got ﬁxed. The compositor takes into account all the edits and outputs a third and ﬁnal version of the PDF. Once all the PDFs are done, they’re sent, along with the PDF of the cover, plus the PDFs of the book’s other materials—copyright, table of contents, index, and so forth—to the printer.
and formatting That’s the macro version of the process. Then there’s your micro perspective. To start, most publishers use Microsoft Word. Which is a terrible application, but it’s the only one that does a good job with multiple users and revisions. The publisher will provide you with a template that’s particular to them or the speciﬁc series you’re writing in. You’ll start with the outline you’ve already created, although when you’re actually writing, you’ll naturally change it. Particularly in later chapters, where you’ll have to make changes based upon what you did in earlier chapters. For technical books, coming up with good, practical examples is one of the real challenges. It’s also a key difference between good and bad technical books. You’ll also need to test your examples, to make sure they work. Nothing pisses off readers of technical books more than code that doesn’t work. With those in place, you start actually ﬂeshing out the chapter, which is to say writing it. And, as one of the ﬁnal steps, you’ll need to take the images and format all the text per the publisher’s guidelines. Note that you’ll probably need to do about 3-4 drafts of each chapter before you submit it. You’ll probably need to submit at least one chapter done per week, which means hopefully every 4-5 days, to give yourself a day or two of rest in between to recharge your batteries. When you’re about halfway done with the ﬁrst submitted draft of the book, you’ll begin getting edited chapters back for revisions (see the above sequence). From there on out, you’ll need to work on both new chapter submissions and rewrites of existing chapters.
Ah, the dreaded blank page. Many writers and would-be writers live in fear of this. You have a blank page that needs to get ﬁlled with words. There are things I know, and things I don’t, but one thing I have ﬁgured out is the cure for writer’s block. Listen to this and you’ll never have writer’s block again. Seriously. The trick is this: what you write doesn’t matter. Seriously. People have writer’s block because they know what the end result should be like and they can’t make that happen. Don’t sweat the writing, it’s the rewriting that matters. The point of writing is to give yourself something to rewrite. The point of writing is to give yourself something to rewrite. Then you rewrite and rewrite until you’ve said what you wanted to say. Accept this and you’ll never have a moment of writer’s block again. What I normally do is this: I’m writing a sentence or a paragraph and it SUCKS. So I type the word UGH in all-capital letters and I move on. If you can’t even write a sentence that sucks--if you’re that stuck, write a bullet list of what you think you want to end up writing. Then you can later rewrite the bullets into sentences that suck, which can then be rewritten into paragraphs that suck, which can later be rewritten in sentences and paragraphs that don’t suck. Good writing is rewriting.
BREAKDOWN IS THE BELIEF THAT ONE'S WORK IS TERRIBLY IMPORTANT.” -BERTRAND RUSSELL You’ve done it: you’ve written a book. Congratulations. You’re tired, heartbroken, perhaps 5 pounds heavier. What happens next? Of the many things I’ve ﬁgured out when it comes to being a writer, none is more true than this: It’s much, much better to have written a book than it is to be writing a book. Writing a book is hard, but having written a book is great. As much as the book writing and publishing process itself is a mystery to many, the life of a writer after the book has been published is even more so.
that day when I receive the physical, printed copies of the book at my door is still quite rewarding. Most publishers will give you 10-25 free copies (the number can be negotiated), explicitly not for resale, and they’ll arrive around three weeks after the book has officially gone to the printer. Of course, this may be six months after you’ve started writing the book, and maybe a year or more since you ﬁrst conceived of the idea. Regardless, ﬁnally having the ﬁnished book in your hands is a great milestone. Before you do anything, you want to grab one of those copies and mark it as yours. This will be the copy that you can make notes in (e.g., errors or thoughts on what to change in the next edition). This should also be the copy you never give away! If this is your ﬁrst published book, you’ll probably want to start giving—signed!—copies to your friends and family. That’s a lot of fun. But if this is your 23rd book, your friends and family do not want them. With whatever copies you have left over, you should give them away as promotional tools.
your book, but they will do so along with all the other books they have previously published, are publishing at the same time as yours, or are going to publish. Beginners may think that a publisher can use marketing to make a book sell well. That’s not really the case. Publishers use marketing to keep a strong selling book selling well. In other words, marketing stokes and maintains the ﬁre of interest, but it doesn’t get that spark going in the ﬁrst place. And regardless of what the publisher’s doing, you have to put in the leg work, too. In fact, the most targeted marketing can only come from you. To start, make sure you update the Amazon page for your book, as Amazon is the world’s biggest seller of books at this point. You want your Amazon book page and author proﬁle to be as current and useful as possible. Also make use of social media as a promotional tool. Another suggestion, which I’m just beginning to do better at now, is to speak at user groups and conferences. You won’t necessarily sell many books this way, but you’ll get your name out there.
$8,000 2,250 $4,500 $ (3,500) $ 0 1,475 $2,950 $ (550) $ 0 600 $1,200 $ 650 $ 650 Earlier I had mentioned both royalties and advances. Some time after the book is wrapped, and probably after you receive your hardcopies, you’ll get the last of your advance. Then you wait for those royalty statements. Royalty statements come out either every three or six months, depending upon the publisher, and they’ll reﬂect two quarters ago. So at the end of March I received my statement that reﬂected the sales from October, November, and December. Once you’ve sold enough books that you’ve earned more than your original advance, then you start getting checks again. Again, if you’re earning, say, $2 (USD) per book, this might mean you have to sell 4,000-5,000 copies before making any more money. For your average book, this will likely be years. For best sellers, it will be 2-3 quarters. After a few statements, you’ll likely start seeing money coming in for translations of your book in other languages and sales in other formats (e.g., electronic, used for training, PDFs of chapters, etc.). There won’t be a lot of money in these areas, in my experience, but it’s also extra money.
I started writing, well, one of the many things I was unaware of was the business advantages of having written books. If you have the desire, having published a book can be a great business tool. For starters, you can can probably raise your rates. Because, you know, you’ve published a book. You’ll also end up getting more work for the same reason. My books are mostly about programming. Readers will be reading the book, working on a project, and think: it’d be great if I could hire Larry to work on the book. I’ve still made more money from writing the books than I have from other avenues, but I haven’t had to go after work for years now. Not everyone needs that beneﬁt, but when you’re an independent consultant, it’s a huge plus.
AT A BLANK SHEET OF PAPER UNTIL DROPS OF BLOOD FORM ON YOUR FOREHEAD.” -GENE FOWLER And then there’s self-publishing. Self-publishing is a very interesting beast. On the one hand, it’s something that literally anyone can do. On the other hand, there’s a good chance that self-publishing won’t fulﬁll any of your goals: making money, sharing experience, gaining knowledge, or earning prestige. But self-publishing is deﬁnitely right for some people and situations.
the traditional publishing process, with all the involved roles: the writer, the technical editor, the line editor, the managing editor, the compositor, and the proofreader. There are also marketing and accounting people at the publisher, too. With a self-published book, you get none of those people and you have to do everything. Everything. This is also a parallel process, meaning you’ll need to do some of these roles at the same time. If you’re smart, you’ll pay someone to perform most of these roles, at the very least editing and compositing. You probably can’t, for example, create a professional cover by yourself. But you may want to buy an ISBN. Where do you get that? What about the taxes? I happen to know that in Pennsylvania, if you live in Pennsylvania and buy a hard copy of my self-published book, I need to report and pay the sales tax on that. If you don’t live in Pennsylvania or if you buy an electronic version, then I don’t need to worry about it. Yikes.
of creating the work is the same as when you traditionally publish. Which is to say, you still have the write the book yourself. You could even use the same tools. However, you ought to hire a copy editor and a compositor. You can use Word if you want, although I’m a huge fan of Scrivener, far and way the best writing application ever invented. You could use Adobe InDesign, if you’re so inclined. I’m writing the book using Markdown, which is a plain text format. By writing in Markdown, I can easily create PDFs, epub, Kindle format, HTML to post online, and so forth. This is a bit geekier of an approach, but I’ve been happy with the results and the ﬂexibility. It does require using LaTeX for the PDFs. If you use some of the online services, such as Amazon’s CreateSpace, they can covert a Word doc to a PDF for you, but the results may not be great.
book is to use the Web. Well, of course. And Amazon and LeanPub are on the Web, so... What I mean is that you can trust Google as a way for people to ﬁnd your book. At least as well as a reader would ﬁnd it among all those at Amazon. I’ve been self-publishing my book for 7 months now, and I’ve sold about 1300 copies so far. Why? Because I started blogging about the Yii framework 4 years ago. It turns out that I did some excellent marketing for four years now. If you search for many different issues and the Yii framework, my Web page comes up. On that page, you’ll now ﬁnd links to buy this book. I’m also posting excerpts from the book online to extend the search engine results. Obviously, social media is another way to market your book, but you really need a decent network for that to pay off. The fact of the matter is, if you are known for a certain subject, and by “known” I mean: easily found online, you’ll have much better luck selling a book on that subject.
that I’ve learned quite a few things about self-publishing, but if you’re very serious about the topic, spend the $15 for Guy Kawasaki’s excellent book APE: How to Self-Publish a Book. The book’s title refers to the three roles that the self-published writer must fulﬁll: author, publisher, and entrepreneur. The ﬁrst two roles create the book, the last sells it. It covers everything most people will want to know, and although it’s not intended for very technical writers, it’s got that in there some.
WHICH TO WORK WILL DIE WITHOUT PUTTING A WORD ON PAPER.” -E. B. WHITE I’ve talked about money, about contracts, about the writing process, about what comes next, and even about self-publishing. The only thing left is for you to get writing. For those of you that expressed an interest in writing books, I have an assignment for you.
and write it. Try to grab one that’s an average representation of the book: not too long, not too short, not too easy, not too hard. And write that chapter. The whole thing. Do the examples, write the code, take the images. Do 3-4 drafts. If you’re serious about writing, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from doing this. If you have a computer, you have everything you need and you don’t have to spend a dime. See how hard it is. See how long it takes. See if you like it. If you think you want to write a book, then write.
should share it with colleagues, family members, and friends to get their feedback. I don’t personally think that’s worth much. Even if your colleagues, family members, and friends would be in your target audience, you’re probably not going to get meaningful, useful feedback from them. No, next, decide if you want to take this all the way: write the whole book. If the answer is “Yes”, think about whether you ought to self-publish it or go through a traditional publisher. And then proceed. crowd source feedback