Questions · Writing

Considerations when asked to write a book?

Harini Vasudevan Currently looking for full time (local / 100% remote no travel) opportunities

November 23rd, 2016

I've been approached by 2 different publishers to author a book, based on the strength of a few articles I've written. They are both established publishers - think O'Reilly, Packt, Manning, Wrox, etc - and it's darn flattering to be asked. I think it'd be a fun experience, and a feather in my cap. Though I'm under no misconception about the monstrous amount of work it entails.

To those who have been down this road: Before I get into bed with a publisher, what else should I be thinking about? What questions should I be asking? What is a fair, market-rate deal for a first-time technical author writing about a popular subject? What are the areas to negotiate? Thanks so much!

Andrew Chapman Publishing Entrepreneur and Author

November 24th, 2016

1. Hire an attorney experienced with trade publishing to review your contract. It is absolutely normal and expected that the publisher will write the contract to its favor; likewise, it's normal and expected for you to counter on certain points. Although the advice above is great, the truth is that there are far too many potential contractual issues -- devil in the details -- to even begin to address here. 

2. As one example of what I mean... Will your royalties be measured on the book's list (cover) price or net (after the publisher's costs)? You always want them to be based on the list price because it's a clearly defined amount. Some publishers like to base royalties on net because they can work the numbers to their advantage, adjust the net to lower your royalties as needed, and (worst-case scenario) more easily hide the numbers in order to pay you less.

Randy Peyser Owner, Author One Stop

November 24th, 2016

Hi Harini, This is my area of expertise. I have over 40 people under contract with agents or publishers I've found for them. One of my clients was on the Wall Street Journal Bestseller List in July, and another was in Oprah Magazine in August. You are welcome to call me at 831-726-3153 PST to discuss this potential opportunity with these publishers. Sincerely, Randy Peyser -- AUTHOR ONE STOP, INC. Randy Peyser, CEO (831) 726-3153

Andrew Chapman Publishing Entrepreneur and Author

November 26th, 2016

It's important to reiterate a key point that's been both stated and implied above -- do *not* look at this as a money-making opportunity. If you profit from the project, great, but take it on with other goals in mind.

As much as the credibility factor, a professionally published book opens all kinds of doors. My first trade publishing deal was horrible on paper, because I had no idea what I was doing. I got 32 cents royalty per sale (book published in 1990), and it was work-for-hire (i.e., I didn't own the copyright). I lost money on the project and couldn't create any ancillary products from it for additional income streams due to it being work-for-hire.

However... that book was done for Warner Bros. and was a collaboration with the rock band Iron Maiden, ultimately leading to sales in more than 20 countries over the course of the decade. It was trial by fire that made me much smarter for later book projects and deals. And most significantly, the name value of Warner Bros. and Iron Maiden has carried residual "weight" to this day, more than 25 years later -- a valuable piece of my publishing history that's been the difference in getting other book deals, projects, clients, and speaking engagements. (Of course, I also got to spend time with the band, meet other rock stars, and have backstage access at huge concerts! Priceless.)

So, in considering your book project, be sure to take a 30,000-foot view as to whether this could lead to bigger and better things, and see the book as a tactic within an overall strategy. Then measure down to your anticipated investment (literal expenses, time spent, opportunity cost) and determine whether the project makes sense. Again, unless you have a significant platform with loyal followers and/or an existing speaking schedule to leverage, you're best off assessing this project based on little or no expected income from book sales and royalties; whatever does come in can be bonus money.

Tim Boudreau Consulting Product Manager / Software Engineer at Oracle Labs

November 23rd, 2016

I've coauthored books for O'Reilly and Prentice Hall.  What I can say is this:
  • If it's a tech book, don't plan to make actual money on royalties, particularly if it's a niche topic.  Maximize your advance - that is probably all the money you'll ever see from it.  The shelf life of tech books is very brief.  So at least ask for a higher advance than whatever is first offered - you won't get another chance.
  • Plan for it to take over your life for a while - as in you do almost nothing else.
  • If there is no advance, decide if it is worth it as resume material and to get your name better known in your field, because that's all you're likely to get out of it.  The answer may be yes, but you will do a lot of work.
  • If you are doing it on your work time, then your employer, not you, owns the copyright on whatever you write and is entitled to royalties, not you.  It is possible to work out an arrangement regarding that with your employer (I did), particularly if the book is good marketing for them, or your enhanced reputation is.  But find out what the deal is.
  • Ask the publisher about what they expect for sales, and about sales numbers for specific other books they've published.  Basically, spend some time finding out about the publisher and if they're any good.
  • Ask the publisher what they price they will put on the book.  If they can't answer that, that strongly suggests they aren't invested in the result and are just looking to check the checkbox of having a book on X.  I turned down one of the publishers you named for not being able to answer these questions well - it told me there wasn't a business plan behind having a book on the topic.
Things that worked for me when writing:
  • If you're technical enough to use git and any sort of build tool or script, use it, and pick one of the many plaintext formats that can be "rendered" into book format by a script.  In 2002, we used DocBook XML, but there are many more lightweight choices today - things that are a little richer than Markdown but about as simple.  And of course, there's always Latex.
    • If you have co-authors, this goes double - you will tie yourselves in knots having more than one "authoritative" version, and sooner or later someone will wind up having to manually merge multiple versions.  There are probably web-based collaborative tools that could do that now, but having the full richness of Git history is handy.  And being able to have reviewers use Git instead of, say, emailing comments with page and paragraph numbers that will have changed by the time you see them, saves a ton of time.
    • Your publisher will thank you (at least if they're O'Reilly) - if you use something like Word, someone will have to manually import that into actual typesetting software and do a lot of expensive, time-consuming futzing to get it actually looking right.  And semantic markup eliminates misunderstandings that can screw up the way the book gets laid out (maybe you had a sub-subheading that was actually in the font for a subheading, and so a sub-subsection gets turned into a subsection because the editor had no idea what you were trying to do).
  • I found doing edits on paper worked better for me than on the computer - I did my writing on the computer, and after a sizable chunk was done, would print it and go to a pub or coffee house and mark it up in pencil.  It's too easy to jump around between sections on the computer, and one of the things you have to edit for is how it flows.
  • Make sure reviewers are clear that they are to be blunt and brutal and specific.  We all write some things that suck, and we all think we're awesome.  The worst thing that can happen is to have reviewers who don't want to hurt your feelings.
Good luck.


November 23rd, 2016

Harini, I work in publishing and can tell you that the most important thing is the contract; it'll lay out what the publisher will be willing to do, able to do, offering, and what you'll be able to do in the future. Nothing is final until you sign a contract with the publisher, then you'll most likely be assigned an editor for you to work with. You should be asking what royalties you'll get and whether or not they'll be owning the copyrights or just owning a license to sell your work. If they own the copyrights they'll be able to sell your work like it's there--across the market and abroad. Royalties really depend on what the likelihood is for the publisher to be able to recoup all the expenses that they put into your book before it's published, how many books you've published before, and vary from publisher to publisher. All the best and I wish you luck! Eleonor -------------- * EDITOR, PUBLISHING PROFESSIONAL *

Shel Horowitz I help organizations thrive by building social transformation into your products, your services, and your marketing

November 25th, 2016

So don't go with a publisher that makes you buy a bunch of copies! If your product is good, it can find a legitimate publisher.

Keep in mind the many benefits of being an author. I'll list a few of them here:
  • Reason for media to interview you - not "I've written a book" but "I hafe credentialed expertise on this newsworthy topic."
  • Reason for meeting planners to book you
  • Something to sell when you speak and create additional revenue
  • Source of content to publish excerpts in magazines, prominent blogs, newsletters, etc.
  • Something to reinforce your message to your tribe
  • Although less true than in the past, people still look up to authors
Lots more but I'll stop there.

Shel Horowitz I help organizations thrive by building social transformation into your products, your services, and your marketing

November 24th, 2016

You're getting lots of great advice here. I absolutely echo the need to have pre-signing contract review/negotiation, and best to have it reviewed by not just any lawyer  but one thoroughly versed in book publishing who understands the *author's* stake and doesn't just represent publishers. Andrew Chapman and Randy Peyser, who've already responded, are two publishing pros who could be good guides. I am another one. 

Whomever you choose, it's important that you get an experienced publishing consultant who can help avoid the minefields and navigate successfully whatever publishing path you choose (traditional, hybrid, self-publishing, subsidy publishing, etc.), and who is looking out for *your* best interest. You ability to negotiate will depend partly on how many they think they'll sell, which in turn is a factor of how big a tribe you've cultivated. But remember that it IS a negotiation and you can walk away from a bad offer if they don't budge (you can always self-publish). In most cases, you want to own most of the rights and the actual copyright, be covered by their liability insurance, avoid getting locked into an option clause that's too restrictive, and not have unearned advances reclaimed on future books (to name a few among many concerns).

Writing a book is time-consuming - but remember that the REAL work comes later. Marketing is usually primarily the author's responsibility. YOur ideal consultant will have expertise in all the various publishing paths as well as in book marketing. BTW, my author services page is

I've written 10 books under my own name, ghostwritten several others for clients, and have helped many authors with various parts of the publishing process, whether they self-publish or work with a publisher.

David McCaughan Thought leader and Storyteller at BIBLIOSEXUAL

November 23rd, 2016

Hi. I'm in same situation as you. Would love to hear the advice you get

Lester de Souza Building community for entrepreneurs

November 23rd, 2016

Current publishing is mostly digital.  This is a complex and dynamic legal landscape.  You can get an idea of this in a book by Perzanowski and Schultz - see  which is to say, before you sign anything, get a lawyer to explain what you are signing.  Understand that some ambiguity will persist even with legal advice.  You may not have much room to negotiate as a new author.  You may look at options being offered to you and what the capabilities the publisher provides.  Not all publishers are the same and they are working with different markets.  If you are serious about making your information a business, you need to get up to speed on the business of information.  Best wishes.

Joanan Hernandez CEO & Founder at Mollejuo

November 28th, 2016

Dear @Andrew

You got to work on your first book on that theme and got paid? Not fair!

Iron Maiden fans :)