The Process of Writing a Traditionally Published Tech Book

On the heels of yesterday’s lament about why writing tech books is so hard, I thought I’d lay out the typical process that an author has to go through to get a book published. Now mind, this is kind of an “archetype” process; I’ve worked with a half-dozen publishers in my career, and they all have slight variations on this.

The Acquisition. Publishers employe Acquisitions Editors to acquire new books. If you’re pitching a book, this is who you’re usually pitching it to. Often times, AEs will have a list of topics the publisher wants books on, and they’ll go author-hunting to try and get the books written.

The Development. Commonly, a Development Editor will be an author’s main point of contact for writing a book. Their job is to help the author make sure the outline makes sense, teach the author to use the publisher’s Word template (as it almost invariably seems to be), and work with the author on each chapter. You’ll generally submit chapters to the DE, and you can expect queries about the structure, along with comments about whether you’re using the book’s “style” correctly. Style can involve anything from pedagogical elements (like the “Warning” or “Tip” callouts many books have) to how the manuscript is broken into chunks using headings.

The Tech Edit. Tech editors are almost always hired on contract, and may be a fellow expert that you know. Their sole job is to comment on the technical accuracy of your book. They’re supposed to read the text as well as check any code you’ve written, any demos you’ve written task lists for, and so on. They might comment on your writing if they feel something is unclear, or if they feel they have a better way to explain whatever it is you’re writing about.

The Copyedit. After an author and their DE agree that a chapter is ready, it’s usually off to a copyeditor – who may well be a freelance contractor, rather than an employee of the publisher. The copyeditor will, as the name implies, edit your copy, looking for typos, bad phrasing, poor grammar, and such. You’ll usually get back a much-marked-up document to go through and accept or reject changes in.

The Layout. Once a chapter is developed, tech-edited, and copyedited, it’s off to manuscript layout. In reality, this usually occurs once all the chapters, or a big chunk of them, are in and done. These folks produce the final PDFs that go to print, and you can typically expect 3 or more rounds from them as they catch small layout issues.

The Indexing. Making indexes is a bit of a science and a bit of an art; most publishers employ or contract with professional indexers. Some publishers will charge the indexing fees against your future royalties, while others will provide the service without additional charge. The indexer will often take the entire manuscript at once, many times while it’s in layout, to mark up for indexing. Other times, they’ll take copyedited chapters and mark them up with index entries. Yes, most of them use Word’s Index features.

The Printing. With the entire book in PDF form, it’s off to cut down trees and make books out of them. Publishers generally do a print run of thousands of books, which must be warehoused, sent to distributors, and sold to booksellers like Amazon or whomever else is still selling books these days.

In actual process, you’ll usually have several chapters flying around at any given moment: one you’re writing, one that’s with the DE, another in copyedit, another with your tech editor, and so on. Some publishers prefer to work with small batches of chapters rather than one at a time. I write so fast that the DE usually gets half of the book or more as soon as the contract is signed, and honestly most publishers take 3-4x longer to get through the book than it takes me to write it. I’m a rarity in that regard; most authors take months to write a full book, and the publisher’s “machine” has little problem keeping up.

There’s usually also a batch of images – diagrams and screenshots, for example – that go with a book. Take my advice: Over-crop screen shots, and for diagrams, use a vector-based app like Visio and save the original vector image in an EPS file as well as whatever bitmaps you export. Many publishers will have designers re-draw your vector images, and by overcropping screen shots, you let the experts get a precise crop for the final book. Also consider that screen shots are nearly always printed in grayscale, so it can actually be worth doing all of your screen shots in a virtual machine, and setting the operating system inside the VM to be some kind of grayscale or high-contrast color scheme. That way you avoid issues when a colorful screen shot is converted to shades of light gray and become unreadable.

I’ve personally grown to hate writing books in Word. Publisher templates attempt to come close to what the final layout will look like, so you can somewhat accurately guess at the page count as you go. That invariably makes the templates complex and overwrought, in my opinion, with dozens of styles you have to work with. For example, styling a sidebar can involve a “Sidebar Title” style, a “Sidebar Body” style, and a “Sidebar End” style, just to get the look as close as possible to what the final book will be. It’s exhausting, in no small part because Leanpub has spoiled me absolutely by letting me write in nice, simple Markua – a superset of Markdown – which they then turn into attractive PDFs, EPUBs, and MOBIs with the click of a button.

Markdown’s one weakness is a lack of support for real collaboration, like tracking insertions, deletions, and comments. I wish someone would fix that.

Anyway, you can see how a publisher’s investment in a book can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Heck, just printing 5,000 books can run into $20-$40k, not to mention the salaries and fees of all the employees and contractors who have to work on your book. And with all those fingers in the pie, it’s easy to see where things can go wrong. The only defense against “things going wrong” with your book is to have a rock-solid outline up front.

By rock-solid, I mean outlining your book down to level 3 and 4 headings up front. I mean agonizing over what you’re covering, and sequencing material to create the best learner experience. Mind-maps are a terrible idea at the outline stage, although you can certainly use them beforehand if you like. Outlines need to be sequential, because books are sequential; mind-maps don’t lend themselves to sequencing, and if they’re all you use, you’ll end up with a poorly sequenced narrative.

Ready to start writing your first book?

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