Coding Horror: The Book

If I had to make a list of the top 10 things I've done in my life that I regret, "writing a book" would definitely be on it. I took on the book project mostly because it was an opportunity to work with a few friends whose company I enjoy. I had no illusions going in about the rapidly diminishing value of technical books in an era of pervasive high speed Internet access, and the book writing process only reinforced those feelings.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

“Lower your expectations…”

Where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah, dating.

Sounds exactly like what the Domino project is doing. They’re trying to cut out the middle man and make it easier for anyone to self-publish

Great post! I have been thinking about writing a book too, but the same facts that you comment (and also the fear that noone would read it!) stopped me.

Some people say “Think big!”, what it is clearly the opposite of “lower your expectations”. It is hard to find the balance between too low and too big expectations, but you will hardly become a so best-seller author as JK Rowling.

I think that I’m lucky to have The Pragmatic Programmers as a publisher - from the (very little) knowledge I have about these things, I believe that they treat their authors rather better than most.

Nevertheless, I’ve certainly not made a pile of cash out of Debug It!. If you look at the time it took, then the hourly rate sucks. But money isn’t the only reason for writing a book, and I suspect that it’s a case of horses for courses. Some people find blogging more natural, others prefer books. Certainly I know that I prefer reading a book to reading a blog.

I’m not sure if this was your intention, but your article reads as a recommendation to blog instead of write a book. If you don’t mind me asking, how effectively can one monetise a blog? Does your hourly rate for writing this blog work out any better than it would for writing a book?

I have to say, I think that O’Reilly has been an incredible publisher, and I actually don’t begrudge them their share of the sales of my book. I think probably this is also helped by the fact that my royalties are much better on eBook sales than on paper-book sales, and eBooks seem to outsell paper books for my category (software design) by a factor of somewhere around 100. But beyond just the royalties, my editor’s contributions were invaluable (and I usually hate editors), the copyeditor was amazing, the various communication and marketing channels they provide are pretty great, and they’re overall fantastic people to work with.

I found the book format useful for communicating the entirety of a logically-sequential series of ideas larger than a single blog post and with a flow between them. So I do think there’s some value there, although I do agree that blogs are way more useful for communicating medium-sized ideas quickly and usefully.

“When I buy books, I want most of that money to go to the author, not the publishing middlemen. I’d like to see a world where books are distributed electronically for very little cost, and almost all the profits go directly to the author. I’m not optimistic this will happen any time soon.”

Publishers don’t make massive amounts of money per book, in fact most make a loss. Whereas I also firmly believe that it is the artist who deserves the biggest reward from his work - and this goes for all art forms, for those of you who also use Spotify etc - it is wrong to say that what they don’t get goes to the publisher. Electronic distribution, and the process in design and compiling a high quality product, has only slightly less costs per unit, it’s just that you can’t ‘see’ them. And Amazon quite often take a fair chunk, too. Apart from that, I think there’s plenty of interesting ideas in this piece. seem to be addressing some of these issues in a nice way, as are others.

I agree with Mike; most publishers these days don’t make a ton of cash off books either. This is mostly due to the deep discounts that stores (physical and virtual) force on the publisher to ensure the book is stocked (I’ve heard of discounts up to 80%). So that $30 book? The store is paying $15 max, probably nearer $10, possibly less. Add on returns (it’s a sale-or-return business), printing costs, etc, and you can see there’s not so much revenue for anyone. Royalty percentages from digital media should be way higher and if they aren’t, then the contract needs looking at.

Bought a copy because I like the concept and it was very reasonably priced.

Sad but true. I’ve mostly given up writing books these days in favour of doing a “proper” job as I wasn’t making enough to live comfortably on. These days I update my “core technology” books with new versions of .NET and that’s all. At least those sell more than a dozen or so.

I remember hearing the best book ever written has never been published, because it would be so short no publisher would ever print it. Thanks for making this available.

What a pitty Amazon does not sell your ebook to European customers :frowning:

Great post, I agree that if you look at writing a book based purely on the economics then you may as well do something else. I have a book about to be published with Apress (Objective-C Recipes) and I anticipate a profit of $15,000 over two years at best (based on data like yours which agrees with what I’ve found myself). This is for something like 9 months of half-time work on the project.

That works out to something like $20 per hour - of course, consulting or doing almost anything else would be a better investment.

That being said, the reason to write a book is to establish more credibly (perhaps more so in older demographics). So, my hope is that in the “back-end” the effort will pay off by getting more consulting opportunities, more chances to do trainings or maybe a lead for a great partner ship.

It all depends on whether you see a book as a means or an end. As an end, writing a book sucks. As a means to better things my hope is that it’s a +.

Now that there is a digital copy, I kind of want a print one.

Unfortunately, the website has a bug when checking out. If you select New customer and paypal as the payment type, then it gives you a validation error asking you to enter your email, but there is not field to enter your email. So I gave up.

I been successful selling roleplaying books using print on demand. Made about $2,000 in one year dealing with a very small niche market.

You have one of the prerequisites to self publish which is a widely read blog/column for advertising your book. However the remaining stumbling block are lining up editing, art, and layout. If a programmer can put it all together (writing, advertising, editing, art, and layout) then self-publish earns as much if not more than going through a traditional publisher. And you retain the full rights to your book along.

It not free money and it is work. It is an reasonable alternative path that authors can now take due to changes in technology.

John sold 166 ebooks based on the invoice. When both electronic and physical media were available, the electronic sales were only 10% of the physical sales. I wonder if that is a typical breakdown for programming books? Had he avoided publishing in the traditional manner, do you think his net would have been better? I prefer atoms when reading on programming subjects particularly those that serve as a reference. It appears others might as well. Traditional publishing models do appear to limit the authors fair share of income but not having atoms available could be more limiting to your reward.

A good publisher is doing a lot more for their authors than acting as a distribution middle man. The publisher should help the author shape and refine their idea, approach, and content. The publisher will make a large investment in technical editing, development editing, copy editing, layout, proofreading, indexing - all things readers find valuable. The publisher will make a large investment in printing books and producing 3 or more digital formats (which also need proofreading and maintenance). The publisher often makes a large investment in sending review copies to instructors or user groups. The publisher often has a translations group who either produces or licenses foreign language translations. The publisher may have a sales group selling to training companies, corporate users, and schools of all types. All of these things cost money. The author is investing time and mostly looking at the opportunity cost of writing versus other investments with that time. The publisher is making a large up-front investment of cash counting on a return from the book. That’s the author-publisher partnership. Mike, Dave, and others commenting on this have made some excellent points along these lines.

Jeff’s got some very good points that the current publishing model is less than perfect. But it’s also going through a lot of changes and improving. I talk to more authors who have self-published and advise against it though from a time investment standpoint than I have talked to who share Jeff’s opinion.

Also, it’s worth noting that John’s JavaScript book royalty statement in this post is more than 5 years old. Bookscan data shows his book has sold more in the last 5 years than in that first year represented on the statement. While he’s still probably only making a couple of bucks a book (I work for a different publisher, not the one on that statement so I want to be careful in my speculation) his return on that writing investment has to have improved some over the last few years.

Marcher Lord Press, a publisher in the Christian fiction market, has been addressing some of these very issues. One thing when you are selected to publish with them is that you get no advance, but the royalty (once print-out is met which only takes a couple hundred sales on their model) is about 40% last time I checked. If your book sells for $15, then once expenses are met, you get $6 of that. Another just-starting publisher I am talking with is looking at a 60% cut for his authors. No advance, but a great cut.