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Writing Technical Books

It’s hard to say exactly when I began thinking of myself as a writer. I’ve been blogging since around 2006, and did a little paid freelance writing here and there. I wrote my first technical book (a self-published eBook) in 2010, releasing it in January of 2011, and since then I’ve authored or co-authored another 8 technical books, all self-published titles, and most still on the market today. This year I also worked on my first technical book with a traditional publisher, co-authoring an exam reference for Microsoft Press.

In 2015 I quit my last full-time job to work primarily as an author creating books, articles, and video courses, with consulting being a secondary activity. That’s when I started putting “writer” on the little piece of paper you fill out when you enter the US. But I would say that I first started thinking of myself as a writer in 2014, which was the first year that I collaborated with other authors to write technical books.

Where I wrote my first book

Success as a Technical Author

Sometimes I meet other IT pros and developers who tell me that they’ve always wanted to write a book, but they worry about whether it’s worth doing. Or that they have written a book, and it didn’t earn them very much money, so they feel like they can’t justify the amount of effort involved in writing another one even if they wanted to.

There’s a general view in the IT industry that you don’t make money from writing books, therefore there’s no point in writing books. I happen to disagree, for several reasons.

Firstly, success means different things to different people. Whether you’re writing a book, or writing a blog, or creating a software tool, the definition of success isn’t always about money. Yes, it’s nice to be compensated for your efforts, but a direct income isn’t the only way that happens. Many people have used a book, or a blog, or a software project as a launch pad to success in other areas, whether it be helping them land a job with a great company, or opening doors to paid opportunities such as speaking, writing whitepapers, freelance consulting, and so on. For some people it’s just a matter of personal achievement, and knowing that they contributed something of value to the community.

Speaking in Las Vegas, a long way from home

Secondly, the idea that authors can’t make money is one that is based on traditional publishing models, or what I like to think of as “the old way”. The market for technical books has long been dominated by traditional publishers, with authors paid by an advance and ongoing royalty arrangement. If you look at the top selling books on Amazon today, traditional publishers fill the ranks. But that’s just one view of the total market, and it tends to obscure the fact that a growing number of authors are having success, including financial success, with self-published books.

The Traditional Publishing Model

Publishers generally find authors in one of two ways. Either the publishing team reaches out to an author that they’ve identified as an expert in their field, perhaps via recommendation of an existing author in their stable, or an author submits a book idea of their own to the publisher.

Publishers are looking for books that will be financially successful for them (not the author), which requires a minimum number of sales to be made to recoup all the production costs of a book. Publishers will ignore a market that is too small or too obscure, purely from an economic point of view. Good publishers can see the trends and get quality titles into the market for the most in-demand topics, although there’s still an element of luck and timing involved.

Lower quality publishers will impose a one-sided deal on the author, with very small advance payments, and take a “spray and hope” approach where they’ll pay a lot of authors very little to get as many titles into the market as possible, hoping that a few will achieve breakout success and the the rest will either break even or be offset by the successful titles.

When you work with a traditional publisher you will either get given an outline to write to, or be asked to develop your own. The publisher will assign an editor who coordinates the project for you. Basically, your job is to write the content and meet the deadlines. The editor will get your drafts in the hands of reviewers, then give them back to you with comments and fixes to deal with. Once the content is all written and proofed, the publisher handles the production of the book into print and other formats, and releases it into the market. That’s a simplified version of events, mainly to serve as a comparison to the self-publishing model, which I’ll get to shortly.

As a first-time author, it can be difficult to break into this business. Of course, there’s some publishers at the low end of the quality scale who will take on just about any author, but it’s not necessary to settle for the worst deal just for the sake of becoming a published author. At least, that’s what I think.

The Self-Publishing Model

Self-publishing is common these days, especially in fiction writing. Authors choose to bypass traditional publishers and use self-publishing for a variety of reasons, whether it’s because their book proposal was rejected, or because they want to maintain control over the finished product.

Self-publishing is, in many ways, harder than traditional publishing. Nobody provides you with an editor and production team, so you’re responsible for the entire project. If you happen to have friends or peers who can help you out with some of the work, for example by providing technical reviews, that will certainly make things a bit easier. But self-publishing still requires a lot of work, and potentially some investment of your own funds if you need to hire professional editors or designers to achieve a quality finished product.

And then of course, you need to distribute the book somehow, whether you want to sell it for money or even if you want to give it away for free. Despite the growing number of platforms to help self-published authors, getting your book into the hands of an audience is harder than many expect it to be.

You Can’t Make Money Writing Books

I want to take this opportunity to directly address the idea that you can’t make any money from writing books. Assuming that financial gain is what you want to achieve from writing a book, the idea that you can’t make any money is discouraging. In reality, it doesn’t take a lot of sales to be financially successful when you self-publish.

Let’s consider two scenarios for how revenue from book sales might look for an eBook that sells for $20.

For both scenarios, we’ll assume a book will sell 100 copies in the first month of release, and 10 copies each month thereafter. I chose those numbers because selling 100 copies of a book as a first-time author is not something that will happen by accident, but 100 copies isn’t a runaway success either, so it serves as a good, modest number to use in an example.

If the book is published by a traditional publisher, the author could get a deal like:

  • $1000 advance (which is paid in stages as you meet deadlines)
  • 5% royalty

There’s a lot that goes into that royalty calculation depending on different geographic markets, formats, discounting, and so on. But for now we’ll just assume a straight 5% cut.

The book launches and sells 100 copies in the first month, grossing $2000. Your 5% cut is $100. But you’ve been paid an advance of $1000 already, so your royalties go towards repaying that advance. Now you’re left with $900 still to earn out.

The book sells an average of 10 copies per month for the next 11 months. That’s another 110 copies, grossing $2200, of which your 5% cut is $110. Now you still “owe” $790 for the advance. The expected shelf life of most technical books is only a few years (or even less these days) before they are considered out of date. At this rate, the advance will never be paid back.

So, after 1 year, you haven’t earned another cent beyond your initial advance payment. As simplistic as this example is, you can see why many authors will tell you that unless your book is a runaway success, you should basically assume that the advance payment is all you’ll ever earn.

In comparison, self-publishing the same book has a completely different financial outlook.

  • $0 advance.
  • $500 cost to produce, such as professional editing, cover design, stock imagery, website hosting, setting up a mailing list, and so on. This will vary of course, depending on what you already have, what you’re willing to do yourself, the size of the book and whether friends help you for free. Double this amount if you want to.
  • Transaction and other costs of about 10% per sale such as ecommerce hosting, credit card or PayPal fees, that kind of thing.

Again, there’s many variables at play here, for example if you sell in the Kindle Store then Amazon takes a cut of every sale. But for now, let’s consider direct sales of the eBook via your own website.

The book launches and sells 100 copies in the first month, grossing $2000. Subtracting transaction fees, you’re left with about $1800. You invested $500 in production costs, so that means the first month of sales has earned you $1300 in profit.

The book sells an average of 10 copies per month for the next 11 months. That’s another 110 copies, grossing $2200, of which you get about $1980 profit after expenses.

12 month sales pattern from my first self-published book

So, after 1 year, your self-published book has earned $3280 profit, more than 3x what you earned as an author writing for a traditional publisher.

Now, some of you reading this will be ready to point out that the $3280 profit is not guaranteed, whereas the $1000 advance from a publisher is. This is true. It’s entirely possible that you’ll sell zero copies of your book, due to any number of issues such as poor market fit or not having an audience to sell to. It’s a problem that you can avoid with the right planning though.

Some of you might also be thinking that $3280 profit is not much return for the effort of writing a book. I won’t tell you that you’re right or wrong. It’s a lot of money to some, and not much to others. In terms of return for effort, you might think it’s not much for a 400-page book, but looks a lot better for a 150-page book. Remember, not every technical needs to be 800-1000 pages long. As technology moves faster, and demand increases for up to date, deep technical content on specific areas, I expect we’ll see a continued growth in the market for shorter books, even as the mega-books continue to do well in their topic areas.

In terms of return for effort there’s an element of risk vs reward here, and if you’d prefer to stick to traditional publishing for your book then so be it. I won’t tell you that you’re making the wrong decision. For some people it’s the right decision! I just think you should make that decision with an understanding of your options. Because either way, you still need do all the work of writing the book. And frankly, that’s the hardest part.

How to Write a Technical Book

If you want to write a book (and remember, there’s nobody stopping you from doing so) the process is basically as follows:

  1. Build an audience
  2. Come up with an idea for your book’s topic
  3. Develop an outline
  4. Write the first draft
  5. Perform editing, and ideally get it reviewed by a peer
  6. Produce the eBook and/or print files
  7. Sell your book

Build an Audience

This first step might come as a surprise to you. Yes, you absolutely must build an audience, for two reasons:

  • Without an audience, you don’t have any perspective on the problem that your book is solving other than your own experience. It’s true that you should always seek to solve your own problems first, but to be successful you need to solve other people’s problems in the process. If you aren’t solving someone’s problem with your book, they won’t buy it.
  • Without an audience, you have nobody to sell your book to. Yes, you can put your book up for sale on your website or on Amazon and it might sell a few copies, but having an audience to launch your book to is crucial to its success.

With traditional publishers, they bring the audience to you. As a first-time author that can be a benefit, because you don’t need to build your own audience first. Of course, that assumes that they have a large customer base that wants to buy your book. In the long run, I think it will be detrimental to your overall success. Building your own audience is a long, slow process, but puts you in a better position for long term success. And by success I mean both financial success, as well as the success in being able to produce books that serve the needs of your audience.

There are many ways to build an audience online, such as writing a blog or running a podcast. The important thing is to control your platform. Being well-known on Facebook or Reddit is nice, but won’t be as helpful to you when the time comes to launch your book. And history is full of examples of platforms rising and falling (look at MySpace and Google+), or changing their policies in ways that could disadvantage you (look at Facebook reach and Instagram algorithm changes). And there’s always the risk that a platform you rely on could kick you off the service (look at people who end up getting their YouTube channels banned, or get their site shut down by hosted blogging platforms like Blogger).

It’s not always possible to 100% own your own platform. Using WordPress for a blog makes you dependent on the WordPress software, but as long as you own your own domain name you can self-host your blog and move it to another host or platform if you ever need to. Yes, that’s inconvenient, but it’s better than building an audience on Facebook or Medium and then losing it all when the platform changes. And any change is made smoother by having control of the means of communication with your audience (e.g. a mailing list or newsletter) instead of relying on Facebook or Twitter to reach them.

Come Up with an Idea for Your Book’s Topic

A lot of people feel the urge to write, but don’t know what to write about. Deciding on a topic for your book is certainly a tricky task. Should you write about the topic that most interests you, or a less interesting one that has the most potential to sell books? Should you write about today’s technology, or the bleeding edge technology that’s just starting to appear in your field? Should you write a big book that covers everything, or a shorter book that focusses on a few specific areas?

If you just want to get something off your chest, or write that book you’ve always dreamed of, and commercial success is not a major concern for you, then by all means go ahead and just write whatever you want! There’s nothing wrong with that approach. Many authors get their start by writing about the topic they’re most interested in. The experiencing of writing your first book is invaluable, whether it sells 10 copies or 1000 copies.

Develop an Outline

Before you write anything else, you should write an outline. As tempting as it is to just start pouring out your wealth of knowledge about a topic, doing so without an outline will result in an unstructured mess.

Think of an outline as a sketch of your book, with the line work and coloring (the writing), and the final inking (the editing) coming afterwards. By sketching out your book first you’ll quickly see whether the ideas that you want to write are in the correct order, and later as you are writing the book content itself you will use the outline to ensure that the key points are being covered in each section.

Write the First Draft

Writing and editing are two separate activities. For short form writing, such as writing an email to colleagues or an article for your blog, most people will edit as they write. For long-form writing, trying to edit as you write will only slow you down.

Personally, I can’t write in short bursts. It takes me a good 15 minutes to get into a flow where the ideas are moving from my head to the screen at a good pace. For those first 15 minutes or so I am often not even writing in sentences. Instead I’ll just start fleshing out the outline onto a page and filling in a few things here and there. Once I get going I’ll start to write properly in sentences and paragraphs.

When I’m in the flow I can write for hours. That’s not to say I write non-stop. I take breaks every 20-30 minutes to stretch my legs, get a drink of water or coffee, think about a few more things I want to add to the document, then sit back down and keep writing while still in the flow. I might pause here and there to quickly verify some fact or definition, but if there’s in-depth research required I’ll just make a note and flag it in Word with a comment or highlighter, and move on.

My first drafts can be quite messy, which takes some getting used to when your instinct is to have a nice clean document with no red or blue squiggly lines where spelling and grammar is incorrect. But when you writing, it’s important to just write. Editing comes later. Trust the process, and your overall productivity will be much higher.

Perform Editing

Editing your own writing is difficult for some people, but necessary if you want to produce good quality work. When I’m editing my own writing I try to create some space between the writing and editing phases, usually by leaving the writing alone for a day or two (the longer the better), so that I’m looking at it with fresh eyes.

I also magnify the view of the document as much as possible so that I’m only looking at a few lines of text at a time. This tends to keep my eyes focussed on the part I’m supposed to be reading, and not drifting off down the page.

Unlike writing, I can sit down and start editing at full productivity straight away. However, I can’t edit for hours, I can only edit in short bursts. So editing is a task that I fit into shorter parts of the day when I know that I have another thing that I need to do in the near future. For example, I’ll squeeze in a few pages of editing in the 30 minutes before I go to pick up my kids from school.

I know writers who have developed all kinds of tricks to help them focus on their editing. Among the more common tricks are printing out your drafts and making notes on them with a pen while you review them. That’s the sort of thing you can do while you are lining up for coffee or riding the bus to work. I also know plenty of writers who read their work out loud during editing. That’s a good technique to try. If it can’t be spoken out loud without tripping over your words, then it won’t be easy for the reader to read either.

There’s two outcomes that you want to achieve with the editing process. The first is to correct mistakes such as spelling and grammatical errors, cumbersome phrasing, incorrect usage of words, and excessively long sentences. But it’s also important to use editing to improve the overall structure of your writing. Are you presenting ideas in the correct order, building on topics from beginner to advanced level, explaining concepts using consistent examples, and so on.

For technical books it’s also important to edit for accuracy of things like demo commands and sample code. That’s where a good technical reviewer will be invaluable.

Produce eBook Files

When you have your completed book it’s time to turn it into an eBook. There’s several file formats to consider for technical books today. A simple PDF is the easiest to produce, because it will look exactly how your source document looks. However, PDFs are not ideal for devices with small screens, such as tablets and smartphones, because the text can’t be resized by the reader.

EPUB is a more suitable file format for eBooks that will be read on a variety of devices. EPUB is essentially just HTML, so it will resize and reflow text on any size screen. The downside is that complex formatting and page layouts are difficult to maintain in EPUB format. It’s not impossible, but it does require a lot more attention to be paid to formatting and styles.

Word to EPUB conversion is possible using programs like Calibre, but the Word document format does end up throwing a lot of junk into the underlying HTML code for the EPUB file. Using simpler source formats such as Markdown often result in a cleaner EPUB (or PDF) file, but can also be more limiting in terms of complex formatting.

Generating an EPUB file in Calibre

The Amazon Kindle store is the largest marketplace for eBooks today, including technical books. You can publish to Amazon Kindle by uploading an EPUB file, which Amazon converts into the Kindle file format for you. Again, getting a good quality Kindle eBook requires a good quality source document. An EPUB produced from a Word document will tend to have more formatting issues than an EPUB that was produced from Markdown. The Kindle format in general is also not ideal for complex formatting, detailed diagrams, and so on, mostly due to the screens on the cheaper Kindle devices.

In the end, it’s important to produce the highest quality eBook file you can achieve, and that will suit the markets and formats that you want to sell in.

Sell Your Book

As far as I know, there’s nowhere in the world that you can’t just sell your own book as a self-publisher. That said, there are likely to be a variety of business and tax regulations in different countries that would apply to a self-published author. So before we go any further I just want to be clear that you should interpret this advice in the context of your own local business and tax laws.

Selling eBooks simply involves taking money from people and sending them some files. As simple as that is, a lot of people struggle with setting up an ecommerce solution to sell their eBooks.

If you’re going to exclusively use the Amazon Kindle store, they’ll handle payment and fulfillment for you, and send you royalty payments for your sales. As convenient as that is, Amazon does take a big cut of the sale price. That might be worth it to you if you’re selling a healthy number of books every month, and you’d rather not do any of the heavy lifting for setting up your own ecommerce site.

Otherwise, there’s lots of solutions out there for selling digital goods. These range from complete hosted services like Gumroad or Shopify, to self-hosted solutions like WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads. Both of those self-hosted options are WordPress-based. Personally, I use Easy Digital Downloads, which has a healthy marketplace of add-ons that improve the functionality of your store.

Accepting payments is easiest with PayPal, as it will allow your customers to pay with either a PayPal account or a credit card. PayPal integrates with pretty much every ecommerce system out there, but some customers don’t like paying through PayPal for their own personal reasons. If you want to add a separate credit card payment option, there’s providers like Stripe, BrainTree, and Pin Payments that can integrate with the most common ecommerce systems.

PayPal and credit card options at checkout

Whatever you choose, try and use a solution that makes the buying process simple for your customers. Buyers will abandon their purchase if the checkout process is cumbersome. You also want to minimize your own customer service burden, so any checkout process that has a high error rate (e.g. customers pay but don’t see a final step they need to complete before they actually get their files) will result in a lot of people contacting you for help (or worse, reversing their transaction before you get a chance to fix the problem for them).

Building on Your First Launch

It’s a great feeling when you sell your first book to a customer. If you launch an eBook to your audience, assuming you have written something that they want to read, you should experience a healthy spike of sales right at the start.

After that initial burst, it’s quite normal for sales to taper off quickly and then settle into a much smaller, but consistent, flow of sales over time. You can improve sales by continuing to do the things that built your audience in the first place – create useful blog posts and other content, be active in communities, attract subscribers, and let them know you have a book that solves a particular problem.

For technical books there’s also plenty of opportunities to write more books, for example when a new release comes out for the technology you focus on. For topics that change very fast, you can update your existing book and make it available to your customers, increasing the value of their purchase and generating goodwill and (hopefully) more word of mouth sales.

Whatever you do, just keep going. After all that work to write and release your book it’s a shame to just let it fizzle out from a lack of ongoing promotion and improvement.

Got Question?

This has turned into a pretty big post, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. If you’ve got any questions about writing technical books that weren’t answered in the post I’d be happy to try and answer them for you in the comments below. Otherwise, I hope you found this article useful. And if you’re planning to write your own book, I wish you the best of luck.

Paul is a technical writer, published author, and Pluralsight trainer living in Brisbane, Australia. He is a Microsoft MVP and runs the Practical 365 website. Say hi on Twitter.
Category: Writing

2 comments

  1. Daniele Ricciardi says:

    Hi, can I ask you which software do you use to write and organize material? You simply use Word or any particular software like Scrivener?

    thank you

    DR

    • I use Word. I’ve looked at Scrivener, as well as Markdown-based systems. The main reason for sticking with Word for self-publishing is that my co-authors are also familiar with it, and for my traditionally published book it was what the publisher required me to use. Scrivener is quite good and popular with novelists. There’s a small learning curve to get used to Scrivener at first. That said, Word also has some learning to understand how to get good quality EPUB output from Word documents. All the other Markdown-based systems I’ve looked at require a fair bit of coding of your own to handle the actual building/conversion of the source files into various eBook formats.

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