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The Economics of Writing a Technical Book (medium.com)
519 points by JustinGarrison 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 149 comments



We've published several books, and the author for our latest Vue book earned $20k on the opening weekend.

The economics change completely if you self-publish or publish with a smaller firm that has marketing abilities (and better royalty rates).

Self publishing is awesome because you keep all the money, but it takes years to build an audience.

Honestly, writing the manuscript is the easy part. Building an audience, marketing it, keeping the book up-to-date is just as hard as the original manuscript. But it can really pay off.

I'm ready to share this now: our book on Angular 2 did $400k a revenue, per year, the first two years. BUT the reason this was possible was we had a huge audience that trusted us.

Email marketing is more powerful in this space than you might believe. Even today.

If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to sign up for Ramit Sethi's emails and watch how he markets. After that, get every book on copywriting you can and learn how to write copy.

(Also, if you're interested in writing books with me for 50% royalties, my email is in my profile. I want to do books on Python and Node this year.)


BTW, fullstack.io barely works with an adblocker on. Can't download free chapter of your new React Native book. I'm accustomed to that on non-dev oriented sites, but might be a first for a site catering to devs. My blocker doesn't like 6 of your 20 (!) domains serving tracking / payment code.

Not saying you should cater to me, just that you might not realize it's happening.

Love the book covers. They are very attractive and professional.


Well, the other reason $400k in revenue was possible: you were writing about a popular JavaScript framework. There aren't many topics with such a wide audience.


>you were writing about a popular JavaScript framework.

When there's a gold rush on you're more likely to strike it rich selling picks and shovels than mining.


> There aren't many topics with such a wide audience.

What now? The number of people who develop in angular actively is probably in the low 6 figures. In the context of the world that's a very small audience.


In the context of programming languages and tech stacks, that is an astronomical audience though.

I work in a niche where there are two books that have ever been written, by the same author, and there might be a couple thousand people total in the whole world that use this particular SDK. Most technical books appeal to an incredible narrow slice of the already small pie that is software people.


I suspect that the total number of books written on SQL/C/C++/C#/Java etc probably significantly exceeds those written for niche languages. Similarly, Windows/Linux/Unix/iOS or MS Office or Visual Studio... across the various CS domains.


What niche? It’s almost a disservice to your niche not to mention it by name! The books too


Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business development. Michael Greenleaf has written a couple books, and there are maybe a double handful of people blogging about it.


What’s your plan for Skype for Business getting canned? Teams development?


That's many years down the pike, honestly. We still see a lot of customers using Lync 2010. People do not move fast in this segment.


Can confirm, the subject matter is really important. I accidentally wrote the most-read blog post on our company blog, and this might be my humility / impostor syndrome speaking but, it wasn't due to the content as much, but because it was using the right keywords in the title at the right time.


> Well, the other reason $400k in revenue was possible: ........ There aren't many topics with such a wide audience.

OP mentions Ramit Sethi, so have to quote his post on this statement, it's called "The Shrug Effect"

https://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/success-and-the-s...


I'm simply pointing out that "the reason" cited is not the sole reason. No amount of effort will turn a book on Factor or SML into $400k of revenue.


    Self publishing is awesome because you keep all the money, but it takes years to build an audience.
I can totally relate to that. Some things about self-publishing were much easier than others. Building an audience is hardest so far. Experimented with Google and Facebook ads, stopped because it was too expensive.

Right now, I am only doing content (blog posts, ...) and Twitter. Sales are low, but I am not losing money anymore ;)

For my React-Book, that's OK. But with my other book about "Agile Anti-Patterns", I invested some money in Illustrations and other stuff: https://www.quickglance.at/agile_antipatterns.html So it would be nice to get that money back some time ;)

    Email marketing is more powerful in this space than you might believe. Even today.
I stopped that, too, because it did not work too well for me. And also there are quite a few legal implication when you do that in my country (always have been, not necessarily GDPR related).


I love the design of your site. Did you do it yourself? Did you get the illustrations from an artist you followed or something like UpWork?


A designer I know IRL helped me with the design. I also had a professional copy writer I know IRL help me with the German texts (not the English ones, though). Paid both of them, of course, but that was not too expensive, since they only helped, and I did a lot on my own before and after their involvment.

The Artist is Irina Linuza. Found her on upwork, and was very happy with her way of working from the start: https://www.upwork.com/o/profiles/users/_~01678d123d582fc42e... That was more expensive, since the illustrations are so detailed. Simpler ones would have been cheaper, of course, but that's not what I wanted.


Can you give us a quick overview of what's unique about Ramit Sethi's email marketing?

I also found this blog post for anyone else whose interest was piqued: https://growthlab.com/guides/ultimate-guide-to-email-copywri...


Wow. Books on writing copy? Either that’s what I’ve been missing, or it’s another rabbit hole that leads nowhere but self-congratulatory learning (no sarcasm intended).

I feel like I hit a wall writing thinks as they’re either technically accurate but incomprehensible, or they’re too doughy and carry too little meaning.

I feel like there is something I just don’t understand about this business, and everyone else just says, “start”.


>Honestly, writing the manuscript is the easy part. Building an audience, marketing it, keeping the book up-to-date is just as hard as the original manuscript. But it can really pay off.

That is a big part of the value proposition of going through a publisher; Marketing is a big job... getting your book through to the various distribution channels is a big job. Personally, I'm okay giving up most of the monetary profit to have written a book that gets read and gets me recognition without having to do all that marketing work.


I'm ready to share this now: our book on Angular 2 did $400k a revenue, per year, the first two years. BUT the reason this was possible was we had a huge audience that trusted us.

Helpful insights.

What are the major factors you credit with getting the large audience?

How large is "large"?


Just guessing based on rough numbers:

$400,000 / $20 = 20,000 purchasers at that $20 price point (which is probably low for the books I see around in the space). If you guess a conversion rate of 2-4%[0] you’re talking 500k - 1mm people. Obviously those numbers shift down with purchase price normalizing to what feels more standard in the tech space ($30-$40).

[0]: https://chrismcmullen.com/2017/11/03/book-marketing-by-the-n...


This is why being able to write great email sales copy has an outsized effect on your success as an independent author. Think about how long it takes (and how many blog posts!) to add 500,000 email subscribers, even if you already have that many. That's the difference between 2% and 4%. Imagine you already have those million email subscribers and you can increase your conversions from 4% to 5% with a price increase from $20 to $25.

That's going to be much more effective to the bottom line of your business[0] than the best Facebook ad or marginally better SEO.

[0] Let's be honest if you're making half a million dollars with book releases, it's a business.


That's phenomenal! I agree that building an audience is the hardest part and it's what traditional publishers bring to the table for most people. Just last week I saw someone self-publish some artwork in an area they have an audience and they made $4000 in a day. The only marketing they did was a single tweet. I don't think most individuals would be able to gain this level of authority without years of work and spending lots of money traveling to and speaking at conferences and writing blog posts or publishing videos.


> Just last week I saw someone self-publish some artwork in an area they have an audience and they made $4000 in a day.

Link? I've been wondering about the current economics of (new) art lately.


That must be Julia Evans, she's awesome! https://twitter.com/b0rk


Have you done any fiction? Or exclusively technical books?


I don't approve of the "full stack" mindset, or the term. I gave it the benefit of the doubt but I am past that point now.

The idea is that full stack engineers implement features "vertically" by maintaining various parts of a "stack" at the same time.

Sounds good, but often the result is bad. A web frontend is very resilient, whereas backends are the complete opposite. If you apply the same mindset on both it better be a backend mindset:

- what happens if you leak memory in a web page? well, eventually the user will navigate away, and all resources would be freed, making everything fine. You do it on a server? your server will eventually collapse.

- What happens if you don't handle an exception on a webpage? Not a lot. But on a server? many things can happen... you can crash a server process, leak memory, etc.

- Security is similar. Browsers have restrictive defaults whereas servers don't. And the list goes on and on.

This is why "full stack" to me is a red-flag. Full stack to me equates "competent at front end, has some knowledge about servers but requires supervision".


> A web frontend is very resilient, whereas backends are the complete opposite. If you apply the same mindset on both

Even if I accept your premise (which I don't), nobody is suggesting you apply the same mindset to two different things. I consider myself a full stack developer, but if I had to pick one it would be back end as that's where I started, where my strengths lie, and if I never wrote another line of JavaScript in my life I'd be pretty happy overall. But your characterization of full stack devs does not match up to my reality.


I salute your approach to engineering but that's certainly not how employers view it.

I am not saying that frontend engineering is trivial. It clearly has many overlapping and non-overlapping requirements. But they non-overlapping part is large enough to require dedication and specialization.

DevOps and DBAs overlap with backend but it would be weird for a backend engineers to call themselves devops engineers or database administrators because of that. The latter suggest specialization.


Author here of a technical book published with Packt several years ago. I had the first mover advantage as the only book of significance covering a Java library that was (and is) very widely used.

Total page count was ~350-400. It took me approximately 600-800 hours of research, authoring, editing, and final to complete the book. I had a full-time job and so spent about 6-9 months of nights and weekends.

I actually haven't added up the total of royalties but it was probably somewhere over $15-20k on sales of several thousand copies.

I wasn't in a position at the time to capitalize on the consulting / speaking gigs that folks have mentioned, and had I thought more about it I would have put myself in that position.

It definitely has been worth the experience as folks mentioned both in terms of resume-building (a book is a great thing to bring to interviews) as well as general reputation.

Also, if you are truly building a quality technical book, the level of research and knowledge required to do a good job was (for me) at least 5x the depth of my day-to-day work. As goes the old adage, you think you know something well until you try to teach it -- this was definitely true of my research efforts.

Summary - not worth it financially, but it definitely changed my career overall for the better.

If anyone wants to know more details, please reply here or PM me and I'm happy to answer as best I can.


I had the same experience, scaled down by a factor of 10 (it was a quick start book).


The level of depth of knowledge and research was at least 0.5x that of your day job? :)

Genuinely curious about how hard the book was to write/research.


Yes, it was actually a lot more in depth than my day job. But I chose to write a deep technical book rather than a shallow "cookbook".

Unfortunately most readers today are more interested in the latter than the former.


My experience in writing a technical book 8 years ago was the same:

https://www.brentozar.com/archive/2010/01/the-economics-of-w...

I made more money from Amazon affiliate fees linking to our book than I did the actual book. Way more. If you’re out to make money short term, you’re better off writing book reviews then books.

Having said that, the book gave me some credibility with clients for a couple of years when I was starting a consulting practice. When clients asked, “have you got experience with performance tuning databases?” I was able to point to the book. Today, with self published books being so prevalent, I don’t think having a listing in Amazon is as influential as it was.


You would be surprised. Even having the wherewithal to put together the content, put up a site and publish is a huge differentiator.

99% of the people you're competing with in any given niche aren't willing to put in even that much effort.


As a former hiring manager, I weighted highly any evidence of an ability to sustain work on projects and bring them to completion (which could be demonstrated on technical and non-technical projects); and evidence of actual interest in technology beyond that it pays the rent (which evidence was more typically a software project, but could be writing or speaking).

Beyond these attributes as proxy measures for job-related abilities, having someone like this around can also help attract and retain other quality engineers — so long as the side hustle doesn't displace the work responsibilities (unless the job is re-cast such that those coincide).


I would expect technical books would be great from a hiring perspective. In addition to the pros you mention (sustained work, etc) if the technology from the book lines up with the job, someone technical can review parts of the book and tell pretty quickly where the person was technically at the time they wrote it. The potential downside for the author being that if they've grown significantly that won't be borne out in the text.


That's the main reason I would write a book: to tell people that I wrote a book.

You can literally say, "I wrote the book on that."


Hi, you've been shadowbanned, which is a shame because your last three or four comments have been perfectly reasonable (I vouched for them so they'd show up). I'd contact a moderator or something if I were you.


> your last three or four comments have been perfectly reasonable

His first banned comment looks pretty reasonable too.


Not anymore shadowbanned


Very true. Write a book or speak at some conferences and you are suddenly much more worth.


You are right, that's a very positive effect. But it was not my main reason.

Also, don't do it for the money. Some people do quite well with books, but for me, at least, it's more of a prestige thing so far.


I've been pitched to write books a few times, by editors at reputable technical publishers. (HN readers would recognize the names of the publishers.) One of them told me up front that I would be offered an advance of $8K, that it would take 3-6 months to write the book, and that I shouldn't count on earning back the advance. She was clear that the benefits of authorship were reputational.

(The price wasn't why I turned down that and the other offers. Working on a book just isn't the thing I wake up eager to do. If I were an author I think I'd know by now…)


> the benefits of authorship were reputational

LOL. I published a book through Wiley about 8 years ago. I got an advance which I did earn back, and I'm still earning a small bit on sales every year. Reputational? The only time it's ever come up was when I was interviewing for the job I have now and one of the interviewers asked, "oh, I notice you wrote a book about SSL. Do you know stuff besides SSL though?"


Did you continue the interview? That is a pretty big red flag for that interviewer.


Oh, actually I continued the interview, took the job, and work there now. They just didn't (and still don't) care much about my knowledge of SSL.


I think I had the same publisher. Two books done in 2010 & 2011, same basic results.

What's worse, once they hit the shelves they were already out of date. The publisher had no interest in a second edition.

But, the books look aweseme on my resume/linkedin. Today, I'm on a career path I wouldn't be considered for if it wasn't for these projects.


What career path is that?


I've written a book with Manning (Grokking Algorithms) and had a good editor experience: I had 2 editors that stayed with me through the whole book. They gave me a ton of great advice -- I even asked one of them if they would like co-author credit, it was that good. Manning regularly scheduled technical reviews and readability reviews, and I got a lot of comments from those as well.

I have also only written one book so I wasn't sure how "typical" my experience was, but I'm really surprised to hear that your book didn't receive the same level of support!


Your book is awesome.


Would you recommend Manning to a first-time author?


Yes


I _love_ that book so much - thank you!


Another payout of writing a technical book is that it pretty much solidifies you as an expert in the topic and can be a springboard leading to great job opportunities and things like paid offers to speak or teach. If I ever write a technical book, it won't be for the immediate monetary payout, it will be to solidify expert status in a topic.


Be careful what you pick.

I've done a couple of projects (book, video course) because the opportunity presented itself. Then, at the end of the projects I either was burnt out on it, or wasn't in a career position to take on consulting around it.

So, nice resume burnisher and proof I can finish something, but not a springboard.


I think this speaks more to differences between people than anything else. If 5-10 extra hours a week for 6-12 months burns you out on a topic, writing a 250+ page technical book is probably not a great use of your time if the finances alone don't make it worth it.


Ah. I wasn't burned out because of the book, but because of what I'd been working on (I'm just not a mobile developer).

But the bigger issue is that I would write a book based on something that I was working on, and then stop working on it (because of different work priorities or because of changing jobs) and then not have any interest in updating the book.

Whereas I think, for a technical book to be really worth your while, you should really focus on an area and dive in and become an expert, and continue to work in that area after the book comes out (consulting, etc).


I commented above - I published a technical book about 8 years ago, that's been pretty well received (lots of 5-star reviews on Amazon, still selling 8 years later). But boosting my career? Solidifying my expertise in a topic? An MCSE would have done more in that direction than having published a book. Mostly people are just confused when they find out.


I would say just the opposite. I think a certification is a slight negative signal, it seems like there are too many "paper tigers" who memorize enough to take the test and don't know how to implement anything.

I took the 6 tests back in 2010 to get the MCSD for a Software architect (?) but even then I didn't think it was all that valuable. I don't think I ever used it on my resume. But it was more to force me to learn .Net after spending 12 years mostly doing C and C++.

Currently, I'm working on various AWS certs for the same reason - to force me to learn and a company needs a certain number of AWS certified employees to be an Amazon Partner.

I would have a lot more respect for someone who wrote a book.

But does it really make sense to right a book on technology instead of creating a video for PluralSight, Udemy, etc?


This heavily depends on the technology involved and on what your preferred career path is. There are technology stacks where in corporate sectors you will only find "paper tigers", with Cisco and MS certifications being the most significant example (although the Cisco's certicication system is surprisingly sane in the sense that it is not gradual).

I somehow thing that I mostly built most of my reputation by mostly ignoring both vendor certifications and academic qualifications, or to frame it better by not ever using such things to land a job or gig.


I would assume that this effect will bring 1 or 2 orders of magnitude more money over his career if correctly capitalized on.


author here Do you have examples on how you would correctly capitalize on this expertise? I put some things that have happened since writing the book in the outcomes section but so far they have all been free speaking engagements.


Basically $1000+/day consulting rates. You still have to do the legwork of getting the gigs, but justifying those kinds of rates are much easier when you literally wrote the book on the subject of your contract. Having written it for a well known, respected, even iconic, publisher does a lot of the work here too, self publishing would have a lesser effect.


Pff. One of the better known guys in the little world of some accounting software we use, charges $300+ an hour.

He’s done some e-books, YouTube tutorials, and a blog with tips/tricks.

The $300+ comes from consulting, training classes, and speaking, just depends on which. A day of training is $3000 plus travel and expenses.


$1000/day is $125/hour, which is a standard hourly rate for software developers. I would expect authorhood/extreme-subject-matter-expert to yield at least a 2x premium.


> a standard hourly rate for software developers

Maybe in SF or NYC, but even then I don't think $125/hr or $260K/year at 40 hours/week is "standard" even there.


$125 is pretty much the de facto rate regardless of location (give or take a small percentage). But you're missing several points in the equation that make that rate much much less than $260k/yr.

1. You're not differentiating between the rate that's charged and the rate that's paid to employees. I am billed out at $185/hr. I make a small fraction of that as an employee, even after benefits.

2. You're not including any time off - you're figuring 40.0 hours for 52 weeks straight which is ridiculous. US employees are much more likely to be 48-50 weeks. Europeans are at what, 20 weeks a year or something now? (I jest)

3. For consultants (who are not employees), if you want to bill 40.0 hours you're going to be working 60-70 when including all the marketing and admin work, or you're outsourcing that which eats into your base rate considerably.

4. When I was consulting a big reason why was freedom and time off. I billed $125/hr but made probably $50k/yr because I only worked 25-30 hours a week all in. That included all my marketing, proposals, billing, chasing invoices, and actual billed work. It was great seeing a direct financial impact to the amount of work I did, but also sucked because if you have no motivation for more than a few days that impacts you financially for weeks.


$125 an hour isn't crazy. I billed that doing some consulting for a company in Memphis maybe five years ago, and that was a no negotiation involved arrangement. I'd worked there before, so they knew me. I threw a number out there and they pretty much went, "alright, sounds reasonable enough".


I know of at least one consulting shop that bills corporate clients $250/hr for mostly general software development in SF. The employees only see about ~1/3 of that amount. As a bonafide expert with a significant addressable market (expertise isn’t valuable unless you’re solving problems people have) and a knack for self promotion, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear $500/hr in SF/NY. It really depends on who your clients are and what kind of track record you’ve got to point to.


Not to mention it matters where the money's coming from.

If you just closed a $40M round of VC financing, $500/hr for a 1-week project ($20k?) from someone you know isn't crazy. If you're a bootstrapped company and that's 6 weeks of revenue it's not as easy of a decision even if you think the ROI is there.


This yearly rate calculation assumes you spend 100% of your working hours on-contract, which is definitely not the case.


$1000/day is pretty standard, and might even be low for someone who has the expertise and communication skills required to write a book. Even if that person had not written one.

Companies routinely pay agency rates this high.


Agency rates bring an entire agency, though. Speaking from experience, companies will pay other companies multiple thousands a day for software implementations without a second thought but typically will fight paying a single person $250/hr to do the same job (even if it's a 1-person job).


Do you mean multiple thousands per day per person? Or multiple thousands per day for multiple people?


The free speaking engagements is the first step. After you do enough of those, you will get invited to international and big name conferences as a keynote speaker (if you're good at it).

At that point, hiring managers will start contacting you about new jobs with big name companies, for big time salaries. That is where you get the leverage. You'll also start getting offers for paid speaking gigs for both public and private talks. The private talks are nice because they pay well and you almost always walk out with a gift and a job offer.

I never finished the book I started because the publisher pulled the contract when 12 (yes 12) books on the subject came out in the same month.

But I did all those other steps and it worked out pretty good for me.


Oof sorry to hear about the bad luck with the book. Do you mind sharing the subject?


This was many years ago. I was writing a book on cloud computing before it was a thing. But it became a thing in that one month. It all worked out though. I ended up editing AWS for Dummies later on, and my coauthors managed to use some of our content in other places.


I authored and co-authored some books.

I wrote a book on Akka for Packt that has made maybe 5k. Packt is out of India and they have some different standards around topics and contents, but the experience wasn't much different from O'Reilly overall.

And there was a mini book for O'Reilly that netted a couple k, mostly because of later sponsorship. Writing a book is a really tough experience. I found it taxing. It's interesting going to meetups and having people come up to me and shake my hand though saying they read my book.

I'm not super super happy with either book tbh. It's just such a crazy process to try to get something you're 100% happy with, and once it goes into print that's it forever more.

I would say the impact on my career has been noticeable maybe? You become an expert on a topic by writing well on it because you're forced to fill in all the gaps as you go, and then people give you the credit because you have a book. It sort of happens together when writing a book - becoming an expert and receiving the trust because you're an expert. Even if you thought you knew the subject before, you might find you didn't as well as you do at the end of writing on the topic.


> You become an expert on a topic by writing well on it because you're forced to fill in all the gaps as you go, and then people give you the credit because you have a book.

For me, teaching had a similar effect (and, to a lesser extent, blogging).

I worked in IT at a .edu for ~8 years and was approached to teach a few courses as an adjunct professor, which I did for ~3 years. I think I learnt much, much more while I was teaching than my students ever learned from me.


I completely agree! I learned a lot through the experience of writing the book. I probably put more thought into the topic than most people during the same time which helped me refine my definitions and become more of an expert as I was figuring things out.

The only difference I think is I'm very happy with how our book turned out. It was a ton of work but I'm grateful that other people have been able to learn from our experience.


> Packt is out of India and they have some different standards around topics and content

That they do. I pretty much won't buy a Packt book anymore, burned too many times. And it's shameful the way they astroturf Amazon reviews.


This is a shame, I hadn't looked too deeply into the content but everything looks high quality.


Really useful, thank you! I had saved this post of John Resig's from 10 years ago (!), which also gives some numbers:

https://johnresig.com/blog/programming-book-profits/

(I'm not sure if my expectation is reasonable, but I would have thought that a book the most popular JS framework author would have sold more / made more in profit.)

I know you said you weren't planning to write another book, but I wonder if in retrospect you would have self-published? I feel like the publisher provides a few things:

1) Editing

2) Marketing

3) Writing tools, typesetting, etc.

It seems like you had to take control of #1 yourself to some extent. As for #2, you got unexpected "sponsorships" income, which is very interesting, but it seems like you also had to take control of it yourself.

I was surprised that between the 2 of you, you would only make about $2 per physical book and $1 per e-book for a $40 book. If you end up having to do work in areas #1 and #2, why have the publisher at all? I would have expected them to give you more of a sales bump.

Here are some other posts I saved:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13876514 How I Made $70k Self-Publishing a Book about Ruby on Rails

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14334845 Why We Are Self-Publishing the Aviary Cookbook

Anyway, thanks for sharing! I am just trying to think of what the publisher adds. The main thing I think would be marketing / sales / distribution. It's better to make a smaller amount on a larger number of copies than a large amount on a small number of copies. But it doesn't feel like it adds up in general, and in this particular case?

EDIT: also http://www.charlespetzold.com/blog/2007/10/081247.html Hard Work, No Pay: What's the Point?

(Not trying to be negative, just sharing sources I found. I have read at least one book by Petzold.)


author here From what I hear from other O'Reilly authors my experience was more negative than most. We got very little support from our editors because of various situations (job change, maternity leave, etc.)

If I tried to self-publish my first book it would have never happened. I feel like there's too much to figure out I'd spend a year yak shaving and never produce a book. O'Reilly helped me focus on writing and making the content good and they took care of the rest. Coordination with editors, reviewers, and actual printing I'm sure would have taken me months to figure out and with O'Reilly it was just weeks.

Marketing had some push just because it was an O'Reilly book. Podcasts picked it up and that is where the sponsors started to get interested. If it were a self-published book I doubt it would have carried the same authority and not had as much interest. WRT sponsors, I did no work to bring in the sponsors or organize contracts. I only had to review the foreword and then was sent an "congratulations" email from O'Reilly that the book was sponsored. I did a webinar for one of the sponsors for free but haven't done any other work. We also were lucky enough to have CNCF marketing sponsorship who sponsored some of the book signings at events.

I still think O'Reilly added a lot to the process. Most of the extra work I did (website, affiliate programs, ad campaigns etc.) were minor work and didn't drive any meaningful sales.

Let me know if you have other questions.


Thanks, I do see that there's value in having a "turn-key" proven process like O'Reilly's. Yak-shaving might be the stage I'm in now :)

Did you have any technical diagrams in the book? If I were to write a book, I would want some, but I'm not sure if I should invest the time to make them myself. I imagine that most publishers can help with that.


Yes, there were a few diagrams. We gave rough sketches and descriptions of what we wanted an they had someone create the diagrams for us.


Deadlines are also both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they’re not very flexible if you get busy or there are reasons to slip a bit to sync up with external events. Or just to take a bit more time.

On the other hand, deadlines impose a certain discipline and also force you to wrap things up by a certain date and not draw things out.


Since you appear to be into publishing stories, here's mine from back in the day: http://peterc.org/beginningruby/#post-21

I made about $19K on about 9000 sales of the first edition of my book published with Apress at the point I wrote that (many years ago). Since then, I've written 2nd and 3rd editions with diminishing returns each time, but even now over 10 years later it's perhaps $1000 a year in residuals.


Publishers should provide editing, marketing, and typesetting.

Generally, typesetting is a given. Outline design and line (grammar) editing is usually a given, but may vary in quality and depth. Customer marketing is often non-existent.

Publishers don't think of book buyers as customers. They think of book stores and book chains as customers. With a few exceptions, that's where marketing spend is usually directed.

Access to book chain buyers is how publishers justify their existence.

Kindle was a revolution because it gave authors direct access to a huge potential audience. Kindle can be great for fiction, but it's pretty much useless for professional technical non-fic unless an author has a significant social following.

If you want to publish a book you can do it on Leanpub, or you can try to sell PDFs from your own site. Leanpub is probably a better bet, but nothing will help you more than that solid social following.


It's a bit dated, but Philip Greenspun's "The Book Behind the Book" is also good on this topic: http://philip.greenspun.com/wtr/dead-trees/story

I myself have thought about it when I think about writing a grant writing book: http://seliger.com/2011/03/06/why-youre-unlikely-to-see-seli...


I wrote a book for O'Reilly: http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920043027.do

This post is so accurate. I have nothing but good things to say about the O'Reilly staff. It didn't make a dent in my finances but was a good experience to understand the challenges in writing something like that.

The most meaningful experience for me was when someone reading the early access version found me on the internet and sent excited questions to me out of the blue: https://medium.com/@xrd/sending-two-signed-copies-of-my-book...


How would you recommend someone with a limited audience go about becoming an O'Reilly author?


In my case, I stumbled into it. I went to Google I/O and talked to someone who already had written several books for O'Reilly. He proposed the book to them long before I got involved. Honestly, the hacker in me thinks that finding a list of people who have already written for O'Reilly and then seeing if you can help them complete a book in progress might be a good way to get into the oreilly ecosystem.

I proposed a book 16 years ago to O'Reilly and the rejected the idea. So maybe just show up multiple times and you'll get lucky? I think I did.

But once I got "lucky" then I did have three years of hard work for very little money. Be prepared for that!


> I did have three years of hard work for very little money. Be prepared for that!

Oh my wife and I own a gym so I am very familiar with working a lot and getting little to no money in return haha


I've self-published two books and my economics have been completely different. Since first publishing Mastering Modern Payments in 2013 I've grossed almost $75k directly from product sales. Of that, I've paid about 3% to Stripe and PayPal for credit card processing, a few thousand for server hosting, and another few thousand for design and editing work over the years.


The same kind of report, written a few days after releasing a self-published open source book: https://medium.freecodecamp.org/taking-off-the-successful-la...

Nine months later, the book earned a little more than $3,000 in Leanpub royalties. Like other said, marketing is definitely the hardest part, especially if (like me) you had no initial audience. Since the book is free to read on GitHub, I hoped word-of-mouth would be enough to make it widely known and popular. Boy was I wrong.

The experience was worth it for a number of reasons, honing one's skills being the number one. That said, would-be authors without an existing follower base should prepare themselves for a multi-year commitment in order to reap any significant rewards.


This sponsoring is cool. I wonder if they would work with self-published books.

Writing a book is a huge effort (I'm the author of a couple Python books, one of which is on the current Python Humble Bundle). From speaking with (many) other Python authors, most would do better financially self-publishing. There are few titles that sell very well from publishers (they do 2nd, and 3rd versions), but these would probably do even better if they were self-published.

Of course, there are other reasons for publishing. (People really want their name on an animal book). One of those reasons is that a book is a really good business card. This is especially useful for consultants or when looking for a job. "Why yes, I do know about ...., in fact, I wrote a book on it".

I could blame quite a bit of my business (I do consulting and corporate training) on writing books.


Re: sponsoring and self-publishing.

Probably not. The marketing programs people who are mostly the ones paying for these things are mostly looking for predictable content from the publishers who do this sort of thing regularly.


> From December through March the book has sold 1337 copies.

That's a pretty 'leet number :)


I've never written an ENTIRE technical book, but I've written a number of chapters for multi-author titles (namely, Solaris certification study books).

I don't remember making more than $500 from any single chapter I wrote - but even that sure came in handy at the time. It was usually done as work-for-hire plus I got a couple copies of each finished book.

Ended up being worth more as lines on my resume than anything else.


Did you change jobs? Were you able to negotiate a higher salary because of the book? Seeing as this book was just published in November I'm curious to learn how to leverage it into a more long term success.


I've been a career sysadmin, so having chapters authored in a couple of Solaris certification study books certainly looked good on my resume and was relevant to my experience; nobody ever told me if that helped cinch the deal when moving onward and upward, though.

I know that for one position (where I spent 12 years and lived in two different cities) part of why I got the job was that an interviewer said "He's one of the guys that maintains the Sun-Managers mailing list!" (they still had a large number of Sun boxes at the time).

I will say it was weird writing about the VI editor but then having to submit to the publisher in Word/DOC format. Of course I used free/OSS tools to convert to DOC before submission.


I once did a technical review for one of those small O'Reilly books (the German ones went for 10-15 EUR) - it was a lot of fun. I was paid in store credit, not cash, but it was a good deal because I did it mostly for the experience and then enjoyed some reading material. Sadly I've no clue how much the author made and if it was worth it financially.

That said, just the thought of having to write a book makes me want to run away screaming. Producing my diploma thesis was the least enjoyable part of all the years of school and university. I'm absolutely ok with writing technical documentation for my dayjob, but this rigid form with a threshold of pages to reach... bah


How did you get on board as a technical reviewer? That seems really interesting.


One of the folks at the publisher was looking via Twitter. As I tried to convey, it was a small reference book - not the new "bible of <x>".

After the fact I learned that a former co-worker (sitting next to me) had been the technical reviewer for the first edition, that gave me a good chuckle as well.


OK. Doesn't anyone else who read this now think, "Well gee why would I ever write a book then?" You could easily make $23 an hour as an entry-level server in a diner if you include tips.


I won’t say it’s a universal truth but, for the most part, you don’t want to write non-fiction books in most fields unless 1. You just feel compelled as a way to learn or just because you want the experience or 2. It will enhance your career in some manner.


You could easily make $23 an hour as an entry-level server in a diner if you include tips.

I don't think this is true—the median pay for servers is $10 an hour in the U.S. [0] Even servers in areas with unusually high pay barely reach $23 an hour. [1]

With a median personal income in the United States of $31,000 [2], most people make significantly less than $23 an hour.

[0]: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/waiters...

[1]: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes353031.htm Scroll down to "Top paying metropolitan areas for this occupation"

[2]: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEPAINUSA672N


Keep in mind this is going to be reported income only. When I was waiting tables nobody declared more than half their tips if they declared any at all. In fact a lot of folks just declared whatever amount they need to go to $10 an hour.


Because unless you do backflips on the way to the table without spilling a drop, you’re not getting asked to do any $peaking engagement$.


That is absurdly high pay for a server, you'd be lucky to make half that in most places. I don't even make that much doing software development.


You make less than $920/wk as a developer, before taxes? Are you in eastern Europe?

I worked in a diner ca. 2002-04 and was paid $3/hr from the restaurant but routinely was close to $30/hr after tips as an awkward male teenager. Even $23 back then is equivalent to $35 now.


Yes I make less than $920 a week, and I'm in the midwest US. Comparing this to Eastern Europe is ridiculous. ~60% of Americans make less than that. It seems like people in the ultra-expensive big cities have a really skewed idea of what the rest of the country is like.


> ~60% of Americans make less than that.

What does median income have to do with anything? If you're writing software for a living you're doing a job most Americans can't. A job that is objectively worth much more than ~$40k a year. That's like saying a doctor can be paid $80k because he's in a low COL area and most Americans make less so whatever.

> Comparing this to Eastern Europe is ridiculous.

You're right because a lot of Eastern European devs make more than that.

> It seems like people in the ultra-expensive big cities have a really skewed idea of what the rest of the country is like.

If the average US cost of living is a 100 the area I live is 84 (San Francisco is 273). Omaha is 88. I don't live in an "ultra-expensive big city" and I've spent more time in rural Georgia than I have in urban California so I don't think I have a skewed idea of what people live on. But I do know my worth and I do know that $40k is objectively underpaid for software development.


It was very interesting comparing and contrasting this author's experience with my own. I just finished a technical book about managing all of the information in the project aside from the code -- and doing it using DevOps principles. There's a free compiler, there's video, yadda yadda. https://leanpub.com/info-ops/

My experience in writing a book was that it was a long, hard slog, followed by a brief moment of self-congratulations before the "real" work begins. That might sound negative, but overall it's been a very happy and enjoyable experience. It's just the "writing the book" part of writing the book is just a small piece of it.

I did not find a publisher, although I think I could have. Instead, I used LeanPub and dove right into the nuts and bolts of creating content and finding an audience instead of filling out forms and making marketing pitches. There's nothing wrong with that. It probably makes for a more profitable book. But I wanted a book that I could wallow in. A book that would be me. I own and am responsible for every little period, piece of art, sentence fragment, and graphic in there. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Once I got rocking, I set up a beta list. Sent out links to a shared Dropbox folder and watched as the comments came in. (Meanwhile I was continuing to write.) I found reader feedback to be eye-opening. Because I was getting it as I went along, I was able to adapt and change to meet the audience where they were, instead of where I wanted them to be. This feedback process made me realize that I had to narrow the scope. So I did. No editors to get approval from. (And I love editors. They are the key to any good work. But as publisher, I get to choose strategy. LeanPub changes the dynamics.)

A few weeks back I had gotten to the end, edited and reworked each chapter a couple or three times, gotten feedback on most of it. Time to publish. Note that a bunch of stuff was crappy as hell: layout sucked, some of the footnotes needed changing, and so on. But this CI/CD applied to books. It was good enough for now, passed the smoke tests. Away it went.

I also tried various promotions. Facebook, as far as I can tell, is a complete scam. (But I don't know much.) When I target an XP programmer that knows Scrum and get likes from people in nursing homes who haven't posted in a year? That's not only fraud, that's somebody either blanket covering the entire FB audience with bots or having a direct feed to ads as they're purchased. I promoted a post with a link to the book. After 1500 people liked it, nobody looked at the book. Nobody commented. You can't have 1500 people look at something enough to like it without having any other interaction with it. That just defies reason.

Finally I settled on funny pictures on Twitter. I've collected funny pictures for years. It was a chance to make my own memes about the book. They seem to work okay. Nothing great, but it's a more honest experience than I got over on that other site.

The best part, aside from making something to help people, is that I completely own it. Sure, it might not be great now, but I can republish. In fact, I should republish. The book was as worse as it was ever going to be on the day I hit the publish button. From here on out it only gets better.

I know that there's a ton of the business part that I missed and am ignorant about. But you know what? I always screwed these things up by getting wrapped up in stuff like that. I'd spend a week rewriting one chapter and choosing a font. The LeanPub paradigm let me change and focus instead on getting the thing out the door while moving to align with the readers. The rest of that can be added on later.

Would I do it again? Sure! I've had a blast. But it was -- and remains -- a slog. This is no get-rich-quick adventure. It might be nothing more than a fancy business card. But I said and explained things nobody else was saying and explaining. It had to be done so I did it. The rest of it is just icing on the cake.

tl;dr The old economics models are going away. Instead we're seeing startup ideas applied to book publishing. That's good -- but it puts a lot more responsibility on the author.


My experience is that the self-publishing business is a _business_ that generates money from publishing and marketing books. If you decide to self-publish and self-market, all you are doing is skipping the publishing step of recruiting an author, and substituting the step of writing one or more books yourself.

The key insight here is that it is a business, and the actual writing of the book is incidental to the success of the business. I repeat, incidental. The main drivers of the publishing business is marketing to acquire more customers, and finding ways to build additional revenue streams to generate value from each customer.

If you don't care to know what LTVs and conversion rates are, you will not be happy running a publishing business regardless of who wrote the book(s) you are publishing.

The other road forward is to have a publishing hobby. Some hobbies make token amounts of money. I know two brothers who buy collectible corvettes, fix them up, drive them for exactly one Summer, and then sell them.

The money they make seems like a nice side-business, until you listen to them tote up the hours and expenses and tax implications. They would make way more money selling almost anything else part-time. And that is my personal experience with my own writing hobby.

The money sounds nice until you actually look at it as a business, and then you start asking why I am on Hacker News writing this comment when I should be curating my email list. The "problem," of course, is that writing is my hobby, not curating email lists.

So I believe you need to decide whether you have a business or a hobby. If it's a business, then you have to put 80% of your work into the activities that produce 80% of the revenue. And that is not writing, in my experience or observation.

Whereas with a hobby, you put 80% of your work into the activities that produce 80% of the happy juice in your brain. If writing does that for you, you can write and make a little something on the side that will pay for some discretionary lifestyle purchases. In my own case, that's things like a 1950s-era Rietveld Crate Chair.

Blatant Endorsement:

FYI, I publish with LeanPub http://leanpub.com, because it generates the maximum revenue for the small scale of my writing hobby, and its "lean" approach helps me maximize my contact with my readers as part of the writing process. Since writing is my hobby, that's a win for me.

They also help people with a writing business in some amazing ways, like their tools for creating courses, which helps generate more revenue from existing content, and the ways they help you build a mailing list so you can develop other revenue streams from your existing readers. If you want to build a business, they help you build your business.


Another nice thing I really like about LeanPub is the discount code system.

You can create special discount URLs where you can specify the discounted price, and optionally the period of validity and the max. number of uses.

I've used that in the past for promoting the book, but also for giving the book to colleagues for free (and being able to track whether they actually cared enough to add it to their library :D).

With a traditional publisher, you can typically get some coupon codes for the ebook, but it's a slow process, with little control over the actual amount, no direct access to tracking data etc.


It could also be that you write off the cost of the book-writing as an expense in an experience-establishment communications effort. Like building up your professional resume. In effect you are giving time and maybe a little money to be able to say "I'm an author who has published N books on this subject." That's part of the equation, if not the whole equation, for many people.


Quite a few people make this argument, thank you for mentioning it.

My feeling is that this is a holdover from a time when there was a substantial barrier-to-entry for authorship. Back when publishers were the gatekeepers, anybody could write a book, but relatively few were published.

People could vanity-press anything, but nobody would hear about them, because just as publishing was concentrated, so was marketing.

---

But today, anybody can publish a book, and likewise anybody can market a book, super-cheaply. "I wrote X" is worth geometrically less today than it was a decade ago.

If you write a book for other reasons, by all means bask in the reputation. But I find it extremely unlikely that if you are doing it strictly for economic reasons, that writing a book and then marketing it is going to be superior to the many other ways you might have of building your professional resume.

Maybe you should answer a lot of questions on Stack Overflow. Or--like me--become a blowhard on Hacker News.


I don't think it's really as easy as you say. At the same time, it wasn't really hard to self-publish in the 20th century either; even self-marketing could be a matter of buying mailing lists and paying for help with bulk mailing. I had friends who did it and sold their books in local bookstores too.

Putting a book together, as compared to many things, takes a lot of time and energy and definitely sends social signals. Just last night a friend dropped "he just published a new book" in conversation where Stack Overflow creds would have sounded like a joke. SO just isn't known the way book publishing is. Since the comment was an effective social cue to the audience, she freaked out and asked a bunch of questions. It still works just fine.


What you describe sounds more like "proof of work" than "proof of competence." The bottom line of your story seems to be that anybody who publishes a book must have worked hard to write it. And we are to assme their expertise because... They wouldnkt have bothered unless they had something worthhwile to say?

That may appeal to some, but given the number of books written that are absolute dreck, the argument carries no more weight with the discerning audience than saying that you put in the work to get a CS degree, so you must be smart.

Now, if you write a book and get nice reviews, thatks a different signal. But absent that... I doubt it's more than an invitation to a conversation.

I wouldn't want to belong to any club whose sole requirement was that I had written and self-published a technical book.


Do you publish on Amazon? If not, you are leaving a lot of money (relative to leanpub sales) on the table.


First, Leanpub allows you to simultaneously publish on Amazon or anything else if you wish. So... If that's what you want to do, you can.

I choose not to publish on Amazon because I have philosophical reasons for not wanting to do business with them. As it is my lifestyle hobby, I needn't worry about leaving money on the table. But if this was my business, that might be important.


> The contract stipulated that Kris and I own the copyright for the content, but O'Reilly has exclusive rights to use the content any way they see fit throughout the world now and in the future for the duration of the copyright.

I'm a little confused by this. Can Justin and Kris use the content they own? Or does O'Reilly's exclusive use rights supersede their ownership?


"Exclusive" pretty much means exclusive. E.g. the publisher would not want to spend a lot of time and money into promoting a book, only to have the author have the same book available on his/her own website at a lower price with 100% of the profits.

A real world example of this is the US Chess Federation's rule book. The 5th edition was published in the early 90's, and a book was pretty much the only thing that made sense. After the web came about, a lot of people asked why the rules weren't available on-line, and the board members pointed to the agreement with the publisher that they had exclusive rights to publish the material. Of course with the latest edition of the book, they're still not publishing them on-line, so maybe there's more to the story.


author I'm not sure on this, but I don't think we can. I'm sure if I asked to quote parts of the book they would give me a free license to use the quotes but the contract says O'Reilly gets exclusive usage. FWIW O'Reilly also filed the copyright on our behalf. I never had to do anything to get the book content copyrighted.


I don’t know about O’Reilly’s contract but the one I’m familiar with provides for fairly generous reuse of content in blog posts, articles, etc. However, I very reasonably can’t just up and reprint the book or large sections thereof.


> This breaks down to we each get $.99 for a physical book and $.46 for an ebook.

Isn't this just a huge rip off of the authors. They'll probably make way more money if they did a humble bundle or just ask readers to pirate the book and send them a $5 in bitcoin or something.


Keep in mind this is for first-time, untested authors. The publishers are spending what, $10k or more on publishing and order fulfillment? Payroll or contract rates for graphic design, editing, reviewing, etc?

Yes the ebook split seems much lower than expected, but the book is also cheaper.

If you have a proven track record of writing books people want to pay $60+ for I'm sure you can negotiate better deals as time goes on, including advances.


TLDR: Unless you are dying to have the O'Reilly animal in your book cover, go self-publishing or alike, and earn some real money. The OP doing earning-per-hour math on the task of writing a book is very very odd. You write a book investing what you learned in a life or in many years at least, the amount of time to write it is not a meaningful metric.


Hm I think you might be misunderstanding what kind of book we're talking about.

I think it's helpful to divide computer books into 2 categories: those with a short shelf-life and those with a long shelf-life.

Most (all?) O'Reilly books are in the former category. They probably sell 90% of their volume in the first couple years (at least one comment in this thread said something like that).

How many copies a year do you think jQuery books are selling right now? Especially if they haven't been updated since 2009? Are publishers even asking for updates for those books?

jQuery was extraordinarily popular and a real innovation -- probably more popular in relative terms than Angular is now.

So time spent writing it probably matters. It probably makes sense to get the book out when the technology is on its upswing, which may only be a window of a few years. Especially with frameworks, less so for languages like Python or C.

I think this is fundamental to the subject of programming. On the other hand, computer science is knowledge that lasts longer. I think it's justified to spend more time on a computer science book, but perhaps not a programming book. Of course many books are a mix of both.

I have several old programming books, like "Programming Pearls", "The Awk Programming Language", Computer Lib by Ted Nelson. Although I have to say that I have no problem finding those books used, so I don't need to buy new copies.


Wow, I must say that was one of the most informative articles I have ever read about the topic. I've known a few technical book authors but none have given such an awesome breakdown of the process.

Thank you!


I'm glad you liked it. I wanted to write down all the information I wish I had a year ago before I started writing the book.


Does O'Reilly still use DocBook? Is this the choice of the author?


I wasn't given an option when starting the project. They just set us up with Atlas and AsciiDoc.


What's DosBook?


Typo: should be DocBook. O'Reilly (used to?) use DocBook and now seems to prefer AsciiDoc (Atlas). Some info about it (and other useful style info for writing ebooks) is here: http://oreillymedia.github.io/production-resources/styleguid...


The open source AsciiDoc Python tools support translating it into fairly reasonable DocBook XML. I assume that's what O'Reilly's doing behind the scenes with Atlas.


It's some awesome, that a lot of people here wrote a book. I would like to write one too, but I think, that I don't have enough experience, or it will suck.


Start writing a blog, now. That will:

1. Give you practice finishing smaller written works before you work your way up to a much larger book project.

2. Let you practice all of the various skills in writing.

3. Improve your writing/marketing based on the feedback you get from people. Publishing on the web is a fantastic feedback loop for learning what resonates with people and what doesn't.

4. Build an audience for your writing. Set up an email list and put a link to it on your blog.

The way you get experience writing is the way you get experience in any other artistic pursuit: practice and feedback.


TLDR; the books on specific tech is lighly sold, gets out of date fast and publishers are ripping off authors by throwing them 10% revenue share.

Because we co-authored the book we each got 5% of revenue for physical books and 12.5% for ebooks and digital access (10% and 25% for individual authors).

So far I have received $539 over 5 months.

On average, the book has sold 222 copies per month which is greatly skewed by the first month which had 930 sales. The last month (March) had 34 physical book sales. I suspect that number will go down even more over the next few months.


Missed the most important points. For example:

I’m extremely happy with the how things have turned out. We’ve got a lot of great feedback and some average reviews on Amazon (please leave us a review!). I’m grateful that people are reading it and I hope it’s helping them in some way. We worked hard and wanted to help engineers get better at running infrastructure.

And

My April 2018 statement (sales from December — March) says I’ve made $11,554.15 which roughly breaks down to $23 per hour for the estimated 500 hours of work. Without the three sponsorships that would have been $5.29 per hour. Luckily that number only gets better with time. I’ve heard 2nd editions are a better rate per hour because they have less time investment with similar sales as the original, but I don’t have any experience.


Isn't the typical rate for royalties around 10%? Given that it's 'specific tech' that is not likely to be sold as much, 10% is pretty good.


Typically I expect 70:30 split between creators and distributors for the information products. Information product typically have negligible manufacturing cost and most of the price is paid by the customer is purely the information value. Less than half of other way around is ripping off creators in my view.


No, more like 15-20%. If you're getting 10%, you're being ripped off.


Any idea how this works for subscription services? E.g. if someone subscribes to Safari Books Online and read your book, how much of the subscription fee goes to the authors?


Great read. Interesting to see how many total copies were sold for a book in this genre.




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