Their seems to be a scarily common school of thought that contracts are, basically, magic incantations to ward off the lawyer demons. You just need to have a contract, sign it, and somehow, magically, everything will be okay.
This is, obviously, not how it works. The wording of a contract is of absolute import; you should never ever sign one without reading it closely, and (ideally) getting a lawyer familiar with the issues to read it over. But I've had more than one boss or client who had a "standard" wildly inappropriate contract they expected me to sign, and when I pointed out some issues would just say "oh, those clauses don't matter"/"don't apply to you"/"just ignore them".
In my experience, confidentiality agreements are especially likely targets for this egregious mentality. "Uh, this contract says that if I throw together a mockup of an iPhone app for you, you will own all the IP/product ideas/designs/technology I develop for the next three years." "Oh, don't worry about that, it's just a standard clause - just sign right here." "...No."
Madness. And yes, most people are playing it honest, and have no intention to try and enforce whatever crazy clause is in the "standard" contract, or invalidate it, or other legal shenanigan. But you just never know...
If the negotiator doesn't know what terms can be changed (as they are just there to define the deal), and which can't (as they are there to limit legal risk, and can't be changed in any way without upsetting the lawyers), it's a bad sign.
Some terms will tend to describe the work (you do X, we pay you Y). The lawyers don't need to touch that, as long as everything is clearly defined (though they will want to check the definitions). It's up to non-lawyers to decide what the deal is.
Other terms are less flexible, and describe what the legal situation will be if the shit hits the fan. Stuff like jurisdiction, arbitration, liability, when the contract becomes void, and resolution process. You won't like it (as it's there to cover the other party's ass), but you probably won't get it changed - that's the way their lawyers like to play ball, and the agent you are dealing with won't be able to convince the legal team to change anything without a lot of work.
The issues with payment were annoying, but even worse in my case were publisher content control struggles. The book concept I was to work on was explained to me numerous times as "not a recipe book but an example driven narrative book." I think we discussed that at least 5 times leading up to the kick off. After I submitted the first 3 chapters, they suddenly shifted gears and gave me example outlines for the chapters that remained to follow.
They were freaking recipe chapters (problem/solution/discussion ad nauseum).
There was no discussion of this change, and any attempted further shift in content was met with "well we told you we hadn't worked out this series fully yet." They'd basically jacked the book out from under me and changed it to a book I didn't want to write. I think I wrote one or two more chapters and farmed the rest out to contributors. Terrible experience.
To make matters worse, I made very little money off of it because they didn't promote it at all. They never sent copies to conferences or user groups unless I asked them to. They never sought out blogs and other things like that to help promote it whatsoever. Part of the problem was they really sucked at promoting their books (other authors have had the same issues), but another part was that they had about 4 different marketing managers during the timeline for my book, which made coordinating efforts incredibly difficult.
So, yes, I think this gent's experience isn't totally out of the norm, even though I wish that wasn't the case.
Now, it's possible that Apress is problematic in that they strongly encourage people to work despite there being no contract in place ("we'll figure it out", "you have our word", "legal is slow", etc), which then puts them in a better negotiating position when it is contract time because people have already done much of the work.
But I wonder what would have happened if he had said, "I'll do high-level planning, but I won't write a single paragraph of actual content until we have a firm, mutually-satisfying contract in place." Maybe it would have gotten him a firm date on when he would get his advance that they would stick to, plus deadlines in the contract that were actually in the future and other good things. Or maybe they would have still said, "no, just write it, we'll figure that out later", which would not look good
Either Apress is just plain unprofessional (e.g. unwilling/extraordinarily slow) or as you said they are doing this in order to put themselves in a better negotiating position.
I had a similar experience with Apress while working with them as a technical reviewer. They printed the book without asking me for my bio, so I didn't get my five lines of text credits for the work I did. It wouldn't have cost them anything to do that, but they nevertheless screwed it up.
Needless to say, I figured it's way too much of a hassle to deal with them when they approached me to write an actual book, since I want to spend my time writing rather than following up to make sure my publisher does what they are supposed to do.
Yes, with a contract you have better legal recourse. But I'd prefer to work with people I don't have to sue in order to get paid, esp. when the sums involved are tiny.
Again, i'm happy to accept that apress is unprofessional and a pain, but when someone sends you a contract that says 'completion by X' and that's not ok, ask for a change! If apress paid advances to authors who refused to sign contracts with them, they could get into a lot of trouble.
Get a contract.
Beginning work without a contract was certainly not a smart move. They talked a good game but I still should have known better. However, I think I was still in a pretty good position, because it is that contract that gave them the right to use my work. I already had a reasonably popular technical blog that would have made a fine home for what I wrote if they had changed their minds.
In fact, this gave me quite a bit of leverage when it came time to get the Pro Objective-C contract amended. After they refused my amendments, I pointed out that they could not use my work without a contract, and that I would not sign anything that didn't have my amendments. They changed their tune with amusing rapidity.
The amendments I requested were fairly simple. Aside from fixing the dates, I struck out portions that required ongoing work from me, such as responding to errata, since I was no longer involved with the book.
The money involved was not large, for sure. In general, writing technical books doesn't pay well. There are good reasons to do it (exposure, fun, satisfaction, etc.) but money isn't one. I went into the project knowing that I wasn't doing it for the money. Given that, it might seem strange to have such a problem over money, but I don't think it is: even though I wasn't doing it for the money, I was still promised money, and I simply couldn't tolerate any crap over it.
For everyone talking about other publishers, I appreciate the sentiment, but I have moved into self-publishing. The Complete Friday Q&A is self-published and the experience was great. I intend to continue doing so in the future. I really don't see much of a role for traditional publishers these days.
> but I have moved into self-publishing.
As near as I can tell, publishers have one and only one purpose in the modern world: Publicity. They might as well change the name of the biz to reflect this, because it is the only differentiator they have.
They also provide a bit of financing, sort of like how movie studios are basically banks who specialize in investing in one particular area. But with the typical tech book advance coming in under five figures, this isn't very big.
My chapter walked through designing and implementing a custom binary protocol running over UDP for realtime network communication over a LAN. One reviewer suggested that I expand on a bit that went something like, "Create a new project in Xcode" with a step-by-step along the lines of, "1. Open Xcode and pull down the File menu...." This seemed to be well below the level I was aiming for, but of course I could never get anyone at Apress to tell me who they agreed with.
The copy editor was decent but not technically minded, so I had to explain a fair amount. I imagine that technically-minded copy editors are hard to come by, but still, this is a technical press.... The copy editing process was atrocious. I had to download some crazy Adobe software to review the suggested changes, and for some reason they do the indexing before these final changes, so I had to ensure that any alterations didn't reflow pages too much.
When I self published, I ended up crowdsourcing people for these functions by recruiting on my blog and on Twitter. I got a couple of dozen fairly competent people and we were able to divide up the book so that nobody had to do more than a couple of chapters. (Some ended up doing much more, but simply because they wanted to.) That ended up working pretty well, although obviously not every prospective author will have the ability to recruit a couple of dozen helpers like that.
Fair enough, and I'd go further to say: Several of us have access to higher-quality editors and (certainly) tech folks for review than most of the publishers I've dealt with.
How does the money compare when you self-published?
Your mileage may, of course, vary.
I was at a garage sale. Tons of Wrox books were in a pile for two bits each. When I went to pay I noticed that the spiky haired blond guy on the cover of one of the books was the same spiky haired blond guy I was handing quarters to.
Paying attention can earn you a very interesting story! Short version: In this case the author did have a contract, but they kept upping the schedule as they were selling the company (and didn't tell the author). He was paid, but it took a very very long time and he said that was the last book he is ever going to write.
I asked him if he was sure he wanted to sell it. (It was his last and only copy.) "I guess I should keep it. I wrote the book after all."
Good on Mike for coming out. If 5% of people shared their experience honestly, damn near every bad industry would be reformed quickly.
I thought Apress is a totally different company altogether?
Jason Hickey's OCaml book (search for it - a PDF is floating around) is excellent.
I fully understand that the potential for delaying or losing the contract completely could be part of the motivation for starting work in advance or in parallel to a contract. But, it seems that in this case, was the headache worth it?
Regardless, I do agree that it sounds like Apress should have treated the author with more respect. I'd love to hear the other side of this story as well.
I completely agree with this sentiment; sometimes starting work at-risk is a sign of good faith and goes a long way to establishing trust. Just make sure that there is a follow-up plan along the lines of "I'm working at-risk for X days. If the contract isn't signed by then, or if I've reached the first small milestone/chapter/deliverable, I stop work."
Except, in this case, it seems the OP actually had a signed contract (half way through his timeline) but Apress still refused to cough up the payment that they obligated themselves to pay. That just sucks.
The only publisher I ever had a negative experience with was Manning. My project was cancelled and they told me to keep the advance. I wanted to return the advance and own the book and they declined (I think because they had similar titles in the pipeline). However, I continue to think that the owner of Manning is a great guy (I very much enjoyed all of our conversations), and I still buy lots of Manning books (probably 10 in the last year).
The author of the linked article seems kind of bitter and it was unusual that he didn't sign the contract for so long. Anyway, I wish him luck in his future projects - it is great fun writing books.
I did have a contract in place before starting, but Apress just ignored it, and the only way I was able to track anyone down was to ask another more popular author to help me find someone who could get me paid. My contacts at Apress basically just ignored my emails and phone calls.
None of that even touches on the antiquated process where I got to spend hours screwing around with a bunch of confusing MS Word templates because most of an author's time is clearly best used trying to correct style errors. The entire process had me wondering if this is really how these books get created. If it is, I decided it definitely isn't for me, especially considering the minimal pay.
Needless to say, I had a pretty awful experience with Apress too, which is a shame, because I'm not a prolific blogger like Mike, and getting to have my name on the front of a technical book was a really exciting achievement for me. I'm proud of the work I did, but not really sure that I'd ever want to go through this again.
When i received the first few chapters i realized the book would have to be re-written. The English was bad and the code was mediocre.
Since it wasn't a paid gig i felt insulted with the experience, the book would require days if not weeks of work to complete rather than a few hours which i had thought.
Writing tech books is for advancing your career, get consulting gigs, get invited to conferences etc.
That said, sending contracts with deadlines that are in the past or before work started looks not very professional.
If my memory serves me right, both Peter Cooper (Beginning Ruby) and Mark Pilgrim (Dive into Python) had "hiccups" as well dealing with Apress.
Average or below quality marred with treating the people like this is enough red marks to stay away from them.
Note: I know there are a few books that HN-ers love published by Apress such as the XYZ At Work series. That particular series, no pun intended and not to disrespect to author, is totally different when you compare it to technical books.
That said, they've made some very strange strategic decisions about their book line that basically involved my co-author and I taking future editions of our books in directions that we completely disagreed with.
Tech book authoring really isn't a very good way to make money, so I wouldn't really worry about a thousand dollar advance - after all, it's an advance against royalties, so you should get paid either way.
I've heard these same things echoed from non-technical book publishing experiences too. The publishers are quite simply middlemen, they can front some production costs to get books in to brick and mortar stores but expect very little unless you have a proven track record and you give a lot up for that. A friend wrote a book (a novel), found a publisher, and basically he was going to pay for everything, literally, pay for the first round of published books, pay to promote, effectively self-publishing the book but sharing the profits. His best avenue for making money on it is to sell the books himself on amazon. Never mind the crappy nature of so many technical books anymore.
Technical books, with technical audiences? Short of the tiny amount of money upfront, I can't see at all why you wouldn't self-publish. The audience is forward thinking, they get it.
Paying for your own publication costs is called vanity press publishing, and it's okay provided you know what you're doing: You are almost certainly taking a big loss in order to get your work into paper form. You will only make money if you've got publishing talent, which equates to "marketing talent": You've got to be good at selling books, which is very hard, especially if you've never done it before.
(Before I got distracted by the story of your poor friend, I was going to answer: many do self-publish, more and more every day, but you don't notice them as often because they aren't as well promoted. Also, whereas it's fairly easy to market tech books online non-tech books are far harder to sell without market knowledge that publishers have scraped together over decades, non-techie writers therefore lust after contracts, and techies imitate non-techie writers. And, because getting a publishing contract probably increases the odds that your book will get finished, because someone else is pushing you toward completion, when we survey the universe of manuscripts we disproportionally sample the ones that get turned into finished books by publishers.)
(And, yes, e-readers are busily upending this centuries-old industry, so ask again in five years for a completely different answer.)
Such publishers are, in general, not particularly nice people (my first paragraph originally said "fleece" rather than "service" but honestly in most cases the mark wants to be taken).
Did you attempt to modify the deadline to a future date, and if so did they refuse to accept that version of the contract?
For the book, my refusal to sign almost certainly delayed payment. I modified the deadlines, removed clauses about ongoing work (dealing with errata etc.) that I wasn't going to do, etc., but nothing major. They refused to accept it, but immediately changed their tune once I pointed out that they couldn't actually publish what I wrote without a contract, and there was no way I was signing without those changes.
The first thing to realize about writing a computer book is that you probably won't make much money off of it. Indeed, you'll probably make very little money from it. So it's not a surprise to hear that the author made so little.
It's also not surprising to hear that Apress didn't promote the book. I'm on the receiving end (as a Linux Journal columnist) of book press releases, and I easily get 1-2 such messages per week. The publishing business is in a terrible state, and while it seems paradoxical that it costs too much to market the book in a serious way, that is the case. When I wrote my book (and granted, this was before Facebook Twitter, and the like), I was responsible for ensuring that it was reviewed on Web sites and magazines; I didn't feel like the publisher did very much.
Given that my book got very positive reviews, you would have thought that they would have pushed to market it more, or to do a second printing. But they didn't. Most books are basically thrown out there, and the few that make a lot of money, by some combination of skill, contacts, and luck, get additional printings.
Apress was founded by someone who was fed up with other publishers, and so it's sad to hear that they have problems with contracts. But it's always unwise to into into a business agreement without a contract of some sort; I've learned this the hard way on a number of occasions through my 15-year consulting career. Writing the book before the contract was set was a mistake that the author made.
When I wrote my book, I also hired an agent. On the one hand, he got 10 percent of whatever I earned, which wasn't much to begin with. On the other hand, he got rid of many clauses in the contract that I never would have thought to notice or remove. It was probably a wash financially, but knowing that someone was there, helping me out, was a good feeling.
If I had to write a book nowadays -- and I'm certainly thinking of doing so -- I'd probably go the self-published, Ebook route. Ebooks can be shorter, are more flexible in terms of format, and will probably net a good author about the same amount of moeny as they would get from a publisher, minus much of the hassle. True, a good publisher will give you good technical edits, indexes, and distribution, but with rare exception, I have to wonder how useful those really are nowadays.
The bottom line is what while Apress might not have been professional about how they treated this author, it seems pretty par for the course in today's world. It's a shame, given how much work goes into writing a book, that he had to have such problems. I'm guessing that if had signed a contract in advance of the work, and perhaps even had an agent helping him, it would have worked out better. But maybe Apress has lost touch with their author-centric roots (that's the "A" in Apress, by the way), and smaller publishers such as the Pragmatic Programmers are the place to go for aspiring authors.
Don't do business with mikeash because he will totally criticize you on the main page of Hacker News.
Then again you're trolling so this comment is more for everyone else than for dipshits like you.
It's like, it's not enough to be obviously a joke or parody, your standard requires actual hilarity.
I can see you in the judge's chair: "I'm sorry, it's obviously a parody but I just don't see it as all that funny." "But your honor! [explains joke]." "Oh. Hahaha, okay, I missed that. Haha, that's pretty funny. All right, counsel, case dismissed!"
I would suggest that is the whole reason this experienced sucked, not because of Apress.
An oral contract with implied commitments on both sides can still be legally binding. It is certainly possible to sue someone for breach of an oral contract.