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Writing A Technical Book: Is It Worthwhile?

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In this article Jack Shirazi, the author of the successful book "Java Performance Tuning", discusses some basic considerations for you to mull over if you are ever thinking about writing a technical book.
Published June 2007, Author Jack Shirazi

As a moderately successful technical author I've been asked a few times about whether it's worth writing a technical book, so I thought I'd stick my thoughts down here.

First off, I'll explain the way the way the publishers see it. The publisher is looking for an author that can demonstrate knowledge in the area they are writing about, and can put across their ideas on paper; and they are looking for an area to publish that is of interest at the moment. Beyond that, it's mostly a guess in the dark about how successful any particular book will be. A rule of thumb is that the publisher wants at least lifetime sales of about $100,000. That covers all costs and lets the company tick over so that they can carry on until a bestseller can give them the big rewards. A book retailing for $40 will probably get the publisher $20 gross, which means the $100,000 target is for 5,000 books sold (and another few hundred given away). The initial print run tends to be about 5,000 books which more or less covers this target.

The author will get their cut of that at whatever rate was negotiated - 10% would be sort of standard (if there is a standard). This is the royalty rate. If you are good, lucky, clever, or have a good agent you might get as much as 25% (unlikely). Books authored by multiple authors have the equivalent of the revenue from one author shared between them, roughly according to how much they contributed towards the book. If you have a 10% royalty rate, then that $40 book gives $20 to the publisher (the rest goes to the bookshop) and then the publisher pay you $2.00 per book from that - so, for example, if the book hits that initial 5,000 book sales target you would get $10,000. Remember that their $18 per book gross profit has to cover the costs of publishing, marketing, distribution, and the fixed overheads of the company (staff, buildings etc), so they aren't really making any money off the revenue if the book has low sales.

Publishers may advance a few thousand dollars to the author, and that gets paid off by the royalties, so for example an advance of $5,000 means you get that up front (typically in instalments as you hit milestones like half the book done, etc). That means that the publisher has already paid you the first $5,000 of income that you would get from book sales (and you get to keep that even if the book never makes that level of sales). The advances are an incentive to you to complete the book approximately on the publisher's timescale. They also mean that if you give up half way through, they could take your partial work and pass it on to another author to finish. Publishers will also happily give you a flat rate fee for a book, with no royalties coming to you if you want such a deal. That should get you a bit more than you would make from royalty advances from a book that flops, but if the book does well you don't get anything more - which rather suggests a definite lack of faith in your book on your part.

Don't underestimate that royalty rate. I recall one successful technical author telling me that they never made less than $100,000 from any book, including from books that apparently weren't so successful, primarily because he had an agent who negotiated great royalty rates. And since that author has written about a dozen books, its probably pretty good advice.

A succcessful technical book is one that sells over 20,000 copies. A best seller sells over 100,000 (remember these are technical books we are talking about, not other areas like fiction which is completely different). A best seller makes millions of dollars for the publisher, and hundreds of thousands for the author. That level of success is not that common, but there are a few each year. Typically the "hot" topic combined with a bit of good marketing, and a bit of luck results in one of these - but realistically if anyone had a real idea of how to accurately predict whether a book will be a best seller, they would be the most successful publisher in the history of the world and also be the richest person in the world, so you'd know about them. Suffice it to say that no one knows how to predict what will become a bestseller (an already successful author has a better chance of managing, but even so it's still a big guess). Publishers play the book market as a bit of a gamble, they try to keep enough goodish quality books (or at least "hot" subject books) out there that when luck hits one of their books, they make their better profits.

So all in all, you have a chance of getting a book published if you figure you have an edge, can fill a gap in the book market, or you can write about something better in some way. Maybe you figure your book will be more successful than the average one. Okay, then put it in perspective. Expect 20,000 books sold (a successful technical book). At $2.50/book you are going to make $50,000. That income will be spread over a number of years, with most in the first year (say over half the total) and the rest gradually diminishing over about 5 years. If you are successful enough to be asked for a 2nd edition (which you will be if the book sold 20,000 copies), then that gives the sales a big boost when it comes out, and so on for each edition. Subsequent editions can make as much or more than the original book. But bear in mind, that the average book is not successful. So you are more likely to make around $10,000 from your book than you are to make $50,000. Of course, every author hopes their book is going to be a huge bestseller, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it won't be, and most bestsellers come as a complete surprise to everyone involved.

Okay, that's some expectation setting for the income for the book, What about the time involved? Well, that depends on you, and the difficulty of writing about the subject. Try writing a sample chapter. See how long and how easy or difficult that was to write? Okay, well bear in mind that was the easiest chapter - you presumably chose the sample chapter subject because that's what you had quite a lot to say about or you found that particularly easy to write about. You need to write 10 more chapters, each one more difficult than the last. And they all need revisions, some will need several rounds of revisions. Then there's graphics, testing (it's a techincal book, the advice has to work and you need to test that or you are guaranteed to be wrong a lot of the time), indexing, layout, discussions with your editor. So take the time it took you to write that sample chapter and multiple by 100. Does that sound like a reasonable time to put into writing a book? For the expected return? It's up to you. Don't underestimate the agonies, most authors get to a stage where they just want shot of the book, where that last 10% or 20% seems like it will never get done.

Finally, the non-direct income from the book. Now this is where it gets interesting. People are impressed by authors. If you have had a book published in a certain area, even if that book did not do particularly well, people are impressed. Of course not everyone is impressed, but enough are to give you an edge. And that edge means you are more likely to be able to do whatever it is you want to do in that particular area of expertise. Charge more, or be more likely to get that job you are going for, or to speak at a conferences, or to publish other things, or whatever. Effectively, it's a great business card.

So do I think it's worth your while writing a book? How should I know? Each person is different. If you currently earn about the same as or less than the prospective book income and yet are very knowledgeable and good at communicating in writing, then probably it's worth your while because the direct income would be good for you. Otherwise, all I can say is that I definitely think it was worth my while writing my book, not for the direct income but as a "business card". But I probably wouldn't bother doing another unless I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands.

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Last Updated: 2014-10-29
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