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Joel on Writing

As of late I have been working on a field where little knowledge is committed to print. I keep playing around with the idea of writing a book on the subject. Unfortunately I know nothing about the publishing industry or the process involved in writing a book.

As the existence of this book attests

Joel has been there and done that. I would very much enjoy reading an account from Joel on how software developers become book authors. From the idea to the shelves.

Do you need an agent to get a publisher?

Does the publisher assign you an editor?

What is your relationship with the editor?

Is it required to physically meet your editor on a regular basis or can it all be done through email? (might be relevant to people that doesn't live in cities)

Does the author have a say on the format of the book? Things such as cover design, page format, graphic plates, typography, etc.

Does content evolve as you write or does it have to be set in stone before you get a publishing deal?

What tools are used in the writing of a book? Are you expected to deliver in a particular document format?

Do you have to get the proofreaders yourself or do you get some assigned?

Is the book delivered all at once? Or is the writing/feedback process iterative?

The whole publishing industry is a complete mistery to me, so if anybody has any experience I'd be delighted to hear about it, for I will certainly learn from it.

Beka Pantone
Thursday, March 13, 2003

Erm... of course a basic step would be to check for spelling mistakes. That should have read "mystery" instead of "mistery". :)

Beka Pantone
Thursday, March 13, 2003

My suggestion, call up a publisher or two and ask. This presumes that you need a publisher, of course, which isn't necessarily the case (my dad prints out lab books for the course he teaches, but it's a bit easier to sell books when the audience must by them).

I haven't written anything, but I imagine that if a publisher wants a book on the subject, they should at least be willing to spend the time to tell you about their process (which is almost certainly very similar to every other publisher's process).

Mike Swieton
Thursday, March 13, 2003

The CityDesk forum mentions a successful use of iUniverse:

Make sure the read the bottom posts.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Technical details such as the document format (although mentioned in my initial post) do not worry me in the least, I would think that this is the easiest problem to overcome.

My post intended to encourage Joel to write about "how he got around writing his book", from the idea to the bookstore. I would enjoy reading what he discovered along the way.

I assumed that perhaps someone else in this forum might be interested in reading such thing, or write about it (if they have an experience to share).

Beka Pantone
Thursday, March 13, 2003

Wrox press have some blurb on their site for potential authors.

You might also look the 'Re:The book' part of Critical Section at (a link a came across a couple of days ago somewhere else on this forum).

Something written about by Joel was the 'fire and motion' tactic (strategy?). It applies in this case in the sense that you shouldn't allow a few more days to slip by without making some...*any* progress towards your goal of a book. Even if its just notes.

The longest journey begins with a single step (or some such platitude).

I, of course, do not follow my own advice and have successfully never started writing a book over the course of 15 years.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Its a crowded market these days.  If you have a good  niche subject, good direct experience which is going to make you standout from the rest, do a synopsis of the book, no more than a page.

You have to sell the idea to get the contract.

Technical books aren't quite like trying to sell a novel (not that I've done the latter), technical publishers tend to have very good ideas as to what they want to publish.  They are also unlikely to pick up a finished book.  Hence the synopsis.

Simon Lucy
Friday, March 14, 2003

you should read this page           
it has some insights about the publishing process.

Friday, March 14, 2003

As a writer and ex-editor, I can answer this. :-)

Here's the typical process, assuming an author has written a book:

The author chooses a publisher to submit the book to.  The author looks on the publisher's website for submission guidelines; if there are none, the author checks a copy of The Writer's Market, a massive book available at any bookstore or library.

The publisher may only accept submissions from agents, in which case the author can't do anything unless s/he has an agent.

The publisher may accept only query letters, or may accept a cover letter along with a few sample chapters.

Assuming the publisher accepts non-agented query letters, the author then writes a query letter to the publisher, essentially saying, "I've written a book on this subject, that covers this information.  Here's why the book should sell like crazy.  Here are my credentials.  Please consider it for publication."  The author then sends the query letter -- along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope -- to the publisher, and waits to hear a reply.

Assuming the publisher accepts non-agented cover letters with sample chapters, the author writes a cover letter, essentially saying, "Included is the first few chapters from a book on this subject, that covers this information.  Here's why the book should sell like crazy.  Here are my credentials.  Please consider it for publication."  The author then formats the sample chapters according to the publisher's submission guidelines and sends this stuff -- along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope -- to the publisher, and waits to hear a reply.

Realistically:  The author then gets rejected, submits to another publisher, and repeats the process many times.  That's just the way of the industry.

Then the author gets a reply letter!  A publisher is interested.  The author then formats the entire book according to the publisher's submission guidelines, and sends it.  An editor reads it over, and replies with a final yea/nay (at this point, a "nay" is unlikely), along with a request for changes such as re-arranging the ordering of parts of the text, tweaking examples, etc.

The author then sends the full manuscript with changes, which then goes through a big process involving many people at the publisher:  proofreader, typesetter, etc.  Then the book is published.

Here are answers to specific questions:

Your relationship with the editor is ideally a friendly business relationship.  The editor already likes your book, so your relationship should be friendly.  The editor may ask you for changes, and some folks get ticked off by this, but it's the editor's job to know the market and book format so s/he can advise you on what will work best.  Any changes are requested in the spirit of helping your book to sell as many copies as possible.

You should never have to physically meet with your editor.  Most authors never physically meet their editors.

The author usually does not have a say in the format of the book, because those decisions are best left to those who've been trained to make those decisions.  You can certainly request things, but don't count on them being followed.

The content will typically evolve, once a publisher has shown interest.

The tools are:  one (1) word processor.  That's it.

There is a standard format, yes.  The fundamental standard for pretty much all printed work is to format the work in a fixed-width font (like Courier, not Times), double-spaced, with page numbers at the top.  Text that you intend to put in italics should be underlined instead.  Otherwise, formatting should be kept to an absolute minimum, since the document will be re-formatted into the publisher's format anyway.  Each publisher will have specific formatting requirements; again, check their website or The Writer's Market.

Proofreaders are assigned; you won't have to worry about that.  However, you should strive to write a manuscript that won't need proofreaders.

Feel free to post or e-mail with further questions; I'll be happy to reply with what I know.

Brent P. Newhall
Friday, March 14, 2003


Which begs the question:  'Do you have a link to your book(s) or article(s)?


Friday, March 14, 2003

I can add a little to Brent's (I've co-authored a software programming book, and I've done some technical reviewing/editing on books). Usually for software writing you haven't written the book before you sell it, because when you sell it, it will have to match the publisher's guidelines for the series, their formats, etc. The publisher (through the acquisitions editor) will sort through all of the proposals, try and figure out what book people will want to buy a year or a year and a half from now, what the competition is, that sort of thing.

I've never met my editors, it's all email and phone calls. It's a really crowded field though, so you'll have to come up with something original, of course, if it is too new, no one will want to buy the book, and on and on.

Jeff Linwood
Friday, March 14, 2003

Generally speaking, proofreaders and technical editors are assigned, you probably don't get any real control of the title or the cover or the layout, as each publisher has their own styles and covers already (maybe O'Reilly lets you pick the animal)

Jeff Linwood
Friday, March 14, 2003

Mark Pilgrim's solution was to blog his book. 

Friday, March 14, 2003

What about copyright issues?
Isn't it possible that when the publisher gets the mauscript he can say no to you and start working on a similar book.
What can I do to prevent the publisher to steal my idea?

wannabe writer
Friday, March 14, 2003

Realistically, that's a risk you have to run, unless you're dealing with fiction, where it would be easier to establish that a creative idea was actually stolen.

Publishers get 1,000s of ideas and submissions, mostly from people who grossly overrate their writing ability and the likely prospects of their proposed book.

Philip Greenspun has a very perceptive comment, based on his own publishing experience: he realised that publishing is a business that exists to pay the wages of editors, managers, designers and book sellers, not authors.

Friday, March 14, 2003

---"Isn't it possible that when the publisher gets the mauscript he can say no to you and start working on a similar book."---

Mail a copy to yourself and leave it unopened. Many countries such as Spain have official registries.

Remember that you as the author represent a small part of the total cost of the book. It's too much trouble for an editor just to steal your basic idea, and anything else opens him to a charge of plagiarism.

Stephen Jones
Saturday, March 15, 2003

I haven't published much, sadly, and of that, only a little is online.  Here are a couple of articles I wrote for

My editing stint was at Papyrus Fiction, a website, which is now defunct.

Regarding copyright:  Stephen Jones' advice actually won't help much.  An unopened copy of the book won't necessarily hold up in court, because the envelope could have been opened beforehand and re-sealed.  Notarizing the book is a stronger form of protection.

However, "e" was right:  Realistically, nobody's going to steal your book.  There are a couple of reasons:

1) The publisher already has mountains of manuscripts coming in.  They don't need to go stealing book ideas when they have plenty out there.

2) The publisher doesn't have time to write books.  That's not the publishers' job; the publisher reads submitted manuscripts.

3) No publisher wants to run the risk of getting into a legal battle with an author.  It's not worth the risk.

I don't recall hearing of a significant number of these sorts of lawsuits.  The ones I've heard of have been frivolous and lost in court (like the woman who claimed that J.K. Rowling stole the idea for the Harry Potter series from her).  I expect it's a non-problem that's evolved into an urban legend.

Brent P. Newhall
Monday, March 17, 2003

wannabe writer,

About your copyright concerns. I have heard that some people send an NDA along with their book proposal. However, if you read the advise for authors at the O'Reilly website, they explicitly mention that all proposal accompanied of an NDA will be inmediately rejected.

Engineers (as I understand many people at O'Reilly are) are often wary at the sight of an NDA, so it makes perfect sense they prefer to reject proposals from people that insist on agreements being signed upfront.

Besides as Brent P. Newhall pointed out, it would be very unlikely for a publisher to steal a book idea.

Brent, btw, thanks for your advise.

Beka Pantone
Tuesday, March 18, 2003

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