Seven Secrets in Publishing

Writing a book? Interested in making a difference? I make my living as an acquisition editor looking for authors who can write good books and make a difference in their field. Following are seven "secrets" -- some of them not so much -- that every new author in non-fiction should know. 

Secret #1: Long-Form Lives!

I've an excellent dictionary at arm's reach in a cubby under my desk. Yet I reach for Google whenever I need a definition. For that reason, books are dead.

Or are they?

Long-form content is essential to making in-depth arguments that are coherent and capable of influencing change across an industry. Cary Millsap's book Optimizing Oracle Performance is an example here.

Long-form content is essential to describing coherent processes requiring depth of knowledge and expertise to perform. Christian Antognini's book Troubleshooting Oracle Performance provides a good example.

Long-form content builds credibility and makes your message portable. Just hand someone the book! Look at Stephen Covey and his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Human society has always needed a mix of long- and short-form content. The concept of "book" has gone through changing implementations such as Babylonian tablets, Egyptian papyri, Hebrew scrolls, European-style bindings of leafed pages, and most recently books have become collections of bits that are blasted through the ether[net] to a slab of plastic and glass such as a Kindle Fire.  

We still need books today, in whatever form.

Secret #2: Amazing Access

Technology writers have amazing access to editors and publishers. It's publish or "get fired" for us in the business. Competition for talent is stout. If you've an idea for a book and a message to share, we want to talk to you.

Forget all your friends who are laboring to write the next Harry Potter, who are traveling all around and spending on writer's conferences and joining writers' groups and holding out for just an encouraging word from an agent or maybe even an editorial assistant if they are lucky. Walk right past that long line and go straight to the decision-maker.

If you are an aspiring author in the field of technology and have ideas for how-to and other non-fiction content, you have amazing access. Use it. 

Secret #3: Books a Business

Publishing is the most brutal business I've ever experienced. Some authors may envision the pipe-and-slippers model in which editors have ample time to lean back and reflect and go back-and-forth with an author at leisure until some imaginary standard of perfection is attained. Such is not the case!

Timeliness matters to your audience. It is better to go to market first with a "good enough" book than to be months late with a "perfect" book. A successful "good enough" book can be improved in a second edition. A failed perfect book is simply a failure.

Schedule matters to your publisher. Variable pay is the norm. Missed quarterly and yearly targets can cost your editor and others whom you work with hundreds, even a few thousands of dollars. Those same missed targets hurt the business too. 

Editorial Efforts affect feasibility. An author who writes well and with good attention to detail, who fits in with a publisher's preferred way of working, can be published on otherwise unfeasible topics. Being "low maintenance" tips the scales in your favor.

We dream sometimes of working under a pipe-and-slippers model. A more accurate mental image however, would show us editors working a production line that is feeding us a never-ending series of projects and deadlines to hit.

Secret #4: Dismal Dollars

You probably won't make much from the book itself, should you choose to write one. What's more, the overall topic area into which your book falls is likely to have more influence over how much you make and what your peak earnings potential is than how well you write the book or promote it. 

For example, look at the following plot showing relative unit sales potential across the three topic areas of Oracle Database, .NET, and Android. You're looking at a plot of the top-five books across all publishers in each of the three areas. 

Source: Nielsen Bookscan YTD unit sales from September 7, 2014

Don't be dismayed if your topic isn't the top line in a chart like this. The lines converge swiftly, and they'll all be in the same general zone by time the #10 or #20 books are reached. 

The real takeaway is to think beyond just the revenue from your book:

Make a difference. Help others, or effect change in your field.

Reputation. Position yourself as a subject-matter expert. 

Access. Writing opens doors to key people in your field.

Create good content and make a difference in your field. Your books and other writings then become a catalyst that can lead to many good things, including eventually, revenue.

Secret #5: Career Credibility

A well-written book provides credibility in ways that blog posts and magazine articles do not. Show me a good book, and I'll show you an author who:

  • Has the stamina and stomach to see a project through to completion
  • Doesn't ignore the difficult aspects of a project in favor of the easy fruit 
  • Brings to the table a deeper than normal understanding of his topic
  • Communicates well and persuasively with colleagues in the field

I can personally attest to a dramatic change in how I was perceived and treated by my own management after becoming a published book author in 1997. There was a newfound respect that was accorded me, and I was given a wide latitude at the office to continue building my expertise and reputation in ways that would benefit the firm. I was also thrown at increasingly challenging projects and positions that drove a lot of personal growth that I might have missed out on had it not been for the initial catalyst of writing some books. The books got me noticed. The rest followed from diligence in getting things done.

Secret #6: Economical eBooks

It is often argued that electronic books (eBooks) must be less expensive because there is no paper involved. That is the case, but not to the extent that many believe. Here are just some of the costs that are invariant whether a book is print or electronic:

  • Acquisitions costs, which is the time and money spent on finding authors to write in the first place
  • Development editing costs, representing the time and manpower spent in working with an author to improve the manuscript
  • Copyediting costs, going to those who work at the sentence-level to correct spelling and grammar
  • Formatting and layout costs, because text must be transformed into whatever the chosen electronic platform requires
  • Indexing costs, because eBooks have indexes too

What's left are the costs of paper, printing, and binding. These are known in the business as PPB costs. A 500-page, black-and-white book in the commonly-used trim size for computer books that is printed in reasonable volume through offset printing methods will generate PPB costs of around three dollars per unit. If that book is priced at, say, $50, then the three dollar savings amounts to a mere 6% of the cover price. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's probably less than you had expected to hear. 

Secret #7: More Marketing

Only you can market your book, to paraphrase Smokey the Bear. Publishers do engage in marketing activities, but you as an author can amplify and enhance those efforts by reaching micro-audiences that your publisher cannot hope to touch. 

Here's just a sampling of what you can do:

  • Highlight your book in your slide deck every time you present.
  • Place your book in a prominent location on your website or blog.
  • Mention your book in your signature when posting to forums.
  • Mention your book in your email signature too.
  • Bring up the book in magazine articles, perhaps by reusing examples.
  • Mention the book in any biographical statement that you write.
  • Engage your publisher's marketing team anytime you're involved in public events such as a conference or a local user group meeting. Each such event is an opportunity to make some noise, and some sales.

Get some good reviews too. Be alert for readers who have been helped by your book. Don't be shy! These are readers who will be in your court and wanting you to succeed. Ask those readers to write some Amazon.com reviews. Those reviews on Amazon.com provide much-desired assurance to someone who is about to make a purchase. The mere presence of some reviews can tip the purchasing decision in your favor, away from competing books and toward yours. 

Books Change Lives!

It's true! Books really do change lives. One that I remember fondly is Chris Date's, A Guide to the SQL Standard. I read the very first edition of it, and the best part was Chris's appendix at the back that gave his critique of the then standard.

I learned so very much from what Chris didn't like about SQL and his reasons why. His one book, the appendix really, set the tone for the next decade of my career, and it's fair to say that the book set in motion the chain of consequences that led to my meeting Chris in the mid-2000s, to my publishing him three times, and eventually to his very nice mention of me in the bottom paragraph of Page 45 of the Oral History of C. J. Date that is on file at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. 

Chris may not have thought much of it when he whipped up the first edition of his very tiny, quarter-inch-thick book. It made all the difference to me though. It was the right book at the right time and it made my career. 


This blog post has roots in a ten-minute lighting talk I gave at OakTable World 2014. I am honored and very grateful to be part of such an esteemed and far-more-brilliant-than-I group of colleagues. My association with them remains an ongoing highlight of my career.