Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

Recent Entries
< PreviousBrowse the ArchivesNext >
Subscribe to the RSS Feed

Eliminating the Middleman

October 17, 2007
New York, N.Y

I want to thank everybody who left comments on my "Hard Work, No Pay: What's the Point?" blog entry about the problems of trying to make an honest buck writing programming books in the year 2007.

Several comments suggested that I "eliminate the middleman." Keep in mind when using this phrase that there are five households listed in the Manhattan telephone directory with the last name of Middleman, and they tend to cringe when someone suggests they be eliminated.

In this case, the middleman is the publisher, who I've always thought of as an essential part of the book-writing process. In short, the publisher lets the writer be a writer instead of a (shudder) businessman. Self-publishing has never appealed to me, and I have generally enjoyed my relationships with real publishers. Here are some of the services that I rely on my publisher to perform:

Reality Check: I sometimes get strange ideas for books. Some of them make sense. Some of them do not. I rely on publishers to help figure out which is which. I know that sometimes publishers reject perfectly good books. We all know the history of Lolita and Confederacy of Dunces. But for the most part, the publisher understands the book-buying market better than the author.

Editing: Only amateurs and total geniuses are opposed to editing. I rely on editors to untangle my syntax and help me make my sentences as clear as possible. I have a nasty tendency to use the opposite of a word I really want! That's something I hope my editors can check. Yes, sometimes editing distorts. (Interesting article in the NY Times Arts section today about the editing of Raymond Carver's short stories.) But mostly it improves. If authors have complaints about editing these days, it's mostly a complaint about too little editing.

Technical Reviews: I don't know everything. Sometimes I get it wrong. I like to have another pair of technical eyes looking over my prose and checking out my code.

Design: I don't know how to design a page so it's readable. I may think I know, but there are people who do this for a living and who really understand the issues.

Marketing: Marketing is a big problem these days because publishers think the authors should be getting more involved, and authors think the publishers are simply confessing that they no longer know how to market technical books. But in theory, publishers should understand marketing much better than authors. When I wrote Code, my publisher even paid for a little book tour for me, where I spoke in bookstores to crowds of up to ten people. I don't know if it helped, but it sure was fun.

Advances: Sure, advances are tiny. But they're something, and they simply don't exist with self-publication. Suppose I were to spend six months writing a book I intend to self-publish. During that six months, I'm earning no money at all from the book. Then I self-publish the book and I sell 500 copies for $10 each. Baby, I am then screwed!

So while I appreciate people suggesting that self-publication is something that might benefit my career, I just don't see it for me. I am much more interested in working with publishers in creating the next generation of programming "books" — in whatever form they may take.

My skills are these: I am able to assimilate a new API and determine a coherent tutorial course through the material (ie, where to start, where to go next, how to build on what's come before, etc). I am able to get out of bed and write for 5, 6, maybe even 7 days a week, and in the process, consistently generate 100 book pages per month.

Those are my skills. Unfortunately, those are my only skills!


I've not posted a comment, yet I've been following with interest (okay, not true, I did a blog post but no one reads those... if a blogger posts in the woods and all).

Anyway, I had to comment on this one. You did a tour for Code and I missed it!?! Damn.

I've noticed Eric Clapton is out pushing his book pretty hard - for a man that doesn't do interviews he's been all over the TV this last week. Have any tales of sleeping with your best friends wife? Tragic loss of your 4 year old son? If you work those in, say between adding your own dependent properties and applying a transform matrix, it could affect sales. Maybe not effect them though...

Michael C. Neel, Wed, 17 Oct 2007 11:30:28 -0400 (EDT)

Interesting, because I've concluded that were I to write another software development book, I would _not_ use a publisher for the first edition (some of your readers might not know that the key to making money writing software development books is follow-on editions). All of the benefits you ascribe to publishers are, I believe, in short supply, at least for non-established writers. I think that the publishing model for newcomers is "Give us camera-ready pages using this unimaginative template. We'll do a copy-edit, but not a content edit, we'll send it out to a couple guys for technical review, and we'll throw a couple thousand copies into the stream to see if it sticks."

Have you considered writing for the electronic experiments being conducted by the various publishers (O'Reilly Short Cuts, Wrox eBooks, etc.)? To say I'm skeptical is an understatement, but I've had "Write something to sell via micropayments" on my to-do list for the last few years.

Larry O'Brien, Wed, 17 Oct 2007 14:57:51 -0400 (EDT)

"Micropayments" isn't exactly the most inspiring word, ya know?

Right now I am extremely fortunate to be working on a labor of love, a dream project with a publisher who seems as excited about the book as I am. They've designed a really spectacular cover for the book that makes me very proud, and they've enthusiastically dived right into some interesting typesetting challenges, and apparently solved them.

But my deadline for that book is the end of December. What I'll be doing come January, I don't know. Maybe if I keep hinting around in these blog entries, somebody will come up with a really juicy project for me. — Charles

I thought my blog-comment system was foolproof but apparently not. This morning I briefly saw a blog comment come through my system that then disappear. Someone asked if corrections to my online book Dot Net Book Zero should be relayed to me for future editions. The answer is Yes, although implementing the list of corrections is currently rather low on my priority list.

In all this commotion about how evil Petzold is because he has antiquated ideas about copyright and insists on earning some money from the fruits of his labor, I had forgotten about this free online book whose "self-publication" consisted solely of saving it in PDF and XPS formats from Word 2007. — Charles

Corrections are submitted... Lookout for an e-mail from me.

Lars, Thu, 18 Oct 2007 14:49:39 -0400 (EDT)

Ahh, thank you, and sorry for the confusion. — Charles

Hi Charles, I followed your link to John Robbins' post on his C++ debugging book, and left this post on his blog.

"this is kind of a nutty idea, but why not allow people to pledge how much they would give you, if you *did* write the book. There would be no real obligation, unless and until the combined pledges exceeded the threshold value you set. Once the threshold had been exceeded, you would go to all the people who pledged, and ask them to redeem their pledge. If enough people redeemed, then you would actually charge them, and start writing;)

There might be three different pledge categories:

1. low pledges ($5 or $10 bucks). they would not be entitled to a copy of the book once published. Presumably, they'd borrow a copy from a friend, or from a library, or would absorb the content second-hand from articles on CodeProject, etc.

2. medium pledges ($40-50 bucks). the traditional book price, which would entitle them to a copy of the book, once it was written, and published. maybe they could get a few perks too, like book-signing, or a ticket to a couple of events in seattle or the bay area or new york.

3. high pledges . Not only would they get a copy of the book, but you'd also agree to mail them occasional emails of the book-in-progress, plus other perks, etc.

I'd pledge $50:)"

FWIW I bought a copy of your programming windows book a while back, and find the ebook really, really useful. While I was in India, I picked up the cheap Indian editions of your C# and Code+Markup books. Unfortunately I had to leave them behind because my suitcase was too heavy. I haven't bought your 3D book, partly because I don't have a pressing need for it at work (We still use mfc and native code:)), partly because I feel I already have so many programming books that I need to work through first.

roublen, Fri, 19 Oct 2007 21:00:53 -0400 (EDT)

also, Paul Krugman's old column "the web gets ugly" seems vaguely relevant, too.

roublen, Fri, 19 Oct 2007 22:16:17 -0400 (EDT)

Recent Entries
< PreviousBrowse the ArchivesNext >
Subscribe to the RSS Feed

(c) Copyright Charles Petzold