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

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Letting Go of the Book

May 9, 2008
New York, N.Y.

Wiley — my publisher for The Annotated Turing — will this morning ship the book's files to the printer. Sometime after that, printed books will emerge. The official publication date seems to be June 16.

It's been my last chance to fix things. For the past several days I've been scouring PDF files of the front matter (copyright page, epigraph, table of contents, and introduction), the 18 chapters, and the bibliography, hoping to find and correct a few final errors, and to persuade the production editor that movie titles should be italicized rather than appear in quotation marks. (The book refers to Soylent Green, the Back to the Future trilogy, and 2001.)

Yesterday morning I discovered that a sentence on page 39 contains a mixed metaphor that I probably wrote years ago and which only now leaped out to taunt me: "With these foundations being nailed into place shortly before the turn of the century, mathematics seemed to be on a good track, ..."

I toyed around with changing the sentence but finally told myself "You really have to let this go." There is no such thing as a perfect book, and if the biggest problem in the book is a mixed metaphor, this will be the best book ever!

Letting go of the book — particularly one I've been working on since 1999 — is extremely difficult, both emotionally and intellectually. In the past month, as the book has made a transition from DOC files to PDF files, my freedom to make changes has been sharply curtailed. Now the book makes a final transition — from something I've owned to something readers will own, and over which I'll have very limited control. I can't control if people buy the book, or read the book, or interpret the book in the way I intended. The book now exists apart from me, and I have become irrelevant to its future autonomous existence.

In an ideal imaginary world, a book is finished only when the author is fully satisfied that every word and comma is perfect. In the real world, that doesn't work. The only way books ever get finished is with the imposition of a deadline — sometimes from the author him or her self, but most often from a publisher.

This is a good thing. The deadline requires much focused work to drive the book into a completed state. It is one of my fears about online publishing that books will never be finished — that they will exist forever in some slippery amorphous state, forever demanding that they be twiddled and tweaked, enslaving the author in a never-ending cycle of continual revision.

The finality of publication is ultimately liberating. The author is given permission to let go, but more importantly, to move on. This book must be finished and left to live on its own because there are many other books that need to be written.

Coming June 16, 2008!

Available for Pre-Ordering
Wiley Amazon US Barnes & Noble
Amazon Canada Amazon UK Amazon Deutsch
Amazon Français Amazon Japan Blackwell


Congratulations Charles.

I'm no book writer but I guess the feeling must be comparable to uploading the KillerApp Suite Pro 1.0 setup executable to the company's web site.

Speaking of editor schedules, they did a good job in picking a date where we'll receive the book just in time to bring it on the beach.

Serge Wautier, Fri, 9 May 2008 09:07:51 -0400 (EDT)

Congratulations! I look forward to reading it.

Tom, Fri, 9 May 2008 09:37:33 -0400 (EDT)

I went to my local independent bookseller to preorder _The Annotated Turing_, and he told me that it was only available in softcover. Is that correct? This book sounds like a candidate for my permanent collection, and I would prefer a hardcover that would stand up to repeated reading.

— Bill, Fri, 9 May 2008 12:33:16 -0400 (EDT)

That's true that it'll be softcover only. I would have preferred hardcover myself, but it's not exactly something the author has control over. — Charles


It's wonderful to see this finally becoming a reality.


Julia Lerman, Fri, 9 May 2008 15:56:14 -0400 (EDT)


I am sorry I missed the mixed metaphor during development. On the other hand, I think this is an amazing book, overall. Looks like I left you between a rock and a hard place in the sun. :-)

— Christopher Rivera, Mon, 12 May 2008 16:34:41 -0400 (EDT)

Interest story!

Vundiliver, Sat, 31 May 2008 19:38:56 -0400 (EDT)

Charles, just wanted to let you know that Amazon UK just e-mailed me to say they dispatched my order. Looks like your publisher respected the announced deadline.


Serge Wautier, Sat, 21 Jun 2008 08:28:01 -0400 (EDT)

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