Writing a Technical Book for Manning
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From 2017 until 2019 I spent a lot of my spare time writing a technical book: HTTP/2 in Action for Manning - a well known publisher of IT books. This post details that journey (in intricate detail!), for anyone who has ever considered writing a book themselves or perhaps is in the process of of doing just that already. There are a few similar posts on the web (see below) but thought I'd add my experience and opinions to the fray - in part to remind myself of this journey in future when a lot of these details have faded into distant, incomplete memories.
How it all started
I was approached by Manning in March 2017 (see the timeline sidebar). They were considering a book on HTTP/2 and they had found my post on HTTP/2. It was reasonably well ranked thanks to some basic SEO and had had about 12,000 hits at the time. Which isn't bad for a personal blog started only two years previously and with no promotion. I get the impression that technology publishers often approach technical bloggers in this manner. This makes sense as hiring professional writers on demand would be very expensive and few would have the expertise to write about the technologies out there anyway. IT professionals who know the technology and who can string a sentence together, and who are willing to write for a relatively low amount (more on this later), are a much better option for technology publishers given the economics of technology books. Most IT professionals are also very well paid in their day jobs and so are often willing to work on side projects in their spare time for low monetary rewards, such as open source software or even writing a book.
On that note, if you ever want to write a book, then start a blog and write for it regularly. It will quickly show whether you enjoy writing. If it starts to attract visitors then it must stand out from the billions of other blogs out there and that's a good sign that you can write informative or interesting pieces. Don't worry about any concerns that you're not good enough, or interesting enough to blog - just blog for yourself and if you're lucky some others will find it useful. And if you're really lucky then it might lead to a publisher coming to you to discuss writing a book, rather than you having to chase them. This blog was started to allow me to experiment with things that I learned through my day job, rather than because of a deep desire to write but that's where it led. It's not the greatest blog in the world - it's functional, rather than going to win any design awards and it's the useful content rather than the amazing writing that's getting me any hits at all. However it's my own little space of the web and if I can help people at all through the posts on there then so much the better!
Anyway, after a phone call to discuss the book with a Senior Aquisitions Editor (AE), he invited me to submit a proposal if I would be interested in writing the book myself. I was far from an HTTP/2 expert - I was simply someone who was aware of it from an early stage, and who had implemented it on my site, and blogged to allow others to follow suit, since it was not obvious how to enable it for a website. At the same time I am obsessive by nature and had read an awful lot on the subject, and I was also frustrated on the lack of documentation on it. It was still early days for HTTP/2 (it had been officially released less than 2 years previously but was still not available to many users), and while there were a lot of blog posts and talks from web performance conferences and meetups which contained valuable information, it took an awful lot of effort to piece all these disparate sources together. I thought a book on the subject would be well placed, and thought I could make a good job of it. Perhaps even the fact I was an outsider and just an average web developer would be an advantage, as I would be closer to the target audience than some of the experts. After a discussion with my wife - which she denies to this day took place! - I decided to go for it.
Manning has a proposal template which is a 6-page document to explain who you are, the subject of the book, a summary of the book you are proposing, typical questions raised on the subject, the reader the book is aimed at, competition, book size estimates, your contact details, a proposed schedule and finally a table of contents. I filled out all the sections, and explained why I thought I was a good fit for this. I used my professional experience (I manage a team of web developers), this blog, my (limited!) involvement in open source development and finally my involvement in Stack Overflow where I had become one of the top answerers on HTTP/2. I figured I'd write a chapter a month and have 10 chapters in total and have the whole thing done in a year. I then prepared a table of contents following roughly the structure of most articles and conference talks on the subject (the history of HTTP, why HTTP/2 is necessary, explaining the protocol and how to use it, and finally the future of HTTP/2). This was discussed with the acquisitions editor, who was a little concerned it was too theoretical - Manning likes practical books to teach a technology as opposed to reference books. This does make sense (online documentation is usually much better than a book for technologies references now-a-days), but I still struggled with it a little as I admittedly wanted to make it quite theoretical as well. We also discussed the name, as Manning has a few book series ("In Action", "In Depth", "Grokking"...etc.) and we settled on "HTTP/2 in Action" for now with an aim to review later (which we did at the first review, and decided to keep this name).
As I wrote this proposal, a competitor book was published on the same subject. I struggled whether to read it or not (I didn't want it to influence my proposal), but ended up doing that after I was reasonably comfortable with the proposal anyway. I still felt there was enough to differentiate my proposed book from that one, which was a relief.
After a few iterations, the proposal was sent out by Manning to a number of people who were familiar with the subject. 7 reviewers responded and most seemed to be experts in the subject who could have written the book themselves, rather than the level of reader I was aiming the book at. They were positive about the book proposal, though I found them a little biased based on their own area of expertise on the subject. Even with that, it was very interesting reading the feedback and gave me some new ideas to consider. Based on the proposal and the external feedback, the publisher approved proceeding with the book.
Next the acquisitions editor discussed the terms with me (the main one of which was that I would earn 10% of the revenue received by Manning for any books - so their sale price, rather then a book stores sale price - and I would get a $4,000 advance split into two equal payments: when the first third is complete and when the book is handed over to production). After this Manning issued me the contract. I found the contract to be biased to Manning's favour (not surprisingly really!) and tried to argue some of the points including the royalty percentage, but without success. I asked about a stepped percentage (so I'd get a higher percentage royalty once they'd recouped their investment) and even offered to forgo the advance for a higher percentage, but didn't get anywhere (which in hindsight was a good thing as the advance, although small, was a nice incentive to keep me motivated to reach milestones). Online articles, similar to this one, will tell you everything is negotiable, but in my experience it wasn't; as an unknown, first time author, there wasn't a lot I had to sway them with. More well known or proven people may have a different experience. Still I was happy to proceed. Everything I had read on the subject informed me that you didn't write a technical book for the money, so even if I really pushed it and argued it up a few percentage points, it wasn't going to make a huge difference. Perhaps I was naive here, but I decided to sign.
The contract stipulated that the book would be "107,000 to 124,000 words in length and shall include approximately 75 illustrations" which were my estimates, based on my experience of tech books. It would delivered to the following timeframe, that again I estimated:
|October 2, 2017||A partial manuscript for the Work totaling not less than one third of the planned finished Work|
|February 1, 2018||A partial manuscript for the Work totaling not less than two thirds of the planned finished Work|
|June 1, 2018||A draft of the complete manuscript for the Work suitable for review.|
|July 9, 2018||The final, revised and complete manuscript for the Work acceptable to the Publisher for publication.|
As a first time author, I had no idea if those estimates were realistic but the acquisitions editor thought they sounded about right. I've since read that writers rarely stick to their schedule (and neither do publishers, which we'll get to!). Still it's a bit more worrying when you see commitments spelled out in a legal contract. Plus when you start to slip, and accept that, you'll probably slip some more. So try your best to set a realistic schedule and stick to it - you'll thank yourself for it. Also plan in some time for the unexpected. A book takes a long time and accidents, injuries and even deaths will happen that mean you cannot spend time on the book. For me I ended up missing the last two dates (by a month and 3 months respectively) but had a higher word count than expected (129,123 words) and nearly doubled the illustrations estimate (143 figures), so don't think I was too far off when you take that into account.
The writing process
And so we get to the actual writing. Manning assigned a Development Editor (DE) who would be my main point of contact with them, and who would guide me through the writing process without necessarily knowing much about the technology. An outside Technical Editor (TE) was also assigned who would keep me straight on the technology front. An Editorial Board phone call was set up including the DE, the AE and the Owner of Manning. That seemed to be more a bit of me introducing myself and talking about the book subject (HTTP/2) and explaining my thoughts for the book. I think I did a good job in conveying my enthusiasm for the topic and what I intended the book to be. After that it was on to regular catchups with the DE and putting pen to paper/keyboard to files.
We started with the proposal Table of Contents and then came up with a chapter plan for Chapter 1: what I wanted the reader to get out of it, what subjects I would cover, what examples I would use and what diagrams I would include. By making you fill this out, the DE is forcing you to think about the structure of the chapter rather than diving straight in with no real direction or focus. I found it helpful, though must admit I slacked off a little on these for the last chapters. The DE and I discussed each chapter plan before starting writing the chapter and the main feedback was always to keep it practical and not fall into writing a reference book. This had come up during the proposal and I was always a little worried that I would be made to write the book they wanted me to write, rather than the one I wanted to write. There was lots of talk of a "mental model" to present to the reader that I never really got a proper hold of. In the end I think we kept both of us happy with the right balance between practical and theoretical and the book is all the better for Manning pushing it the way they did. It's also chock full of footnotes and external references for those wanting more, which I personally really like, but which I haven't see any other Manning book I've read do, at least not to the degree that I used them. I expected some push back for that reason but didn't receive any, so they do let you to put your own stamp on the book - within reason.
Tools for writing
Manning uses a Box folder to share files and you can write in MS Word, XML or AsciiDoc. I've read that some programmers hate that tooling set for writing, but for me MS Word was fine. I didn't see the book as code, and didn't want to manage it as code. I can understand why many developers naturally do, and would be more comfortable handling it in a source controlled manner but for me Box provided sufficient source control. The power to use the tools in Word to handle spelling, grammar, images and tables were worth a lot more to me. It also helped to immediately visualise layout and spacing to ensure I broke up the writing with the appropriate amount of images, code, sidebars and other items to prevent it looking like a wall of text.
Manning provided a Word template with some styles for headings, text, sidebars, tables...etc. which immediately give it a professional look. I wrote offline, uploaded a draft to the Box folder, the DE reviewed and used Word's Review feature to add comments/suggestions and track changes, that I downloaded and reviewed. I was then free to accept or ignore these changes and upload a new version. The TE used the same method. I was free to edit any chapters at any time as I liked, but held off when I knew the DE or TE were likely to change it, to avoid clashes (which did happen a few times, but not too often as to be annoying). I'm not sure if working with a co-author would be as smooth using this toolset but, as I say, it worked fine for me.
As well as the basics (a Box drive, a Word Template) and the Editors, Manning also provides you with access to their Author Resources, which is a collection of Manning documents, tips and advice on how to write your book: what to include, what to exclude and what conventions and styles Manning follows. It also includes a number of icons and diagrams (which I did not end up using). Overall the collection of information is a fantastic resource - particularly for first time writers. They also give you complete access to their full catalogue of books, which was an unexpected bonus for a tech geek such as myself. You can view any of their books on their online LiveBook format, and I was told I could also ask for books to be sent to me if it would help my writing (though didn't end up doing this - so probably should have abused this opportunity more!). This helps you get a sense of Manning style and also provides the opportunity to cross reference their other books. The only annoyance with this is that the Manning style guide was constantly evolving and changing, so if you based your writing on a book published a year ago, then there was every chance the preferred style had changed in the meantime and you would need to restructure content. For example the chapter openings and summaries format that Manning uses changed quite a bit and required a lot of rewriting during the production process that I'll discuss more below.
I also used social media a lot for research. Twitter is one of the best resources in my opinion for getting access to technology experts. To be able to read (and if you want to interact) with the original writers of a technology and other experts was invaluable. It also helps you keep up to date on the technology and changes that are likely to come in the near and medium terms. I also continued to follow the HTTP2 tag on Stack Overflow and learned about what people were struggling with and lots of other pieces of knowledge about the subject. I got to checking both daily and became a little obsessive about it to be honest! On the plus points I started to grow my Twitter following slightly, and established myself as one of the top authorities on the subject on Stack Overflow, both of which helped the book.
When to write
When exactly to write comes completely down to personal preference. Many people swear by doing a few hours per day, as they hate the break of flow from doing it less often (at weekends for example). I was the opposite: with a very young family and a full time job I tried to work mid-week, but just couldn't do it, so had to admit that wasn't going to happen. I did read a lot in the evenings mid-week (mostly involved Twittering and reading articles - which some of you may not see as work but does take time!). To a lesser extent I also wrote some code and did some experiments midweek, but the writing itself always waited until the weekend. I took Saturday for the family and to recover from the working week and so Sunday was my main day for the book. My ever-patient wife took the kids away to the in-laws most Sundays and gave me time to do the writing.
The best advice I can give you here was that, after planning, to just start writing as soon as you can. Don't worry about it being good, or even making sense, just get the words down there and ideas will start to flow and the chapter will take shape. It's so easy to procrastinate and do anything else but write, but as soon as you start, it becomes a lot easier. This quote is well worth considering:
I don't believe in writer's block. Most of writer's block is having too much time on your hands. My mantra is that you can always edit a bad page; you can't edit a blank page.Jodi Picoult
I actually found the writing a lot easier than I thought I would. I enjoyed the tranquility of it - maybe having young children helps as writing is an escape into some peace and quiet! I also had the first three chapters pretty much worked out in my head from the beginning so they came out relatively quickly. That's not to say they came out perfectly each time - according to Box I uploaded 101, 47, 38, 38, 40, 28, 28, 9, 22 and 19 versions of each chapter respectively to the shared drive not including the production process (though the high number for Chapter 1 was in part due to stupidly editing from there originally so uploading a new version each time I hit save). Saying that there were parts I struggled with, either in knowing what to write, or how to keep certain parts interesting (shout out to my nemesis - Chapter 4, section 3!). These struggles showed in the feedback, but some of it is just due to the nature of the material; some parts of a topic will not be as interesting as others. In general though, when I started, the writing wasn't a problem. The length of this blog post should serve to show I don't really have a problem droning on and on about a topic I'm passionate about!
The other thing to mention is the non-stop nature of it (much like raising children!). All told I spent from 3rd July 2017 until 30th September 2018 on writing the book (not including the proposal process before, or the production process after) or 15 months and pretty much every Sunday was spent writing. I didn't measure my time as some other authors have done but assuming 8 hours every Sunday that's at least 500 hours of work on the writing alone, and there's plenty to be done before and after the writing. That takes its toll and there's a lot that can conflict with that: as I mentioned above, work, holidays, birthdays, weddings and illness and deaths all happen during that time and either delay you, or put the pressure on you to catch up at other times. For the most I enjoyed it, but obviously there were times when I could have done without this and cursed myself for taking on this stupid task. Manning were very understanding when things did crop up, but it still was a constant nagging at the back of my mind I could have done without at times. Writing a book in your spare time takes a long time, and life doesn't stop in the meantime...
As well as the writing, there were other things I needed to take care of including images. Manning say to concentrate on the writing first and foremost and I've seen other authors put up very rough sketches initially, but I was determined to have high quality images from the get go. Most of these were screenshots which were easier, but I used whatever tools I felt were appropriate for diagrams including Draw.io (a free an easy to use diagram tool), MS Paint (still awesome for simple edits and cropping screenshots despite Microsoft's attempts to kill it) and even Excel (for box diagrams like request-response diagrams). Later on I migrated to an Apple Mac and sorely missed MS Paint!
Manning designers produced some images and a very nice animation, to help promote the book which helped set a style for the images, which I then tried to use in my other images. This brought a further look of professionalism. I got quite a lot of credit during the reviews on the graphics and think this helped get the reviewers on side and in part led to the positive feedback I got during these.
As the book entered production I treated myself to some proper tooling here and purchased a monthly subscription to the Adobe suite giving me access to Illustrator and Acrobat, and their other products that I didn't end up using (e.g. Photoshop). Even though I only used a subset of the programs, this was well worth the investment, and although there was a learning curve to Illustrator, it helped produce more professional graphics that were easier to hand off to Manning. However, I did end up redoing all the graphics because I could not easily and reliably export from Draw.io and import into Illustrator, or the screenshots were of lower quality, or because I never kept the original screenshots before annotating them. This led to extra effort that I could have done without, but I also think the graphics are better for it (up to date versions for the screenshots for example rather than two year old versions of software). I've read some authors don't want to manage the graphics at all are annoyed to discover this is expected of them, but I'm a control freak so was happy to do this. I also thought it would help speed the production process along though I'm not sure if it did. Similarly having access to Acrobat helped considerably with the final stages of the production process, when we moved from Word to PDFs for passing feedback back and forth.
For writing code, I'm sure I don't need to tell you want to do. I hosted it on GitHub though to be honest I didn't have a lot of code (it wasn't that kind of book). The other note is to consider the computer types your readers may use and any differences between Windows, MacOS and the various flavours of linux. I've always found having access to AWS is beneficial to spin up servers to test different use cases, but that's probably more due to the nature of this book on an infrastructure-related subject, than for most programming books. I also blew the first advance (and then some) on a very nice Macbook, persuading myself I needed a Mac to experiment on too. It was an extravagance but my computer was old, noisy and heavy. And I wanted one :-) Around the same time I spent some money on a comfortable office chair and a large screen monitor which I wish I'd done right back at the beginning! All in all I may not make much money out of this book, but I've upgraded my home working capabilities no end!
Manning organises 4 reviews for a book; one before and three during the writing:
- The proposal review (7 reviewers gave feedback on the proposal)
- Review 1 after one third of the book is completed, and before it is launched as a MEAP (17 reviewers responded for this).
- Review 2 after two thirds of the book are completed (12 reviewers responded for this).
- Review 3 after the full book is initially completed by the author (10 reviewers responded for this).
These were incredibly useful and are another key reasons for going with a publisher over self-publishing. Sure you can organise this yourself but you're likely to do that using people you know, or people in the community who are familiar with the topic, whereas Manning organised a wide variety of people who didn't know me at all, and so wouldn't sugarcoat the feedback because of that. Each reviewer is asked to read the manuscript and answer about 20-30 questions split into 5 areas. Reviewers were unpaid but got an electronic copy of the book or tokens for another book. Some wrote pages and pages, some one word answers, and one even corrected the entire manuscript of typos (an ex-teacher who couldn't help himself perhaps?). I devoured all the feedback and used it to improve the manuscript no end. I'm not comfortable putting the raw feedback up without consent but I've put the summary notes I prepared at the time for myself and my DE up here if interested: 1st review, 2nd review and 3rd review.
Manning also ran a book forum, where readers could comment on the early access version (see below), ask questions, suggest hints...etc. This is a great idea, and I used it to give regular updates on the book progress for anyone that cared to read them. I was a bit disappointed how little feedback I got on this, but maybe my updates helped answer most questions. I really don't understand authors who ignore their forum as I can see a lot of frustrated posts on this for other Manning books (particularly ones that are heavily delayed and obviously struggling) so my advice if your publisher offers such a feedback forum is don't ignore it! Manning have also moved it recently to integrate it with their LiveBook platform which has pluses (you can link a comment to specific areas of text) and minuses (it's definitely a bit trickier and slower to use, really poor on mobile, and not sure how comments will age as the book is changed and the text the comment points to may no longer be accurate).
I was also given eBook copies to give away, in an attempt to elicit feedback but this was less successful. I gave copies to friends, family and work colleagues. I also gave some to influential people in the community that might be interested in the book, might give feedback, or might even help promote it if I got really lucky. Most of the latter category ignored the offer completely (I'm sure it looked like spam) and of those that did take it up, I only heard back from one (thanks Daniel for kind words and for tweeting about the book!), but still does no harm to spread the word and who knows if they promoted it without my knowledge. You can't really expect busy people to help you out on your personal pet project just cause you gave them a free ebook!
I also received feedback from other randomers who contacted me over Twitter, LinkedIn or Email. These were especially useful as they were often people involved in the HTTP/2 community (or even involved in defining the spec!) so I gratefully took them up on any offers of assistance. I tried to get eBook copies out to these people where possible and for some I sent a physical copy after publication as a thank you when the book was published.
All in all, Manning organised great feedback. I honestly don't think you can get enough though. Every positive comment really makes my day and made the effort seem worthwhile. On the other side, I didn't get much negative feedback thankfully (it would have been hard to take!), but certainly got suggestions for improvements, most of which I took on board, but some of which I disagreed with and after careful consideration I choose to ignore. Now the book is out I'm still craving feedback and often find myself looking up the book on the various Amazon sites and Goodreads hoping for positive reviews - I'm a needy, pathetic person I know!
After a third of the book was written and we'd taken on board the feedback from the first review, the book entered the Manning Early Access Program (MEAP) and went on sale to the public for the first time! Up until that point only a few close friends and family knew I was writing a book, but suddenly my name was out in the open and this thing got real!
I also got to pick the cover image from one of three suggestions the publisher sent me. Manning uses images of historical figures on the covers of their books - it's just their style, in the same way O'Reilly use random animals. I hear O'Reilly authors similarly get sent three animals and get told to pick one, though others say they got to suggest one. Anyway, out of the three images I was sent, I picked the image of the woman carrying clothes as I thought it was at least somewhat related to a transport protocol carrying messages (a stretch I know but I was rather pleased with myself for coming up with that analogy to justify the cover image somewhat):
MEAP releases the chapters as soon as they are ready to go (basically after I have written them and then incorporated DE and TE feed back on them). We released the first three chapters and the appendix when we launched the MEAP. By this time I actually had chapter 4 written and most of chapter 5, but it's better to hold a chapter or two in reserve like this so you can have a steady flow of MEAP releases and not have long gaps for the reader when nothing is apparently happening.
Customers purchasing the MEAP get email alerts as new content is released, and are encouraged to provide feedback in the forum mentioned previously. If they've purchased the physical book then they won't get that until the book is actually published, but get the electronic MEAP version immediately. This means people are often buying a book a year or more in advance - which is quite a commitment! This puts a lot of responsibility on the author as it creates certain expectations (you can imagine some of the comments in the forum if a book stalls after people have handed over money). At the same time the books are not production ready, and are not professionally copy edited, nor proof read, which I think Manning makes pretty clear, but which can lead to complaints or unrealistic expectations. I think the MEAP program is a great program as long as the expectations are clear on all sides, and the customer receives regular updates - see my comments about about authors engaging in the forums.
As the book progressed through MEAP, the work grows in scale. You have more and more chapters to tend when you get feedback, or if you decide to restructure anything. It's not unsurprising that Chapter 1 is the most edited chapter, followed closely by chapter 2 and 3...etc. This is something I did not account for and deadlines started to creep up and be missed. As per above plan, I allowed a month per chapter with an extra month after each review. In hindsight I should have grown that to two months after the first review and three months after the third. Then again, perhaps I would have missed those deadlines too and the aggressive timeframes were a good thing to keep the pressure on? I do know once a deadline was missed it's impossible to make it back, so the whole schedule needs to move out, but the publisher just stuck to the original schedule (whether because they honestly thought I could/should catch up or just to make it less easy for me to further deviate from the schedule I don't know).
Trying to avoid being out of date even before you launch
One of the big problems with writing technology books, is they have a very limited shelf life as technology marches on. You can spend a couple of years writing about Java 8, and then launch the book at the same time as Java 11 is released. Of course that doesn't make the book out of date (few are on the bleeding edge technology, and most of the learnings are probably still relevant), but it certainly creates a perception the book is dated which can seriously hurt sales. And as in this example, this doesn't just happen after the book is launched, but can happen while the book is still being written! In many ways that's why online "living books" are seen by some as a better option (though no guarantees how long they will "live" and be updated for).
In November 2018, as the book was crawling its way slowly through the production process (covered next), HTTP/3 was announced. It wasn't even set to be submitted for approval until July 2019 (and I would not be surprised if it wil be delayed again), likely won't actually be approved until early 2020, and probably won't be available for users until then too. However, most importantly of all, HTTP/3 builds on HTTP/2 and it is covered in the book in the final two chapters as it had been worked on for a while so I was more than aware of it, even if they hadn't given it the HTTP/3 name when I initially wrote those chapters (these chapters were updated to include this name before the book was published). But the fact HTTP/3 has been announced inevitably still makes a book on HTTP/2 look out of date, which is depressing. I pushed Manning for a subtitle (e.g. "also covers QUIC and HTTP/3") to counteract this but they didn't think that was a good idea and maybe they were right.
After I had finished my writing we entered the production stage, which involves copy-editing to correct grammar and spelling, proof reading, layout, indexing, graphics before producing the finished product and sending it to the printers. I found the production process the most frustrating part of the entire experience. Some of this was probably to do with me giving up control of the manuscript after being in completely control of it for the last 15 months, and some of it was undoubtedly inpatience due to wanting to get my hands on my book as soon as possible now my part was mostly done. However, the communications from Manning during this time were very poor and certainly exacerbated the situation. My DE ended up leaving Manning at the time and I was assigned a Production Editor (PE) who ended up leaving a few months later too (neither left because of working with me - at least I don't think so!) and I'm not sure if either or both leaving meant I had a more negative production experience than usual, but I do know I was not happy with the process for a number of reasons that I fed back to Manning. I won't list all of my frustrations here but the one that I feel should be mentioned is the time and communications.
The contract stated a book of my size should take 3 approximately months in the production process. I handed over the manuscript on 30th September 2018 and asked if it would make Christmas ("maybe for the ebook" was the response). It would not make that, or even close to that. I will tell any budding authors the secret that Manning felt unable to tell me: it will take at least 6 months to go through the production process. And that is only if authors hand over a reasonable high quality manuscript and are on hand to review edits and answer questions quickly (e.g I did most of mine within a day). Such a long time does lead to a high quality product, but it's the lack of transparency to authors (and customers!) on this timeframe that is most annoying. Tracing back other books that Manning has launched at the same time seems to give a consistent deadline of 6 months - longer for Authors who's native tongue is not English - so it does not seem this was unusual so I really don't know why Manning can't manage expectations better, and instead just extended the estimated publication date out further and further in small increments.
These delays continued even after the book was launched. The final PDF version was available immediately but the the ebook formats were due 2 weeks after publication, but that extended to 4 weeks, than became 6 weeks with no explanation of the delay despite repeatedly chasing Manning. During this time, people were buying the "production" book and pointing out typos to me that had been corrected, which was frustrating. Similarly the UK version of the book is still not available despite it being two months since publication, which is annoying as being based in the UK and Ireland friends and colleagues had purchased it on Amazon.co.uk and were asking me why it was not released yet! In Manning's defence they did seem to launch an awful lot of books around this time, so maybe I was unlucky and just caught in a long backlog, but they must have known this, and that's no reason to not keep communications open and honest and manage expectations. I'm writing this not to have a go at Manning, who were great other than during this process and who I'd highly recommend, but to try to help those in my situation in future manage their own expectations. Don't expect production to take weeks or even a few months; assume to will be a minimum of 6 months and you'll get less frustrated.
Moving on from those frustrations, we get to the more positive aspect: getting hold of a copy of my book! I got 25 copies of the book and when they arrived I was delighted. To finally hold a copy of a book with my name on it, after nearly two years was a very special feeling and definitely made the whole endeavour worthwhile. Flicking through the book I'm very proud and pleased the way it turned out. Though I spotted two typos after printing and have been afraid to actually read it too much since for fear of finding more.
I gave away 10 copies to the team at work, 4 copies or so went to friends and family (it flew over most of their heads!), 6 copies I posted to people who'd helped with the book and that left me with about 5 copies for myself so I could always have one nearby no matter where I was in the house ;-)
Sales and Marketing
I was given no expectations of how many copies a book like this was likely to sell, but I tried to guess from reading similar posts like this and from arbitrary calculations based on the advance. As stated above I got a $4,000 advance and was due 10% of the cost price of books. The book retailed at $49.99 for the physical book (pbook) with included ebook combo and $39.99 for the ebook alone. However Manning runs lots of special offers (Deal of the Days, seasonal offers and discount codes for promotional purposes - check out the one at the top of this page if considering buying the book!). So I assumed the worst case of a 50% offer, meaning $25 for pbook/ebook combo and $20 for an ebook alone. These are apparently similar to the actual rate that book stores purchase books from the publisher for, so again this rate will work for them too. So with a 10% royalty I should make about $2 a book worst case. With a $4,000 advance I presumed that means they expected it to sell 2,000 copies at least to earn out the advance. I've read older blog posts saying technical books often don't make enough to cover the advance but I'm not sure that's the case anymore (others suggest that the advance is roughly half the total expected income, meaning I should make about $8,000 in total). Anyway making enough to pay off the advance was my initial target, and I set a stretch goal of meeting that by the time of my first royalty cheque!
The book was available for purchase throughout the MEAP process and every so often I would ask my DE for an update on sales. I'd like to have bugged him every day on this, but that probably would have been rude. After the book was published I was given access to an author's page where I could see the sales made through the Manning website and I've refresh it multiple times a day hoping the numbers will go up and up. Most days I sell 1 or 2 copies so checking it once a day (or even once a week!) would be more than sufficient, but I can't help myself.
At the time of publication, I had sold about 1,200 books (of which 3/4 were ebooks) and I sold another 300 in the first month of publication which brought me up to the end of the quarter. My "worst case" scenario turned out to not be too far from the truth - almost all sales were heavily discounted. Apologies if you bought the book at full price (you seem to be in the minority) and if that annoys you, but hopefully this post will at least show you the effort that went into it and that'll persuade you it's still value for money! So anyway I missed my stretch goal, but I'm still pretty happy with those figures for a just published book from an unknown author. I don't think I'll have an issue earning out my advance (unless the drop off is a lot steeper than I'm thinking it'll be), and doubling that doesn't seem completely unrealistic either.
The cumulative sales are shown in below graph and as can be seen it's been growing over time, with an initial surge at MEAP launch, smaller surges when the book was offered on special offer, and then a more recent surge as the book was launched officially:
I'm not sure how many sales are usually made directly on Manning, and how many on other bookstores - particularly Amazon - after it has been published (MEAPs are only available direct from Manning). I guess I'll need to wait for the royalty cheques to see. The contract notes that these will be delivered within 100 days of the end of the quarter and I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see the first statement was emailed exactly 100 days after quarter end (for Q4) so looks like it'll take a while before I get any sense of non-Manning sales. Amazon allows Authors to sign up for an Author Central account where you can claim your book and track US physical book sales for most US book stores (not just Amazon), but in the 3 weeks since launch, sales have been slow with a mere 17 units shipped. I'm hoping that will increase as the book becomes more available. It doesn't include international orders nor Kindles purchases. Note however Manning books are not available to purchase through Amazon for Kindle (they sell ebook version including the .mobi Kindle format through their own site and also offer ebook versions for free with all paper copies, which is great, though there are a few exceptions for local distributors in India and the like). Not sure if this choice to not sell Kindle versions on Amazon affects sales but presume they do it for good reasons. It's also often pointed out that Kindle versions of tech books are often a poor substitute (and not just from Manning) as the diagrams and code samples often don't translate well to kindle size and format. The PDF version, or Manning's online Livebook version is much better in my opinion. Shipping from Manning outside the US is quite expensive, so I'd imagine more European sales will come through the likes of Amazon, though at the time of writing they still haven't stocked the book on international Amazon sites. With the frequent discounts, the shipping is less of an issue when buying direct, but still would be nice for Manning to have a European presence. There are Author Central pages for the UK, France, Germany and Japan, but none of them offer book sales like the US one. Sign up for them anyway and claim your book in case they ever add this functionality. Chrome allows you to use Google Translate for the page in case you don't speak all those languages :-) The Author Central pages do show you your Sales Rank, but this seems to go up and down like a yo-yo so not convinced it's actually that useful. While on the subject GoodReads also allows you to create an author page and claim your book.
Manning does a lot of promotion of their books online and have daily discounts which they promote through email for those that sign up to it, and through their social media accounts. I'm not sure how non-Authors don't get annoyed with all the countless emails and tweets promoting their books but I can say it definitely works: when my book is Deal of the Day, I see a big jump in sales! I also am plagued by online ads from Manning for my own books, so they must be spending a good bit of money on online ads. I just hope it isn't all wasted on me (it's not - the Head of Marketing at work said he once looked at my book and was getting chased round the internet by Manning ads and wanted to know how they did it so much!).
Separate to the online marketing, they helped produce some promotional material including the images and animations mentioned previously, a slideshare and they copy-edited an extract from the book while I was still in MEAP that I put on my blog. Each of these they promote on social media periodically.
They also provide discount codes and free books to authors and to conferences (especially if the author is speaking at them). For those based outside the US like me that's mostly ebooks (international shipping is expensive apparently). They also offer book signings with some free books, but not taken them up on that as only given small talks to local meetups - though contact me via Twitter if you want a presentation on HTTP/2 at your conference and I might then have reason to do a book signing!
Other than that there have been a few small things (e.g. they provided relevant lists which might be good to get on with a simple pull request) and they also managed the book listing on Amazon and gave advice on what I needed to update there that they didn't have access to. They also have a few free ebooks that are chapters extracts from several books on related topics and they've asked me to create one of those to promote the book that I will do at some point.
You also do need to promote your work yourself, which isn't always the easiest or most natural thing to do for us IT geeks. Do tweet out about your book as much as possible and I always wrote my own tweets for when I was deal of the day and tagged the Manning twitter account on any book related tweets which they usually retweeted to their 20k followers. I also mention the book on Stack Overflow when answering questions and when I think it's appropriate. I also promoted on LinkedIn and Facebook but the book is a pretty niche topic so not sure most of my work friends and social friends will be that interested (especially as I've given away copies to a good few of them). Finally the creator of WebPagetest, a performance analysis tool I use a lot in the book, also invited me to add a tip for that (a random tip from this list is shown to users of the tool while they wait for the test to run). This was awesome as the users of that tools are obviously very interested in web performance which is the main reason for HTTP/2 (thanks Patrick!).
A lot of author stories I've read have stated the publisher will do no promotion, and it's all up to you, but I think Manning did a pretty good job here and that showed in MEAP sales. Yes a lot of this is online advertising and social media, but that's what works. So if you were expecting a primetime TV ad for your technology book then you're not being realistic! I'm not sure if they will do anything different or in addition now it's published, and have no idea if marketing physical books to book stores is still a thing, but I suspect not. I've suggested sponsoring a few relevant e-mail newsletters that I subscribe to and apparently that is going to happen.
And so we finally come to the end of this very long post. Writing a book was a really interesting experience and I'm proud of what Manning and I produced. It gives me a warm glow when I see it and it's a great thing for the CV if I'm ever looking for work. The monetary gains don't look like they will be massive (as expected) but they might be more than just the advance I expected when I signed the contract. If you calculated an hourly rate it's a shocking amount because of the effort required, and IT professionals can obviously make multiple times more in their day jobs, but there's something very satisfying about having published a book from a real publisher that makes up for that. I've yet to use the phrases "published author" or "I wrote the book on that!" in conversation but am very much looking forward to doing that at some point :-)
It's definitely opened me up to the HTTP and web performance community and I've made some great contacts in those communities through the book, which is great as it's definitely a space I'd like to do more in (though not sure what at this stage!). I've not capitalised on the book to become a must have name on the speaker circuit like I understand other authors have - in part as I'm based in Ireland, but undoubtedly more because a book doesn't make you a must have speaker! So professionally it's not had a huge impact (yet?), though work have been very supportive and tell me how proud they are of my achievement.
So would I write another book? My wife says "absolutely not!", but I'm more a "maybe" even this short time after finishing it. As I say I enjoyed the experience (mostly). I think Manning were a good publisher to work for and would recommend them to any other first time author (though I really do hope they'd take on my feedback on the production part of the process as that needs to be improved - for all concerned). Now I've a little more insight into what's involved I could go the self-publishing route, or even publish for free online, but I still like the idea of a real book by a real publisher and presume I'd get much better royalties if I went with them a second time (any second time authors let me know what to expect!)
Well that was long winded! If you've still got any questions, or comments then let me know below your thoughts below, or for comments or errata on the book itself, feel free to use the Manning forum.
Want to read more?
More Resources on this subject
- Hackernews thread discussing this article.
- My Book "HTTP/2 in Action" available in early access (1st chapter free!).
- Hackernews thread discussing this article.
- Manning's Write for Us page.
- Scott Meyer's dated, but informative page for technical book authors.
- Justin Garrison's experience writing for O'Reilly.
- Hackernews discussion on Justin's post with lots of other great discussion.
- Another Hackernews discussion on "Considerations when asked to write a book?".
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