During the last years, people asked me multiple times: how to write a textbook? I am neither a guru in writing nor am I super successful but I can share my humble lessons learned.
|The books I authored at the timing of this posting (September 2015).|
It took several years before I actually started trying writing but aged 17, I finally started it. I went to a German publisher with my idea of a book and had a co-author who joined me. Probably because I must have made the impression of a super-nerd capable of understanding all the internals of the topic, the publisher accepted my offer. The topic of the book was not the Linux operating system but a similar one called FreeBSD. It was not that I did not like FreeBSD but the publisher wanted this topic instead of my proposed topic. We agreed on the table of contents and my co-author and me started writing. The idea was to write 50% of the pages each and we had several months of time to deliver the targeted 400 pages. We scheduled that by writing just two pages a day each, we would have the book's content ready in the requested time while using the remaining weeks to polish the content. We wrote constantly for several weeks but eventually the book project failed as the publisher denied to publish the book.
Why did that happen and what can you learn from this experience?First of all, the project failed because, after all the nice chapters and sections were written, the boring and challenging ones still remained. Writing boring sections which have to be included in a book because they simply belong to a topic is a challenging task. We reduced our writing speed but still had to deliver 400 pages on time. The writing speed reduced even more after some weeks and to finish the project on time, we finally had to write twice as much pages a day as we originally planed.
Even worse, the reviewer who was specialized in the theme and who had decades of experience with the system while we had only few years of playful time with the system, wrote a neck-breaking review. I believe that we could have fixed the problem's listed by the reviewer in one month. However, due to the review and the huge delay, the project was canceled.
How did I became an author anyhow?I must admit, it took me nine months before I decided to try writing a book again after this #fail. During the last thirteen years I learned the following lessons that helped me writing and that I wish to share with you:
1. Be aware of the 'ugly' chapters. There is no book project without topics you are not interested in. Either because they are so basic that they appear boring to you or they were never the interesting part of a topic for you. Write them anyways and write them FIRST. Fix the page numbers in advance and do not deliver a 1-page section for the topic you hate, instead, schedule more pages than you need. This way and even if you finally end up with slightly less pages than scheduled, the 'ugly' chapter (or sections) will still provide enough content for the reader.
2. Stick to your time schedule. Do not even think about skipping one day. Each day you do not write will put more pressure on all following days as you have to catch up with the original schedule. The first few days you skip or at which you write less will hurt very little but trust me, the pain will increase.
3. Make sure that you really LOVE the topic you are going to write about (at least the good stuff of it, and that should be >80%). If you do not like >80% of the topic search for a topic you like more or adjust the existing topic. Just don't go for the topic of which you only like 50%. After writing books about Linux instead of close-to-what-we-wanted topics, writing became much easier. In other words, a good topic reduces the SAKPB (self-ass-kicks-per-book) as you will have to force yourself less to do the work and instead actually like the work.
4. Do not question your capability to write the book once you started writing. Just continue until its done. Others are maybe smarter, have more experience, whatever! The one who gets it published is the one who writes it. Hard work pays off and what you do not know now, you can learn on-demand.
5. Be prepared to invest your entire spare-time for a year. No further comment on this, except: you will need the time, trust me.
6. If you write in a team, you will need a leader who performs the AKPB (see 3rd point).
7. Find a good publisher. With 'good' I mean a publisher who is actually interested in the project. A good publisher is also one that will perform the advertising actions for your book with strong effort to reach the target audience. If you write a book and let it print on demand without having any advertisements only few people will recognize that your work exists at all. Of course, not only your publisher should advertise your book, you should create a strategy to do the same. A good publisher is also one that pays or provides a professional proof-reading service and that invests the time to improve the quality of the text from the perspective of the target audience.
Equally important, find a publisher that is known in your domain. For instance, in Germany, some publishers like Springer, Rheinwerk and Hanser are good publishers for computer books. If you go into a book store that has computer books, make sure you select a publisher who's books are presented at place in the bookstore.
8. Be prepared to get bashed. If you speak in public, if you publish, ... the audience will find your mistakes and will bash you. During the last thirteen years, me and my co-author received a crazy amount of emails (sometimes, we also still get feedback via post). People will bash you either directly or will bash you indirectly via your publisher. Some people will find ten typos in hundred pages and write you several pages explaining you why you suck. Try to learn from the constructive feedback and (try to) ignore the shitstorms.
ResultsI must admit, that some of the lessons learned are still rather new and I will probably have to add a few additional ones during the following years. However, with the above strategy in mind, my co-author and me published a book containing 1.300 pages and we received pretty nice Amazon and press reviews, having the bestselling book of our publisher for six weeks and remaining under the top-10 bestsellers of the publisher for several months. If you apply these lessons and take them seriously, you can accomplish your own book project. Within the last 15 years of writing, I sold ~50.000 printed copies (excluding electronic copies) with five books (not counting my PhD thesis) that I either wrote alone or with colleagues, having book number five in press and number six in progress.
2017-04-09: added one paragraph, few fixes and updates.