Writing Technical Books

I just posted about my experiences writing my third technical book, Wrox Professional ASP.NET MVC 3, along with Phil Haack, Brad Wilson, and K. Scott Allen. We had a general discussion on the latest episode of Herding Code with the Wrox MVC 3 book authors and Jesse Liberty, author of three dozen odd books.

Download / Listen to the show:

Herding Code 118: On The Writing Technical Books (with Jesse Liberty, Phil Haack, and Brad Wilson)

We got a lot of great questions via Twitter before the show, and I think the discussion was really interesting. We covered a lot of topics - here are some that were particularly interesting to me:

Why? Are books still relevant?

We had several questions about that before the show. It's a good question - there's a ton of information available on the internet, and it's usually both timely and free. I think Jesse summed this up best:

In terms of rather books themselves have a place as opposed to a world of just blog posts, I would argue that two things happen when you write a book. First of all, your thoughts get organized in a totally different way with a great deal more substance. And secondly, any decent book has a good editor who's adding tremendous value that just can't be in blog posts. So I think they serve really different functions. Books are much more comprehensive, blogs are much more up to date and give you bite sized chunks.

I strongly agree - the editorial review process (including technical review) and peer review with other authors improved my chapters from first draft to printed page tremendously. It's a painful and humbling process at times, but it definitely improves the quality.

Later, Jesse talked about the value of "telling a story" in a book, so that the reader doesn't need to work to assemble the information and see how the different pieces fit together.

How do you get started writing books?

All of the authors on the show had been invited to write their first book. Usually that came as a result of writing in other mediums first - blogging, newsgroups, magazines, etc. Phil Haack speculated that top StackOverflow authors may be a new source of authors. The main takeaway for me is that working publicly - blogging, open source participation, etc., is the best way to advance your professional career, and author opportunities is one of the many benefits there.

The value of working with several authors

All authors on the show talked about the many benefits of working with others, including:

  • Peer review and feedback
  • Ability to divide work up so each author covers what they know - and can teach - best
  • Ability to maintain a sane work schedule and still release when the technology is still relevant
  • Group discussion on ideas for the book
  • Peer pressure to keep to the schedule

I used to chuckle at the books with twelve authors on the cover, but I see some benefit now. I think the challenge is to maintain consistency among several authors. We discussed that on the show, and I think the best idea we came up with was to make sure the authors read each others' chapters.

The overall process of writing a book

We talked over our experiences as authors, and Jesse confirmed that it was pretty representative from his dozens of books with several publishers:

  1. Assemble an author team
  2. Get both a table of contents and schedule approved
  3. Get the "author pack" from the publisher, which usually includes some Word templates, screenshot guidelines, and style guides
  4. Submit your first drafts via FTP
  5. Get the shredded remains back after the technical and editorial reviews are complete
  6. Fix the problems and submit the second drafts
  7. Review the final proofs
  8. Profit! (ha, just kidding!!!)

Overall, writing my 3rd books was a great experience, and it was nice to discuss the experience with some other authors across the spectrum of experience levels.

1 Comment

  • Congrats, Jon, and good observations. I wish I still had the stamina to pull off a whole book, but I find that it's hard enough these days to find the time to finish an article, much less a whole book (which definitely makes working with co-authors more appealing).

    I'm through about the first third of the new MVC book, and I'm quite enjoying it. You gents have done a fine job of keeping the tone consistent, and using the MVC Music Store throughout makes it easy to follow.

    And the use of NuGet to deliver the sample code is simply brilliant. Any bugs in the code, you all can simply update the packages. Wish that had been available for my books. Great stuff!

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