Sunday, December 26, 2010

Writing Books, pt IV

Okay, by now, you've probably/likely decided to write that book, and that you've opted to do so through a publisher to get it on the bookshelves and onto Kindles and other ereaders. Remember, this isn't the only way to get something published, but it is one of the only ways to get your book published and have someone else take care of getting it on shelves and in front of your intended audience through Amazon, etc. Your alternatives include self-publishing through sites like, or simply writing your "book" and printing your manuscript to a PDF file, rather than a printer. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but we're going to go with the assumption that you'll be working with a publisher.

Working with the publisher
When you're working with the publisher, don't set your expectations (at all, or too high) of what that's like ahead of time. Remember, the publisher's staff are people, too, and may be working with multiple authors. You very likely won't be the only author that they're working with, nor the only schedule. In addition, remember that in the current economy many people are wearing multiple hats in their the editor you're dealing with may not get your email because they're traveling or at a book show. I've worked with staff who, in 2009/2010, do not have remote access to their email (can you imagine that??), so I won't hear back from them for weeks at a time.

While working with the publisher, I've had editors and even editors assistants changed part way through the writing process. The result was that chapters that I had sent in for review could no longer be found. I know this sounds like a bit much, but keep track of what you send in, when, and to whom. This can really help...particularly in instances where you have to resend things.

One of the things I've run into several times is that I've submitted what I thought was everything...DVD contents, revised chapters, etc...and asked the staff I was working with if everything was received, and if I needed to provide anything else. I'd been told, no, that's everything...only to be contacted three weeks later and told that something else was needed (review the proofs, provide a bio, etc.). The key to this is to see what's in other books, and keep a list of what you've provided...have you written a preface yet? A bio? How about that acknowledgment or the dedication page?

In short, be flexible. Focus on meeting your schedule in the contract. If you're not going to meet the schedule for some reason, do the professional thing and let them know ahead of time. Don't worry about what anyone else does or is doing. In the long run, it'll help.

Working with reviewers
When you're working with reviewers, keep in mind what their role is in the process. They're generally there to review your work, so don't take what they say or comment on personally.

There are generally two kinds of reviewers...those who do the grammar, spelling and formatting review for the publisher (they tend to work for the publisher), and those who are supposed to review your work from a technical perspective, to ensure that it's accurate (although why you'd put that amount of time into writing something that is completely off base, I have no idea). Generally speaking, whatever the grammar/spelling reviewer suggests is probably advisable to accept. However, this won't always be the case, particularly when you've written a turn of phrase that you really want to use, or are using acronyms specific to your field. I remember that I had an issue with the acronym "MAC"...did it refer to file "MAC" times, or to a NIC's "MAC" address? Kind of depended on the chapter and context.

As far as your technical reviewers go, that's another story. There's no reason that you have to accept any of their proposed changes, or follow what their comments say. Hey, I know that's kind of blunt, but that's the reality of it. In every book I've worked on, to my knowledge, the technical reviewer has had no prior contact with me, my book proposal, or my thought process prior to getting my draft chapters. Therefore, they are missing a great deal of context...and in some cases, their comments have made little sense when you consider the overall scope and direction of the book.

For some reason, the publishing process seems to be something of a maze of Chinese walls. You get an author who's writing a technical book, working with a publisher who knows publishing, but not the subject that's being addressed. One person reviewing the book and working for the publisher knows spelling, grammar, and formatting, and that's good...but often times, the technical reviewer may not know a great deal about the subject being addressed, and knows nothing at all about the author, the goals and direction of the book, or much in the way of overall context. In my mind, this is just a short-coming of the process, and something that you need to keep in mind. I've worked with a LOT of folks with respect to writing technical reports, and there are generally two things that most folks do with suggested changes and comments...they either accept them all unconditionally, or they delete and ignore them. I would suggest that when you are going through the document that you receive back from the technical reviewer, make your changes and add your own comments to theirs, justifying your actions. Then save the document, copy it, and (if it's written in MSWord) run the copy through the document inspection process, accepting the edits and removing comments. That way, you have a clean copy to send back, but you also have a clear record of what was suggested and what you chose to do about it.

Another thing to keep in mind is that people have varying schedules...if you submit a couple of chapters and you feel that you aren't getting much in the way of a review, or one that's technical, get in touch with the editor and request someone else. Or, suggest someone to them up front...after all, if you really know the subject that you're writing about, you will likely know someone else in the field who (a) knows enough about it to review your work, (b) has the time to do a good review, and (c) has the interest in working with you. I've had folks offer to review my work completely aside from the publisher...that's okay, too, but it also means you may submit a chapter and not hear back at all. Remember, in the technical field, you don't make enough money to support yourself writing books, so neither writing nor reviewing books is a full-time job, and people have day jobs, too.

Working with co-authors

Writing a book as the sole author can be tough, as it is a lot of work...but I think that writing a book as multiple authors, particularly when none of the authors ever actually sit in a room together, is much harder. There are a lot of decisions that need to be made and coordinated ahead of time, and continually revisited throughout the process. Again, writing books in this field is NOT a full-time such, people's day jobs and lives tend to take precedence. Family illness, holidays, vacations, etc., all play a role in the schedule that needs to be worked out ahead of time.

Another thing to consider is that someone has to take the lead on tone...or not. You need to decide early on what the division of labor will be (split up chapters or sections), and whether or not you feel it's important to have a single tone throughout the book. There will be times when it makes sense to have a single tone, and there will be other times when it's pretty clear that you aren't going to have a single tone, as the various authors take the lead on the chapters for which they have the most expertise in the subject matter.

Providing Materials With Your Book
I'm one of those folks who writes some of my own code, and I tend to create my own tools, whether they be a batch file or a Perl script. As such, it's helpful to others if I make those tools available to them in some manner, and this is often done by putting those tools on a CD or DVD included with the book. I think that a lot of times, this increases the value of the book, but it can also be a bit difficult to deal how you provide the materials is something to consider up front. Another item that a lot of folks find interesting and very valuable is "cheat sheets"...if you list or explain a process in your book, and it covers a good portion of a chapter, it might be a good idea to provide a cheat sheet that the reader can print out (perhaps modify to meet their own needs) and use. How you intend to provide these, and other materials (i.e., videos that show the viewer how to do something step-by-step, etc.) is something that you need to consider ahead of time.

The point is that if there are materials you're going to refer to in your book, you have to figure out ahead of time how you're going to provide them. In my experience, there's two ways you can do this...provide the materials on the DVD that comes with the book, or provide them separately. I have usually opted to provide the materials on a DVD, but after having written a couple of books, I think I'm going to move to something completely separate, and provide the materials online.

I have decided to do this for a couple of reasons. One is that there's always someone out there who ends up purchasing a copy of the book that mysteriously doesn't have a DVD. Or they loose the DVD. Or they leave it at home or at work, when they need it in the other location. Then there's the folks who purchase ebooks for their Kindle or other ereader, and never got the email that says, "...go here to download additional content." Or they did, but the publisher modified their infrastructure so now the instructions or path aren't valid. And, of course, there's always the person who's going to contact you directly because they want to ensure that they have the latest copy of the materials.

My thinking is that a lot of these issues can be avoided if you choose a site like Google Code or something else that is appropriate (and relatively stable/permanent) for hosting your additional materials. That way, you can control what's most up-to-date and not have to rely on someone else's schedule for that. You can refer to the actual tools (and other materials) in the book, so that having the book itself makes the tools more valuable, but by providing them on the web, you can include "here are the absolute latest, newest, most up to date copies" on the page where the reader will go to download those tools.

Blogging is a great way to get started and get the feel for writing, without the constraints of editing (and things like spelling, grammar, etc.). Face it, some folks don't take criticism of any kind well, and don't put a great deal stock in checking their own spelling and blogging is sort of a way to get into writing without having someone looking over your shoulder. It's also a great way for some folks to realize how important that sort of thing is.

Blogging is also a great way to self-market your book, prior to and following publication. It's a great way to start talking about the book, to answer questions that you get about your book and materials, address errata, etc. In some ways, a blog can also lay the groundwork for a second edition, or even just for your next effort, as you get feedback, read reviews, post new ideas, etc. For example, if you start to see that your book on forensic analysis is linked to another blog on malware reverse engineering, with that author making comments about what you've written (positive or negative), that could be a good indicator for you...what do you need to improve on, expand on, and what were you dead on with in your book?

Take the lead on marketing your book. Present the publisher with ideas, and take the lead on getting the word out there (assuming that that's what you want). When WFA 2/e was coming out, I was excited because this was the first book in a new direction that Syngress was going, something that was exemplified by the new cover design. That summer, the SANS Forensic Summit was going to be in Washington, DC, and I was attending as a speaker. As I looked more and more into the conference, and who was speaking and attending, I counted almost half a dozen Syngress authors who would be there, all of whom had the work "forensics" in their book title. I contacted the publisher to find out if they'd have a bookstore...I thought, between sessions I could answer questions about the book. Well, it turns out that they had NO PLANS for a bookstore!! I thought (and said to them), you've GOT to be kidding me! Here's a conference with "forensics" in the title, and all these authors of "forensics" books will be me, it was a total marketing coup. The short story is that the editor was there with books on a table and it was a huge success for everyone.

Final Thoughts...
And now, some final thoughts as I close out this series of posts.

I hope that in reading these posts, you've enjoyed them and at the same time gotten something out of them. I tend to take something of a blunt approach, in part because I don't want to sugarcoat things for someone who's considering writing a technical book. Yes, it is hard...but if you know up front what you may be facing, you're less likely to let it slow you down. One of the hardest things about writing books is that you're rarely, if ever, face-to-face with anyone from the publisher's staff when discussing your book. In fact, you're rarely face-to-face with anyone throughout the process.

One of the misconceptions a lot of folks who have never written a book have about authors is that they retain some modicum of control over what happens with the book once it's submitted to the printer. Nothing could be further from the truth. When WFA 1/e was released by Syngress, a PDF version of the book was available...for the first couple of weeks, it was provided with each copy of the book purchased through the Syngress web site. After that, it was available for purchase. Later, Syngress was purchased by Elsevier, a company out of Europe that produced all e-format versions of its books EXCEPT PDF. The author's role in any of that, particularly in the availability of a PDF version of their book, is zero. And I say that only because there's nothing less than zero.

Another misconception that I've run across is that most folks think that book authors have access to endless resources, or that somehow, the publishing company will provide those resources. This simply isn't the case. When I submitted the proposal for the Registry forensics book, all of the reviews came back saying that I needed to include discussion of the use of commercial tools, such as EnCase and FTK. Well, the short answer was "no"; the long answer was that I neither have access to, nor have I been able to obtain a temporary license for either...and none of the reviewers was offering such a license. In all fairness, I will say that I was offered a temporary license to one of the commercial tools, but by the time that offer was available, I was too far into the writing process to go back and add that work and material into the book. I would have been particularly time consuming because I don't use those tools regularly. Anyway, my point is that when I have written my books, I tend to do so based on my own experiences, or those interesting experiences that others have shared. I tend not to write about ediscovery, because I've never done it. I likely won't be writing about Registry analysis of a Windows-powered car or Windows 7 phone, because I neither own nor have access to either, nor do I have the tools available to work with either. Like most authors, I don't have access to massive data centers for testing various operating systems and application installations across numerous configurations.

Keep in mind that your book is not going to be everything to everyone. You're going to have critics, and you're also going to have "armchair quarterbacks". You're going to have people who post to public forums that you "should've done this...", and not once have a good thing to say about your work. You're going to have folks who will email you glowing commendations for what you've done, but not post them publicly...even when they purchased your book based on a publicly-posted review. Don't let any of this bother you. One of my good friends who's also written a book has received some not-so-glowing criticism, to which he's responded, "...come see me when you've published a book." In short, don't let criticism get you down, and don't let it be an obstacle that prevents you from writing in the first place.

Finally, I want to say once again that writing technical books is tough. It's tough enough if you're a single person and not at all used to writing. If you're married (particularly newly married) and/or have small children, it can be logarithmically harder, and it will require even more discipline to write. However, it can also be extremely rewarding. Seeing your work published and sitting on a bookshelf is very rewarding. Think about've completed and achieved something that few others have attempted. If you've put the effort in and done the best you can, you should take pride in what you've done...and don't let the little things becomes insurmountable obstacles that prevent you from even trying.

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