Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing Books, pt II

So far, the first post in this series seems to have done well. Next, we'll talk about something that's very important toward getting a book published...the publisher.

Finding/choosing a publisher
Once you've gotten through the recommendations in my first post in this series, it's time to start thinking about a publisher. Remember what I said, though...as much as those of us in technical fields hate writing (some to the point of doing it badly so that they don't have to do it...), doing those things that I mentioned in the previous post are only going to help you in the long run. This is, in part, due to the fact that the publisher is going to make you do it anyway. Now, I'm sure that this is also going to be where most folks falter in their efforts...not realizing how much effort is required (I say "effort" instead of "work", due to the fact that a lot of what goes into this process is outside the norm and comfort zones of what most of us do...), some folks will start down the road and not just stop, however unintentionally, when asked to provide something else. Consider it something akin to special operations forces evaluation or assessment programs...the publishers really want to know who has the desire to stick with the process. They aren't throwing up ridiculous obstacles...they're just stating the needs of their process, and I'm sure it weeds out a lot of the folks that aren't serious and would just consume a great deal of their time and resources.

Some publishers, such as Syngress, actively advertise for authors. When I say "actively", I mean on their web site, as well as on social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. We'll talk later about how you can use those sites, as well...but suffice to say for the moment that some publishing companies are taking full advantage of social media sites.

Now, I've only worked with two publishing companies, and for the most part, there were really no significant differences between the initial contracts (more about that later in the post) for either one of them. The only real difference was in the advance payment amount. Remember, you don't get into writing technical books to make money...and the advances come out of your initial royalties. After publishing my first book, I had another idea (to take the things I learned from writing that first book and write something a bit better), and had to provide my first publisher with their right of first refusal (this was stated in the contract) for the new concept. Once this was done, I moved on to Syngress, and through chance and circumstance, I opted to remain with Syngress in part due to some positive experiences with some of the staff, as well as the fact that by proving I wasn't a one-trick pony, I was able to get a bit better percentages in my royalties.

When looking for a publisher, also consider what you're interested in. Who's going to market your book, and how are they going to do that? Will a marketing campaign consist of some mass emailings, or will there be more involved? What can you do to assist, or pick up the slack? Also, besides the actual book itself, in what other formats will the book be available? When the first edition of Windows Forensic Analysis came out, there was a PDF version of the book available. By the time I had written the second edition, Syngress had been purchased by Elsevier, and the second edition was available in several e-book formats...but not PDF. If this is something important to you, be sure that you ask the questions.

Remember, self-publishing is an option. However, before you go that route, be sure you thoroughly research what is involved. How much will you need to know about desktop publishing? How much effort do you need to put in and what will you get in return?

Another thing to consider if you self-publish is, how do the books get on the shelves? Hey, providing review copies to luminaries in your field is easy, thanks to FedEx. But if you handle the marketing of your book and generate hype, and then get some really amazing reviews from notable people in your profession, how do you then get the book to the people who want to buy it, or to those who don't yet know that they want to buy it?

I know someone who wrote a book, self-published through Lulu.com, and provides all proceeds from the book to benefit a fallen comrade. This was the route he chose, and he's happy with it. This may be a route that you will want to go...or it may not. On another note, I was in one of the Family Christian Bookstores recently and found a pamphlet on one of the shelves for Westbow Press...I know someone who feels led to write about an experience in her life, and this may be an approach that she can use to get her book published and share what she's learned with others.

That being said, let's get on with it...

Working with your publisher
Working with the publisher is going to be a new experience for many, unless you're used to working as a contractor, of sorts. What I'm going to share with you now is some things I saw and learned with respect to working with two specific publishers, in writing technical books. As such, if you're going another route, such as writing children's books or non-technical books, YMMV.

The contract
The contract will usually specify the schedule. This may be an area where you will want to negotiate...take a look at your outline and anything else you've written, and correlate it with the schedule. Is it attainable? Is it something you can manage, or will you have to give up weekends and take a "vacation" to complete the book? This effort is going to be enough of a challenge, without having to meet some arbitrary schedule...so see if what's proposed makes sense, and don't get locked into something that's going be really hard on you.

A word about royalties...again, you're not going to make money to the point of retiring if you're writing for a niche market, like forensics. That's just how it is. Therefore, that's usually not the reason that folks get into writing books, particularly technical books in this market. If your contract specifies an advance, remember that advance means "advance"...which means that whatever you're given in your advance comes out of your royalties checks. So don't get disappointed if during the first quarter or six months your book seems to be doing really well, and your first royalties check is 0, or negative.

The keys to any contract are:
1. Read it thoroughly and make sure you understand it. Discuss anything you don't understand or have a problem with.

2. Don't expect that the publisher has it all locked on and is doing everything right...publishers are people, too, and we all make mistakes, like send the wrong contract or don't include things that had been discussed.

3. Make sure you understand and agree with the schedule. If you don't agree, get on the phone with the publisher and work it out. Publishers have schedules for when they'd like to get the book out, so try to work with them on that.

4. If you have questions about anything, or don't understand something...ask. Before you sign.

When working with the publisher, you'll likely be provided with a template that specifies how the chapters should look. I've had templates that were really loose, while others were really stringent and specified a certain number of sidebars per chapter (among other things). It will help you a great deal in the long run if you get to know the template up front, and begin using it and abiding by it right away. Believe me, I know from experience that going back and restructuring an 80+ page chapter is NOT a pleasurable experience. Using and following the template from the beginning is going to be helpful to not just your overall writing experience, but also for everyone else involved.

However, that doesn't mean that as you're putting your detailed outline together, you can't start writing. In fact, I highly recommend that you do...start putting something down on paper. Throughout my time in the military...whether I was writing my master's thesis, or fitness reports, or whatever...I always found it much easier to write something and change it as I needed to, rather than sitting there staring at a blank page, waiting for the perfect turn of phrase to come to mind (which is a fancy way of saying "writer's block"). Even now, I have snippets written down for a project I have in mind...returning to those snippets will likely be the push I need to get that project off the ground and completed.

Reviewers and reviews
At some point, your chapters are going to have to be reviewed by someone; in many cases, several someones. There will be a reviewer who works for the publisher who will review your format (to ensure that it is in accordance with the template), grammar, spelling, etc. This reviewer will likely pick up things such as unfinished sentences, your horrific spelling, etc. It usually makes good sense to accept what they say (particularly if you're not too terribly good at spelling or grammar), and make most of the changes that they suggest. However, take a really close look at technical acronyms, and consider the reviewer's suggestions...acronyms specific to your field might be easily confused. I had an issue with "MAC"...depending upon the context, it could refer to the file "MAC" times, or to a "MAC" address.

There will also be someone who is a "technical reviewer", who is perhaps someone in your field and hopefully has some knowledge about your subject matter. Their job is to take a look at what you've written and see if it's correct and makes sense. Now, just because the technical reviewer makes a comment or suggestion, that doesn't mean that you have to make the change. I've had some really good reviewers, and some really bad ones. The bad ones were easy to recognize as they provided nothing of value to what had been written, and I would usually suggest to the publisher that they replace the reviewer. In fact, if you can, and you know someone that you can trust to be honest with you, provide their name to the publisher, rather than letting the publisher pick someone out for you. I've also had really good reviewers who've run every tool and every command I mention, noted differences in platforms, etc. However, if you get technical reviews back that say nothing more than "needs work", or "hey, this is a cool idea...", it's probably best to find someone else.

Once your book is published, getting reviews from folks in the field is a great idea. When WFA 1/e was published, 101 copies were sent to folks deemed by the publisher to be "in the industry" (most of whom I did not recognize) with the expectation that many (or some) of them would write reviews. None did. When WFA 2/e was published, I provided a list of about 25 folks (that I had already contacted) to the publisher, and they were provided copies of the book. Almost all of them have written reviews.

Marketing your book yourself is a great idea, and there's nothing to stop you from doing this...in some cases, you may be more familiar with industry and how to get "the word" out better than the publisher's marketing staff. In most cases, they have a set program that they follow, and you can follow a sort of "guerrilla marketing" plan. Using social networking sites and any lists you're on and forums you frequent, talk about your book and what's in it. Reference the publisher's page and the Amazon page for your book, and post the cover art graphic where it makes sense to do so.

Like I said, reviews are good, as they help with marketing your book. If you can get someone well-known and well-respected within the community to write a review of your book, and it's positive (yeah, no kidding, right?), then that's going to be the little push that gets someone who's heard about your book and is sitting on the fence to purchase it. If the reviews are posted to Amazon, that's a great site to reference. Blogging and posting links to reviews on other sites is also good. Several years ago, Richard Bejtlich noted and documented a favorable shift in the "Amazon Bestsellers Rank" for his book following a review being posted on Slashdot.

Think about something that you've been interested in...a car, an e-reader, or anything else. If you have a choice, how does the recommendation of a trusted friend weigh in your decision? This is how reviews work. However, much like the technical review I mentioned above, a review that says, "hey, this is a good book" and little else really isn't much of a help. One way to get some of these really useful reviews is to establish relationships through professional networking before writing your book, or early on in the process of writing your book. Lots of folks out there are known to "trade" books and reviews with other authors...and really, there's nothing wrong with this. In fact, it's a great idea. I recently reviewed the Malware Analyst's Cookbook, which was not only a fount of information, but excellent for cross-pollination between what I do and what the author's do.


Stephanie Scheuermann said...

Thanks Harlan this was very helpful. I appreciate you taking the time to blog on this topic. I have building some material and considering putting it into a book.

H. Carvey said...


Very cool. Consider what I've written...the good Lord knows that I made mistakes and got angry over things I didn't like or understand.

One of the biggest things I could suggest is to get with someone you trust and have them take a look at what you've got in mind, etc.