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>> Books available as PDF

Wed, Mar 4th 12:08pm 2009 >> Writing

When my first book was published in 2004 I made it available both as a printed edition and as a free PDF download, hoping that the PDF would be forwarded on by people and act as exposure for the book and in turn leading to more sales of the hard copy. I was wrong. And of course that meant my wife got to say "I told you so". The PDF was downloaded from the main book site something in the order of 10,000 times but that didn't seem to lead directly to many hard copy sales. It did sell OK, but mostly through bookstores specialising in business-oriented books and those sales didn't seem to have any particular correlation to its popularity as an e-book. So when the Second Edition came out I didn't make it available as an e-book at all, only as a hard copy. The first edition is still available for download and many people do, but the only way to buy the second edition has been to pay US$19.95 (plus shipping) for the printed version. Last night I noticed Wil Wheaton has been having great success with putting a couple of his books online as purchasable PDFs and it prompted me to give it another try, this time charging money for the PDF instead of just giving it away. So now, for your e-reading pleasure, you can now buy PDF versions of two of my books through Lulu: How To Build A Website And Stay Sane (Second Edition) Quickstart Guide to Google AdWords And so the great experiment of life continues.

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>> Got an interesting Arduino project?

Sun, Feb 15th 3:16pm 2009 >> Writing

We're in the brain-storming phase of working up a list of projects to feature in the proposed Arduino book and looking for as many suggestions as possible for things to feature. We want to have a wide range of projects from simple to complex, demonstrating a wide variety of techniques and interfacing with lots of different systems. We already have things on the list related to robotics, automotive systems, home automation, and other gadgets, but we need more, more, more! I know there are a bunch of people out there who have done some very cool stuff with Arduino boards (I'm looking at you, noisymime!) so if you have something you've built or even just an unimplemented idea please drop me an email.

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>> Arduino book in the works

Fri, Feb 13th 10:29am 2009 >> Writing

Well, after going through the whole process of working up a plan for a second edition of Ubuntu Hacks and lining up all the contributors it was given the axe by O'Reilly. That sucks, because I was looking forward to doing an update. I've had lots of people ask me when the next edition would be coming out so it's disappointing to tell them it's not going to happen after all, despite the first edition being O'Reilly's biggest selling Linux book. But then just after LCA I received an inquiry from APress totally out of the blue, asking if I'd like to write a book about Arduino projects. Hmmm, let me think. (3.14159 milliseconds pass) YES! Pick me! Pick me! I'm working on dragging Hugh into the adventure and it should be a blast. The general plan is to target a medium to advanced audience with a broad range of projects demonstrating as many techniques as possible, so there's probably going to be stuff about home automation, virtual reality integration, automotive projects, kinetic art, wearable computing, robotics, remote control vehicles, custom Arduino boards, and anything else we can think of. This is going to be *so* much fun!

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>> Writing a book, part 4: assisted self-publishing

Tue, Mar 11th 9:28pm 2008 >> Writing

In early 2007 I got to the point of needing another batch of How To Build A Website And Stay Sane printed: because I'd self-published it, I was doing all the printing myself and getting it bound in batches so I'd have stock to ship off to bookshops and sell directly to retail customers. That meant I had to pay out thousands of dollars personally every time a batch needed printing / binding, which I then slowly made back (with a small margin) as the batch was sold. That sucked financially, and at the time that I needed more copies in early 2007 I simply didn't have thousands of dollars handy to cover the up-front costs of another batch. So I went looking for alternative production methods. What I found were a bunch of "vanity publishers" that will publish your book for a fixed fee, no questions asked. They take care of assigning you an ISBN, designing the cover and internal layout, listing your title with Books In Print, and printing copies as required to supply to retailers. The up-front costs vary dramatically but a typical package might be about $600 for which you also get a few copies of the book yourself, and you can order copies of your own book at a discount. That was closer to what I wanted, but still not quite there. I didn't want to pay a big fee up-front to have them do all the design work etc. I just wanted someone to do print-on-demand (called "POD" in the industry) so I wouldn't have to print copies of the book in batches and be out of pocket. Something else I wanted was someone to act as a US-based distributor. A major issue I overlooked in my post about DIY self-publishing is that places like and B&N simply won't carry books that don't have a US distributor, so if you self-publish in Australia it's pretty much impossible to ever have your book listed on Amazon. As a result the first edition of Stay Sane could only be ordered online directly from me, and that's a problem I also wanted to fix. I don't want to sound like a sales pitch for them, but in the end the best place I found for my particular requirements was a mob called Lulu. They're kinda like a vanity publisher, but with a very smooth and highly automated process that allows them to offer their service with no up-front fee because it pushes responsibility for book design onto the customer. Rather than having a package for say $600 that includes design, layout, an ISBN, distribution, and 10 "free" copies, they instead separate everything out into optional extras. You can sign up for $0, create a "project" (book), upload a PDF of the internal pages (following specific guidelines such as embedded fonts), design the cover using either your own artwork or theirs, set the retail price, and make the book available for order. At that point it's still cost $0. You can then buy copies of your own book at a discounted price direct from the Lulu site and allow members of the public to do the same at retail price, and royalties are periodically credited to you. If you want more features, such as an ISBN so that it can be listed in Books In Print and made available via Amazon, you just pay an extra fee to Lulu and it's all taken care of. The general Lulu approach is to provide a self-service infrastructure that takes care of all the sucky, annoying bits about self-publishing so you don't have to care about them. It's like having a menu of publishing tasks and just picking the ones you want. That was all fine and well, but I couldn't just transfer my existing ISBN to Lulu and go on as before. To have them listed as the publisher / distributor the book had to be re-published with one of their ISBNs, so I took that as an excuse to do a major update and release the Lulu version as the Second Edition. I ticked every option I could find and paid for a distribution package, and after a little while the book appeared on, Barnes & Noble, and all the other usual online retailers. One downside is that the printing options available are fairly limited. Obviously Lulu need their system to work hands-off from their point of view, so it's very much a "select the option and click 'next'" process as you work through the publishing wizard and there's no room for major creativity. In the first edition of Stay Sane I did all the internal printing myself with a colour die-sub printer, so it was full-colour throughout and printed on very smooth heavyweight low-acid satin-finish paper. There was no way I could get the same print quality through Lulu, at least not at a sane price, so the Second Edition looks far more down-market than the First Edition did. Because I didn't have to do everything myself though I could make the retail price lower so it worked out OK in the end. The other downside is that the combination of print-on-demand + international shipping is really slow, and the shipping costs are high. From the time an order is placed in Australia it can be 2 weeks or so before the book arrives if you order it direct from Lulu. Luckily some retailers like pre-order a few copies so although it takes a long time for them to replenish their stock, as long as they have stock on hand they can get your book shipped out within hours instead of weeks. With those little annoyances in mind, overall I'm pretty impressed by the whole Lulu approach. It's meant that I can simply stop caring about a lot of the things that used to be annoying about self-publishing. If you have a book written already and sitting in your computer it's literally only about an hour of work to have your book available online for sale with an ISBN assigned. Knowing personally how much pain it is to achieve that end result manually, I'm very impressed that Lulu have managed to automate the process to such an incredible degree. As you can tell I've turned into quite a fan! A little while ago I started writing a brief AdWords guide for the benefit of some of my clients. It's the sort of thing that's created internally by businesses all the time: it's pretty common for tech businesses to produce white papers, technology briefs, product documentation, etc, etc. Typically they're written by an anonymous staff member and printed up on a laser printer, then comb-bound or wire-bound in batches. In slightly more up-market projects it'll be printed and perfect-bound (butted and glued, like a typical novel) with a glossy cover. But with my previous good experience with Lulu I decided that this time rather than going down the typical DIY path I'd just create a new Lulu project, upload the PDF, and end up with a proper book at the end. In fact it was *less* work to create the guide as a "real" book with an ISBN through Lulu than if I'd had it printed and bound locally! And now rather than being just another piece of corporate writing, I have another book that I can add to the list. Unless I had very specific requirements I certainly wouldn't go the whole-hog DIY self-publishing approach again when there are places like Lulu that can take so much of the pain away. Next installment: writing tools

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>> Writing a book, part 3: trade publishing

Fri, Mar 7th 2:15pm 2008 >> Writing

All writers want to have their work published by a large commercial publishing house, of course, if only because it means they don't have to go through all the pain of DIY self-publishing! I suspect that many writers who have only had their work trade-published don't appreciate just how much work goes into the publishing process, but it's quite significant. I was lucky enough to work with tech publisher O'Reilly on my second book, Ubuntu Hacks. For me there were three major advantages to being trade-published. The first is that almost all the work other than the actual writing was done for me. My editor defined the project timetable and made sure everything stayed on track, and brought in technical and copy editors at the appropriate times. I didn't have to worry about the ISBN, or internal page layout, or cover design, or submitting to Books In Print. I just had to write. But how well this works for you is dependent on how good (= organised) your editor is. I've worked with a quite a few different editors on various projects and they've varied from average to awesome. The worst ones don't communicate well and it's necessary to keep pushing them to find out what needs to happen next, while the best ones stay in constant contact and give you good visibility into the process so there are no surprises and you always feel that you know what is expected of you. Brian Jepson (the editor for Ubuntu Hacks) falls fully into the "awesome" category. The second advantage is that I got a bit of money up front rather than having to fork out thousands of dollars of my own cash just to get started. A typical author contract is based around royalties as a percentage of the cover price, which could be (for example) in the region of 10%. My royalties for Ubuntu Hacks were 4.1% (if I recall correctly) of cover price because it was split proportionally with the other authors. Yes, you need to sell a *lot* of copies to actually make decent money out of writing a book! The contract will also stipulate an "advance", which is pre-payment for royalties not yet earned. The amount of the advance is based on the publisher's estimation of how well the book is likely to sell, and effectively has to be earned back ("paid out") by actual sales before you will receive any other payments. In effect it's as if your publisher has given you a loan on the basis of books they think will be sold, and they then repay themselves from the actual sales until the debt is cleared. According to my contract with O'Reilly the sales figures are calculated quarterly with royalty payments made quarterly in arrears, which meant it was a full 6 months after publication before the first sales started offsetting the advance I had been paid. And you don't even get paid full royalties for all sales because the publisher assumes there will be a certain percentage of books returned unsold from retailers, so each royalty statement includes withholdings as a percentage of royalties. Those withholdings values are later corrected against actual returns for the period and then any difference in your favour is paid in a subsequent royalty cycle, so for some copies of the book sold it can be a *really* long time before you see a single cent for them! And if the publisher overestimates the popularity of your book the advance may never be earned out, in which case it will be the only money you ever see from them. The third huge advantage of being trade-published was promotion, which is probably the hardest part of the whole job of creating a successful book. A title listed by a major publisher will automatically be ordered by a large number of retailers, giving you shelf-space exposure that is almost impossible to get as a self-publisher. Ubuntu Hacks sold very respectably and moved around 10,000 copies within a surprisingly short time. There is absolutely no way those numbers could ever have been achieved by me as a self-publisher even if the book had been exactly the same. The pulling power of a name like O'Reilly is enormous. The result was that my advance was earned out by sales within the first quarter or so, which was fantastic. Not enough to make me rich, but still nice. The writing tools you use when working with a trade publisher may be quite different to what you would use personally. Collaboration on large text documents is a big pain: features such as change tracking and comments can be really awkward but are necessary if you want to share text around between yourself, editors, and other writers. I worked as a tech reviewer on Linux Desktop Hacks, and for that project each hack was saved as a separate Word document with change tracking activated. Files were punted around all over the place by email: not fun at all. The view of the document also becomes really confusing with lots of text in different colours all over the place, only some of which is actually the text of the book. For Ubuntu Hacks we used a really cool O'Reilly tool called Aardvark, which is a wiki-based environment with a formally imposed structure to match the section/chapter/hack format of the book. Everything stayed in one place and tracking changes was easy because that's what Wikis are really good at. I tended to work with local text files as the starting point for each hack and did all the writing in Vim, then pasted blocks of text into Aardvark as I went so it could be checked over by the various levels of editorial review. Aardvark abstracts the process of writing from the process of applying formatting and page layout, which is exactly how it should be. It's painfully slow but overall I really liked working with it. Aardvark helps O'Reilly create the Rough Cuts electronic preview versions of titles as they are still being written: their internal pre-press process allows them dump the raw content from Aardvark in a structured way and pour it into standard templates, with a neatly formatted book coming out the other end. At periodic intervals during the writing phase the editor would send out an email saying "we're doing a Rough Cuts take at 3pm on Friday" or similar, and at that point they'd click the big button and make it happen. Whatever state the text happened to be in at that moment in time was exactly how it ended up in the Rough Cut PDF, including all my FIXME messages and notes. Really slick. The huge difference with trade publishing is that once you've finished writing, you're done. All you have to do is sit back with a cold drink and relax, and in a few weeks a box arrives containing a dozen or so copies of your book to show off to family and friends. You get to say "it looks just like a real book!" when showing it to your friends, and to feel like an imposter when people introduce you as an author, and to feel like a rockstar when people ask you to sign their copy. It's all quite surreal for a while. But you get over it. Next installment: the assisted self-publishing process.

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>> Writing a book, part 2: DIY self publishing

Thu, Mar 6th 11:40pm 2008 >> Writing

DIY self-publishing is where you do everything yourself, which is what I did for the first edition of How To Build A Website And Stay Sane. And when I say everything, I mean *everything*. The actual writing is just the start of it. I'm not going to go into the process and techniques of writing: that's a huge topic in itself, so I'll gloss over what is probably the single biggest task and assume that when you sit down at your computer the words just flow out. What follows is typically three stages or types of editing: structural editing, technical editing, and copy editing. Structural editing takes a macroscopic view of the text and ensures that the overall sequence provides a logical flow, and that necessary content is included and unnecessary content excluded. It can involve moving large chunks of text around until everything fits where it should. Technical editing (or technical review) generally involves having subject experts look over your work to pick up any mistakes and make suggestions about alternative approaches. Copy editing takes a microscopic view of the text to check every sentence for correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. When the writing approached completion I printed hard copies, put them in folders, and distributed them to about 12 people to review. As it turned out the only feedback I received was a couple of off-the-cuff comments - I suspect that being landed with a heavy folder full of text was a bit daunting, and unless people are paid to do it they won't bother. In the end I did all the writing, structural editing, fact checking, and copy editing myself, going over the text so many times I thought my eyes would bleed. I still missed quite a few problems: it's almost impossible to edit your own work because when you are reading text that you wrote yourself your brain will tend to interpret the words as you intended to write them, not as you actually wrote them! After that you have to do the internal page layout. I wrote How To Build A Website And Stay Sane entirely in over the space of a couple of years, taking screenshots as I went and trimming them with GIMP. In fact it took me so long to write that during the course of writing I took screenshots with 4 different browsers and several different window managers on two different Linux distributions, and when I got to the end I had to go back and retake them all so they were consistent! I did the book's internal layout directly in as well, using its very cool style management system extensively so that I could apply changes globally rather than applying text-level formatting. One mistake I made was to start the formatting too soon and do the writing in a visual mode, with the document formatted as I thought it would finally appear. That gave a sense that I was writing a real book, but the problem was that the formatting dictated the text in some cases. I modified some chapters that ran over a page break by only a few words so they would fit the page size more neatly, for example, when I should have ignored formatting while writing. In fact later after the formatting was altered those chapters would have fit neatly anyway, so ultimately the text was compromised for formatting that wasn't used. Bad move. At this point I needed an ISBN for the book so it could be entered into the central Books In Print database, so I registered with Thorpe-Bowker as a publisher and applied for the minimum block of ISBNs. With the ISBN issued and the barcode generated I paid a designer a few hundred dollars to do the cover design, and had a few hundred copies of the cover printed by a local printing house on matt laminated cardstock. I spent about $3500 on a very nice die-sublimation printer with a duplexer, bought some expensive 100gsm high-brightness paper, and printed 100 copies of the internal pages. I then took the pages and the covers to a large printing house where they were bound and trimmed. At that point I had boxes full of the actual physical book, so the final step was getting the bibliographic data into Books In Print so that a month or two later it would be visible in bookstore databases. I also sent copies to the state and national libraries as required of all publishers. You'd think that's the end, but it's just the beginning. Next the book needed to be promoted, payment terms negotiated with bookstores (who expect at least a 40% discount off retail), invoices generated, and orders processed, packed and shipped. I'm exhausted just remembering it. Next installment: the trade publishing process.

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>> Writing a book: basics

Thu, Feb 28th 11:31pm 2008 >> Writing

My old conference pal Alec the Geek said to me a few days ago that it could be interesting to do a post on the process of writing a book: what's actually involved in going from a raw concept to grinning goofily at friends and family as you show them the finished product. There's a lot to it and I've seen remarkably little posted on the subject, particularly considering that so many of my friends and conference aquaintances have been through it at various stages, some of them multiple times. I'd have expected to see a bit more about it even just in passing. So to satisfy Alec's curiosity I'll have a go. It's a pretty big subject though so it'll probably end up as a series of posts. So let's start with the different publishing processes. You might think this would be the very last thing to think about, but it determines the entire process of writing from beginning to end so you need to be aware of it right from the start. I've been through the book-writing process three different ways (DIY self-published, trade published, and assisted-self-published) and they're all totally different. Of course everyone who thinks about writing a book wants it to be trade-published by a big name company: there's an incredible feeling of validation when a publisher says they want to publish your work. But getting a publisher to take you on is also incredibly hard if you don't already have a track record, and therein lies the rub. You can't get a publisher without a track record, and you can't get a track record without getting your work out there somehow. Think about the career path of a successful musician. They don't just sit around in their bedroom practicing in private and then one day out of the blue start calling major record labels looking for a deal, expecting to be signed up for a world tour playing to massive stadiums on their debut and receiving a huge signing bonus. But that's exactly what a lot of would-be authors expect. Publishers have to shift a lot of copies on quite small margins for a title to be financially viable, and as a result they don't like to gamble on unknowns. So be realistic about what you want to achieve and what your reasons are for wanting to write a book. Not all musicians get fat contracts and play to packed stadiums and have their cardboard cutout displayed in the foyer at every Sanity store, and not all writers have a publishing deal that gets their book displayed cover-out in every bookshop and airport lounge on the planet and discussed on Oprah's Book Club. You have to work up to that sort of thing and it can take a really long time or (far more likely) never happen at all. That doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile being an unpublished musician or writer. You just have to treat it as a journey, not a single step from beginner to expert. What do indie musos do when they're trying to get their name out and build a fanbase? Play local gigs and record demo tapes (or CDs, or MP3s) and practice their craft. For a writer it's exactly the same. You have to submit stories to whoever will print them, give away your work and develop a reputation. I did that for years, submitting articles to all sorts of places: one of the biggest boosts I got early on was regularly submitting stories for linmagau, a short-lived online Linux magazine created by Kimberly Shelt in Perth. I was fortunate enough to provide a couple of stories that more due to timeliness than my writing ability brought in an incredible number of readers, which made Kim extremely receptive to anything else I wanted to submit. I jumped on the opportunity and submitted articles faster than she could publish them, and then leveraged my way into other publications from there. And like a muso recording their first tracks in a home studio then burning CDs and giving them away at parties or selling them at local gigs, you can produce, print and give away or sell your early work directly yourself. Yes, that hated term with all the stigma attached: self-publishing. This post is way too long already so I'll continue with a follow-up post in a day or two with the differences between DIY self-publishing, trade publishing, and assisted self-publishing.

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>> How to write a book in 2 hours

Sat, Jun 30th 11:03pm 2007 >> Writing

Well, not quite, but close! A while ago Neil Evenden (my Business Development Manager) came up with a plan to turn my first book into a 3-book series. His concept was that since the first book covered the business and process issues of having a website created for a business, it would be logical to follow on with a sequel that talks about growing an existing website into a thriving online business. Then a third book could go even further again, and cover deep integration of online tools with internal business processes. The first book was called "How To Build A Website And Stay Sane" so the obvious title for the second one is "How To Grow Your eBusiness And Stay Sane". Tonight I wanted to take a bit of a break from the Second Life book I'm working on, so I thought I'd see just what would be involved in putting together Grow Your eBusiness. Rough out a structure, see what material I'd need, that sort of thing. Just get a feel for how it might come together. So I created a skeleton and started trawling through previous articles from Jon Oxer's eBusiness News to see if there was any material I could repurpose, and after a couple of hours of copy/paste and some initial trimming I had 154,000 words compiled! Amazing. 2 hours work and it's further progressed than the Second Life book I've been working on for a couple of months. If you don't count all the time spent writing those articles in the first place, of course ;-)

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