Skip to: Site menu | Main content

Blog > Writing a book, part 3: trade publishing

>> 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.

Bookmark and Share