On writing a book

I recently started spending my spare time writing an agile software testing book with the intention to complete it and self publish it. But then I changed my mind. Here’s why: I don’t see any future in non-fiction1 books as we know them.

Why would you want to write a non-fiction books?

It’s a lot of work and so there must be some motivation:

  • You want to be famous: but with 1.85 million Amazon Kindle books currently for sale, yours will need to be pretty special to actually achieve this outcome.
  • You want to be rich: a typical traditional book earns the author about $1.50 in royalties. Even a Leanpub top selling self published eBook may have around 3000 readers at approx $8 commission per book which works out at about $24,000: probably not even commiserate to the time spent writing the book.
  • You want to share your knowledge: this is the big one, and the reason I want to write a book. But you have to remember that there are more public ways to share your knowledge besides writing a closed non-fiction book.

Writing a non-fiction book is essentially a waterfall process

My biggest gripe about writing a non-fiction book is that it is essentially a waterfall process. You spend a long time writing a book. You then spend more time editing it. You then get someone else to QA it (by which time you’ve probably lost interest). You then get it ‘published’ by finally ‘sending it to the printers’, whatever that means in this eBook age.

We all get why we shouldn’t build software in a big-bang waterfall style approach, so why should writing a non-fiction book be any different.

Leanpub tries to move away from the waterfall model

Leanpub goes a fair way towards solving the waterfall book problem by allowing authors to self publish non-complete non-fiction books as they are written. But the process of releasing updates is clunky, as it essentially means your readers need to download a complete new version of your eBook each time. And you get a single page to take comments/feedback for your entire in progress book.

So why not just blog instead?

I still believe that web blogging is still the best mechanism for writing non fiction material iteratively for easy consumption. It is not only indexed for search, but has in built support for distribution: RSS and email, as well as a way to solicit rapid contextual feedback. The downsides to blogging are it’s hard to offer a way for readers to provide monetary support, and hard to collate content together in neat package for consumption.

How about both?

I truly believe that knowledge should be free, available freely on the web for anyone to access, not tied up in a book. But, there are benefits of collating this information in an eBook as a distribution mechanism. If this package is then available to purchase, at whatever price the reader wishes to pay, then it allows the reader to pay for the convenience of collation/distribution or to thank the author for well written content.

My new book

My new agile software testing book will start with a collection of freely available blog posts which will eventually be bundled together into a Leanpub eBook in a convenient variety of formats for purchase at whatever price you wish to pay. That’s the future of publishing.

[1] I do believe there’s a future in authors writing and publishing fiction books in a waterfall fashion: I buy, borrow and read a lot of them and can see myself doing this for some time. I am not a believer in the piece meal approach to fiction, but this has been done in the past in the form of serials.

3 replies on “On writing a book”

I don’t think that e-readers will ever make traditional books obsolete — similarly to how vinyl is having a resurgence even in this era of high-bitrate mp3s and m4as, CDs, etc. You’re a good writer and an authority on both Agile testing and Watir. I think your efforts will be successful.

Clearly you have a lot of choices for the model you use when writing a book. I’m not sure what you have presented supports your theory that there is “no future” ion non-fiction books, but that is beside the point.

“You want to be famous”, but are worried that you would have to be pretty special to do so. Ok. But that’s nothing new. Clearly you realize that writing doesn’t automatically make one famous.

“You want to be rich”. Again, nothing new here that would indicate a change in the future of non-fiction.

“You want to share your knowledge”. This may be a somewhat valid point, in that there are now many new media mechanisms for sharing knowledge. But it sounds like you still want to end up with a book anyway, so I’m not sure how this is relevant.

“Writing a non-fiction book is essentially a waterfall process” It clearly doesn’t have to be this way. For example, you can post the current draft of your chapters here at any time you choose, and ask for “QA” to be done. Besides, just because you want to use a non-waterfall method for software, doesn’t automatically mean a waterfall-like process isn’t appropriate in non-software contexts.

If you want to write a book, you have lots of ways to get there. If you don’t want to write one, but want to spread information in a non-book format, you also have lots of ways to get there.

May I point your attention that area of non-fiction knowledge sharing is extremely wide. There simply is no single right method in this field! Even in computer science the thing could be anywhere in between extremes of a simple fact observation and scientific research on general subject. Let’s look at examples. Starting at the beginning of complexity scale and going up.

Simple, narrow subject. Valuable up to minute knowledge: “To go around a bug in IE do this and that”. Well suite to forum, social media.
Key points: very limited time spent on thought, a day or less. No collaboration is required to produce the knowledge.

Mid level: “Last month I spent on writing tests in cucumber and found the best approach to do bla bla”. Blog is an optimal for this level of knowledge sharing.
Key points: analysis that took few days or weeks, focused mainly on single subject or an aspect. A single thread collaboration is beneficial to get a clarity on that type of knowledge.

Quite complex subjects: “All you need to know about testing with XYZ framework”. You may start it as a blog but eventually will end up with Wiki + forum.
Key points: time consuming gathering of knowledge aspects (months or years), holds variety of views on relevant subjects. No way you can keep it static or collect it in single thread collaboration. You need a tool for dynamic knowledge and intensive collaboration.

One day you may ask yourself. Is there a limit for human knowledge? And here you go for writing a good book or few (non-fiction please ;). The subject surely can be different but key points remain: very time consuming analysis to get a knowledge, author vision benefited from experience and many collaborations. Simple examples: Death March by Edward Yourdon took a second print, Thinking in Java by Bruce Eckel had 4 editions.

Is there an end of time for the non-fiction books? Those “know how but don’t tell you unless you buy it” must go to the past. However good book is always a good one. Don’t give up and write a good book!

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