Some recent questions have been about writing, the process of writing and the benefit. I thought I’d take a look at them today
To the people who have written books... has this helped your career in anyway?
Others may post their feedback in the comments section, but for me — I’d have to say definitely yes for me personally but your mileage may vary. For me personally, it definitely increased my own visibility. In that regards, it did not “help” the career so much as “send it in a direction”. That point is subtle, the writing of a book changed my path. Is that good? Well, for me in hindsight, absolutely. I really enjoy what I get to do now. The books established a level of credibility, not just because I wrote them — but for what they contained. It is not just the very act of writing that makes it credible, it is the act of writing credible material that can be acted on.
But, one of the reasons for writing the first book was to see if I could. It did come with a certain sense of achievement after it was finished. I used to joke that my life had three phases — BB, DB and AB. Before Book, During Book, After Book. Just doing it, as part of the career itself, was a challenge.
All in all, if the material produced is quality material, I cannot see anyway this would hurt your career (as long as you don’t under perform at work while doing it of course!). It does not hurt the resume, it could lead to other opportunities, and it will expose your name to a broad range of people that might not otherwise have heard of you.
How much influence does the publisher have on the book?
This will vary by publisher I’m sure, and your current level of exposure. The process typically goes like this, you submit an outline and a concept. A little back and forth, maybe some market research, a lot of “gut feel” and a refinement here and there and you get accepted or not. So, now you have an outline — an outline isn’t very confining at all.
So you are free to write whatever you want, but the publisher will be sending it out to a technical review team for commentary. (I still feel sorry for a certain Java programmer who was trying to write a database book and had me as a technical reviewer — they did not get to write what they wanted, how they wanted — but I do think they learned something new about the database by the time they were done). The technical review team, as I’ve said before, if they are good will rip pieces of the work to shreds (that is their job). They probably have more influence than the publisher — simply because they are supposed to be subject matter experts in the field the book is on, whereas the publisher (editor) might not be.
The editor I work with knows quite a bit about Oracle now — but when we started, he didn’t. Still, he has never written code for money, so he has somewhat of an academic background in the technology only. That is why I rely on people that have written code, managed databases for money (it is their way of making a living) to review my material. They have a huge say in what is ultimately said in the book and how it is said.
But the publisher will want the general outline to be followed, the page counts to be what was estimated (that is hard, I just put “35” as the page count for every chapter myself — and hope some come up short to balance the ones that come up long)
How much say do the publishers have on deadlines?
Well, you sign a contract with them and the contract typically includes a delivery schedule. However… Well, you know how it goes. Basically, if you are the sole author they are sort of reliant on you to deliver and you can only type so fast. Now, they generally have clauses in there that would allow them to bring in other authors to finish or help — but you would have to be extremely late in order to have that kick in.
But you get to negotiate the time frame up front. They do not set it, you negotiate it. If you are not happy with it, you have the option of walking away. Don’t sign anything until you agree with it. Have a lawyer look at it (I did not, I was naive about it back in the beginning, a lawyer would have changed the wording of a thing or two and with WROX going out of business and the contract being sold — I would have liked the wording to have been changed. Hindsight is 20/20 though). And if the contract has an option for future works, meaning they have the right to publish your next 1 or 2 books, get that stricken from the contract immediately. Don’t even go there, don’t let them do that to you.
About sole authorship — I would recommend that if possible. It makes a more cohesive book all in all. The book I worked on with Sean Dillon and Chris Beck worked out so well only because we all sat within 20 feet of each other at work and play poker together. On a multi-author book, where the publisher is assembling the team, you might find the authors to be spread throughout the world, with radically different opinions on the best way to accomplish something. That leads to a book where chapter 4 contradicts what chapter 15 says to do and so on. And the different writing styles, examples, and so on will drive the reader nuts.
One question just for Tom, do you have any control over your Expert one on one book or do you sign over full control to the publisher when you write it?
I have a fair degree of input. Control is too strong a word, they own the “rights” to it, but I have lots of “artistic input”. Take the two volume approach — my suggestion (recently, after seeing near zero percent chance of finishing the entire thing before the fall). Their approval. The CD-ROM of the 8i book, my suggestion, their implementation. The content of the 9i/10g release — all about me, they cannot make me write that which I do not desire to write about.
So far, I’ve found (even when just beginning) the publisher tries to work with you. They do not necessarily have an agenda, they are somewhat reliant on us out here to know what is needed in the market to a degree.
What in your opinion is the hardest thing to do if you are a writer?
Besides write? For me, it is getting it started. On a thread in asktom, someone was asking how to get really good at SQL. They were looking for ways to practice. My response was “I cannot ‘practice’ SQL, or C, or PL/SQL, or PL/I or JCL or SAS or any of the technologies really”. I need a real problem to solve. Making up an excuse to use something is really hard. So, in writing the book — coming up with the proper examples is perhaps the hardest part. It has to be real, but not too real (you cannot print someone's application, they get upset). So it is the “making it real” without faking it. None of the examples are faked, they are all real and run on real machines with real CPU’s (singular and plural). But coming up with something that represents a real world situation takes time. And it takes review — have to let the reviewers poke holes in it.
For example, while doing the update of Expert One on One Oracle, I was doing the chapter on memory structures. I had a couple of points I wanted to make. Two of them were
- in 9i, automatic PGA memory management cannot take place with shared server connections
- the “A” stands for automatic, the algorithms are not really documented, but the gist is “as the number of users needing workareas goes up, the size of the workareas go down”
At first, my example showed that shared server could not, did not use automatic PGA memory management and that the setting of sort area size and so on was very important still for these connections. And I just stated “as the load goes up, memory allocated to each session goes down”. I wasn’t entirely happy with the chapter for some reason, just a nagging feeling so I had Tony (the editor) read it and suggest something. His idea was “I believe you when you say shared server won’t use it, the example doesn’t really provide much benefit beyond showing that fact, but I don’t understand the memory allocated goes down as the user load goes up — that would be a much more useful example”.
Unfortunately, he was right (and it was obvious), so a rewrite was called for. That would have been enough right? No, not really, the reviewers got the first cut of the example and I had to change it yet again.
So, I guess it is the getting started and getting it refined — but definitely, getting it started. What is going to grab someone, what is the most important thing you want to say, what do you want them to take home with them and think about.