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Friday, February 26, 2010

The story behind the book

I first thought of writing this book because of having to repeat myself too many times to every new employee at Google who asked me about exercising his stock options. Obviously, I never got around to it until some time in late 2008, when I wrote a blog post about startup stock compensation.

The blog post got a surprisingly anemic reception, yet it gets continual hits even today, indicating that while few people piped up and said, "Oh yeah, I'd like to read a book about this," there were always a few people searching for the answers that the blog post was about. I fleshed out the chapter a bit and showed it to a couple of friends of mine. The feedback was, "The title sucks. I didn't think I'd be interested in the topic, but once I got started I enjoyed it despite myself!"

I put the project aside and went through 2009 busy with work and travel. I went down to 80% time at my day job, but the first few months of it was spent catching up on life activities, rather than working on the book. I bought a house, which turned out to be a massive project all by itself, scanned several year's worth of slides, which was something I should have done ages ago, and before I knew it, had hit Thanksgiving with only 3 chapters of the book done.

I ran into Kickstarter by accident, and decided then and there that if anything would spur me into writing the book, paying customers would! I put up my book there, and like magic, started writing furiously. The book was written entirely in OpenOffice, using styles and templates I had found on the web as a guide to ordering my thoughts. When I found myself working on the book even during my winter vacation, I knew I would get it done, and sooner than I expected.

I searched the web about publishing solutions after reading John Reed's book. His approach of printing his own book and binding it at home didn't appeal to me, and neither did ordering a thousand copy run of something I was sure would be a small market. I thought of trying to sell it to O'Reilly books, but the thought of having to deal with a real publisher made me wince. The last time I had a book contract, there was a lot of pressure to put in fluff to make the book fatter, because that's how people buy books in bookstores. After some research, I found CreateSpace, and discovered that despite being owned and affiliated by, you could just treat them as a short-run printing house and not let Amazon sell it on your behalf. If Amazon did sell it on your behalf, they would take 50% of the cut. If Amazon distributed it to bookstores on your behalf, they would take 70% of the cut. Neither of those deals sounded good to me: there are maybe 100,000 engineers in the country, and at most 5% of those would be interested in startups at any given time. That caps my sales at about 5,000 copies, if I reached every one of them (I probably won't).

Once I got it into my head to do it through CreateSpace, I stitched together all the files and formatted it in various form factors to see how it looked. I ruled out 8x10, because it's bulky and hard to ship. Smaller sizes required more pages, and CreateSpace charged for printing by the page after 100 pages. I decided on 6x9 as a compromise.

Putting together the cover was interesting. Amazon provides a template, and I had a copy of Photoshop anyway from my photography hobby. It turns out that if you need to do something with Photoshop nowadays, all you need to do to google the task you want to do, and follow the step-by-step instructions. I was surprised at how easy it was.

Once all that was put together, I signed up for CreateSpace's Pro Plan (which reduced the price per copy of the book: all it takes is a 40-copy run and the Pro Plan pays for itself), and then worked on iterating on the interior and exteriors. You have to do this a couple of times because how much margin to use and how to make it look good isn't obvious, and of course print is always different than looking at photos on a computer screen.

The Kindle version was very easy. I was very familiar with MobipocketCreator from prior experience, and it sucked in my files just fine. There were a few glitches, which I dealt with by diving into the html intermediate format and directly editing the files (you can do this once the manuscript is in close to final stage). It turned out that by using the OpenOffice styles appropriately, my book lined up very easily with what Mobipocket Creator expected.

All the pre-production work took about 2-3 days of total work time. Proof reading and copy-editing was helped a lot because Larry Hosken took it upon himself to copy-edit the book in detail. Others provided gobs of input as well. The Kickstarter process is extremely valuable in this regards. You really do get people who are interested in helping out, and are familiar with the topic at hand. The final part was sending out the manuscript to everyone who was quoted in it to make sure I didn't misquote anyone. Everyone was incredibly helpful and I'm very grateful that people have been so generous with their time.

All in all, I think while having an editor, etc., would have been nice, I'm not sure I wanted to give away 90% of the income from the book to get that, given how niche a market this book will sell into. In particular, the book will more than break even even in the first printing, which makes me very happy. Now, I still would have been better off flipping burgers than writing the book, but at least I'll never have to give the same advice over and over again. I can tell people to RTFM! I learned a lot, and I think I'd be willing to write another book or two, but for the next month or two at least, most of my writing will be on this blog.

1 comment:

Ralph said...

Believe it or not, this post too is still attracting attention - mine at least - two years later. I got here via your comment on Charles Stross's post "How books are made" ( Thanks for the post and the link.

I completely sympathize with your remark that "I think I would go crazy if it took 12 months to go to press." I went through that kind of rigmarole with academic publishers during my years as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, and it nearly did drive me crazy at times. In contrast to what Stross and many of the commenters on that post maintain about "professional standards" blah blah blah, I found that besides taking ages to do almost everything, those publishers wasted lots of my time with their demands for files in Word format, their incompetent copy editing that I had to correct in proof, and sundry other annoyances. As a result, the thought of having to deal with a "real publisher" makes me wince too. Accordingly, I appreciate detailed accounts of alternative approaches, such as the one you've given here.