Chris Anderson posted in his blog today his thoughts about writing a book. I’m guessing on Avalon. Lots of people have asked me about the process and the economics of writing so here are my observations after five years.

  1. Money.
    Books are not really about making money. It is entirely possible that you will write a God book like Don’s Essential COM, David Flanagan’s Java In A Nutshell, or Pro ASP 3.0 which keep selling and selling but many don’t. Still, it isn’t all a lose lose situation. At the very least, we keep our advance for the book if it utterly bombs. Usually, this is around $5000. Regular joes like ourselves get royalties off the net profit of a book, usually starting around 10% and going up the more books we sell. The book market has been a dog since 2000 but is coming on strong this year as companies and developers are finding their way back into funding development. And that includes buying books.
    Chris has a nice bargaining chip though to get more up front and more royalties because he is essentially, the face of Avalon. Slightly less pretty than Andie MacDowell as the face of Revlon though. He is already counted as the go-to guy for this technology. That’s why his blog is in the Top 100 visited in 2003. That means he can barter because he knows and the publishers know that his name will sell books or at least generate a lot of interest in them, much like Don’s does. The best deal I heard of was a $10k advance and 17% royalty for a Linux book. It won’t make you richer than God, but it’s a start.
  2. Fame \ Advancement.
    Books aren’t about fame, but you can certainly raise your profile with a few good books. Case in point: Alex Homer and Dave Sussman are probably regarded as the perennially great authors on ASP and ASP.NET. But they write and speak a few times a year and that’s it.
    Somehow, I think Chris’s blog, and his presentations at MSDN and PDC with Don have taken you up beyond where a book would go. On the other hand, neither or those two will make you any cash. A book does.
  3. Education.
    If you’re going to write a book, it should be for the write (sic) reasons and in this industry, one of the best ones is because you know your subject really well and you want to share that experience and those tips and tricks you find you use every day. If you like, it’s giving something back to the community, because it has supported you.

Beyond those four ideas that Chris mentions, there are other less monetary rewards too. There’s the undoubted pleasure of seeing the whole thing in print on your doorstep fresh from the printer, seeing people buy it in Borders and once in a while, even complimenting you on it. You actually teach yourself more about the code as well - if you can’t explain to yourself what you’re doing, how will you manage it for others? While you’re writing it, there are the click moments, when you know you’ve got something written down just right (and that editor better not change it or else!!), when you finish a section or a chapter or a really cool piece of code.

If you’re looking at writing a book purely as a financial exercise I would say stop right now unless you can negotiate a really good deal. Books always take more time than you ever expect and only on very rare occasions do you ever get done everything that you want to include. As Douglas Adams said, “I love the sound of deadlines as they whoosh past.” Do it because you want to.

Personally, if Chris wanted to write a book but didn’t have the time, I’d help ghostwrite it.