Choosing and Justifying your Computer book
Historically, there have always been
significant barriers to become an "author". Anyone lucky enough to be chosen by a publisher
would earn great respect of his peers because everyone
knows that it costs a fortune to make a book and only the very
best are chosen to write books. This has changed.
In this new age of Internet blogging,
millions of people have been given an unprecedented opportunity
to publish their technical research. They have a taste for
authoring, and they want to move-up to the next step, a "real"
book, the kind that you find in libraries and bookstores.
Let's take a look at how prospective
technical authors can choose a topic that the major publishers
will accept. Before we start, let's review the economic
changes over the past 40 years.
Back in 1984
Back before the advent of the Internet, IT
professionals relied solely on academic journals, trade
magazine, conferences and vendor documentation. In 1984
there was no need for computer-related books and in a
quarter-million book bookstores you might find only a tiny
handful of computer books (usually JCL or Cobol).
Back in 1984, books
were very expensive to produce. Computers were generally not used,
and the centuries-old technique of manual typesetting was
used, the tedious and expensive process of choosing every letter
of the book (from bins of letters). Each page was
constructed as a 20 lb. lead slab, which would be placed,
one-at-a-time into the printer.
I suspect that the term "heavy reading"
originates from the fact that a 1,200 page book would have over
a ton of typesetting slabs stored in the warehouse. Major
publishers had hundreds of tons of these trays of lead slugs, as
they were very reluctant to "breakdown" a typesetting project
that cost many thousands of dollars, just in-case they had to
re-print the book. Let's see how the time have changed in
the past 20 years.
The Publishing dynamic of the 21st century
Obviously, we now have computers to
digitize books, but the publisher still has many risks.
The publisher must print hundreds of copies for the initial
bookstore orders, but the bookstores have the right to return
all unsold book. If they print a book that nobody wants,
the bookstore buyers loose respect, plus the publisher must
accept all risk. Here is the rough breakdown of each
dollar spent on technical books:
A single mistake can put a publisher out of
business, and publishers today require a cost-benefit analysis,
just like any other business decision. Let's take a closer
Characteristics of a successful computer book
There are computer book publishers with different
distribution goals, each using their own market dynamic.
All else being equal, the best topic will be an emerging
technology area with few competitors and any computer topic
should have these characteristics:
- A unique topic - A technical publisher
anticipates the needs of the community and has a topic
that will be super-hot. The ideal book will have
no direct competitors.
- A unique approach - Successful books can be
published if they take a fresh look at a common problem.
The O'Reilly "hacks" series of a great example.
- A known author - A potential author must be a
subject-matter expert on the technology.
Special qualifications (MBA, PhD, Microsoft MVP, Oracle ACE, Oracle
Certified Master), all lend credibility and help make an author more
appealing to the publisher. Also, people like to
buy technical books from people they have read before,
and popular bloggers will have a built-in fan base for
their first book.
The most important way to justify your topic is with a
competitive analysis, and you must justify that the topic is
popular enough to show velocity in an overcrowded computer
Analyzing the computer book market
You must also carefully identify all competitors for your
book, and also show "related" books that indicate that your
book will sell. For example, a book on "XML for
Oracle" might be justified if you can show that a related
title "XML for MySQL" was selling briskly. An Amazon
search can show you most of the related titles, and make
sure that you understand ASR, and site it as evidence that
related titles are selling well:
Please note that snap-scan is a great place to see what's
hot, and what competitors are in the works. Look at the top
40 books, and scan the right-hand column for new titles:
So, how do we track “real” sales? I use Amazon, snap-scan (www.snap-scan.com) The Amazon Sales Rank (ASR) is the only “free” way to judge
the true sales velocity for your book. See
Amazon Sales Rank Tracking
for details. Also see this note on author
self-promotion for your area of expertise.