New books, new writing experiences

I have been working on two books the last several months. Well, one is more of an interesting writing project than a book.

O’Reilly has created an online writing tool and online book reader, named Atlas and Chimera, respectively. The online writing tool, Atlas, currently uses AsciiDoc to annotate the text, though I believe it is undergoing user interface changes in the future.

I excerpted out several sections from the first edition of the JavaScript Cookbook, updated them, and then added live examples via the use of JS Bin (access the book online). Adding the live bits actually impacted on the writing. There was something about embedding live code that connected me to the reader, and my writing style became more relaxed—more comfortable. Additionally, it connected the code samples and the writing more closely. I found myself drilling just a bit more into the code than I had done before, in order to understand more fully exactly why the code worked the way it did. Having a working example of the code right in the writing, altered both.

When I write the second edition for the JavaScript Cookbook, I’ll be using Atlas. I genuinely believe it helps me be a better tech writer. And who doesn’t like live embedded examples?

The use of Atlas also gives writers so much more control over the book. When Node finally hits 1.0, I’ll be using Atlas to update my Learning Node book to incorporate errata, as well as changes that have occurred because of the formalized Node release. It’s a fix of the existing edition of the book, rather than putting out a new edition. Owners of digital copies of Learning Node will be able to access an upgrade for free. Now, this is the way tech books should be written and published. Sometimes you don’t need a whole new edition, you just need to tweak the existing book.

We authors can also see what the book will look like when it’s finished, as we write it. We can publish to Chimera, or to .mobi, ePub, and PDF. Now I can see for myself when lines of code are too long, or if I’ve crowded too much code into too small a space. I like this. I like this a lot.

Publishers just don’t seem to understand that writers really do want more say in the production of our books. We want more control over the process. Times are changing, and the days when an author gave up control over the book as soon as it began the print process, are over.

My hope is that O’Reilly will jump into the self-publication world by expanding Atlas for non-O’Reilly press books. It needs to provide a way to customize the CSS, or at a minimum, pick book layout themes. It also needs to provide a way for self-publishers to charge for publications—with O’Reilly taking a cut like other self-publication venues do. Lastly, it needs a way to import and export ePub content from tools such as Sigil. This last one is important, as it allows a person to go from online to offline and back again.

O’Reilly knows freelance graphic artists, tech and copy editors, and book production people. It has the facilities to connect self-publishers with the professionals who can, for a fee, help polish a work. And O’Reilly could do well, I think, by charging the same for self-published books that Amazon and others charge, and with a minimum of risk.

It would need to ensure that people know that these books are not O’Reilly books, and haven’t gone through the O’Reilly production process. That’s the only risk I see if O’Reilly expanded into this new and extremely vibrant branch of the publishing industry. However, Atlas has facilities for a person to start their own press. I haven’t tried this piece out, but it does seem to fit into my Atlas/Chimera wishlist.

I see all the scaffolding in place, so I’m hoping O’Reilly dips the corporate toe into the do-it-yourself publishing waters. No sharks, only minnows with nubby teeth.

Speaking of self-publication, the second book I’m working on is my first self-published work. Some of you know about it; many of you do not. I don’t have my Small Books web site up and running yet for the formal book page, so I’m just going to tell you about it, sans marketing.

The book is named “Ringling Brothers: The Greatest Show in Court”. It came about when I read a news story a couple of years back about Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, suing various animal welfare groups under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—otherwise known as RICO.

There are some news stories that stop you in your tracks, and a circus suing organizations like the ASPCA and HSUS for racketeering was one such story for me. What on earth could happen that would culminate in a lawsuit accusing animal welfare groups of racketeering? I mean, we don’t automatically group the ASPCA in the same category as, say, Whitey Bulger and the Gambino Crime Family.

“You better take care of them cows or you’ll sleep with the fishes”, doesn’t exactly sound like a line from a detective novel or Al Pacino movie.

So, I started digging. I found that the RICO case was based on another 10+ year court case where several animal welfare groups sued Ringling Brothers under the Endangered Species Act for the circus’s treatment of elephants.

Hmm. “You better take care of them elephants or you’ll sleep with the fishes”, still doesn’t sound like a line from a mob movie.

What I found about both cases, the state of the law protecting elephants in this country, the unfortunate malleability of RICO, and Feld’s other rather colorful court experiences fascinated me enough that I kept digging. Digging, which led to me downloading thousands of pages of court documents, transcripts, and exhibits. After supplying the DC district court with at least five new computers and a printer in PACER fees, I decided to turn these interesting, but complicated, court cases into a book. Just for good measure, I’m also throwing in a little history about elephants in circuses in the US.

Definitely not a book on JavaScript. Not even a book about JavaScript, sleeping with the fishes.

I am both terrified and incredibly excited about “Ringling Brothers: The Greatest Show in Court”. If I can control my dithering and fussing, it should be on digital bookshelves this fall. When I can pummel my Small Books site into shape, I’ll post a link to a more formal introduction to the book.