Technology Writing

Hacking Computer Books

I’m in the middle of ‘proofs’ for Adding Ajax, which is never a terribly fun experience. You can only fix errors during proofs, because the layout of the book and the indexing can’t change. You don’t have time for anything major; to spend a lot of time rewording phrases you might not be as happy about. It’s also typically the time when a computer book author will see ‘content editing’, whereby someone in the publisher has ‘polished’ up the writing –a process that can leave you feeling disconcerted. Even a little down.

It’s discouraging, at times, being a computer book writer because we’re not really treated as ‘authors’. Someone like David Weinberger will take 2 years to write Everything is Miscellaneous, get a nice advance for doing so, have a rollout party, and then lots of people will write reviews. The publisher will send him around to places to talk to folks and typically pay the tab. The only time computer book authors get ‘sent’ to a place to talk is if we pick up the tab, and usually we have to have another reason for being at an event–such as doing a presentation, if we’re so lucky as to have our proposals accepted. Being an author is no guarantee of acceptance.

As for the tech community, I’ve had so many people ask me what open source projects I’ve been involved with. What have I done to give back to the community, I’m asked. I point to my books, many of which are on open source technologies. Writing isn’t the same, I’m told. The code we lay down in the book isn’t ‘really’ code, and therefore we don’t garner any ‘street cred’ for writing about technology–only creating something.

Ask all but the ‘star’ computer book authors, of which I am not one, and I bet they’ll all say the same thing: typically, we’re not taken seriously. One link to an application is worth more than five links to books written. But in the book community, we’re just ‘hack’ writers, writing to a formula.

Yet for all that we’re writing to a so-called formula, it’s an enormous amount of work to write a computer book. We not only have to write, we also have to create little mini-applications all throughout the book. We have to second guess what our readers are going to want to see; balance the use of word and code so that neither is too much; use the right amount of bullets and figures; and basically try to mix in enough of the human element to keep the writing active and entertaining, without compromising its quality. Our code must be error free and innovative. Once finished with the code, we’re faced with other problems related to syntax: would that be better as a colon? Comma? Period? Sentence too long? Sentence too short?

All of this gets packed into 3-5 months, depending on the size of the book. This for a book that is effectively double the size of David’s Everything is Miscellaneous.

People will say that David’s book is ‘different’. Somehow, his writing is more creative, his ideas broader, his reach further. More people will be impacted by his book. It is somehow grander in the scheme of things. This is highlighted at every facet at the book publication process, and when the computer book author rolls a book out–other than reviews at a few sites, a note at the publisher, and comments at Amazon–there is no major drum roll to announce the book. No rollout parties. No press. It’s just another computer book.

Then, from time to time, you get a note in your email. Someone will tell you how much your book helped them. These notes are our champagne bottles, our corks going off. I guess everything is relevant in addition to being miscellaneous.

Enough of such maundering. Back to the proofs.

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