Eric Windmill

Should I write a tech book for Manning?

I wrote a book called Flutter in Action. When I was considering writing the book, I had a lot of questions. I tried to do research and find out if it was ‘worth it’, and mostly couldn’t find the answers I was looking for.

drawing
  • How do I get the book deal?
  • How much work will this be?
  • How long will it take?
  • Am I QUALIFIED? (see: impostor-syndrome)
  • What will I gain?
  • (of course) How much will I get PAID??

and finally, should I do this?

These are all the questions that were swirling around in my brain, and some of the answers are out there on the internet, and some aren’t.

The tl;dr: Should YOU write a book for manning?

  • How do I get the book deal?

    • Well, they came to me.
  • How much work will this be?

    • A lot.
  • How long will it take?

    • A long ass time.
  • Am I QUALIFIED? (see: impostor-syndrome)

    • Probably, do you think you are?
  • What will I gain?

    • Hard to say. Maybe nothing.
  • (of course) How much will I get PAID??

    • Very little
  • Should you I do this?

    • Absolutely

In short, this is a long, arduous process with little to no reward other than the feeling in your brain and heart that you completed a full book. And its totally worth it.

My experience

As you may have noticed, a lot of these questions are hard to answer. The answers depend on too many variables. I don’t know if you should or could or can write a book, but I can tell you about my experience.

Hopefully I can answer the questions above for someone else mulling over writing a book.

How did I get the book deal?

I woke up one morning, checked my email, and had a letter in my inbox asking if I wanted to apply to write a book. They came to me. I didn’t really seek this out. BUT a lot of work followed before they would give me a contract.

That’s also kind of misleading. They came to me because I was blogging and writing tutorials about Flutter already. Most of writing was on Flutter by Example.

I imagine they emailed several people with the same offer to apply to write a book. And I only got the deal because of the “interview” process that followed. The point is, step one might be to start creating your own content and getting examples of your work out there.

Once the conversation had started, I had to talk to a lot of people, and put together a proposal. A few important things about writing the proposal.

  • This process in and of itself took a month or two.
  • The proposal itself was a lot of work!
  • An editor from Manning helped guide me, and gave me templates and examples to work off of. This was the first of many times that working with Manning made a scary tasks seem achievable.

The proposal basically consisted of putting together a list of chapter topics, and high level overview of what would be covered in those chapters.

After submitting that, talking to a few more people, revising the proposal, and repeating many of these steps many times, Manning said “okay” and sent me an offer.

From there, I spent some days or weeks mulling it over, and then decided to do the damn thing, and sent it back with my signature on it. Step one completed.

What’s in the contract? (And of course, $$)

The contract with Manning was seemingly “standard” for tech books. The long-short of it is that the direct payment (aka cash in pocket) isn’t much. Here’s the points from the contract that stood out to me as important:

  • They gave me advanced payment of $5000 (spread over the time it takes to finish the book). $5000 is a lot of money… but, given the amount of work it took, I think it equals out to about $0.05/hour. (or something, I’m spit-balling here).
  • Now that the book is selling, I get 10% of all sales. Of course, I have to earn that $5000 dollars first. I only see a penny of that 10% once I pass the $5000 threshold. So, for all intents and purposes, I was going into the process assuming I was going to make exactly $5000.
  • Manning owns the content. Full stop. This seems standard, and is okay with me on this occasion.
  • Manning can pull the plug at any point (up until publishing) and you have to return your advance (in which case you get ownership of what you’ve completed thus far.) I know someone personally that this happened to, because the topic didn’t seem like it was going to sell enough. So, this is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In addition to those, there are some timeline agreements in the contract. I missed some deadlines, and no one from Manning said anything. I’m guessing that as long as they have faith in you and the book your writing, it’s all good. (Don’t quote me on that, though.)

That’s all in the contract I can even remember. So, whatever else is in there is legal jargon to protect Manning, and it never worried me. So long as you’re honoring your part in the process (writing the dang book), I don’t think you’d have to worry about much else.

So, in a nutshell, you don’t get paid much. If your motivation for taking on 18 months of working every weekend is money, this isn’t the project you should take on. I will discuss my motivations and non-monetary benefits in a bit.

How long will it take?

This one is easy. I can’t imagine it being less than one year or Manning allowing it to go on for longer than two years. It took me about 18 months. Importantly, that includes a lot of time waiting on Manning to do their parts, and time when they were waiting on me to do my parts. It goes back and forth like that the entire time. (This isn’t a judgment, it’s just the way it is. It take 18 months, but there is a lot of downtime.)

How much work will it be? (Plus, hidden work)

It’s a lot of work. That’s it. Its more work than I’ve ever put into a single project in my life. Times 10. With that in mind, I’ll try to spell out how much work it really is. I wanna separate this into sections:

  • Work that it required of me, as the author (including work you may not think of)
  • Ways in which Manning helped me

Did I feel qualified?

Yes and no. I was the most JR engineer on my team at the time, and an active part of the Dart and Flutter community, so I knew that there were folks with much, much more knowledge out there.

BUT, I had something that they didnt: The desire and discipline to write a freakin’ book! Do not underestimate that. No matter how much some old guy has, if he ain’t willing to write it down, he’s not qualified to write a book. Period.

There’s another impostor-syndrome take-down weapon I have in my brain that you should remember if you’re thinking of making any sort of tutorial content. You only need to know a tiny bit more than someone else to have something to share. I cannot understate this enough.

In my case, this meant that I knew going in that I wasn’t going to be writing the end-all be-all guide to Flutter. I was going to write a guide to going from 0 to fluent in Flutter, not from 0 to expert. Which is fine. I had 1 year of Flutter experience under my belt, which is more than most people had at the time, which means I had something to share.

The best part of this mind-set is that it opens up room to work with ‘competitors’ rather than against them. I knew what book I was writing, and I knew there was still space for intros to flutter, deep dives on complicated topics, etc. Anyways, side-rant over.

The work it requires

It seems impossible to me to break down exactly all the work I did, so I’ll try to write this like a job posting. Below is an outline of all the work I had todo:

NB: you don’t need to read this. the point is its a lot of work!!

  • Step one: Outline the entire book

    • Create the table of contents
    • Outline the chapters
    • Submit the outline, and wait for feedback
    • Re-write the outline based on the feedback
    • Repeat until both I and the publisher were satisfied
  • Step two: Write all the code

    • For Flutter in Action, this included making 3 sample applications
    • Tons of refactoring to make it more friendly to explain in book format
    • And writing some short examples for certain sub-plots of the book (for example, how async code works in Dart)
    • In reality, I only planned this all out a head of time, and wrote the sample apps as it was time to write about them. Regardless, when you write an app in 2018, and then look back at the code a year later and know it will be published, you’ll wanna do a lot of refactoring.

The code in itself was a lot of work. And, I still maintain it to this day based on reader issues.

  • Writing all the content. For each chapter:

    • Outline the chapter
    • Submit the outline for feedback.
    • Write the chapter.
    • While writing, make all the graphics and diagrams. (This should not be underestimated! This is some ‘hidden work’ that I didn’t anticipate to be so time consuming.)
    • Submit the chapter using Manning’s work-flows (GitLab and Box)
    • Wait for some feedback
    • Revise and re work chapters and graphics
    • Repeat until both parties are satisfied and deem it ready for peer review
  • Peer reviews

    • Every few chapters, the content is reviewed by ‘peers’. There is always a lot of feedback.
    • Revise all writing, code and graphics based on the reviews.
  • The final reviews

    • When the book was ‘done’, I went through many iterations of peer reviews.
    • The book was reviewed by copy editors and technical editors
    • This always led to, you got it, revisions and rewrites!

In short then the book was “done”, it was still far from finished. There were a few months of reviews and revising.

  • Various other forms of hidden work:

    • paying attention to feedback from folks on Manning’s forum who bought ‘Early access’ to the book, and were basically reading the chapters as they were completed. This can be time consuming.
    • Writing all the ‘meta data’… including the forward, appendices, about the author, and more.

Long story short: the work can be broken up into: code, writing, graphics, managing reviews, and a TON of revision cycles. You’ll literally have hours of work to complete each week for a year or two.

The benefits of working with a publisher

The previous section is meant to make you feel anxiety. But now, I will try to ease the fear. I’ve only worked with one publisher in my life, so this all applies to working with Manning only.

First, let’s set the scene. Manning (and other tech publishers, I imagine) works specifically with engineers to make books. This should be comforting. The authors of tech books are not trained writers. And, Manning doesn’t expect that they are.

Manning made a ton of effort to hold my hand through the process. As I said, I worked with multiple editors and reviewers — copy editors, technical editors, reviewers with years of software experience, reviewers with no software experience, etc. So, in retrospect, whether the book was readable and made narrative sense was never much of a concern. If the way I explained a complex topic wasn’t clear, I’d certainly hear about it. If the way I explained a basic concept was wrong, a technical reviewer with much more experience would say “hmm, are you sure”? Of course, I was writing about a brand new technology, so ultimately I was the source of truth, but there were plenty of checks along the way.

In addition to checking, double checking, and triple checking all the content and narrative, Manning provided structure and held me accountable. This is greatest benefit of working with a publisher.

I believe that I have a solid work ethic and plenty of determination, but still, having agreed to finish this project provided motivation when my internal motivation ran dry. Not finishing the book would mean I was violating a legal contract, and that I was letting down myself and the folks I worked with closely at Manning.

On top of that there’s an additional feeling of responsibility to the readers, via the Manning Early Access Program. MEAP is a Manning initiative to sell the book early and deliver the chapters as they’re finished. That means that there were folks who bought the book and we’re reading the book on their own time. To quit would be to let them down, and that wasn’t an option.

Quickly, I’ll run through the operational benefits of working with Manning:

  • Resources to help write the book such as samples, planning templates, and a graphics team.
  • A graphics team to ‘clean up’ the graphics I submitted. The graphics were still a ton of work, but at least I knew there was a team who’s sole purpose was to ensure the graphics were uniform and void of errors.
  • An ‘sdk’ to easily write your chapters in your text editor of choice using simple markup, that would generate the captions and formatting for the chapters.
  • A team of people ready to answer and questions I had at any point.
  • A Slack community of authors used to help each other get ‘unstuck’.
  • An audience and marketing team with experience selling tech books. (Huge!)
  • A platform for sales, returns, customer service, etc. I can imagine that writing a book is only 25% of the battle if you’re self-publishing.

All in all, it was helpful to remember that selling books is what this company does. As long as I worked with them and heeded any advice, the chance of success was much higher. Both Manning and I wanted the same thing.

What did I gain?

This section is ultimately what matters if you’re thinking about making any content. What do you want to get out of it? If the answer is money, there are probably better ways. Right from the start, the money was never the interesting benefit of writing a book to me.

This is what I hoped to get out of writing a book:

  • A book. With my name on it. (aka an enormous sense of pride).
  • To contribute to a growing community that I truly believe in.
  • Name recognition to boost my career.
  • To help folks. (Cheesy, but sincere… more on this in a bit)
  • Boost some skills and knowledge.

That’s more or less what I hoped to get out of it. This is how it panned out:

Let’s start with the cheese. I wanted to help folks. A few years ago I decided to try to break into tech, and I attended App Academy, a boot camp in San Francisco. I have no traditional technical background, other than my own tinkering in my free time. Learning software development, gaining confidence, and eventually getting a job is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And, I know there are plenty of folks out there on the same path. This is a place in life that I can help. I understand the emotional burden of this journey, and producing tutorials is helpful.

Of course, I also love Dart and Flutter. And I’m proud to get to make the community bigger and (hopefully) better.

Of course, my motivations weren’t all holier-than-thou. Let’s talk about some selfish, tangible benefits.

  • A book. With my name on it. Check. Does it feel as good as I hoped? Yes. Maybe better. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked on a single project, and I am extremely proud of it.
  • Name recognition to boost my career? I think so. I got to meet and work with some of the folks on the Dart and Google teams. I’ve been on a few podcasts. I’ve made digital friends on the Twitters. I’ve been approached by two Google recruiters to apply for the Flutter team. My current job, which I love, I got because Green Bits was about to re-write their iOS client in Flutter. (And we just shipped the beta to our first customer!)
  • Boost some skills and knowledge. Absolutely. When you write a book that’s going to be judged endlessly, you really want to make sure that everything in the book is correct! I poured through Flutter docs and source code for months while writing. I learned a lot. Not to mention I became a better writer, better at explaining complex concepts, and more.
  • And of course, $5000 and a resume that brings me pride.
  • A guy harassing me on Twitter and Reddit because he hates the book so much. My first hater <3

And the big one:

I started receiving emails and Tweets just to say “thanks” or “good job”. People have told me that they got their first app in the Play Store using Flutter after reading the book. People have emailed me just to say they enjoyed the book, and asking for nothing in return. This is ultimate reward.

So, did I gain anything worth the 18 months of weekends I won’t get back? Hell yeah. And, I’d do it again. This is the best thing I’ve probably ever done, despite the fact that my life is more or less the same as before.

Should YOU write a book (for Manning or anyone else)?

In short, yes.

Would I do it again?

In short, yes.

For Manning?

Most likely.

Infrequent updates about Dart and Flutter:

Sign up for my mailing list to receive new articles, mainly about Dart and Flutter, and other programming technologies.