Adventures in Publishing: Finding a Gig as a Computer Book Author

If you’ve been documenting software for any length of time, and if you still wander into bookstores, perhaps you’ve gazed wistfully at the shelf of books covering some of the tools and packages you use every day. As you page through the text, you think to yourself “There’s certainly not much here that I don’t know already.” Another thought occurs: “Certainly I could write this book at least as well as this person did.” Now you’re in trouble. You’re about to ask yourself How can I get a gig like this?

As a modestly successful author, with three titles (some with multiple editions) under my belt, I offer my experiences as a partial answer to that big question.

Before you give up what’s left of your free time to stare at yet more computer screens, let me offer a few bits of wisdom:

  • Don’t immediately quit your day job. If you’re already gainfully employed as a technical writer, chances are very good you’re being paid much better than you will as a book author. This may change when you find the right technology to write about just before the world discovers it. The guy who wrote The Internet for Dummies, one of the first books to document it, paid off his mortgage with the royalties, however those topics are rare.
  • Prepare for a learning experience. The kinds of topics that get published in mass-market series involve pretty complex software, otherwise why would you need a third-party book about it? So even if you use something every day, remember that 80/20 rule: Eighty percent of folks use just 20 percent of the features. Of course, your publisher expects you to cover nearly 100 percent of the features, so get ready to sink your teeth into obscure but often useful details.
  • The writing can be fun. If the global company you work for is in a tightly-regulated industry and as a style sheet that demands a limited vocabulary list, writing books for a consumer audience can be a liberating experience for a writer. It can free you to use constructions (and occasionally even jokes!) that otherwise would never see the light day at your day job.

The Beginning: Pure Dumb Luck

It’s May 1999, and I’m in Boulder, Colorado working as the senior tech support rep for a startup that develops Windows utilities. Two years before that, I was working as a clerical at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a nice side gig as the technology reporter for the city’s alternative weekly. Reflecting on the previous dozen years I served in various civil service jobs, I had found myself spending more time solving people’s computer problems than answering the phone and typing letters and syllabi. It being the height of the original tech boom, I had a feeling there was more money to be made with an actual tech company. But, I had to move out west to make it happen (that’s a story for another day).

I was ready to start writing again once I’d gotten my feet wet doing tech support. Before the big move, I’d been writing mostly for the alternative weekly market since graduating from college, and had snagged a couple story assignments for small tech-oriented magazines. By the late 1990s, there were a bunch of freelance writer directories online, and I managed to find a fair number of them and punched in my data. I dutifully listed my credits on these web forms, and almost immediately forgot about them.

My wife and I had a dialup connection (remember, it’s 1999) in our home, so our deal was that I’d leave the phone available till 9PM. Then I could go online. This particular night, she sacked out early so I was able to log in early. I pulled down my email, and found myself shrieking into the next room. “You’re not going to believe this,” I said (fortunately, she hadn’t completely nodded off yet), “but I got an email from someone who says she’s an acquisitions editor looking for someone to write a book about computer certification programs. You think I should say yes?”

The editor had found me on one of those freelance sites I’d signed up with a year earlier. I went back to that site (the name is lost to memory) and looked at my badly dated profile. I cringed at what was missing, but the editor must have seen something she liked. What kind of a gig would I be letting myself in for?

Now consider these realities from my side:

  • I sometimes had trouble coming up with 800 words for a column; I certainly didn’t think I had a book in me.
  • I was not certified in anything, though I’d almost become a Certified Novell Administrator while at the UW. Management sent me for the full week training, but I never took the exam.
  • Aside from knowing there were a lot of them, I did not know a great deal about certification programs.

Just the same, all she wanted was a sample chapter and a table of contents. Taking a big gulp, I wrote back and told her I could do that.

My day job got very busy and stressful just as I started research on the topic. Then, my computer crashed, and that took a couple days in the shop to repair. These life delays meant it was a few weeks after that initial email exchange before I got my TOC and introductory chapter back to the editor. I thought that someone else probably had the job already, but there was no harm sending it in with profuse apologies for the delay.

Providence came to my rescue: They hadn’t made a decision yet, so my lotto entry was still alive. The night before my birthday, I came home after work to a voice mail from the editor: Could I call her as soon as I could? Well, it was already too late back East to phone, but I got on the phone first thing in the morning. She offered me the job. Apparently I was the candidate who could string sentences together in a logical, linear fashion. (Can you say “party like it’s 1999”?)

Six months later, after a lot of research and many hours of web surfing to find certification information, I finished the manuscript. While the book was still being edited, the tech writer at the day job decided she wanted to move into marketing, leaving me the chance to move from tech support. And thus began my formal career as a technical communicator.

These days, the tools and methods available to writers to make your skills and talents visible are better than they were in the last century. Between LinkedIn, simple blogging platforms, and the more reputable freelance job boards, you can demonstrate your knowledge and writing skills. Take advantage of them so that the next time a random acquisitions editor you’ve never met goes looking for a writer, they can find you.

Round Two: Perseverance, Planning and Some More Dumb Luck

For a variety of reasons, the Computer Certification Handbook (2000: Arco Press) was not a blockbuster hit. It did get me a new computer, though, with a massive 40GB hard drive. I was curious about this free operating system I’d been hearing about for a couple years, and found a way to get and install Corel Linux to dual-boot with Windows. If this was any good, maybe I could become the guy who brought the masses to Linux!

Well, sure it was good (still is, by the way). In short order, I started writing articles about Linux and other free software programs, attending Linux User Group meetings, and generally getting up to speed. At that point, I decided I needed an agent for the desktop Linux book idea. Back then (and now), just two literary agencies have the reputation of knowing the computer-book market best. At the time I started looking (around 2002-3), one of these agencies had just announced they were only going to take on new clients who could handle very technical topics. After the first Internet bubble burst, they thought the end-user market was pretty much finished.

As far as I could tell, the other agency was still handling people like me who wanted to write for end users, not just programmers and other serious geeks. So I went to their website, picked an agent from their directory who sounded like they’d know what to do with me, and emailed him. Wonder of wonders, he agreed to take me on. Tragically, this guy was on his way out of the business, and after awhile I stopped hearing from him.

This experience was disconcerting, but I was willing to give the agency another chance. They redesigned the website, and included a form where you could write to all the agents with your experience, etc. Like I did back in 1998, I dutifully filled out their forms and even told the story about the previous agent. Shortly thereafter, the agency’s vice president replied—she thought a Linux desktop book was a great idea, and with one title already under my belt, she should be able to find me a publisher. Woohoo!

It wasn’t that easy, but we hung in there. While all this was going on, Corel got out of the Linux business, and I’d found a new favorite Linux distribution, from a German company called S.u.S.E, which was later acquired by Novell in late 2003. A few months later, my agent called me. The publisher who owned the Novell Press imprint was interested in adding a SuSE Linux title. My agent wanted to know if I knew anything and would I be interested?

A few days later I was on a conference call that I thought was supposed to be an interview with the editors. But they all seemed to think I had the job, so I believed them. As these things often go, my book was not released by Novell Press. It became SUSE Linux 10 Unleashed (2005: Sams). Two years later came the sequel, openSUSE Linux Unleashed (2007: Sams).

By 2009, I was looking for something different to write about. A lot of my friends were designing websites with the Drupal content management system. The founder and lead developer of the project even put out a call for more books about Drupal, which I sent on to my agent. Just two days later, she wrote back asking if I could help with a WordPress title instead. WordPress in Depth (2010: Que) came out in early 2010. As you read this, the second edition will be out any day now.

Lessons from My Experiences

  • Always be ready for the next opportunity, whatever it might be.
  • Get a presence online; whether it’s a profile on a freelance job board, a LinkedIn account, a blog, or something more substantial.
  • Get a good agent, especially if marketing isn’t your strong suit.
  • Never give up on your initial book idea, but be practical enough to take advantage of the opportunities in existing series.

From the moment I heard about the SuSE (yes, the capitalization has changed) book to this day, I’ve been on what’s been called the tech-book treadmill. It can be vicious cycle: Writing, revising, and trying to sell books. Occasionally I can take a short breath. I have learned a lot, and I’m a better technical communicator for it. And yes, I still dream of being Mr. Linux Desktop, if Linus Torvalds’ OS ever achieves World Domination while there are still desktop operating systems. Now that would be the ultimate gig.


Mike McCallister

Mike McCallister is devoted to the idea that technology need not be feared, and can be mastered by anyone. After all, he grew up in the days when computers filled entire rooms, and spent 13 years as a civil service clerk doing nothing more technical than recording WordPerfect macros. Mike is also devoted to making computing easier for the full spectrum of user levels and experience. You can connect with Mike through his Google+ page.

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