OSCON 3.5: Writing, Reviewing, and Instigating O'Reilly Books: Will, Skill and Time

by Geoff Broadwell

Related link: http://conferences.oreillynet.com/cs/os2005/view/e_sess/7457

Writing of any kind is hard work. Writing a book is extremely hard work, and may be grueling pain all day long for 2 months straight, or a few hours every day for a year and a half. Your significant other and/or family will forget your name, your fingertips will bleed, and once the book is out you have to pray for good sales (or a nice job offer) to make it all worthwile.

And it doesn't end there -- you'll have to keep track of errata to feed to your publisher in a hurry when they give you a couple days notice before a reprint cycle (if they're a good enough publisher to correct errata between print runs at all). And then you'll have to get started on the next edition, and start all over with the pain and alienated family -- and at this point, possibly alienated employer.

Still interested in writing a book? Great! O'Reilly wants you. To help you along the way, Mike offered several suggestions:

  • Know your material. If you don't know it cold, you won't write a good book about it, for many of the same reasons Damian tells potential presenters to only speak about subjects they know well.

  • Be passionate about the material. Nothing is worse than a dry book, and if you get known as a boring writer, you may find it harder to sell another book down the line.

  • Write about something new. Either have a very unique presentation, or be the first with a good book in a growing field. O'Reilly doesn't like to glean a few sales from a saturated market, and you'll kick yourself if months of hard work led to meager sales because you picked a subject that's been beaten to death.

  • Be realistic about your writing skill and the schedule you will need to keep. Write a chapter or two to gauge the time and effort involved, extrapolate that out to the full chapter count, and then assume you may need 50% over that.

  • Write all the time (preferrably every day) to improve or at least maintain your writing flow and speed. If you let days or weeks pass between writing, you will fall back to writing slowly again, and that will kill your schedule.

  • Be aware of the strongly seasonal nature of book sales. Ask your editor when are the best times to release books in your field, and hit that mark. Releasing a relevant book just before a conference can be a huge boost to sales.

  • Total sales are all about momentum. Get buzz going before the book is finished, blog about it continuously, release it at a good time, convince people to buy the book from Amazon to move it into their bestseller lists, whatever it takes. Once you're a bestseller, you tend to stay there, but it's hard to get there in the first place.

  • O'Reilly seems to have decently author-friendly policies, but how much you earn depends on you. Make a book that is excellent, price it appropriately (Mike mentioned that O'Reilly has recently been realizing they produce much better books than other publishers selling for the same or more; this will change), get momentum and keep it, and you will get 10% of O'Reilly's wholesale.

  • O'Reilly's wholesale discount is usually 50% of list price, but it can be significantly less than that, all the way down to 25%. Book stores generally want a larger discount on a more expensive book (because it gives them greater profit per book), but that can actually be a net win for the author as well.

  • If you want to shrink the discount, and therefore get a bigger cut of the retail price, you have to write a book of very high quality and enduring value. Of course, those are the same things that lead to greater unit sales anyway. Take advantage of the chance to improve your take twice over by doing an excellent job up front.

Above all these individual recommendations there is one overarching one: Talk to your editor. They have a lot of experience, and are there to help you create a bestselling book. Don't have an editor? Introduce yourself to one. Several O'Reilly editors are at the conference, no less.

To all of you willing to try, good luck!

What other recommendations do you have for aspiring authors?


2005-08-04 10:50:45
Find the right people to help
You really don't have to know the information cold before you write the book as long as you know it cold by the time you finish. Many good books started with all of the passion and a lot of good reviewers, even though the author didn't have all the subject under his control just yet.

It's not even close to a talk, which happens in real time and on the spot (although you can practice and refine that too :)

2005-08-04 12:13:08
The Bottom Line
So what kind of sales does the "average" O'Reilly book do? What's the minimum for them to break even? It's hard to make an (individual) business case to put in a couple of man-months if the expected return is, say, 2,000 copies at $29.95 retail first year, and quite another story for 20,000 copies at $49.95.
2005-08-04 19:18:18
The Bottom Line
There were a few numbers thrown out during the session, none of which exactly matches your question, but might be closer to what you want to know anyway.

He estimated that an O'Reilly book can be expected to net around $20K - $70K for its author (I can't remember if this was "the first year" or "per edition").

For a single title, 60-70K books sold per year is high these days -- it used to be low, but for the last several years the market had been dropping 20% per year or so. Thankfully this has settled down so that this year is about even with last year.

The O'Reilly record holder is Java in a Nutshell, which has sold 600-700K copies in its life. He guessed that only K&R and perhaps Stroustrup had sold more copies in the programming industry.

2005-08-04 19:20:12
Find the right people to help
Point taken, though I'd say if you plan to learn as you go, you will probably need to leave yourself a lot more schedule (and energy) for revision.

That's just a guess though, since I attended the session precisely because I have not yet written a book, so have no personal experience there. :-)