Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


How much work is writing a book?

There’s a great (long) post by Baron Schwartz, “What is it like to write a technical book?” by the lead author of “High Performance MySQL.” There’s a lot of great content about the process and all the but I wanted to respond to this one bit:

I can’t tell you how many times I asked people at O’Reilly to help me understand what would be involved in writing this book. (This is why I’m writing this for you now — in case no one will tell you, either). You would have thought these folks had never helped anyone write a book and had no idea themselves what it entailed. As a result, I had no way to know what was realistic, and of course the schedule was a death march. The deadlines slipped, and slipped and slipped. To November, then December, then February — and ultimately far beyond. Each time the editor told me he thought we were on track to make the schedule. Remember, I didn’t know whether to believe this or not. The amount of work involved shocked me time after time — I thought I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and then discovered it was much farther away than I thought.

I think this is somewhat unfair to the O’Reilly folks, and wanted to comment. Baron obviously put a huge amount of effort into the work, but O’Reilly has no way of knowing that will happen. They run a gamut in second editions from “update the references and commands to the latest revision of the software” to “complete re-write.” Both are legitimate ways to approach it. It could take three months, it could take a few years. O’Reilly can’t know in advance. (Our publisher has told me horror stories about books and what it’s taken to get them out.)

So O’Reilly probably figures that there’s a law of diminishing returns, and pushes an insane schedule as a way of forcing their authors to write what matters and ignore the rest.

So it’s not like a baby that’s gonna take 9 months.

Andrew and I opened the New School of Information Security with a quote from Mark Twain which I think is very relevant: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.”

We took our time to write a short book, and Jessica and Karen at Addison-Wesley were great. We went through 2 job changes, a cross-country move, and a whole lot of other stuff in the process. Because we were not technology specific, we had the luxury of time until about December 1st, when Jessica said “hey, if you guys want to be ready for RSA, we need to finish.” From there, it was a little crazy, although not so crazy that we couldn’t hit the deadlines. The biggest pain was our copy-edit. We’d taken the time to copy-edit, and there were too many changes to review them all. If we’d had more time, I would have pushed back and said “reject all, and do it again.”

So there’s no way a publisher can know how long a book will take a new set of authors, because a great deal of the work that Baron Schwartz and co-authors did was their choice.

4 comments on "How much work is writing a book?"

  • Baron says:

    Thanks Adam. I appreciate your comments. And it very well could be true that I’m being unfair to O’Reilly, but I only see my side of things.
    On the other hand, one of my major issues with the scheduling was not that we didn’t know in advance how much work it would be — but that even after we’d spent a lot of time, and had a detailed outline or even 3/4 of the content written, that we couldn’t get guidance on how much time it would likely take to finish what we’d started. I couldn’t even get guidance on how much work the production process would be. That’s something that I think experience can actually predict. I certainly think I could predict it myself now that I’ve been through it once. But as a first-time author I was really asking for this help and didn’t get it.

  • Adam says:

    Hi Baron, I missed the part about not having a production schedule. We had a very clear 22 week schedule for that part with accountabilities and deliverables. It got sort of thrown out the window because we went into a compressed schedule, but we had a guideline.
    I do think that it’s hard to predict the outline to text and content and revision parts. Some authors go from outline to text and then don’t bother revising. Others hone. At least based on what you said, though, it should have been clear to O’Reilly that you’d hone.

  • Ryan Russell says:

    One of the questions I often get is, how much can I make by writing a book?
    And I have to stop them and say, whoa, hey, you’re doing it wrong already…

  • dot tilde dot says:

    ryan, thank you. you nailed it.

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