Scott Meyers

Advice to Prospective Book Authors

December 2003 (with minor ongoing revisions since)

So you want to write a technical book. Wonderful! We need more good books. But you're not quite sure how to find a publisher, or maybe you've been offered a contract, but you're not quite sure what to look for in it. This document gives my views on these matters. It's based on my experience authoring, co-authoring, or acting as consulting editor on various technical books since 1991 (my books and CDs page has details) as well as on conversations I've had with editors and other book authors.

There are really two parts to writing a book: the writing part and the business part. Writing considerations include deciding what to cover and what to ignore, figuring out how to treat the material you've decided to include, setting up and adhering to a schedule, tracking changes in technology relevant to your book, ensuring readability, confirming technical accuracy — a whole host of issues related to getting the right words on the page in a timely fashion. Here, I largely ignore those things. Instead, I focus on the business side of being an author, because, in my experience, that's where most prospective authors have the most questions.

In this document, I address the following topics:

Please remember that what follows is my personal point of view. Other people see at least some things differently, and in some places below, I've quoted relevant comments from other authors and editors. Not all quotes are attributed, because some people have asked to remain anonymous.

For a publisher-specific view of many of the issues I address here, check out O'Reilly's Guide for New Authors.

Preparing a Book Proposal

To pitch a book to a publisher, you need a proposal. Publishers typically have online guides that describe what they want to see from you. Here are a few publishers' "Write for us" pages that I found via a minute or two with Google:

Following a publisher's submission guidelines is a good way to make a positive first impression, as publishers generally like to see that you can read and follow directions :-). Peter Gordon, a long-time editor at Addison-Wesley, points out

An editor likes not only to see ... that the prospective author can read and follow instructions, but can also write clearly and logically. A proposal that's sloppy in any respect is an immediate turn-off.

In reality, proposals come in many forms. Some amount to little more than a sketchy table of contents. If you're an established author with a track record of writing books that sell, you can probably get away with this, but that's not a proposal, it's an idea. If you're an unknown, a sketchy idea isn't likely to get you very far. At the other extreme are people who submit complete manuscripts — would-be books that are all but ready to roll off the presses. Most people submit something in between, and something in between is what publishers typically request.

I've reviewed a lot of book proposals over the years, because publishers often circulate proposals to outside experts for evaluation. Whenever I read a proposal, I look for three things. First, do you, as a prospective author, have the expertise necessary to cover the proposed material in an accurate and useful fashion? Second, can you communicate this information to your would-be readers? Third, is your proposed book likely to be of interest to its target audience? In other words, I look at a proposal trying to figure out (1) do you know what you are talking about?, (2) can you write?, and (3) would anybody be interested in reading your words?

Because these are the types of questions that I, as a reviewer, try to answer, I recommend that your proposal consist of at least the following:

Multiple-book author Karl Wiegers makes this suggestion:

Two things to consider including in the proposal: recurrent themes that will thread throughout the book, and book design hooks, such as annotated bibliography, anecdotes in sidebars, icons in the margin to flag specific points, exercises or next steps at the ends of chapters, etc.

And Peter Gordon notes that

A fourth question for a prospective author to address is the SIZE of the intended market. I want to know not only that the author is knowledgeable, can write, and has a clearly identified audience in mind, but that that audience is large enough to justify book publication. Editors do reasonably well with the second and third criteria, and have reviewers to help with the first. But the fourth is where the author can and should be as persuasive as possible, with references to other books in the same market, trends, likely quantity customers, etc.

A good proposal helps you as much as it helps potential publishers. Writing a book is a lot of work, and you may find the idea more attractive than the reality. A good table of contents will force you to think about all the things you want to say as well as all the topics you'll choose to ignore. A good sample chapter will allow you to make a reasonable guess about how much time and energy you'll have to devote to get the book finished. It is possible that by the time you're done with the sample chapter, you'll have decided that book writing is not for you. I know one seasoned magazine author who abandoned his attempt to write a book, because he discovered that he didn't like writing 100 pages and not being anywhere near done. If you turn out to feel the same way, it's better for everybody to find that out before a contract has been signed.

Finding a Publisher

Finding a publisher is probably easier than you think. Go to a good bookstore (physical or online), and find out which publishers publish books that you respect. Then contact the publishers with a book proposal. Don't be shy about this. They want to hear from you. They are in the business of publishing books, so they are always on the lookout for promising manuscripts.

To make the actual contact, it will help to have somebody's name. Fortunately, finding one is easy, because people in the business of publishing books generally want you to be able to get in touch with them. There are different kinds of editors in the publishing industry, but the type you want at this stage is known as an acquisitions editor. It's their job to find new authors and to cajole new books out of existing authors.

Here are a few ways to get names of acquisitions editors:

Regarding this last suggestion, however, Peter Gordon warns,

One problem we've encountered — and I suspect the same is true of every large publisher — is prospective authors calling the wrong office (a professional author calling a college office, for example) and getting misdirected. Clearly, that problem stems as much from the publisher's bureaucracy or inefficiency as anything. But whatever the cause, the proposal doesn't get considered. I'd suggest email as the best way to make first contact.

Peter Gordon also offers this:

A lot of authors ask: Is simultaneous submission to multiple publishers acceptable? It is. But a prospective author probably should not overdo it. Choose just a few publishers who are different in some significant respects, such as size, or depth in your field. Then you can hear the arguments for the muscle of a big publisher or the warmth of a small one, for a powerhouse in your field or someone trying to get a list started. Unless, of course, you already know exactly where you want your book placed.

Being Your Own Publisher

Some people publish books themselves. There are a variety of reasons why you might want to do this, including an inability to get your book published by a conventional publisher; your desire to have total control over all aspects of publication, marketing, sales, and distribution; and your unwillingness to give up the lion's share of the sales proceeds. (See below for information on royalty rates.)

I have no experience with self-publishing, nor have I looked into it in any detail. I am intrigued by the idea, however, and I now know enough people who have done it that it's clear that it's a viable option. What follows are some links on the topic. I vouch for nothing except that the last time I checked them (January 2007), they were valid and led to pages that appeared to be about self-publishing.

In the remainder of this document, I assume you are working with a conventional publisher, because that's what I've always done.

Publishers and Editors

Getting a book published involves working with two primary entities: a publisher (a company) and an editor (a human being). Both are important.

The publisher is important, because it is the publisher who will largely determine how visible your book is upon publication. Your publisher will determine whether you can get into high-visibility brand names like the "Dummies" series. Your publisher will determine whether an army of charming salespeople will descend on bookstores, companies, and universities to sing the praises of your soon-to-be-published manuscript and collect advance orders. In general, your publisher will determine how widely distributed your book is. Needless to say, the wider the distribution, the greater your chances of selling lots of books.

Your publisher will also help form the first impression of your book in the minds of potential buyers. If you publish with a company with a reputation for quality, your book gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to quality before a single page has been turned. If you publish with a house known for schlock, many prospective readers will assume you, too, write schlock. That's why in my advice about finding a publisher above, I suggested starting by identifying publishers whose books you respect. If you don't respect a publisher's work, why would anybody else?

Your publisher is important, but on a day-to-day basis, it is your editor who will make your life joyous or miserable. Your editor is your interface to the company, and if ever there were a time when a user-friendly interface were important, this is it. In my experience, your relationship with your editor will be the determining factor in your overall satisfaction in getting a book published. If you and your editor get along — if you share priorities and see eye-to-eye on the things that are important to you — you will likely look back on your authorhood with pleasant memories, even if your book sells poorly. If you and your editor don't get along, producing a book can be the equivalent of being trapped in a bad marriage. You want to make sure that you are comfortable with your editor before you sign a contract or agree to work with him or her.

Many new authors assume that all editors are more or less alike, and they're so excited about getting a publishing contract, they don't think much about who'll they'll be working with. That's what I did when I signed for my first book. My resulting experience was pleasant and satisfying from beginning to end, and I just assumed that that was the natural course of things. Later, when I began talking to other authors and hearing how awful their experiences had been, I realized that I'd won the editor lottery through sheer dumb luck. I now know that that lottery has many losers. You do not want to be one of them. Really, the bad marriage analogy is not that big a stretch.

Because your editor is your interface to your publishing company, you'll work with him or her to develop the contract you ultimately sign. You'll work with your editor to determine how much input you'll have into your books external design (e.g., cover art, spine appearance, back cover layout and text, etc.) and internal design (e.g., font choices, margins, artwork for chapter openers, etc.). You'll work with your editor to determine whether you are allowed to fix errors in your book between printings. You'll work with your editor to determine how much influence you have over the pricing and marketing of your book, over whether you are allowed to make part or all of your book available at your web site. You'll work with your editor to determine when your book is ready to be published and whether it will ship with a CD or DVD, etc.

I am astonished at how many authors choose to work with editors who restrict the authors' participation in the book-making process to that of producing the words that go between the covers. Such authors have no say in the design of their books, in how they are priced or marketed, in when they are "done," in whether they are of acceptable quality. I suppose there must be authors who thrive on having nothing to worry about except putting words on paper (regardless of whether the words are any good), but I've never met any. I have, however, met a plethora of bitter authors unhappy about having so little input into the myriad things that separate writing from publishing.

How unhappy? Check out Philip Greenspun's horror story of a very bad match among an author, publisher, and editor. I disagree with some aspects of Greenspun's analysis, and my experiences with publishers and editors have been so different (better) from his, we might as well be discussing different industries. Still, it's worth taking note of the cautionary nature of his tale.

To avoid such an unpleasant experience, check out a prospective editor the way you'd check out a prospective coworker. Do you like the person? Do you trust them? Trust in the relationship is critical, because in the end, there are going to be a variety of decisions regarding your book that will have to be made — decisions that you didn't anticipate and that aren't addressed in your contract. You want to have confidence that when such decisions must be made, you can trust your editor to make sure that the eventual resolution is acceptable to you.

Another reason why trust is important is that if you have a question about the accuracy of your royalty statement, the person you'll turn to will be your editor. I mean, really, if the statement says you sold only 37 books in all of Europe in the most recent royalty period (typically three or six months), how are you going to verify that figure? If you don't trust your editor to see that you are treated fairly, why would you trust the publishing company he or she works for?

Not all editors coordinate everything related to your book. Some do only acquisitions work, which means that your interaction with them is largely over once the contract is signed. Then you start working with a production editor. Some editors will give you different names to contact, depending on the book-related issue you'd like to discuss. If that's going to be the case, find out about it in advance. In fact, one experienced editor I know offers this advice:

You should ask your Editor to introduce you to the person who will be marketing your book. If you care a lot about how your book will look in print, you should ask to meet with someone in Production who will turn your manuscript into a final book. You need to learn if you can see eye to eye with them.

Personally, I find it convenient to have a single point of contact for all my book-related concerns. That may be less important to you, but you definitely want to know what kind of working relationship you'll have with your editor before you sign a contract that binds the two of you together. (The contract is really between you and the publisher, but once you've signed, you're typically stuck with the editor the publisher assigns you to.)

Karl Wiegers points out that sometimes it's good to be able to bypass your editor:

There will be other people on the production team besides the main point of contact (be it Acquisitions Editor or Project Editor(PE)): copyeditor, compositor, artist. Discuss with the main editor how you're going to interact with those other people. For example, on one of my books, the PE didn't allow me to talk directly to the artist or compositor, and the artist did an appallingly poor job. I wish I could have built a relationship with the artist early on, told him what was important to me, find out how he wanted to receive drafts and review comments from me, and so on. This lack of direct interaction (I was actually blocked — everything had to go through the PE) caused a lot of unnecessary friction and some painful rework.

I had a similar experience on one of my books (The Downloader's Companion for Windows), whereby my coauthor and I requested that an artist design an icon for the book's margin representing "Caution!" We suggested something like a banana peel. We were not allowed to communicate directly with the artist, and by the time the editor talked to the project manager who talked to the manager of the art agency who talked to the artist who did the work, what we got back was a collection of icons typified by a banana peel sitting atop a road sign.

One funny thing about most editors for technical books is that they rarely do any editing. After all, they generally work with several authors at once, each of whom is an expert in whatever whiz-bangy technology they are writing about. It's not realistic to expect your editor to have mastered not only your topic area, but also that of all the other authors working with him or her. However, your editor will be — or at least should be — involved in seeing that your manuscript is given a thorough technical vetting before it's given the green light for printing. I have more to say about this important topic in my discussion of the book preparation process.

Turnover in the publishing industry tends to be rather high, so it's possible that the editor you start working with won't be the one you end up with near the book's completion. This is another reason for choosing an editor you trust, because your current editor will probably be the person suggesting who should take over for him or her if he or she leaves. However, it is also a reason for thinking carefully about what should be written into your contract, because though your editor may be transient, your contract will endure.

The Book Preparation Process

The content of a technical book goes through several steps before it gets printed. It's worth knowing what those are, because you'll want to talk to prospective editors in advance about how you'll approach them. The steps are:

I submitted the manuscript and didn't hear anything from the copy editor until over half of it was delivered back to me. All the footnotes had been removed; they'd changed their house style without telling me. They'd been put back into the text by adding parentheses where the footnote number had been, even where it broke the sentence into something nonsensical.

Other changes included reformatting the code examples; changing my use of the word "item" to "chapter" throughout; adding extraneous subheadings throughout each Item; replacing language keywords with their own "synonyms;" and changing my use of the word "may" (as in, "an exception may occur") to "will." Best of all, the text had been completely reformatted, so it was impossible to diff the content with my original version because everything had changed.

To put this in context, I was determined from the outset that the quality of the book should be very high, because previous books on this topic had been rushed out with numerous errors. To ensure that the content was correct, I insisted each Item was reviewed twice by different senior engineers: once when my draft was complete and again after correction. It then had a full read-through for inconsistencies etc. So having a large chunk of it so dispassionately scribbled over was quite devastating.

The publisher claimed they couldn't throw the changes away because it would take too much time to re-edit. So I had to go through and roll out every change I disagreed with. Once I was satisfied, the text was resubmitted - and the editor promptly hacked it again. Fortunately this time we could take diffs and I went through and backed the bad stuff out quite quickly. If I'd only been able to liaise directly, she could have called me before making any significant changes. Instead, I had to try to communicate through two intermediaries. Nightmare!

Print out the manuscript, and read it on paper. You'll be amazed how many errors you missed reading on the screen alone.

Unless you are already skilled in typesetting, or have lots of time to learn it, let the publisher do it, albeit from the files you supply. Many authors spend far too much of their scarce time doing what the publisher can, rather than the one thing that the publisher can't — writing!

This is sound advice, but I have to say that I've spoken with some authors who've been less than impressed with the results produced by "professional" typesetters. However, I've also seen some author-typeset books that have made me wince in pain.

These steps apply only to the interior (the content) of the book. There are other steps that apply to the exterior of the book, i.e., the design and content of the front cover, the back cover, and the spine. There are additional steps for the development of marketing materials for the book, e.g., short descriptions used in catalogs, etc. Most authors have little involvement in these activities, though like everything else, this is a negotiable issue. I, for example, have always been extensively involved in these matters. I figure that if the book has my name on the cover, I want to make sure that every aspect of it reflects well on me.

Each of the above steps is important, and if you discover that your prospective editor doesn't plan to ensure that all are undertaken successfully, that should alarm you. Many editors skimp on — or completely eliminate — the technical reviewing step, a revelation that explains why so many technical books are so bad (i.e., poorly written and filled with incorrect information). If your editor doesn't insist on a thorough technical review by outside readers and/or doesn't actively work to identify qualified reviewers, that's a sign that he or she isn't really concerned with the quality of your book. My advice is to back away from such editors (carefully, lest they become agitated and possibly violent), then flee to the safety of an editor who actually cares about what they do. I can't stress this enough. Your editor should insist on and actively participate in circulating your draft manuscript to several qualified reviewers and ensuring that their comments find their way back to you in time for you to address them. For my own books, I also circulate my draft manuscripts to people I know for comments, thus giving me two independent sources of feedback. I want to find as many weaknesses in my books prior to publication as I possibly can. Don't you?

Your entire book must go through all the above steps, but the granularity with which it does may vary. Some authors write a chapter, then send it out for review while they work on another chapter. This leads to an approach with chapter granularity, a tactic that Philip Greenspun describes on the page I mentioned earlier:

The author is writing Chapter 9 while the development and technical editors are marking up Chapter 6 while the copy editor is correcting spelling errors in Chapter 3 while the production people are typesetting Chapter 1.

Greenspun implies that all computer books are produced this way, but that's not the case. I generally approach the above pipeline of steps with book-level granularity. That is, I usually produce a draft of the entire book (except for the index) before I send anything out for technical review. I then revise the entire book and produce the index before moving on to copyediting.

Because the steps above may be approached in different ways, you'd be wise to heed Karl Wiegers' counsel:

The author should actively work with the editor to agree on how they will work together, rather than both parties making lots of assumptions and relying on telepathy. For example, I insist on having a final review pass after my revisions on the typeset pages have been processed. I've seen too many communication errors that resulted in incorrect revisions on what are supposed to be the final pages. I promise 24-hour turnaround on that final review (per chapter or other increment they send to me), but I insist on it, because I always find errors. I also make sure that my chapters are never late and my reviews are always fast, so the editor knows that my final beauty pass won't hold things up.

For what it's worth, the problem of having typesetters introduce errors into a book is one of the main reasons why I generally do my own typesetting. If there are going to be errors in my books, I like knowing that the only person I can blame is myself.


If a publisher is interested in your proposal, they'll offer you a contract. It will probably be filled with legalese, look confusing, and be at least slightly intimidating. You might want to have a lawyer look it over, though I've never bothered. My guess is that you, too, can get by without a lawyer, because, well, if you're smart enough to master a technology well enough to write about it, you're probably smart enough to read a book contract and figure out what it says. Then again, I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not qualified to give legal advice. So please don't sue me.

Another multiple-book author I know has a very different view of the matter:

Publishing contracts have some of the worst [naughty word] in them, and they are written by high-priced on-staff lawyers who are trying their best to take advantage of authors. One thing I'm sorry I didn't do in the past was to have a lawyer for contracts from the very beginning. There are way too many stories out there about people getting screwed by publishers.

To me, the most important thing to know about a contract is this: Everything is negotiable. Until you sign a contract, it's not a contract, it's a proposal: an offering from the publisher to you. If you don't like something you see in the proposal, you are entirely within your rights to ask to have it changed. Of course, the publisher is entirely within their rights to refuse to change it. Similarly, if you don't see something in the contract that you think should be there, you're free to request that it be added. And of course the publisher may decline your request. Back and forth it may go. That's what "negotiable" means :-)

Fundamentally, a publishing contract says that you give the publisher the right to publish your book, and in return, the publisher agrees to compensate you. It will take several pages to nail down the details, but the big picture is pretty simple. Still, there are some things to look out for.

One of the most obvious is money, but I treat that in a separate section, so I'll skip over it here. Another big one is schedule, but that, too, gets a section of its own. So let's start with exactly what rights you're selling.

The contract will probably want everything: worldwide rights on all media (printed, online, ebook, CD/DVD, etc.) in all languages and in all forms (e.g., as a book, as magazine articles, as CD ROM presentations, etc.). As somebody who makes part of my living by getting paid for magazine articles and for offering training based on my books, I don't want to give up the rights to use my book materials in these kinds of ways. So I always tinker with my contracts to make sure I can continue to do those things. My editors have always been happy to let me do this, because they view such activities as helping promote my books, hence potentially increasing their sales. As you read through a prospective contract, consider how each provision might keep you from doing something you might want to do. Where you see a potential conflict, talk to your editor about it.

Nicolai Josuttis, an experienced author in both English and German, offers this advice:

The contract should contain a statement that the author gets the rights for the book (title and contents) back when the publisher decides to stop publishing the book. That was missing in one of my contracts for a book that didn't sell well (which IMO was also a problem of the publisher). So, legally, I had lost control when the publisher decided not to publish the book any longer. (I got the rights back after some negotiation.)

Also regarding rights, Karl Wiegers offers this remark:

I always delete the clause giving the publisher the right of first refusal on my next book. One publisher was especially egregious on this: they wanted the first option on the next book, but then even if they rejected it and I sold it to someone else, they wanted to be able to match the offer and get the book. No way, Jose.

The contract will probably specify that the copyright for the book will go to the publisher. To be quite honest, I don't really understand how this whole copyright thing works. (Hmmm, maybe I do need a lawyer...) I know that some authors keep copyright in their own names, and I know that some authors' companies hold the copyrights to the books they've written. From what I can tell, you can turn over the publication rights to your book without also turning over the copyright, but why you'd want to do that, I don't know. All I can tell you is that I've never tried to retain the copyrights on my books, in part because I figure that if there's ever a legal battle over copyright, I'd prefer to have my publisher's full-time legal dobermans take on the task instead of trying to do it myself.

I mentioned above the importance of trusting your editor. When it comes to contracts, I believe in nailing things down pretty well, but in some cases where things are a little murky, I'll just ask my editor to clarify things for me orally. More than once we've agreed to leave contract language in place that made life easier for the editor with respect to his or her legal department, but I had his/her assurance that certain things I wanted, though on questionable grounds in the contract, would be allowed. For me, that's worked out fine, and it's allowed me to spend less time agonizing over contract details and more time agonizing over technical matters. I've signed six contracts in a dozen years, and never once have I really wished that any of them had been written differently.

Having said that, it's important to bear in mind that your editor may not remain your editor forever. He or she may get promoted out of an editorial position, may move to a different company, may decide to relocate to Alaska to live in an igloo. If something like that happens, you'll find yourself dealing with a new editor, one who may not know about the mutual agreements between you and your old editor and who may not be willing to be as flexible. The new editor will still be bound by the provisions in your contract, however, so if something is important to you, it should be unambiguous and in writing. Similarly, if there's something in a proposed contract you really don't like, you should get it removed before you sign. It is, after all a contract.

Delivery Dates

Your contract will specify one or more delivery dates for the book you'll be writing. At the very least, it will set the date by which you are expected to deliver the final revised manuscript. There may be other dates, e.g., date for delivery of a complete draft, dates for a draft of each chapter, etc. Think very carefully about these dates before you commit to them. They are important.

A dirty little secret of the publishing industry is that most authors miss their delivery dates. Many promise manuscripts that they never deliver at all. If you miss your schedule, you'll probably surprise no one at your publishing company. In fact, there is a very good chance that your editor and company developed a covert "shadow" schedule for your book that assumed you'd be late, and that that's the "real" schedule as far as they are concerned. If you don't hit your dates, nothing really bad will happen.

Unless it will. Some books honestly do have to be done by a certain time in order to have any market appeal. For example, if you're writing a book about Version 7 of WhizBang Software's Dwimifier Pro, your book is pretty close to useless if it doesn't come out before Version 8 is announced. Furthermore, its appeal diminishes if 50 competing books get to market first. If you're writing a book like that — one where there is a very specific window of market opportunity, you either hit that window or you lose big-time. I spoke with one former editor who told me how, when a book's appointed delivery date arrived, any manuscript even marginally close to completion was sent to production, regardless of its current state. That story says more about the publisher's concern for quality than it does about the importance of delivery deadlines, but it says a lot about the importance of delivery deadlines, too. (I recommend you not write for such a publisher, and I'm sorry, but I don't remember which company it was.)

Even if you're writing a book where it's not critical that it come out at a particular time, I believe that you should do everything in your power to (1) choose a set of delivery dates that you truly believe you can adhere to and (2) adhere to them. Why? Because it's in your own best interest.

In my discussion of royalty rates, you'll see that publishers get the lion's share of the proceeds from sales of your books — typically well over 80%. You won't be the first author to wonder what a publisher could possibly do to deserve that much of the fruit that springs from the sweat of your labor. One thing they do — or at least should do — is publicize your book to potential buyers in advance, thus leading to that sweetest of publishing delicacies, advance sales. Advance sales are copies of your book that have been sold before the book itself exists. The minute your book shows up in the printer's warehouse, those orders are shipped, thus sending royalties your way on Day 1 of your book's existence. Oh happy Day 1! (Well, sort of. As I noted earlier, royalties are typically paid only once every three or six months, so you probably have a while to wait before you actually get a royalty statement. If you've had the financial prudence to get an advance against your royalties, your Day 1 royalties will likely do nothing but start to fill that hole, so your royalty statement may or may not be accompanied by a check. Still, the idea is the important thing, and advance orders lead to at least the idea of making big bucks on Day 1 of your book's existence.)

Advance sales are based on the assumption that your book will come out when it's supposed to. Bookstores and other book buyers that place advance orders often have a timeout specified as part of the order: if the book doesn't ship by a certain date, the order is cancelled. Perhaps now you can see the connection between your delivery date and your pocketbook. If you're late, you risk losing those advance orders. Furthermore, experienced book buyers know that a book that slips once is likely to slip again, so they may be reluctant to place an advance order on your book when a new ship date is announced. As they say, you get only one chance to make a first impression.

But advance book buyers aren't the only people you want to impress. As an author, you're at the bottom of a fairly extensive food chain. The food chain is held together by a common interest in your book, an interest called royalties. You're not the only one getting a piece of your sales. Your editor almost certainly does. The marketing manager at your publisher definitely does. Each and every foot soldier in your publisher's army of charming salespeople does. Heck, for all I know, the book buyers at places like Amazon do.

If you deliver what you promised on time, all the whales in sales and marketing that feed on the plankton of your words will develop a special affection for you. Remember, most authors are late with their plankton. If you distinguish yourself by being on time, the whales take notice. That's important, because if you're a sales rep with, say, 100 titles you're peddling to university professors or corporations or buyers for Amazon, 100 titles on topics you can barely pronounce (much less comprehend), which, say, 5 of those 100 titles do you push especially hard on your sales calls? Let's be frank, it's the 5 that you think will make you the most money. But there's something to be said for goodwill, too, and I believe that authors who deliver on time make life just a little easier, a little more predictable for the gamut of people involved in sales and marketing, and those people are likely to try just a little bit harder for the authors they like, for the authors who are trying to help them out. A reliable author selling 5,000 copies a year can't expect the attention from commission-based sales reps that an unreliable author selling 50,000 copies a year can, but odds are that you'll be part of the masses of authors with run-of-the-mill sales, so your real goal is to stand out from those masses. Delivering on time can help you do that.

Delivering on time is good for your personal life, too. That's assuming you have one, and by the time you're in the throes of completing your book, there is a very good chance that you won't. For a great many authors (including me), bringing a book to completion requires a tremendous expenditure of time, energy, and concentration. It's common for it to displace almost everything else in your life: friends, family, your "real job," etc. It stresses everybody, so it's in everybody's interest to know when the stress will end. It will end when you deliver your final manuscript, so it's good for both you and everybody you know for that date to be the date you said it would be lo those many weeks or months ago when you signed your contract.

(Incidentally, you may have noticed that the acknowledgements of almost every book thanks the author's spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, children, pets, etc., for their tolerance of having been neglected during preparation of the manuscript. Such comments aren't pro forma; they're sincere. Getting the damn thing done typically does demand that you neglect almost everything else. On the upside, the first glimpse of your freshly-printed darling goes a long way towards making you forget about such things. Few things compare to the thrill of holding your newborn book.)

Royalties, Advances, and Other Money Stuff

Any discussion of money should start with a blunt reality: statistically speaking, your book will not leave you wallowing in dough. Publishing a book is like starting a new business: very few are really successful. I say this first, because many people get so caught up in royalty rates, they forget that they don't mean much if the book doesn't sell a lot of copies.

Many-time author Jesse Liberty shares his yardstick by which to measure a book's success:

  • Lifetime sales of under 20K copies is a failure
  • 20-50K is a good seller but won't be a source of significant income
  • 50K - 100K is a great success
  • 100K - 250K is a best seller
  • 250K+ is a blockbuster

These numbers may be high for the current [December 2003] (depressed) market.

Realistically, you should figure that your book will sell no more than about 25,000 copies over the course of its lifetime. You might break away from the pack and sell many more, of course, but the odds are against you. As for Jesse Liberty's comment that selling between 20-50K copies "won't be a source of significant income," that depends on your royalty rate, the wholesale price of the book (both of which I discuss below), and your definition of "significant." Some authors of books that list for, say, $60, get a royalty of $6 or more per book. Do the math, but remember that I'm talking about some books by some authors working with some publishers.

Given the uncertain financial return on your authoring effort, I suggest you figure out what's most important to you. When your book comes out, what will make you say, "I'm happy with the way things went, even if the book sells poorly"? Do you want to have designed your own cover? To have had complete editorial control? To have specified how the book would be marketed? To have made the text of the book available at your web site? If these things are important to you, you may want to trade them off against financial aspects of the contract. After all, even if the book sells zero copies, you'll still have designed your own cover, have exercised complete editorial control, have specified how the book would be marketed, etc. If those things have value to you, I encourage you to find agreement with your editor on them. In doing so, you may have to give up something in the money department.

One author I know makes this suggestion:

You should have some other reason for writing a book than making money from it. A very good reason, I think, is to help establish your credibility as a consultant, or to otherwise use it as a kind of business card.

This is especially relevant if one keeps in mind the remark by author Jeff Ullman that authors should never keep track of how much time it takes them to write a book, because if they do, they'll be able to calculate how much they made per hour, and the result will almost certainly be depressing. I've also heard from acquisitions editors that though they have a pretty good idea how many hours it takes the average author to write a book, they never tell prospective authors this information, because they fear it will scare them away. (Sorry, I don't remember the number. I know that it's big, but having written books of my own, that's hardly news. On the other hand, writing a book is also intensely satisfying, and there's something to be said for a few thousand hours of intensely satisfying work.)

As a counterpoint to the above — both in terms of per-hour pay and the number of hours needed to write a book — Karl Wiegers (who tracks more productivity numbers than anybody I've ever met) volunteers this:

For my poorest-selling book, I spent 397 hours total writing it and have made about $55 per hour to date. That's better than Burger King. The more depressing statistic is my final productivity number of 2.6 words/minute.

Karl's effort clocks in at about 1.7 hours per finished page. That's vastly better than my estimated per-page effort of about 6 hours for my most recent book (the third edition of Effective C++ — available at fine bookstores everywhere), but, from informal conversations I've had with a few other authors, I get the impression that 3-4 hours/page is not uncommon (i.e., 1200-1600 hours for a 400-page book).

But let's talk royalty rates. The first thing to know is that you get royalties on the income your publisher gets from the book, and that means you get a cut of the wholesale price, not the retail price. The difference between the two varies from publisher to publisher, book to book, and bookstore to bookstore, but as a rule of thumb, figure that the wholesale price of a technical book is about half its suggested retail price. So a book that lists for $50 sells to the bookstore for about $25, and your royalty is based on that $25.

Peter Gordon offers this clarification (that may or may not be valid for publishers other than Addison-Wesley):

Actually, royalties are paid on the net amount received, which is different from the wholesale price. If we sell a book directly to the customer (no middleman), at a conference or on the Web, the net could be equal or close to the full list price. ... [Addison-Wesley] Professional discounts [to bookstores from list price] generally are between 32% and 37%. Trade book discounts are more like 50%.

In my experience, most technical authors end up publishing "trade books," a term that probably has some significance to publishers and bookstores, but that to me just means "sells to bookstores at 50% off list price." In fact, the publishing industry is awash in terms for the relationship between a book's list price and the price the publisher generally sells it for (e.g., "long discount," "short discount," "deep discount," etc.). To find out the magic price you'll typically get a royalty on, ask your editor.

Royalty rates are sliced and diced in various ways, but there's generally a rate for US sales that is the basis for most other rates. (I have no experience working with a publisher outside the USA, and though I've spoken with authors who have, I'm going to focus my comments on my understanding of how things work with US publishers.)

I've heard of base rates for US sales varying from 5% to 35%. At the low end tend to be books written as "works for hire," i.e., whose authors are paid for the actual act of writing. At the high end are books written for niche publishers who don't get a lot of broad bookstore distribution and who rarely publish books that sell zillions of copies (e.g., ACM Press, back when it existed). For non-"work for hire" authors for mainstream publishers (e.g., Addison Wesley, Prentice Hall, O'Reilly, Microsoft Press), I get the impression that most new-author royalty rates for US sales are the range of 10%-18%. Remember, however, everything is negotiable.

Also remember that from a financial point of view, your goal is to maximize your income, not maximize your royalty rate. If publisher A offers you a 20% royalty rate and publisher B offers you a 10% rate, publisher B is still the more profitable option if B can sell more than twice as many of your books as A can. Of course, it's generally not possible to know which of two publishers will be able to sell more of your books, much less by what factor, so you'll want to listen carefully to your prospective publishers' marketing plans before deciding whom to climb in bed with. In reaching your decision, remember that royalty rates are only one piece of the compensation puzzle and that compensation is but one aspect of the overall book-publishing experience. My advice is to try to optimize the overall experience, not just the financial part.

Still, I can't help remarking that, in my opinion, a royalty rate of below 15% seems low, especially if you're not getting an advance (which, as I explain below, is generally the case with me.) By that yardstick, many authors get low rates, and that may suggest that my yardstick is warped. However, this is my page, so I get to say what I think, and I think that a royalty rate of less than 15% is low. Why do I think that? Probably because the first contract I was ever offered as a nobody's-ever-heard-of-him graduate student had a royalty rate of 15%.

The US royalty rate may be tiered, e.g., X% for the first n copies sold and Y% for all copies sold after that. X, n, and Y are all negotiable. There may be more than two tiers. That's negotiable, too. For my first book, I was originally offered a flat royalty rate for US sales, but I negotiated up to a two-tier rate that I felt allowed the publisher to recover their fixed costs before moving me up to a higher rate. When looking at these tiers, note that you typically move from tier n to tier n+1 based only on US sales. So if you move from, say, a 15% royalty rate to an 18% royalty rate at, say, 10,000 copies sold, that's generally 10,000 US sales, not 10,000 total sales. This means that you might be a runaway hit in Japan, but those sales don't help you move up to a higher US royalty rate. That, as I'll explain in a moment, means you may not move up to a higher foreign royalty rate. Read your proposed contract and talk to your editor for details. If you don't like the way things work, negotiate.

The US rate is typically the basis for other royalty rates, notably foreign sales. In my experience, the rate for foreign sales is usually about half the rate for US sales, and it's generally worded that way, which means that negotiating a better US rate also increases your foreign rate. Before you get too excited about this, remember that foreign sales are generally small compared to US sales, and the wholesale rate for your book may be vastly different overseas. For example, a book that wholesales for $25 in the USA might wholesale for $5 in countries like India. Using this hypothetical example, that means that you'd have to sell 10 books in India to get the same royalty as on one book sold in the USA. (The theoretical $5 price in India is, in this example, 1/5 of the US price, and we're assuming that your royalty rate for foreign sales is 1/2 of the US rate.)

If you're publishing in a country other than the USA, you'll especially want to take the above facts into account, because they can work against you, as Nicolai Josuttis (who lives in Germany) explains:

There is usually a difference betweens the rate for the country of the publisher and foreign rights. In my contracts, foreign rights are usually half of the rate. You have to be careful with English publishers, because then the US market is the foreign market with lower royalties. In general, the US market is by far the biggest market for an English book. The royalties should be defined for this market explicitly. You might also include Canada, because this is also a market that is usually bigger than U.K.

Not all publishers have different domestic and foreign royalty rates. O'Reilly's standard royalty rates, for example, are the same everywhere, except for translations into foreign languages.

Speaking of translations, I find that few things evoke quite the level of giddiness as seeing a copy of your book in a foreign script. I, for one, cherished my books in Chinese, and I continued to cherish them even after I found out that they were actually in Korean.

By the way, don't be surprised if some of the discounted copies intended to be sold in countries like India end up on EBay, Amazon, or AbeBooks, thus competing with your much-more-lucrative US sales. Just smile and say hello to one of the more interesting aspects of the global economy. (If it makes you feel any better, the US and foreign editions, though both in English and both containing the same words, are unlikely to be identical. The foreign editions will often have different covers, use thinner paper stock, and replace colors in the book with greyscale.)

Beyond the US royalty rate(s) and the foreign rate(s), there are often special-case rates. For example, there may be a special rate for sales that are unusually deeply discounted, such discounts applying only to very large orders. For example, suppose Microsoft decides that it wants to buy a copy of your book for every developer it has, and suppose that's 10,000 books. For such a large sale, your publisher will be willing to give Microsoft a special price, and your rate may be different (lower) for such deeply discounted sales. Don't like this kind of provision? Everything is negotiable, but bear in mind that if your publisher can't make what they consider to be reasonable money on a big sales deal, they may choose to walk away from it. For example, if Microsoft wants 70% off list for the 10,000 books and your royalty rate is fixed, your publisher may say no to the deal, in which case you lose out on 10,000 sales. At least that's the story I've been fed over the years :-)

Regarding such deep discounts for special sales, publisher Tim O'Reilly warns:

Some publishers abuse these clauses, such that more than half of all sales are treated as "deep discount". I've been told by some authors that so many copies fell under deep discount clauses that their effective royalty rate ended up being half the stated royalty rate.

That suggests that you should talk with your editor to find out precisely the conditions under which such special sales might take place. If you're not comfortable with those conditions, negotiate different ones.

There are often still more rates, e.g., rates for copies sold by direct mail, etc. All are lower than the usual US rate. In my experience, the only rate that really makes a big financial difference is the rate for US sales, so though I've been known to kvetch about some of the other rates (especially on foreign sales), the one I really care about is the US one. Similarly, I don't give too much thought to the multitude of provisions for sharing revenues from foreign translations, from selling the rights to produce my books as stage plays and movies (yep, those provisions are in the contracts), etc. There are other things I care about more than those things, so I leave my editor alone on those topics and save my political capital for other matters. That is, I accept the default terms. I read them and I think about them before I sign a contract, but I don't generally challenge them. You may choose to.

In the "There are reasons for all those strange contract provisions" Department, Peter Gordon shared this with me:

I once had someone call from Hollywood to inquire about the movie rights for The Mythical Man-Month.

On to advances. An advance is a prepayment of royalties that you get to keep, no matter how badly the book sells. An advance guarantees that you'll make at least a certain amount of money on the book.

I have a strange attitude about advances: I generally don't get them. From a financial point of view, this is ludicrous. Given a choice between certain money now and uncertain money (possibly less money) later, taking the certain money now is clearly the best course of action. Furthermore, getting an advance from a publisher is a way to increase their up-front investment in your book, thus encouraging them to work harder to sell it. (When I have asked for an advance, it has been specifically to make sure that the publisher has enough invested in the book to give it a good marketing push.) Notes one author I know,

Advances are a good test of how interested the publisher really is in the book. If they don't want to pony up enough of an advance to cover your time working on the project, do they really want the book that much?

Peter Gordon offers this comment,

I can understand where an author might think that an advance seals the publisher's commitment in his or her book. In fact, it's the contract itself that seals the commitment for me. I don't sign contracts lightly. I prefer when there are good reasons for an advance — such as the need to take some time off from consulting to get the book done — rather than some need simply for reassurance.

You typically get at least some of your advance when you sign your contract, thus giving you money before the book is even written. If you don't fulfill your end of the bargain by delivering a publishable book on time, you're contract-bound to pay the advance back (otherwise it'd be a grant — see below), though I've heard that enforcement of this payback provision can be pretty lax.

Clearly, advances are good things. But, as I said, I don't usually get them. The real reason for this is that I hate getting a royalty statement that says I earned X dollars, but I don't get a check, because my advance hasn't yet been paid back. Also, I have this odd notion that getting an advance is like opening your Christmas presents before Christmas. Not rational, I know, not financially savvy, I know, but still, that's the way I look at things.

But there are legitimate reasons for a smaller advance (including no advance), too. First, an advance can be traded off against other things that might be more important to you. For example, suppose you really feel that for your book to be successful, it must be supported by a full-page color ad in several issues of a particular magazine or journal. (Or maybe you just think it'd be cool for your friends to see such ads for your book.) Your editor may disagree, but he or she may be willing to talk about it if you are willing to reduce or forego your advance.

Second, I believe (without any hard supporting data) that there is an inverse relationship between advances and royalties. The more you want up front, the more risk the publisher accepts. The more risk they accept, the bigger they want their payoff to be if the book is wildly successful. Hence lower royalty rates for you. The less you want up front, the more risk you absorb, and the more you are entitled to demand a greater share of the fruits if the venture turns out to be successful. If I write a book that becomes popular, I want to get as much out of it as I can, and I figure that I can best do that by accepting no advance and pushing hard on royalty rates. From what I can tell, this is a minority position in the authoring community, but I'm happy with it, and, from what I can tell, so is my publisher.

Regarding this matter, an author friend of mine comments:

I've never encountered a tradeoff between advance amount and royalty schedule. In fact, I've been able to negotiate to improve both of these on the same contract, more than once.

However, I have to point out that being able to negotiate both advance amount and royalty rate up from the initial offer (which I've also done) doesn't preclude the possibility of being able to push the royalty rate still higher if the advance amount is decreased. As I said, this is just a theory of mine. It may not be true.

Okay, what kind of advance might you realistically expect to negotiate? I have little personal experience here, and what little I have is based on my having already published a successful book, but based on what I hear, I'd say something in the $5,000-$15,000 range is not unreasonable. The higher end of the range is probably reserved for especially strong proposals (including first-book proposals from "names" in the industry), but it never hurts to ask.

Royalties and advances are the main money-related topics, but they aren't the only ones. Here are a few others that come to mind:

I didn't do the indexing on my books, but I wish I had. I agree completely with your comments: a third-party hasn't the knowledge, or indeed the motivation, to do them as well. Like it or not, there's a degree of attachment to one's own written work, which a publisher or contractor doesn't have. There's not the same value set in place, and mistakes creep in, and decisions are taken, which run contrary to the spirit in which the text was created.

Personally, I think you should do your own indexing so that the book's index helps your readers and reflects well on you. The fact that you can probably get some money for it is just a bonus.

Conflicts of any kind are unpleasant, but conflicts over money tend to be worse than most. My earlier comments about trust notwithstanding, I encourage you to make sure that all money-related issues are nailed down in your contract. More than once I've mis-remembered some aspect of a financial deal I've worked out with my publisher. Each time I've been able to consult the appropriate contract to correct my memory before initiating a spat with my editor.


I've never used or considered using an agent, but I have spoken to a few people who have used one. Nobody has spoken of a great experience, but a couple have spoken of experiences ranging from disappointing to horrific. Here's a voice of experience from the latter category:

Don't get an agent. Get an intellectual property lawyer. Lawyers know how to write contracts, only look at it from the standpoint of what benefits you (not the agent) and they only charge you once (agents are leeched onto a book forever). Agents might claim to know about contracts, but only lawyers really know about contracts. If you trust an agent with your contract, you will probably end up being very vulnerable. The only contract that the agent is good at is the one that says they get some of your money. Don't do it.

On this point, Peter Gordon remarks:

If someone is going to get a lawyer, make sure that lawyer is familiar with BOOK contracts. I'd never discourage someone from getting a lawyer, or an agent, for that matter. But it'll be a lot less grief for everyone if you get someone who knows the business.

As I understand it, an agent takes some percentage of the royalties and advances you get from your publisher (15% is standard, I believe, but remember, I've never really looked into this), and in return, they act as an intermediary between you and publishers. They should therefore be able to help you shop your book idea to multiple publishers, play them off against one another to get you the best deal, and handle all the contract negotiations. If you don't want to do that kind of stuff, it seems to me that using an agent might make sense. For example, if you can't tell somebody over the telephone or via email that you'd like, say, a $20,000 advance, it might be worth $3,000 to hire somebody who can. (Not that this means you should expect to be able to get a $20,000 advance. Maybe you can and maybe you can't, but it's unlikely that you will if you don't ask.)

You should bear in mind that what you think of as "the best deal" may not be the same as the best deal from the agent's point of view. As I tried to make clear above, there's a lot more to the publishing experience than just money, but an agent may not care about aspects of the process that don't culminate in a check. If you decide to use an agent, I suggest that you supervise them closely enough to ensure that they're negotiating to get you the best deal in terms of the things that you care about. You don't want to find that you negotiated away a lot of creative control in exchange for a higher royalty rate tier for book sales you are unlikely to ever see.


Author David LeBlanc noticed that I failed to discuss the topic of co-authors, and he offered these comments:

All my books have been done with co-authors. This has been a mixed experience, to say the least. The author I've worked with several times is a great guy to work with, and the quality of what we turn out together exceeds what either of us can do alone. It's also nice to have bit of competitiveness, and someone to help get you moving when you're bogged down. This is how all this goes when it works well. When it does not, a book project becomes anything from a terrible chore to a mess. Nothing worse than 2 of 3 authors are done, want to get paid, want to get on with their lives, and the third is only halfway complete.

So my advice on co-authors:

  1. Co-authors, like roommates, are people that you don't really know until you've worked with them once.
  2. Ask around — ask editors or someone that your prospective co-author has worked with before for references. If they have negative experiences, be cautious.
  3. If the co-author hasn't published anything before, be really cautious, and pad your schedule.
  4. Be cautious about getting involved with a book where there are a lot of co-authors, especially if the publisher picked them all. These books are often of low quality, and won’t help you build a good reputation. In such cases, you may actually do better writing the chapters on a for-hire basis — skip the royalties, just pay me up front.

I agree with David's remarks, though I'd liken the relationship between co-authors more to that of business partners than roommates. I generally write things alone, but I've worked with co-authors on books and articles, and when things go well, i.e., when the authors really complement one another, the result is intensely satisfying for both authors and readers. When they go poorly, it's like living with a roommate you don't like or working with a business partner you don't get along with: unpleasant. Before committing to write with one or more co-authors, take the same kind of steps you'd take before agreeing to live with or enter into a business with those people.

Odds and Ends

Jesse Liberty sent me two good observations, which I don't really know where else to put, so I'm putting them here. The first regards promoting your book:

If you write for profit, and if sales are important to you, then you can not just leave promotion to your publisher. You need to be on the newsgroups answering questions and gently (!) mentioning your book. You also need to be ready to do book signings and other public appearances. If your publisher doesn't set it up, do so yourself. Don't EVER knock anyone else's book, but don't be afraid to mention your own book when asked for recommendations or for guidance.

I agree. Just because you've written a great book doesn't mean that people will notice it. Your publisher should do its best to bring your masterpiece to the attention of the world, but it's a good idea for you to help out in ways that only you can. For example, most people are far more interested in a newsgroup posting that says,

The answer to your question is [detailed explanation goes here]. By the way, I cover this topic in my new book, Everything You Need to Know About Everything. Details are available at the book's web site,

than in anything a publisher's marketing specialist can dream up.

Regarding the newsgroups, I've learned so much from them, I have a policy of hosting silly contests that allow newsgroup participants to win free autographed copies of each new book I publish. (For an example, check out the results of my 1997 contest.) It's a sincere way for me to offer thanks to the people who've helped me learn enough to write a book, but it also spreads the word about the book's existence to a group of people who are likely to be interested in it. If they like it, they'll probably tell others, and word of mouth marketing is something you definitely want.

Jesse's second suggestion regards post-book support:

Be ready to support your book. That means constant attention to your errata sheet, creating an internet (email/web) connection with your users and so forth. And keep your book up to date.

I fully agree. A book establishes a relationship between the author and each reader. Readers don't like to feel abandoned by their authors, and authors benefit from feedback from their readers. I expend a lot of effort in trying to make my books as accurate as possible, for example, but my readers are always able to identify mistakes, ambiguities, and other weaknesses. They send bug reports to me. I review them and put the valid ones at my books' errata pages (you'll find links to them at my books and CDs page), then I do my best to fix the bugs in future printings. In the end, I improve my technical knowledge, the books get more accurate over time and develop a reputation for remaining relevant, and my readers learn that they can help me improve them. Win, win, win. Do readers notice? Judging by messages like this, they do:

I just wanted to send you a quick note to say I really appreciate your diligence in maintaining these [errata] lists. It is one (of many) reasons why I purchase your books in bulk and give them to the developers on our staff and our regular contractors. I have confidence in the content. That's really worth something, especially with the proliferation of poorly written technical books during the .com boom.

One Final — and Really Important — Note

In my remarks above, I've tried to give you an idea of some of the numbers you might reasonably be offered or ask for as regards advances, royalty rates, typesetting fees, etc. These are ballpark figures at best. As a general rule, the numbers are related to one another, so changing one may change them all. Furthermore, because everything is negotiable, the numbers may change due to other aspects of the contract you sign.

Why am I telling you this? Because I don't want anybody to go to a publisher and say something like, "Scott Meyers says I should get a royalty rate of X, but you're only offering Y, so I know you're cheating me." Please don't do this. Not to me, not to you, not to a prospective publisher. My goal here is to give you some idea of what you might reasonably expect in an area where most new authors have no experience. Use this page as one data point among the many you'll want to gather before signing a contract. I hope it helps, but under no circumstances is this the last word on the topic.

Now go out and write that book!

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