Since publishing my second book, Staff Engineer, I’ve had more folks popping up for publishing advice. I’ve written a few times about my experience writing books in Self-publishing Staff Engineer (2021) and What I learned writing a book (2019), but neither directly confronts the two questions that folks keep asking, “Should I write a book?” and “How do I publish a book?”
Should I write a book?
When folks ask me this question, my first advice is that you should only write a book if you think you’d enjoy writing a book. There is always a more direct approach to your goals than writing a book. My second advice is that you have to answer a fairly predictable question, “What are your goals for writing a book?”
For every common goals that I hear, there’s usually a more direct solution than writing a book:
“Increase access to future opportunities.” Access to future opportunities depends on your credibility and your qualified network (e.g. folks who will recommend you wholeheartedly rather than knowing you at a distance). A decent book does build credibility, but it doesn’t do too much to build your network. A more direct way to work on credibility and network is to work at a prestigious company. To work on credibility directly it’s easier to do some public speaking, or to write a few blog posts and get distribution on someone else’s blog like First Round Review.
“Advance the state of the industry.” Advancing the industry requires the industry reading your work, and that only happens with an effective marketing and distribution plan. Working with a publisher helps a bit, but most of the work is still yours to do. Once again, a more direct way is blogging and public speaking. It takes vastly less time to write four great blog posts than one good book. It’s also much easier to incorporate feedback and suggestions into a blog post to take it from good to great than a book.
“Alternative money stream.” Self-published books can make a fair amount of money. Eight months of Staff Engineer sales handily eclipsed my first salary as a software engineer, but most books make less and sales tend to be concentrated in the first six months. Books can indirectly make quite a bit of money as e.g. lead generation for your consultancy practice, but are not a very efficient way to directly make money.
If the book format still appeals to you, you’re an experienced writer, and those bullets don’t discourage you, then by all means write a book! Keep in mind that following default norms will push you towards writing something that’s two to three hundred pages, but you can absolutely write a shorter book. Let your goal guide your approach without worrying too much about norms.
Of course, that’s not always so easy if you’re working with a publisher, which brings us to the next topic.
How do I publish a book?
Most folks who haven’t published a book before think that deciding between self-publishing and working with a publisher is one of the final decisions to make in publishing a book. However, this is actually one of the very first decisions. Pushing would-be authors to acknowledge this is an early decision is probably the most valuable thing I do in these discussions.
Publishers have a process for creating a book, and they’re going to run you through that process. Even if you’ve already written your book, they’re going to still run you through that process, which will likely result in your reworking your book considerably. If you want to work with a publisher, you should reach out to them with a concept and an outline, and they’ll evaluate your concept very much along the lines that a venture capitalist might evaluate a startup:
What is the audience you’re targeting?
What gap would this book fill for that audience?
What are the existing books for this audience? How did they sell? Why would this be an effective addition?
Why are you an effective person to write this book?
How will you make marketing this book easier?
If these questions seem annoying, then maybe you don’t really want to publish a book. These are really important questions to answer if you want to self-publish a well-read book as well. If you decide to self-publish to avoid answering those questions upfront, rest assured that you’ll need to answer them any many other logistical questions. I documented that process for Staff Engineer in Self-publishing Staff Engineer, and it includes things ranging from marketing to cover design.
My general advice to folks is to try working with a publisher for your first book. There is so much to learn about writing a book and a publisher lets you focus more on writing (and rewriting) a good book instead of the entire ecosystem. It also lends credibility that translates to future projects whether or not you work with a publisher. If you can’t get interest from publishers, then absolutely self-publish, but be prepared for a bit of a learning curve.
There’s certainly more topics on writing a book, but if you have solid answers to both of those then I think the others will fall into place.