Stories about Software


Readers Often Ask Me, “Should I Write a Book?” Here’s My Take

“Should I write a book?”  Someone asked me this today, and I rattled off an answer.

But as I was doing so, it occurred to me that I get this question frequently.  Probably a few times per month, at least.  And this makes sense, since I’ve written a few myself and I’m in the content business.  Heck, one of those books has even enjoyed more success, commercially, than I ever anticipated.

So, no-brainer, right?  Get out the digital quill, put on your frilly Shakespeare-style writing shirt, and let the art flow through your keyboard?

Answering the Reader Question, Should I Write a Book?

I’ll spend the post answering the question, but I can give you a pretty short answer and then let you read on below the lede, if you’d like.  The answer is, “ehh… maybe.”

I think writing a book can be a great exercise in personal growth.  I also happen to agree, at least anecdotally, with the wisdom that “everyone has at least one book in them.”  But that doesn’t mean that you should just sit down and start typing.

Should you write a book?  The short answer is this:

Yes, but only if you can articulate exactly who will read it, how, and why, and then you form a plan to make sure that happens.  If you do that articulation and that planning, and still want to write a book, then go to town.

So there you have it — the short answer.  The longer answer, and the remainder of this blog post, is going to by the justification of my thesis.  And, by way of support, I’m going to explain how I lumbered into writing a book in exactly the wrong way.

Think of this, then, as not just advice I’m giving to the various readers who ask about this, but also advice I’d give to myself 5+ years ago.

If You Build It, They Will Most Certainly Not Come

Maybe it’s because of the iconic nature of Field of Dreams.  Pre-Waterworld Kevin Kostner, playing a humble farmer and baseball lover, listens to a motivational, ghostly voice assure him that, if he builds a baseball field in the middle of his rural farm, good things will happen.  And, because it’s pre-Waterworld Kevin Kostner, we assume that this isn’t a sign of him being dangerously unhinged, but rather of fate, or whatever.

This unyielding faith in the improbable, hair-brained scheme has wandered its way into the tech community, perhaps peaking with Apple unveiling the iPad.  “Who would ever want a giant iPhone,” the detractors scoffed.

But then, do you know what Steve Jobs did!?

He built it anyway, damnit.  And he was right!  Good thing he didn’t listen to anyone.  “If you build it, Steve, they will come.”

You are Neither Steve Jobs nor Pre-Waterworld Kevin Kostner

Well, maybe if the ghosts of Shoeless Joe or Steve Jobs are showing up in your backyard.  (And probably not even then.)  But for you?  It won’t work out this way.  I’ve written about this very idea before, and it bears repeating here, about books.

You think that if you write it, and it’s good enough, and interesting enough and, well, you get lucky enough, it’ll go viral and get really big.  Because that’s how things like being an author work, right?

Wrong.  That is not how it works.  If you write a book without a plan, not even your mother will read it.  She’ll just buy it and skim enough to convince you she tried and it was over her head.

How I Screwed this Up with Developer Hegemony

When I started writing Developer Hegemony, I didn’t conceive of the book as a product, a business, or even a piece of marketing collateral.  Readers kept tweeting/commenting/etc at me, “you should write a book!”

This was really flattering, and, as any regular reader knows, the word “brevity” won’t appear on my epitaph.  So I figured, “hey, I’m in.”  I created a Leanpub account, announced the book there, and set about composing.  My thought process went like this:

  • I’ll write about what interests me, treating this as my manifesto.
  • Ooh, and I’ll give it a name that sounds clever and amuses me.
  • It’ll cover a lot of ground and backstory as it relates to me and topics that I think are important.
  • If people find this interesting, great!  If not, oh well.

Now, let me be clear about something at this point.  The book has actually done fairly well, surpassing anything I ever expected.  But that was totally in spite of this approach and not at all because of it.

Do you know what’s missing from my entire game plan there?

There’s not a single mention of you, the reader.  It’s me, me, me.  My story, my manifesto, my cute title, and my own amusement.  In conception, this, then, is a hobby and not a business.

First, Decide Whether You’re Doing this as a Hobby

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a hobby pursuit.  Let me be crystal clear about that.  But deciding whether you’re writing a book as a hobby or not is important, because the entire rest of your plan (or not bothering therewith) hinges on this decision.

Are you writing a book because you want to be a person who wrote a book?  For comparison’s sake, think of why you might want to run a marathon, climb a mountain, or best the 80 oz. steak challenge down at the Doc Holliday Steak Factory.  Is it because it’s a challenge out there, waiting for you to best it?

If so, great.  Don’t bother planning any more than you feel like, and get started.  Like the marathon, mountain, or steak, persistence will see you through.

But if you have other motivations, understand those now.  For instance:

  • Are you looking to pad your resume by having written a book?
  • Do you want the book as a lead-generation asset for your business or consulting practice?
  • Do you want to at least break even (there is cost associate with creating a book), if not make a little side money?
  • Or, are you looking to make a book a serious part of your income?

If the answer to these questions is “yes” or if you have some other commercial motivation, then this is not a hobby.

So you need a plan.

Treat a Book as What it Is: A Product Business/Business-Strategy

What does this plan look like?  Well, as I said in the beginning, it hinges on your prospective readers.

Who is it that will read this book?

Pick out a specific person, or even an example human being that you know.  This informs the rest of your plan, because it anchors your audience in your mind and forces you to focus on them.

Why will that person read the book?

Why should your reader read your book?  Why should he or she care?  These questions tell you what content you should include and exclude, and, to an extent whether to bother to write the book.

For instance, if it’s your personal manifesto, why in the world would anyone want to read?  Nobody is out there googling, “what does Alice Smith think of agile transformations?” or “Bob Miller opinions on cloud technologies.”  If Alice and Bob have audiences, and those audiences already like them, they might wind up with readers.

But to succeed with a book, you’re much better served to answer, up-front, what’s in it for your reader persona.  Are they going to learn something?  Will you inspire them?  Change their mind about something?

How will that person know about your book, find it, and buy it?

One last component of the plan is the “how.”  Do you know what will happen if you bang out a 100K book in Leanpub and then publish it to Amazon?

Absolutely nothing.

Nobody will notice and nobody will care.  Those platforms won’t, by default, market your book or promote it in searches.  You can make that promotion happen, but only with effort.

If you want book in hand and eyeballs on your prose, you need to lay out a strategy.  How will you share the book, distribute it, promote it, and use it?

This might be something simple.  For instance, if your goal is to pad your resume or have a loss-leader piece of sales collateral, then you can just hand it to people or send them a link.  But however simple it might seem, you need a plan for getting it in front of them.

Answer These Questions as if You Were Launching a Product, Because You Are

If this is starting to smell like a business plan (or its hipper, younger cousin, the business model canvas), that’s no accident.  That’s exactly what it is.

You’re about to invest significantly in an effort: both your time, and, quite probably, when all is said and done, your money.  For instance, I spent thousands of dollars, in addition to my own time, producing Developer Hegemony (some of which included a consultant toward the end to steer me toward a successful launch, once I wised up about how books actually worked).  I realized near release time how much better off I’d have been with a plan from the outset.

Whatever the mix of sweat and capital equity, it will be significant.  So the least you can do is gameplan accordingly.

Think of it as parallel to building a SaaS or software product.  You wouldn’t just aimlessly write whatever code you felt like for months or years, with no plans, and then turn it loose on the world saying, “alright, now, show up and buy it everyone!”

It’s no different with a book.

A Book is a Lot of Effort, So Make Sure It’s Worth It

I’ve mentioned in the abstract how much effort it takes to compose a book.  But really, think about it a little bit.  It isn’t just the hundreds and hundreds of hours you’ll spend banging out your thoughts.  It also includes, but is not limited to, the following.

  • Revisions and checks for consistency as it grows longer than anything you’ve previously written.
  • Proofreading at a minimum and probably paying a professional editor.
  • Figuring out copyright and things like IBAN.
  • Wrangling the book into the various bookstore formats and layouts.
  • Understanding distribution schemes, like eBooks in different book stores as well as physical print, potentially.
  • Learning how to promote a book in different channels.

I’m probably missing things, too.  As you go, you’ll discover it’s an analog of Hofstadter’s Law: writing a book is twice as much effort as you think it will be, even when you account for Hofstadter’s Law.

So with that in mind, is it worth it?  You’ll have to examine your own motivations and plan, and make that call for yourself, obviously.

It’s Probably Worth It, If It’s the Right Book

In spite of all of my words of caution here, l actually have a strong “you should write a book” bias.  It’s an incredibly rewarding experience and, when strategically executed, it can bring you a lot of nice rewards in many forms.

But it’s also a slog, even for someone like me, that sets out to write a 1,000 word blog post and just watched my word count hit 1,874.  You’ll go for a week at a time where you just can’t look at it.  You’ll stress out about it.  And you’ll even probably swear the whole thing off dramatically at some point, before reconsidering.

So understand that you should not do it on a whim, either from a subject-matter perspective or without a plan.  Lay out your honest motivations, and then build your plan so that you know what success looks like and what it will bring you in the end.

Doing this will set you up with a nice carrot to chase.  But the planning and introspection ahead of time will make sure that you care enough about the subject matter, the audience, and the eventual outcome to weather any storms.

So should you write a book?  Yes, definitely.  Just find the right book to write before you start.

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Matthieu Cneude
5 years ago

Thanks for this article. I think we could extrapolate these good advises to anything one wants to do which take time and efforts.

Toe me, if somebody wants to write a book, begin by writing something smaller, like a blog. It’s what I did and I really enjoy it. It showed me as well how difficult it would be to write a book, especially since I’m not a native English speaker.

One day, maybe.