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My authoring experience with Apress

It has been a few years since my  book Arduino Projects to Save the World came out, and since that time have been asked often what my experience was like.

In addition to this now routine conversation, a friend of mine has recently completed his authoring experience with another publisher.  In addition, I am in discussion with yet another friend about coauthoring a new book, and we have been discussing publisher options.

So, I decided to check up on the current state of contracts, proposal demands and author experiences. It is due to this research that I decided to write this particular blog. I found several negative authorship reviews of my publisher, Apress. My own experience was mostly positive. So if you are out looking for more fuel for your "Apress sucks" fire, you likely won't find that here. I am not going to brown nose them, but will try to give an honest assessement of what went well, what went not so well, and where that fault layed. Then I will take a few of the negative reviews I have found and attempt to comment/deconstruct.

But first, how did I get the book deal in the first place:


How it started

Back in 2010, a friend of mine, Akiba (the same person who just finished up his book with O'reilly) had been contacted by a project manager at Apress to write an Arduino sensors book. He was not really that interested in the project (although he was a topical expert), and decided to pass. He referred me to Apress as a suitable replacement author. They then contacted me directly to propose the book topic.

In the following weeks, we discussed the possible structure of the book, contract and schedule. I must admit that as a first time author, I was overly ambitious. But the overall negotiation experience was pleasant and exciting.

This whole process differes from the typical one, in which a would be author proposes a book to the publisher. In such a case, the author has to do a lot more ground work. So, in one sense, I was lucky, in that the project manager already had some idea of what they wanted to do with the book, how it would fit into their lineup of titles and how viable it could potentially be.

As a technical reviewer

During this time, I was also tasked as a technical reviewer for another author, also writing an Arduino book for the Technology in Action lineup. I can tell you that being a tech reviewer can be emotionally challenging.. at least if you are caring/feeling person. You have to objectively assess another person's work. Is it safe (yes, in hardware books, SAFETY is an important thing to consider)? Is it the most effective method to achieve the results demanded of the project? Are there any hidden problems with the design? In the case of hardware books, you will have to do your best to replicate the hardware utilized by the original author, test things out, and uncover the problems.

Once this is complete, you have to go in and respond to the author directly. This is where it can get emotional. In my case, I had to let the author know that the way they described something could pose dangers to the reader, and that they needed more protections. To attack another person's hard work is difficult. To BE that other person is even more difficult.

After three chapters written, this author canceled their contract and the book was never finished. Because the entire project was scrapped, I did not get paid for my work on the book. But then, neither did the author, or anyone associated with the project who was not a direct Apress employee. Remember that many of the project managers are on contract too. So, if the book is scrapped, they don't get paid either.

The other thing I learned from the T.R. work was that of how to take criticism. I was doing the T.R. work before my book was scheduled to go into production. It was a good experience. As a TR I had to really tear apart a person's technical work, and how they presented it to the audiance. But the GOAL is for the author to produce better work. Working together, we produce a better product.

As an author, I had a very similar experience. One of my chapters was criticized hard by my T.R. HARD. To the point of completely re-designing the hardware, re-building it, re-photographing it, and re-writing several large sections of text. After reading the T.R's notes I nearly cried. Mostly because I knew he was right. I REALLY SCREWED UP. But it was still emotionally difficult to accept.

To this day, I wonder if that author I was T.Ring for quit because of my review notes. I certainly hope not. But I can now totally sympathise with him if it were the reason. I was pretty harsh on him (as my TR was harsh on me). But these things have to happen. And as an author, it is our responsibility to accept the criticism, consider strongly how to improve the material and bounce back.

My second draft of that chapter (after 3 weeks of work to rewrite), came back from the TR with only one comment. "NICE SAVE!"


Getting to work

As an author of a hardware book, I feel we have a particularly hard road to travel. We all have the tight schedules to keep. But for hardware, it is especially difficult because we have hardware to buy (out of our own funds, usually), hardware to build, hardware to photograph, schematics and mechanical illustrations to prepare, and code to debug.

If you live on a small budget (as I do), you have to plan your book writing expenses carefully. At least in those first few months before the advances start rolling in. I will cover more about this in the "reality check" later on.

At any rate, I jumped headlong into working on the book. We had a huge chapter list. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I was really overwhelmed with the scope of the book. Fortunately, I was confident in my writing abilities, and my writing samples came back from Apress with very little critique, other than I write too short. This was a shocker to me, considering everyone I ever knew has always said I am overly long winded.

My first real lesson in book writing:

Chapters are meant to be long. In book format, you can afford to be overly detailed. It is not a blog post. You should write everything as if you were walking someone through step by step, with no possible chance for them to get lost. If there are holes in the process, fill them in. Do not assume anything of your readers.

The 'official' flow of a book through the production process (from the author's perspective) looks something like this:

  1. Author writes and submits a chapter
  2. Chapter goes to technical reviewer. Generally all the major tech points are there. If there are to be major changes or SNAFUs you want to catch them early.
  3. Chapter is returned to author if there are any major techical glitches
  4. Then it goes through gramatical/content review. Here we are not just looking at grammer. Is it understandable? Is it well organized? These reviewers are often NON technical people. If they can understand the content, it passes.
  5. Then the project reviewer. If the content reviewers have not told you to write more, then your project manager certainly will!

So, just by looking at the 5 points, it is VERY RARE to get a chapter all the way through on the first try. It almost ALWAYS pops back out for more work.

My second lesson of book writing:

Don't take the criticism personally. Even if it feels like an all out attack on your hard work. Yes, you stressed out getting it done. Yes, you nearly broke down and quit. Yes these people are being overly critical of you. But it is not personal. Your job as an author is to read, digest and accept the criticism. Do what they ask you to do. Bounce back with BETTER copy. Your reviewer's job is to make you look good in print. They are there to make sure you put your best efforts into something that will have your name on it for a very long time. Someone will buy this book. They will read and learn from it. They will keep it on their shelf and reference it often. It is a part of your legacy. Make it the best work you can.

As a fresh author, the publisher really does not know what you are going to do. I mean, they have, in effect, hired someone to produce a product for them. Unfortunately they are not in the same room with you, and certainly not in your head. They also don't live your life, and have no idea how you spend your free time.

So, all in all, they are worried. And rightly so. More books in the stream are abandoned by the author than are printed by the publisher. They have assembled a team, all based around you. They are there to support you and assure you produce content. They are YOUR team. And as more publishers switch to leaner management models, your team is relying on you more, and some members may not get paid unless you complete. This was relationship model was made perfectly clear to me when the author I was doing TR for abandoned his project.

My third lesson of book writing:

I am many things. I am an EMPLOYEE of the publisher, hired on a contract. As with any contract, if I fail to produce, there are consequences. I am also the central link in a TEAM of people relying on me. If I do not succeed, neither do they. If I quit the book, it has small consequences for me, but potentially BIG consequences for my team members. Writing a book is a JOB for which I am hired, and I should treat it as such.


Behind the Scenes

After you accept the contract and get to work, your project manager is going to start hounding you to confirm and stick to a schedule. Sometimes the stated time frames feel absolutely absurd. Even more so if you are writing a hardware book (again, there is so much more you have to do). If you feel like you can't meet those deadlines, it is better to say something sooner rather than later.

Remember that although your PM is in constant contact with you, they still really have no evidence that you are producing content. "I am working on it." I am almost done." "Sometime next week." and "Yes, but this other stuff happened." at least fills them in on what you are going through, but it is not evidence of completed work. They have no record of your production until you check in a chapter. This is when you actually upload content to be reviewed.

If you find yourself slipping off the schedule, or the PM is 'on your ass' for material, the least you could do is submit SOMETHING. Towards the end, I was falling way behind. It is ok to submit something for "TR ONLY." They can at least see you worked on the project. They can confirm at least that the technical aspects are all good, and that you need only finish documenting. But the very act of checking in content is the ONLY indication that you are still working.

The other major thing that happens after you start working, is the release of the 'teaser content.' They start working on the back cover text, and will ask you for some general writing about what the book is about. They will take your short blurb, along with your table of contents and send these to another writer. This writer produces the back of the book content, as well as the short description they release to resellers.

And this is the critical point: RESELLERS. They have now comitted to their resellers the relase of your book, at the date, page count and price you helped them determine. They have given them a summary of what it is. They have given them a date to expect shipment. The resellers have added it to their database and set aside inventory space. They have published this summary and book cover mockups on their web site. Some may have even started taking preorders.

WAKE UP! You have made a comitment, and others have taken you at your word!

So, this whole scheduled deadline thing is actually quite important. But the dates are not as solid as the publisher and PM make it sound. More than anything else, they simply want to see PROGRESS. IF you slip a deadline here, you can make it up later. In a PMs mind, here is the ranking from worst case to best:

  • You cancel the book, and they can not find a replacement author
  • You cancel, but help them find a suitable author to start from scratch
  • You cancel, but produce about half the book. They find a co author to carry on, but can use what you finished
  • You finish the book, but late. It slips far enough back that they call in a co-author to help you finish. You tell them what to write and they write it.
  • You finish the book late, but entirely on your own
  • You finish the book on time.

So, it should be clear to see that a publisher rarely ever gets a 'perfect book, on time.' So, don't stress out so much about the deadlines. Just MAKE PROGRESS. Show some progress every week. Keep your team updated on what you are thinking. If you have a personal problem, thats ok. Just COMMUNICATE.

Fourth lesson in book writing:

Recognize that you have made a comitment. Not just to your PM or the publisher. You have made one to yourself, your PM and team members, your publisher, and many many resellers. Say what you will comit to and comit to what you said.  I did not realize that by signing a contract with a publisher, I was also, in effect, making a promise to Amazon, Barns and Nobel and anyone else potentially willing to stock my book.

Reality Check

Writing a book is hard. The seasoned pros make it look easy, but that is because they cut their teeth working really hard on their first few books, and made a lot of mistakes. Now, it is still hard for them, but they know how they work best. They know the pitfalls, and have learned how to better estimate their time, financial and energy requirements to get it done. I am considering two books right now, and in both cases, I am much more realistic (read cynical) about my actual time required to get it done.

You have to ask yourself "WHY do I want to write a book?!"

If your answer has anything to do with money, you are in the wrong game. You will NOT get rich writing technical books. At least, not for your first few books. These days, even with the more generous royalties that Apress and O'reily offer for digital publishing (many don't pay on pdf sales), there still is not much money in it until you have HUGE sales figures. Those sorts of figures are really hard to achieve on niche books. The more 'niche' your book, the harder it will be. But that is the point of writing a book right? To fulfil the needs of a very specific topic.

Are you doing this for fame?

Well, that at least you will have some success at. Assuming you complete the book, just having your name on something like that is a really awesome feeling. No single day of my life was more filled with pride than the day I opened up a box containing the first sample prints and gave copies to my family members. I regularly make a point of telling people I am an author, and if they are in 'my industry' I can go into great detail about it with people who are also enthusiastic about my passions.

What kind of writer are you?

Not everyone is good at teaching, and that age old addage that "Those that can't, teach" is total BS. It is not enough to be an expert in the topic you want to write about. You also have to have at least some idea of how to relate this knowledge to others. Those without direct teaching experience might be better served by a publisher that has a very specific framework for their book contents. The mold is designed with a strict organization for each chapter and assures nothing is missing. As an author, you just need to fill it in. I don't want to make that sound easy though. These sorts of books are MUCH MORE detailed, and often demand a high level of expertise to produce. Those more comfortable with teaching or not complete experts are more likely going to be comfortable with less structure and a casual writing style. As a writer and a teacher by profession, I prefer the Apress Technology in Action casual format. The editorial staff place less emphasis on fitting the mold.

Avoid 'authorship reviews' of publishers that are more than a few years old.

Here is where I go to bat for Apress specifically. You can google it and find a lot of negative reviews about Apress. But the same could be said for any publisher. The fact is, people rearely write a positive review of their publisher. We, as a society, tend to focus and document the bad things, and not the good things So don't trust a review that is more than a few years old. Things change constantly in the business world. Staff leave. New staff arrive. The corporate culture changes from year to year. Just because things were bad a few years ago does not mean they are bad now. And just because one author had a bad experience does not mean they all do (or even that the fault was on the publisher's end).

So what SHOULD you trust? The contract. Remember folks; this is a JOB. And you asked for it. The publisher is not responsible for kissing your hand and calling you 'savior.' We would LIKE them to be polite and attentive to our needs, and they will be, so long as we communicate, submit content, and work hard to stay on schedule (and notify them when we can't). But they are under no obligation to be, and they will stop being so when we start to stray outside the bounds of that contract.

My fifth lesson in book writing

Your publisher will be your friend, until you give them reason not to be. Then they will be your boss.


An author's review

I had a very good experience working with Apress. Most of my team was attentive and waited on me more than I had to wait on them. Yes, I had some trouble with getting payments, but then I figured out the whole schedule it was all good. Really just a miscommunication.

For those of you that don't know, most publishers work on a quarterly basis, and pay out advances on a measured basis. For example, according to my contract, my first advance would be paid only after three chapters had been submitted for FINAL review (that means passed the TR and content reviews. All three of mine came back with comments like "you need to write more and expand on this point.."). THEN I had to wait until the next available quarterly pay out, which was a month after I had submitted my third chapter. I explained that the delay in funds would delay my ability to purchase hardware for future projects, slowing down the entire book process. It was unforseen by me, and caused an immediate slip in relase date. Already starting on a bad foot! But my PM continued to be supportive, with a bit of extra "Emery, I'll kick you in the ass if you don't get this in soon!" Sometimes we need tough love to stay motivated.

Not long after that, two major events cause a long delay in work. First, I found out my mother had terminal cancer. It was a long three year process of watching from afar (I live in Japan, my family is in the USA), traveling a lot, working a lot and stressing out. Second, on March 11th, 2011 Japan was struck by a major earthquake. The resultant tsunami killed thousands of people in northern Japan and heavilly damaged the Daiichi nuclear power plant. It was a scary time for a foreigner living in Japan at the time. This double whammy of strees caused me to take a long vacation from producing the book. Apress was really supportive and understanding. Eventually they could not wait any longer, and picked up again with reminding me to work. I realized I had to finish it for my mother, and do so before she passed away. It was the strongest motivation for me. But still, to this day, those two events happening in close proximity have left me with lasting PTSD.

The experience and after effects of living through the earthquake became a driving force for the content of the book. Ultimately it made for a better book, but one which was not precisely what we had initially put out to the resellers. Additionally, I now had a huge time crunch to finish within a reasonable date for publishing. As it was, the book would come out 5 months later than originally proposed. Disappointed brick and mortar resellers chose not to stock it on shelves. To make matters worse, just to have any chance at all of finishing on a reasonable deadline I had to trim and cut chapters in order to reduce workload. So I went to print with less pages than promised for the original price. In pure pennies per page, I produced less value than I initially proposed. Not only that, but we had to hire an author to produce and write the final project.

In my experience, anything that 'went wrong' with my book was entirely on my end. My only real negative comment about Apress is the lack of strong promotion (or is that equal promotion)?) of their books. They could be more agressive with brick and mortar shops. They could show up to more conventions and events to sell books. But when you consider that in comparison to O'reily, you have to remember that the big O has basically usurped the maker community by way of Make magazine and MAKE fairs, for the express purpose of selling their books. Oh sure, they are building a community, which is a very good thing in my opinion, but one has to always remember; they are a publishing business. Building community builds customer base. It really is that simple, and ONLY that simple. With that sort of control over the hacker/maker content, it will become harder and harder for any competing publisher to keep up.

Other perspectives

I have included two references below. My comment for reference 2 is only that you should really read this first if you plan on writing a book. There is a lot of good, practical advice there. You need to go into it with a reasonable understanding of how the system works, what to expect from a publisher and what NOT to expect from them. If you are reasonable about your expectations and do your best to fulfill your comittments, it won't matter which publisher you choose.

As for the first reference, I want to take it as a learning example. I don't mean to bash the author. But I see a lot of mistakes here which I think everyone can learn from. Again, one should not trust a review more than a few years old anyway (and that will eventually apply to my own post!).

So, take a look at link 1. In particular, pay attention to the timeline. then come back here...

Mistake 1: Not ever signing a contract

"Well thars yer probl'm right there!" Intentional hill-billy voice. Entry 3 on the timeline spells disaster. A disaster that percolates through the ENTIRE experience this person has. They will send you a contract with seemingly arbitrary deadlines. You have a few options:

  1. Reply with more feasable deadlines (if you can predict them). Ask for a revised contract to be sent, which you will sign.
  2. Go ahead and sign it anyway, and hope you can stay on schedule. Remember, you can slip. These things are legal yes, but not really set in stone. The main thing is they want progress, and want you to know what your timeline looks like. Late is better than canceled.
  3. Walk away.

The one thing you CAN'T do is first not sign a contract, then assume you still have a working relationship, should be producing content, and demand to be paid for it. Your contract is no different than an employee agreement/application. They won't and CAN'T pay you without it. Wise up.

Mistake 2: Screwing over other people as well

I am referring here to the last entry for March 2009. The publisher, having seen you refuse the deadlines as stipulated, and not having sufficient contact to resolve said issues, has hired on a co-author to help you out. This person likely already signed their contract. Again with the refusal to sign! This is now screwing over your co-author, who is on the hook but waiting for you to take the lead. We are transitioning from a simple "I'm uncomfortable with this contract" to "I will forever be known in this industry as a jerk to everyone I work with." I am not saying the guy is a jerk. Only that the PERCEPTION of his team will turn out that way.

Mistake 3: Continuing to work without a contract

When I read April 2009 I had a massive double face palm. WTF? No contract! You CHOSE not to sign it. TWICE! Why do you think you are entitled to be working?!

Mistake 4: Assuming you are owed money without a contract

OHHHHHMYGOD!  Are you serious?! I have to take this whole thing in context: "May 2009 - I turn in the final version of my chapter for iPhone Cool Projects. According to Apress's standard multi-author book contract, my advance of $1,000 is now due."

Let me break this down:

  1. You are not due any money without a contract.
  2. What you submitted is now what is affectionately known as a "writing sample." Without a contract, they can't publish it, and you can't be paid for it.
  3. Even if you had a contract, you are not due $1000 for one single chapter. If that's the way it worked, I'd write a bunch of short chapters and be bank rolling to this day. Remember, you don't write books to get rich.
  4. IF you had a contract, you would not be due money until you turned in THREE chapters of your primary book.
  5. AND IF you had turned in three chapters on contract, you would not actually RECEIVE that money until the next quarterly disbursement, which could be as much as 4 months in the future.
  6. You should have READ the contract you did not sign. This is all clearly stated.

August 2009: No. Not 2 months overdue! You are just expecting it sooner than it can possibly be sent. When is the next quarterly?! AND... Did you SIGN THE CONTRACT?!

Mistake 5: Doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results

Up through November 2009 having trouble receiving payments. Staff surprised you have not been paid yet. Check finally arrives 6 and 1/2 months late. Well let's see. In that time, you sped through mistakes 1 - 4 over and over and over again. The staff was surprised.. but not because you didn't receive money owed. They were surprised you were owed money at all without any sort of CONTRACT. "Hello! McFly!" To be totally honest, I am absolutely SHOCKED they paid at all!


Let's just do that shit again!

"December 2009 - I am told that my proposed changes will take some time to discuss, which will delay my payment. I am assured that the contract is "just a formality" and that if I sign it as-is, they will pay my advance in full immediately. I refuse this suggestion."

If you feel, as I do, like you are beating your head against a wall.. that's because you ARE!. Only the wall is your own. And you could easily just WALK AROUND IT.. but "noooooo. It's not MY fault! No way!"

Mistake 6: Being an ABSOLUTE DICK about everything, to the point of screwing others over, resulting in the publisher finally giving and just to get rid of you

  • February 2010 - After another author kicks up a serious fuss, I receive a modified contract to sign. This contract still contains postdated deadlines and obsolete milestones. I request further changes.
  • February 2010 - I am told that my concerns "simply do not matter", that "we don't modify the standard contract", and I am requested to sign it as-is. I refuse.
  • February 2010 - Apress accepts my proposed changes to the contract, and we sign it.
  • February 2010 - I receive a check for my full $2,000 share of the advance for Pro Objective-C, nine months after I finished work on it.

Yep. Another author kicks up a fuss. I am certainly not privy to the details and can only make a broad assumption here, but I doubt it REALLY had anything to do with Apress being asshats to authors just for the absolute thrill of it. More likely, the author get sick of your bullshit. Remember, the contracts for books are all inclusive. If someone on your team is complaining to the publisher, it is likely because they too, are not getting paid. I wonder why?! Could it perhaps be that there is an unsigned, open contract, in the name of one of their team members, holding absolutely everything up?!

You didn't comit to doing the work yourself. So they hired a co-author. The co-author did their job while you diddlefucked around with contracts. Months go by and nothing you produce is viable since you still don't have a signed contract. The co-author starts taking on more of your work. Eventually becoming the primary author, even though by contract they are still the sub name on the book cover. Whatever you finally manage to produce they cant sell because you STILL have not signed a contract. You insist on being an absolute dick when they send you it one last time and tell you outright "The words on this page do not matter! The book is done. People want to get paid. We can't do if we cant sell it. We can't sell it without your damn signature. Sign the damn thing!"  Really. Those dates, deadlines and milestones are no longer your concern. By your own admission, you only completed a fraction of the work your originally proposed.

My guess? Your co-author got so fed up with you he started to complain. Why? The book you dumped on him through incompetance and absolute dickery can't be published without your signature. And to this point, Apress was treating him like a sub author, even though he did WAY more work than you. He just wanted to finally see his book on the shelves. Your signature on the contract was a final step (but should have been the FIRST step) of a required process to send the thing to print.

The post ends with some line about drawing your own conclusions, but in his experience it was totally unprofessional on the part of Apress.

My conclusion is precisely the opposite.

I have nothing more to say there.

My conclusions

Writing a book is hard. If it were easy, we would all be published authors. There are times when it is not only not fun, but absolutely painful. But it is an incredibly rewarding experince to complete. I don't get very many sales, and I doubt I will ever receive a royalty check from mine. But occaisionally someone meets me or mails me online who has bought my book, read it, and found it helpful to them.

While those first few chapters were really hard to get through (constant returns by the reviewers and editors asking for more content, better descriptions, more photos, etc etc), I found that after I had learned what to anticipate from them, I could write up to the standards they were asking for. My submissions took longer to get done, but I had less returns from editors. Towards the middle of the book, chapter submissions were pretty smooth, with just minor tweaks to be made before they were ready to print.

The other critical factor was time management. In specific, being a multi-tasker. Working with hardware has additional challenges for the author. You have to plan an idea out in your head, buy parts if you don't already have them, assemble and test the hardware, draw schematics and illustrations, take photos, write and debug code, and finally write content. The key thing to remember is that only SOME of this has to happen in any particular order.

I often 'pre-wrote' a lot of content for a chapter long before I started with hardware. I knew what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it (what is the value for the reader), and had a good idea how I would accomplish it. So you can write that bit without hardware. In some cases you can even do schematics and illustrations. One of my chapters was nearly complete (as far as text goes) before ever getting hardware on the bench. Once I had working code and hardware, I took photos and adjusted my schematics accordingly. The code was copied into the chapter and I wrote explanations for that (Its hard to explain code before it exists. Especially the way *I* write code).

Speaking of multi-tasking, never stop thinking or daydreaming about the book, till it is done. There are lots of silent moments in the day, where you are forced to do other things (such as your day job), but have some free time with nothing to do (or absent minded busy work that does not really require much attention). Use that time to plan out how you want to present the chapter you are working on, or solve a problem.

My advice, in a nutshell:

  • Do it for the right reasons
  • Know what you are getting into
  • Be clear about what you will comit to and DO IT
  • Don't be a dick to your publisher or team
  • Enjoy as much of it as you can, and don't sweat the mistakes problems and speed bumps






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