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O'Reilly Author and Editor Air Concerns on Industry Pressures

My goodness, the Internet certainly brings transparency to every human interaction these days. One of my authors, Baron Schwartz, has posted a long blog about
his personal experiences writing for O’Reilly
, and a lot of it is scary. So I suppose I need to provide an editor’s and publisher’s perspective (developed over 15 rapidly changing years) to Baron’s recorded experiences.

Over the past several years, many publishers and other content-centered firms have been feeling incredible pressures from the increasing speed at which information travels (and ages). Publishers inevitably transfer some of these pressures to the authors, who in turn sometimes react with frustration. Authors and publishers are at risk of a growing disconnection.

For instance, just a few days ago the Boston Globe printed an article highlighting the anxiety felt by successful novelists (those fortunate few). Many of their publishers are asking them for a new book each year. It’s obvious how convenient this strategy is for budget-makers at the publisher, but the novelists are rarely happy with the expectation.

In the computer book industry, these universal pressures are felt mostly in terms of author motivation and the threat of books slipping, which can cause canceled orders or loss of relevance in a fast-moving market.

The key take-away in my response to Baron is that some books do slip a lot and have enormous, unpredictable demands — but many don’t. It’s hard to know in advance. If you want to be an author,
don’t be scared, but be prepared. (In short, I pretty much endorse everything Baron says.)

I’ll organize my comments under three categories: unpredictable time commitments, external market pressures, and staff responses. I’ve run these comments by Baron.

Unpredictable Time Commitments

MySQL is a very over-published field (lots of books for relatively few readers) yet there is nothing on the market comparable to High Performance MySQL. Why do you suppose that’s true? The topic is incredibly complex. Baron’s wonderful history shows how hard it is to do the job right (and why it took years to find authors for the second edition).

Books on well-delimited topics, such as new programming packages or popular utilities, aren’t going to be so hard to get your arms around. High Performance MySQL is practically unique in that regard.

And although Baron details the time he put into the book, I feel he’s too modest; he was a true hero. He provided an intense focus and professional style the other authors couldn’t pull together, and that I couldn’t have provided from my perch as editor.

Baron was not alone, of course. The book was scrutinized to a rare degree by each author, by many tech reviewers, by me as editor, and by the copy editor and other production staff. In brief, we chose completeness and quality over schedule, a familiar trade-off. But this derailed planning efforts by both the authors and our company repeatedly, and the choice was made harder and more painful by the next consideration.

When you cover a highly interrelated set of topics, such as performance, the book is also highly integrated. You can’t just pluck out one author’s work. That’s why the contract on High Performance MySQL (and most of our books) made all authors jointly responsible. We adjusted the royalties at the end to give each author a fair share.

External Market Pressures

Booksellers, of both the online and the brick-and-mortar variety, require us to tell them what books we’re offering six months before release. This poses little trouble for a typical book publisher (dealing in novels, current affairs, cooking, etc.) because they can easily take a year or two to put a book through production.

Computer book publishing is different. O’Reilly, for one, takes three months from final author draft to warehouse, sometimes even less. (And our production department is almost sinfully well organized.) This seems slow in Internet time, and we’re looking for more ways to use the Internet, but the physics of publishing still runs hard up against the economics of marketing.

Few authors, in fact, can be sure they’ll meet their deadlines while they still have three months of writing to do. Baron’s description shows why it was even harder on this book. We had to set
down stakes at some point and promise the book — and after that, the pressure of meeting our commitment had recurring impacts on our options for finishing the text.

And although our production, sales, and marketing staffs know that many books come in late, this does not mean that bookstores or production departments can alter their budgets and schedules on a
whim.

Staff Responses

Baron asked for feedback from me and O’Reilly staff on a number of early decisions. This adheres to the engineering principle that “The earlier you fix a defect, the cheaper and quicker the fix is,” but this principle is not universally true.

I have to ask readers here to think of their own jobs and the flood of requests that hit their in-boxes each day. Faced with several jobs you know you have to finish during the current month, how do you feel about handling something several months off?

And suppose you know the project with several months left to go will change substantially, so that the decision you make today might have to be revisited anyway. Is it really worth depriving this month’s projects of your attention to handle something that’s a bit speculative?

I wish I could say yes — that we’ll look at every issue as soon as the author thinks of it. We probably should, and if not, we should tell the author forthrightly that we can’t. But “lazy evaluation” (another engineering principle) seems to be an ineradicable part of workflows.

Follow-Up

High Performance MySQL arrived in the O’Reilly office on Tuesday (6/17) and looks wonderful. We mailed copies to the authors and sent a bunch to the Velocity conference; getting them into bookstores will take another couple weeks.

Authoring has always been hard, and the easy availability of forums such as this blog makes authors wonder whether it’s worthwhile. But without the publishing industry, no one would invest the
concentrated effort that Baron and his colleagues invested to produce this marvelous resource.

Publishing has to change some of its approaches to the market. But I think authors should still take up the challenge. I’m glad Baron recorded his experiences (although I have different back stories for a few of them) and these experiences should help authors plan rather than scare them off.

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  • http://blog.botfu.com Kevin Marshall

    Awesome follow up from the publisher/editor’s point of view! I think this type of blog and response dialog is a HUGE benefit to other authors (and potential authors).

    I just posted a response on Barons’ post mentioning that my experiences in Tech. writing were very sim. and I saw that a few other writers had as well. So it was starting to feel a little like a pile-on, but my intent was to basically let him know he’s not alone.

    I hinted at the fact many publishers and authors have different motivations/reasons for the project…and also different priorities related to the project, but it’s really great to see both sides of the story here.

    Both sides have what I feel are legitimate and reasonable points of view – and though I don’t think this is the case with this book, you can clearly see why it’s easy for everyone to walk away from the final project unhappy. It also shows why so many low quality books can get to market – the process can sap the good intentions and passion out of all involved to where it just becomes a “let’s get this out the door so we can forget about it” project…

    I think one of the things that has helped make O’Reilly such a great brand over the years (with authors and readers) is it’s commitment to finding editors that will not let a project get to that phase…editors that would rather squash the project rather than “just get it out the door”…and editors that are as open and fair about the process as you are here with this post. So keep up the great work, fight the good fight, and all that jazz :-)

  • http://www.hanukkiot.com aaron ha'tell

    As a published author who has had an excellent relationship with his publisher, I can attest to the difficulty of the process. I have grown to respect publishers and their work. Publishers take chances with new authors, sight unseen. They put up a fair amount of money and labor up front. They help the author ‘finish’ the work and configure it for success in the marketplace. They hold the author’s hand and live with his complaints and insecurities. Then they see to the printing and distribution. They personally schlep to book fairs to peddle their book portfolios to nervous retailers, who also live in a cut-throat world.

    Even before a publisher sees a book, we authors have labored mightily and suffered great anguish trying to locate an agent, and then a publisher. When we have an agent, we worry ceaslessly that s/he is not goofing off. When publishers ignore his efforts, we suffer pangs of rejection silently. We finally come to the publisher, coddling our fragile egos, with the idea that big daddy has deep pockets and endless patience. Forget it. Publishers are well meaning, but they have tons of other work and priorities. What in life is so easy and comfy?

    Compromises, frustrations, and delays like the rest of life is what we find. The best we can do is to temper the negatives with mutual respect and a spirit of pragmatic problem solving.

    We all have to live with it as grownups.

  • http://joeclark.org/weblogs/ Joe Clark

    I don’t entirely buy your retort here. If responding to an E-mail to say “We’ll sort that out later in the process” is too difficult, then get a better E-mail program, or just upgrade your skills. The author’s complaint was that E-mails went unanswered. Answer them.

  • bowerbird

    you handed the carpenter bad tools.

    -bowerbird

  • bowerbird

    …and a bad workflow…

    -bowerbird