If you’re knowledgeable in a technical field, writing a book to teach others a few things can be a rewarding experience on many different levels. With the many avenues available for self-publishing these days, an important question to ask yourself is “Do I need a publisher?”. The answer depends on your particular situation and your particular set of skills. In the twenty years that I have been writing books, I have taken both routes, and this post is a collection of the many things I have learned along the way.
Using a Traditional Publisher
A traditional publisher generally commissions you to write a manuscript, and then they do all the work necessary to turn that manuscript into a physical volume (or electronic book) that’s fit for sale. The work they do includes copyediting, typesetting, proofreading, cover design, registering the copyright, assigning an ISBN, and finally, sending the book to a printing house to manufacture the final product. (I describe what each of these involves in the next section.) Once the book exists, they handle distribution to booksellers and eventually pay you a royalty based on the money they make from the sales of your creation. Publishers are also supposed to market your book for you, but most publishers do a disappointing job here, and you as the author will be the one who really gets the word out.
When you use a publisher, you will first sign a contract that dictates both parties’ responsibilities, how much time you have to write the manuscript, how much you get paid, etc. The terms found in these contracts can vary considerably from one publisher to another, and there is often some shady stuff going on that you need to watch out for. Below, I have compiled my thoughts about several aspects of the publishing contract based on my past experiences, and I have tried to point out common gotchas that can catch inexperienced authors off guard.
Advance terms. Unless you ask otherwise, a publishing contract will contain terms for an advance payment, typically split into two or three parts. These days, I think it’s reasonable to expect an advance payment to be at least $10K in total. Part of the advance is usually paid at the time the contract is signed, and another part is usually paid when you submit the final manuscript. There might be milestones in between that have additional payments attached to them. Keep in mind that advances count against the royalties that you later receive, so the bigger the advance is, the more your book has to earn before you start seeing royalty checks. If you have sufficient income to make it through a year after your book is published, I would recommend not taking an advance at all because it could help avoid some problems later (see below). Something else to consider is what happens if the publisher decides to cancel your book after they’ve paid you part or all of the advance. In my opinion, you should get to keep the money to compensate you for the work you’ve already done, and this should be part of the contract.
Royalty rate. This is one of the most important parts of the contract because it determines how much you get paid. Your royalties will normally be specified as some percentage of however much money the publisher makes by selling your book. Rates can vary among publishers and are influenced by the reputation of the author. My advice is to never accept anything under 15%, and definitely negotiate higher if you have an established track record. It’s also a good idea to ask for a higher percentage after a certain number of books have been sold. Perhaps you could get a 5% bump after a couple thousand copies have sold, and even more if your book turns out to be a hit and sells 10K copies. The publisher no longer has any significant expenses associated with your book at that point (other than printing more copies), and they don’t necessarily deserve to continue extracting a large portion of the money derived from the value that you created.
Royalty basis. Something you need to be very careful about is the particular quantity from which the contract states your royalties will be calculated. Publishers like to be vague about this so their accountants can be clever and reduce the amount of royalties they pay. Most contracts will say that royalties are calculated as a percentage of “net receipts”, “net profits”, or something similar, and the exact wording can make a big difference because it defines what the publisher is allowed to deduct from their take before they multiply by your royalty percentage. Ideally, you want your royalty to be based on gross sales revenue minus expenses directly attributable to your book. Those expenses would include all of the production costs like typesetting and printing for your book alone, but not any of the publisher’s general operating or marketing costs. If this part of the contract is not specific, then publishers will do things like deduct the cost of running a booth at a conference by distributing it over all the books they had on display.
Deep discounts. Some contracts contain a clause stating that you receive a lower royalty rate on books sold at a “deep discount”, such as 55% off the retail price. Do not accept this under any circumstances. The publisher is basically saying that if they don’t make a lot on the sale of a book, then they want to take more of your cut to make up for it. They are overtly screwing you over. I got burned pretty badly on my first book because my contract said I got paid half my usual royalty rate when the wholesale price was 55% or more off the retail price. At an in-person meeting at GDC 2000, I asked them about this clause, and they assured me that it hardly ever happens. Imagine my shock when I received my first royalty report and over 90% of the sales were classified as deep discounts! It turns out that a 55% discount was the standard wholesale rate for many booksellers, including Amazon. The publisher lied straight to my face.
Cross collateralization. This usually applies if you’re writing a second book for the same publisher, but it can also affect first-time authors who later write a second book. Contracts will often state that if one of your books fails to earn enough royalties in any payment period to make up for your advance, then they can deduct the balance from royalties earned by any of your other books, past or future. This spreads the risk around at your expense. While this is somewhat understandable from the publisher’s perspective as a business, I think it’s a shitty way to treat an author. If your contract contains such a cross-collateralization clause, do your best to get rid of it so that each book stands as a success or failure on its own. The publisher is supposed to possess enough knowledge in their market to have a decent idea of whether a particular book will sell, so if they greenlight a dud, that’s on them, and they should eat the lost advance. Of course, this is all moot if you can get by without taking an advance in the first place.
Moral rights. Believe it or not, I was once shown a publishing contract in which the author was required to waive their “moral rights” to the book they were writing. The moral rights of an author are established by the Berne Convention, and they include things like the right to proper attribution and the right not to have their work mutilated by the publisher in such a way that’s harmful to the author’s reputation. In many countries, moral rights cannot be legally surrendered, but you can waive them in the United States as long as it’s in writing. If you see this kind of thing in a contract, my advice is to run away as fast as you can. It demonstrates that the publisher simply has no respect for you whatsoever and view you as nothing more than a resource to be exploited for their financial gain. Putting something like this in a contract, even if it’s unenforceable, is just plain evil.
Right of first refusal. In my experience, this doesn’t happen often, but I’ve heard of publishing contracts containing a “right of first refusal” clause. What this means is that if you want to write another book some day, then the publisher of your first book must be given the option to decide whether they want to publish your new book, and you can take it to other publishers only if they “refuse” it. This can put you in a position in which you have no choice but to accept the same terms for your new book as you did for your first book. If you came to the realization that some of the terms for your first book weren’t that great, then you might have a difficult time changing them for the new book in this situation. I would avoid a right of first refusal clause if at all possible.
Non-compete clause. Most contracts will contain a clause stating that you are not allowed to write another book that competes with the book being published. In the short term, there are no ordinary reasons why an author would do something like this, and it would probably harm everybody involved, so this kind of clause isn’t really a red flag. However, make sure it has a time limit. Ten years down the road, you may decide that you want to write a new book on the same subject, and you don’t want an old non-compete clause to create a conflict. This could be trouble even if your old book has gone out of print.
Out-of-print terms. What happens when the publisher decides to take your book out of print? Sales of most books slow to a trickle after the first couple of years. Once the publisher’s inventory has been sold out, or just starts collecting too much dust, they may just call it quits instead of paying to print more copies. Your contract should specify what happens to the publishing rights when this happens, and it should require the publisher to notify you when it does. Ideally, the copyright would revert to you as the author, and the publisher would release any further interest in your book. Then, you can do whatever you want with it. Some authors choose to put their old books on the web for free.
Beginning with FGED1 in 2016, I decided to self-publish my books, and I could not be happier with that decision. Self-publishing has the advantages that you have complete control over what happens to your book, and you get paid much, much more than you would with a publisher. If you have the patience and dedication to handle everything yourself, then it is my opinion that there is no longer much of a reason to use a publisher at all. However, it means you’re responsible for all of the production tasks that a publisher would normally take care of. Some of my experiences and other thoughts about how to accomplish these tasks are listed below.
Copyediting. Once you’ve finished writing your manuscript, your book enters the production stage. The first task is copyediting, which is the process of reading through everything you’ve written and making refinements to improve sentence structure, the flow of ideas, and general readability. There are professional copyeditors who can handle this for you, but for a technical book, you need to make sure they have some basic familiarity with the subject matter to ensure they understand the terminology and standard conventions. Many do-it-yourself authors choose to handle this task by themselves, and if you’re confident that what you’ve written comprises a coherent volume of text, then you can save a lot of time and money by not sending it out to somebody else.
Typesetting. Typesetting, also known as composition, is the process of turning your copyedited manuscript into a big PDF file that contains the exact page-for-page layout that will appear in the final printed product. It involves an enormous number of fine details and requires a lot of skill, especially if your book is math heavy. This is not a task that most authors are able to do well, so it’s the one you’re most likely going to want to outsource. Unfortunately, it’s also the task that will be the most expensive because it requires so much expertise. When I did the typesetting for GPU Zen 2 in 2019, I charged $16 per page, so budget accordingly if you want to get somebody who knows what they’re doing. Beware that a lot of people who claim to be expert typesetters, and I say this without hyperbole, are either complete charlatans or suffering from delusions that would surprise even Dunning and Kruger. Before you hire somebody to do typesetting, always take a close look at some of their previous work to make sure they’re actually competent. When Charles River Media outsourced the typesetting for my first book in 2001 to a freelance typesetter, that person introduced over 1200 errors that were not present in my final manuscript. Most of these errors popped up in technical content like mathematical equations because the typesetter did not know what they were doing. It was a horrible mess that took months to clean up.
Proofreading. After the book has been laid out and you have the PDF ready to go, have at least one other person proofread it to find any typos, spelling errors, or incorrect words that may have made it through. In my experience, doing this yourself will not catch all of the errors no matter how careful you are. I tried doing this myself with FGED2, and I skipped right over obvious errors in some sentences because my brain apparently expected them to read as I had intended and just put the correct words in my head. It wasn’t until somebody else with a sharp eye for detail read the book that some errors (like using “the” where “that” was intended) were caught.
Cover design. So now that your book is copyedited, typeset, and proofread, all you need is a cover! If you’re a whiz in Illustrator, this may be something you want to do yourself, but it’s also pretty safe to outsource this to a technical artist. The final deliverable here is a separate PDF file that contains the graphics and text appearing on the font cover, back cover, and spine all in one spread. Book publishing services normally have templates that you can use to make sure everything is in the right place for the trim size of your book.
Copyright. Once your book is completely finished, you’ll want to make sure you register the copyright. In most countries of the world, copyrights automatically come into existence when a work is created, but an actual registration is invaluable if you ever find yourself needing to exert your copyright in a legal setting. In the United States, it costs 45 bucks to register a copyright electronically at the time of this writing. Several parts of my old math book were ripped off by another author in the early 2000s, and my publisher had a solid copyright case against his publisher. During our investigation, however, both publishers happened to be purchased by the same company. As a result, we would have been suing ourselves, so there were never any legal proceedings, but our new parent company did agree to take the other book out of print immediately. If I had self-published that math book, I would have needed the copyright registration when I sued the pants off the other publisher in court.
ISBN. Some self-publishing services will provide an ISBN for you, but it will be eternally tied to their company name. If you’re in the United States and want to get your own ISBN (which I recommend you do), the place to go is a company called Bowker. They are the official administrators of ISBNs in the U.S., and you get yours by going to www.myidentifiers.com. As of this writing, a single ISBN costs $125, and a block of 10 ISBNs costs $295. Once you buy these, they’re yours forever. The website contains tools for managing your numbers and assigning books to them.
Crowdfunding. To help cover the costs of producing your own book, it is possible to raise money through crowdfunding. For both FGED 1 and 2, I ran Indiegogo campaigns to raise funds, and they each brought in around $20K. I was already an established author, so first timers may not be able to count on that amount, but half of that should be adequate to get a short- to medium-length book copyedited, typeset, and proofread.
Printing and distribution. Nowadays, there are many options available for on-demand printing and distribution to various booksellers, but I am not familiar with all of them. My self-published books are printed and sold through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform, which handles both physically printed books and electronic books. I have found this platform to be surprisingly streamlined and easy to use, and there is no upfront cost associated with publishing a book. FGED 1 and 2 are both printed in full color, and I have been impressed with the print quality. There are actually a lot of good things I can say about KDP, but I’ll just stop here and give it my full recommendation. My only complaint is that they can’t manufacture hard cover books.
So there’s a brain dump about getting a book published. If you have any questions or comments, please find me on Twitter (@EricLengyel). I may add more information to this article in response to questions that arise, and I’ll be sure to mark the new stuff in some way.