I've written and published two books on machine learning, both with tech publishers. I'd like to share some of the more interesting things I learned about the tech publishing industry.

I don't claim to be an expert on the publishing industry. I only have experience with two publishers, neither of my books are best-sellers, and outside of those two books I have no other experience with the publishing industry. So please take this article with a grain of salt; this is simply one author's personal experience in publishing, and my extrapolations may or may not be generalizable to the industry as a whole.

That said, if you're interested in writing books on tech my experiences may be interesting to you.

Publishing is Driven by Marketing

It's probably not surprising that the tech publishing industry is very marketing-driven. Book topics are not chosen by techies, they're chosen by marketers. My impression is that a team of marketers at the publishing company is doing constant market research to determine which topics will be popular in a year's time. Within those topics, they're also figuring out what keywords will be the most sought-out. It's all about predicting demand.

The end product of this market research is a) a book title, b) a table of contents (including page-count per chapter), c) keyword-rich chapter summaries, and d) a timeframe. That is, as an author, you're given a table of contents that you have to write against, and you're required to include specific sub-topics, keywords, and technologies in each chapter in order to check the boxes that marketing believes need to be checked. The table of contents reads like an exercise in SEO. This is required of you regardless of whether those keywords and technologies really make sense for your book, your approach, or your narrative.

Overall, I didn't find this too burdensome. I was forced to include a few technologies that I otherwise would not have included in my last book, and I was forced to write a couple of chapters that I didn't think were necessary. Those chapters did steal some page-count from other topics I personally would have liked to discuss. But I do understand the need for these types of books to be driven by marketing, so I can't get too upset about this.

Be prepared to write against a table of contents that is given to you by a marketer, not a technologist.

That said, you have a lot of creative control over the content itself. As long as you write against the TOC and tick the right boxes, you can craft the content and the narrative however you like.

The Timeline is Insane

Book timelines are decided in advance, and the publisher/your editor will expect a given word-count-per-week from you. They simply work backwards from the publication date and the target page count per chapter and expect chapter submissions at the appropriate date. Different publishers have different approaches to this, but what I found most jarring with my most recent book was that they made no consideration about different chapters having differing levels of complexity or difficulty. It's very easy to crank out 15 pages of intro chapter material; it's a lot more difficult to write 15 pages of technical material concerning neural network topologies. Yet you're given the same amount of time to write and submit each block of text.

On top of the timeline's rigidity, I also found that the timeline was very fast. The publisher is sticking to their marketing schedule, and the book needs to get out by the date they planned on. Part of their market research involves figuring out when competing publishers might be publishing a similar book, and of course each publisher wants a month or two of topic exclusivity.

If you have a full-time job these time constraints make it very difficult to produce high-quality work. Publishers seem to like me because my first drafts are very clean, but that actually became a liability for me; when they saw that my first draft was basically ready-to-publish, they moved up the publication date by a few weeks. This left me with a couple of chapters that I literally was not able to do a thorough second draft of. My work may have met their standard of quality but it did not meet my own, and unfortunately I'm not happy with 100% of the content I published.

Given more time, I also would have gone deeper into the mathematics and algorithms of the more advanced topics, but sadly I was forced to cut corners and use open source libraries in some cases where I would have preferred to write and explain the algorithms from scratch. I simply didn't have the time. And I'm a fast writer.

That said, I found that the target page counts were not at all hard to achieve. Because the TOC is written for you it's pretty easy to write 80% of each chapter as if it were its own essay, and I had no difficulty filling the pages with good information (except for a couple of the "fluff" chapters I wouldn't have personally decided to include; those were tedious at times). So the time constraint is not so much about quantity, but quality.

Most Authors are Flakes, Maybe

One thing I found surpising is that both publishing companies I've worked with had processes in place to deal with "bad authors". Authors can be good or bad across many different dimensions; but reading between the lines, I would guess that many authors are either low-quality writers or have a high probability of abandoning the project. This is very much an extrapolation and little more than guesswork on my part, so take this section with a huge grain of salt.

Both publishers and all of my editors have given me huge praise for the quality of my first drafts. In both cases, the only edits that came back were simple stylistic and formatting edits (eg, not using the correct formatting block for inline code vs inline variable, or not writing references to other chapters correctly). Combining that information with the fact that my publisher wanted to move up the publication date of the latest book leads me to believe that the publishers expect a relatively low-quality work product from their authors and plan for a good deal of internal editing.

I also get the impression that a large percentage of authors are unable to complete their projects. It is a pretty rough timeline, after all. The reason I landed my first book is because the original author abandoned the project and ghosted on the publisher (this is why I have a co-author credit, despite rewriting the book from scratch; the publisher could not get the copyright release from the original author).

I therefore wasn't too surprised when I learned of my second publisher's practices concerning abandoned titles. They had a policy where if a chapter wasn't submitted every 20 days, the book would automatically be flagged as abandoned. Personally I think that policy is a little aggressive, but after seeing what the first publisher had to do to get that book published, I don't blame them. Still -- I went on vacation for a week while writing the 2nd book, informed my editor and all that, and when I returned I found that I was locked out of my author portal because my book had been flagged as abandoned.

I can only assume that there's a large percentage of authors that simply can't keep up with the crazy schedules, or fall behind a little bit and quickly get daunted by how the workload is snowballing, and ultimately abandon their titles.

There's No Money to be Made

I knew from the get-go that I wouldn't be paid a lot for my work, and fortunately I went into both books with no expectations of making money. But if you're reading this article and didn't know that there's no money in publishing, I feel it needs to be said very explicitly: do not do it for the money.

Most books will never recover their advance. Meaning, if you get paid a $2500 advance and have 16% royalties, you should only ever expect to make that $2500. Don't expect to make money on royalties. Unless your book becomes a best-seller (it won't), you won't see much (if any) money beyond your advance. So if you're considering whether or not to write a book, don't even factor in the royalties.

Given the amount of time it takes to write a book, even with all the corners you can cut, you should only expect to make along the lines of $10-12/hr if you're a fast and proficient writer that requires few edits. If you're not a "clean" writer and your publisher requires lots of edits from you, you can expect along the lines of $8/hr for your work.

If you're a technology expert and you want to go into writing full time, you'd find that you can't make a livable wage (in terms of tech expert wages) writing full time for publishers. Even if you could crank out one book a month (which might be possible if you write 60 hours per week), you'd only make roughly $2500 a month, or $30k per year. That's the same as full-time work at minimum wage in NYC.

Now, there's nothing wrong with making $30k per year -- but that's also the insane scenario of landing one book deal a month consistently for a year straight, and writing and editing 12 books in any given year. Furthermore, to write a technical book you are, presumably, a subject matter expert in some technology, and $30k is way below what the market values your skills at.

Long story short: do NOT do it for the money.

I do get some royalty payments from my first book. I think I get something like $30/mo in additional income from it.

Other Things I Didn't Expect

I've learned many other things about the process, but I don't feel I need to write a full section about each. Here are some interesting thoughts though:

Your editors may not understand the subject matter. If you're working on a very technical book, like a book about machine learning, you can't count on your editors to understand the technical subject matter. There are technical editors and language editors. The technical editors of your book will reproduce your code examples and confirm that they are replicable, but they will not vet the quality or sanity of your code or algorithms. Your language editors will simply check that your basic grammar, style, and formatting is correct. Do not count on the editors to make sure your work is correct or high quality. Do not count on the editors checking that the description of your code matches the behavior of your code.

The work doesn't end when you publish. Your publisher will likely ask you to assist with marketing efforts (if not for marketing, then what are they there for??). You will also have to address a steady stream of errata that comes in as readers find mistakes that your editors didn't catch. This adds a bunch of hours of work after publication, which is a little demoralizing.

You have absolutely no idea who your audience will be. Despite writing a full page on "who this book is for", you have no idea who will actually end up reading your book and how the market will react. It's therefore very difficult to target any one audience, so be prepared for lots of people writing in with questions that may or may not be related to your actual book. Also, be prepared to say "no" to lots of people who are looking for help completing their homework assignments or term projects.

Should You Write for a Publisher?

It really depends on your goals. I wrote these books with publishers because I wanted to see what the publishing industry was all about. There was also an aspect of "the bucket list" for me. I just wanted to.

There are, naturally, pros and cons to working with a publisher. Having a TOC written for you can give you some necessary structure if you're at a loss for how to plan your book. While the timeline requirements are pretty intense, it also forces you to get the project done in a timely manner. The advance isn't a lot of money, but it's guaranteed money. There's also the perceived presitge of being a published author and seeing your name on a bookshelf at B&N. It may help your career outside of writing in some ways, and that should not be ignored.

On the other hand, if you're a self-motivated, confident and competent writer and you want to make money doing it, self-publishing is the way to go. Start by building an audience around your blog and mailing list, and grow that audience until you reach a point where 1,000 people have indicated they'd buy a book from you. Then write it. Maybe only 250 will actually buy your book, but if you're selling at $20 (unlike the $60 a publisher would charge), you'll still make double what you'd make doing it with a publisher.

I have to say that I'm glad I wrote these books. Despite the time constraints and the effect on my writing's quality, I'm still proud of the work I did and think it's valuable. That said, I had a good idea of what I was getting into when I started; if I hadn't expected the low pay and tough timelines it might have been a demoralizing shock for me. If you're considering writing a book for a publisher make sure you understand your own personal goals and be sure to balance those against the pros and cons of working for a publisher.