Things You Should Know About Writing and Reading Computer Books
So I have written 13 computer books, with my latest coming out in September. Most have been about either Flash or Shockwave game development. All have been for major computer book publishers and have been distributed in retail stores worldwide.
There are so many misconceptions about how computer books are created and what you should get out of them. I deal with these misconceptions all the time. Most are just interesting, but some cause problems. But it seems that every time I start to talk about them, people are interested. So I thought I’d write up a list of the most common ones.
1. Computer book authors get rich from the royalties they earn from their books.
Of course, this is a misconception. Look at the numbers. Let’s say a book costs $25 at the store. You buy it for $20 at Amazon.com. That probably means that Amazon bought the book from the publisher’s warehouse for about $10. The lion’s share of that goes to the publisher. They paid to have the book printed and also spent a lot of money on editing, layout, marketing and accounting. The author would get about 10% of that, sometimes much less. So the author ends up with $1. But some of that is withheld for returns and there are other small deductions as well. If a book sells well, say 10,000 copies, then the author may take home $8,000 in royalties.
Now, contrast that with the time the author spent writing the book. Perhaps 3 months of writing and 1 month dealing with editing and reviewing edits from other editors.
A dedicated and motivated computer book author can make a living at this, but only if he or she is constantly working and producing new books. Most authors are like me and are actually working on other things most of the time, and produce a book here and there on the side, about a subject that we already know thoroughly — so no research is needed.
And I should point out that some computer books are created for a set fee, not royalties. So the author is simply writing for a fixed payday.
2. A computer book is created by the author.
The author is the writer, yes. But that is only one part of the team that creates the book. In my experience at least editors are involved: tech, copy, and project editors. Plus someone does the design and layout. Other people take care of other tasks. Look in the front of any major computer book and see how many people are listed. They all worked on it.
3. The author thought of the idea for the book.
This is true in some cases. In other cases, a publisher may identify a market for a book, and then seek an author to write it. Then in other cases the author and publisher may already know each other and discuss “the next project” — drawing on what the author can write about and what the publisher needs. A lot of my books are between the first and third cases. I come up with an idea and pitch it to the publisher. The publisher likes the idea, but proposes small changes in focus or audience.
4. The author sells the book.
I get this a lot. Someone buys a book and there is a defect, like the CD is missing or a page is torn. They want to know if I can send them a new one! That’s like getting a flat tire and calling up the automotive engineer who designed your car.
The book is produced by the publisher and sold by a bookstore. If the book has a defect, then you return it to the store. If the store gives you a hard time, then contact the publisher. I don’t have your $25 and I can’t ship you a new book.
5. Computer book authors can predict the future.
So once a book is out there, it isn’t like a Web site. It won’t update. For instance, when you buy a book about Flash CS3, and then you sit down to use it with CS4, keep in mind that CS4 didn’t exist when I wrote the book. I couldn’t predict what would change. So if something doesn’t work quite right, keep that in mind and try to use logic to figure it out.
6. You paid $25 for a book, you get free consulting from the author.
I love getting questions from readers, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes it gets out of hand. People ask me to complete their projects for them or create code samples for them. You can hire someone to do that. They would be called a consultant and would probably get between $50 and $150 per hour, if not more. For $25 you get a book, not a consultant. If the author responds to your email, then please thank him or her for his time. Remember that he or she probably has a full-time job and a lot of work to do, so ask reasonable questions and expect reasonable answers.
7. You paid $25 for a book, you get free tutoring.
Related to point 6. A lot of students use computer books, sometimes even assigned to them by their teachers. If you are paying for school and you have a question, ask the teacher. That’s what they are there for. At least that’s what they should be there for. You can ask the book author a question about the book, certainly, but don’t expect the author to help you do your homework.
8. By writing a book, an author proclaims that his way is the only way.
When using computers there are usually many ways to do similar tasks. With programming, this is especially true. But a computer book author must choose one style or method or the book won’t be able to move forward and teach the subject. That doesn’t mean that the method is the only way. It doesn’t mean that the author declares other methods as being wrong. So if you disagree with something in a computer book, pat yourself on the shoulder for understanding that particular subject thoroughly enough to be able to see multiple methods of accomplishing the task. Then move on.
9. You can skip ahead in a computer book without consequences.
If you are learning a new subject and are excited about it, it might be tempting to skip ahead. But then if you encounter something you don’t understand, realize that you need to go back and read what you have missed. I get lots of questions from people who skip chapters in my books to get to the game they want to create, and then find they don’t understand some concepts. I put chapter 12 after chapters 1-11 for a reason.
10. Reading a computer book will make you an expert.
You buy a book on Flash game programming and read it from front to back. Now you are an expert and able to make any game, right? Guess what, I got a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. I’ve been writing programs for 27 years. Don’t think that one book is a substitute for education and experience. It can be one step, certainly. But if you finish the book and find that you are unable to figure out how to create the program you need, then consider that you may need to learn more and you may need to get some more experience under your belt.