Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Technical Writing.. Books or Blogs?

I’ve been thinking lately about whether it still makes sense to write technical books.  Years ago, I had a contract to write a book for Cisco Press.  Due to a job change, I was only able to complete a few chapters, and after handing it off to another author, it seemed to die a quiet death.  I used to be able to find a reference to it on one of the Amazon websites, but a recent search turned up nothing.

About six months ago, the writing bug bit me again, and I created a proposal for “Enterprise Network Designs” and sent it off to Cisco Press for feedback.  In the (long) time between sending that email and receiving a meaningful response, I chose instead to begin writing this blog.  Blogging fits my schedule better, and it provides a more interactive communication platform.  IIRC, I felt a good deal of deadline pressure and a bit of nervousness about making mistakes.  Once information is committed to paper, it’s difficult to fix it.

As a result of these events, I’ve been trying to determine if we’ve reached the end of the technical book publishing industry.  I don’t recall the Cisco Press contract being especially lucrative.. something like 10 – 15 percent of gross revenues go to the author, minus some expenses.  As several technical authors have mentioned, you don’t get into the field for the money.  Maybe they’re just trying to keep the competition out, but for some reason I doubt that’s the case.

Why wouldn’t technical authors go the blog route, and cut out the publishing middleman?  This would eliminate much of the overhead of publishing, as well as free the author from official deadlines.  Revenue can be generated by monetizing the blog, as well as follow-on contract work.  If the content is well-written and relevant, the professional prestige gained from the effort should be comparable to being a published author.  Technical book readers are by definition technical, so reading a blog should be well within their comfort zone.


What would the author be missing?  A few items are:

Deadlines - Is that good or bad?  Depends on the author, I suppose

Copy Editor – Go with a freelance editor?

Book Signings – Not sure a substitute is available for the blogger

Seeing Name in Print – Ditto.. no obvious substitute available

Copyright Protection – There must be a good solution to this, right?

Publisher Credibility – Cisco-related books from Cisco Press probably significantly outsell books from Pearson Publishing, even though they’re the same publishing house.  The lack of a well-known imprint could make it difficult to build an audience.


What are the advantages?

Full control over content

Easier publishing process (arguable, I suppose)

Infinite ability to revise content after publishing

Better interaction with readers

Better for the environment, if that is meaningful


I would think it would be relatively easy to monetize the content through eBooks, like the Kindle.  Some technical blogs are already syndicated on that platform, such as Jeremy Stretch’s Packet Life blog.  Thirty cents per month per user probably isn’t terribly lucrative, but for hassle-free revenue, why not?

Monetization Strategy

Google Adwords

eBook syndication

Professional consulting

Partnership with training vendor (depending on blog content)



I’d love to get some feedback, especially from authors (books and blogs).  Have you considered something like this, or are you already do it?  What are the challenges you’ve faced?


Marko Milivojević said...

I actually think these are different things. Books, especially technical ones, should carry long-term "truths and values" and information that can stand the test of time. As an example, you can take "Internet Routing Architectures" and "Routing TCP/IP" (both volumes). These books are written eons ago in Internet terms and are very much relevant today. These are books worth writing, buying and having.

Blogs on the other hand are much better vessel for ad-hoc information, or tips and tricks. The every-day and more obscure corner cases and issues. Like for example your excellent articles on career advice. That has no place in books, but is excellent content for blogs.

As far as monetizing blog goes, while I'm young blogger and I really don't have published CiscoPress material (I'd love to, though), I can't really compare the two. The only thing I can notice is that many people read, few people click :-). When people read a book, we can hope that all of them "clicked" :-).

I would love to see the book you are working on!

David Yarashus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ethereal Mind said...

The time commitment to producing a book is substantial, but worse, it runs to deadlines which don't integrate well with a day job. Because writing books doesn't pay well (or at least as much as I earn working), it isn't worth taking time off from the day job to focus and deliver. This means nights and weekends and interruptions to a young family.

I enjoy my blogging because I can deliver at a time that suits me. I often don't post for a week or two according to my work load or general life happenings - no deadlines means that I continue to enjoy maintaining my blog.

I have spent some time looking at self publishing, and I think there are opportunities. However, it would a require a small group of authors to gather and create a suitable coherent vehicle for marketing / sale / revenue. I would love to find a way to do that.


Colin McNamara said...

I ran into the same problem a couple years ago. A couple of my friends write for Cisco Press, and got me thinking about writing a book on Storage Networking focused towards Network Engineers.

When I sat down and did the math I came up with the following -

1. The most money most people I know got from a book was 10k.

2. These same people wrote every night, weekend, and vacation day for 6 months straight.

3. The goals for most, was increased visibility with Cisco, Customers, and our peers.

4. A secondary goal to status and visibility is the joy of sharing knowledge. When your work helps someone grow, it really hits home.

After looking at the following, I realized that putting down well thought out articles in a blog accomplishes the positive goals listed above.
The only drawback is you do not get the 10k from your book, though that same rate can be made through advertising, or just picking up a side job here and there.

My vote is for blogging.

Netfortius said...

I agree with Marko: blogs may be the short term answer to some pressing problems, but none could ever match in an "online product" the "TCP/IP Illustrated Volume I", by late Richard Stevens, or Tanenbaum's "Operating Systems" series, for example. I have such books in my "techno-reference" bookshelf, many marked all over, which I keep visiting over and over again.

I'd like to add some clarification here: the consistency I see relevant in a book stays obviously the same in an electronic format (e.g. PDF) of it. It is the way a book is "built" that - I tend to argue - a blog is not yet capable of emulating ... unless, of course, one is willing to post chapters previously designed and consistently delivered, a-la Cory Doctorow or Paulo Coehlo (in the technical field, of course)

Jeremy Filliben said...

Thanks for the feedback. I don't feel like I have the time for book writing, and as Colin pointed out, the payoff isn't really there. Maybe earlier in my career it would have been beneficial. As a few pointed out, it would be difficult to add the appropriate 'polish' to a blog-based title as well.

I'll clean up my book outline and add a few comments. I think it would be a good addition to the Cisco Press lineup, as I haven't seen where the topic is directly addressed. Thanks for the suggestion Marko.

Shivlu Jain said...

If you want to be expert write a book. This is the real on or fictitious one, I really don't know. But I like the articles which depicts the real world problems which could not be depicted by books.