Book authoring

Every now and then I wonder about writing a book related to the work I do, and the sort of stuff we discuss here. And equally I keep thinking I should finish the commercial version of XLAnalyst and get it up for sale.

The truth is I enjoy posting to this blog and the discussions we have, but I have a sneaky suspicion that writing a book is a lot less fun and a lot more grind.

I also like writing useful code (and making sure it does what I expect it to (to a fair extent anyway)). But I know for sure that the gulf between useful little (free) utility and polished, professional product is wide and full of low fun stuff like help files, marketing etc. The final polish on the free version of XLAnalyst took way longer than the interesting coding part.

So my latest dilemma is should I knuckle down and write and book and/or a proper app. Or keep just doing the fun bits posting articles and utilities here as I have time and enthusiasm?

In terms of commercial viability; from what I have read 5-10,000 copies is a common estimate for technical book sales. Royalties are in the 1 to 2 quid bracket, approx effort 6 months. The thought of earning 5k for 6 months hard slog doesn’t set me on fire, at the other end though (10k * 2) 20 grand working at home doesn’t sound too bad.

For XLAnalyst the finances are anyones guess, and thats part of why its not finished.

So the future looks like just cherry picking the best bits – maybe I’ll gather enough to publish as a book by accident?

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30 Responses to “Book authoring”

  1. jonpeltier Says:

    Scott Adams published a collection of blog entries. I don’t know how it sold, but it couldn’t have been much work to turn the content into a book. It’s all margin, eh?

    The problem with commercial apps (I have a few nearing commercial status) is deciding when they’re good enough to ask for money for them. You have to just decide version 1.0 is going to suck, release it, and see where the complaints and suggestions are.

    I agree that writing a blog is a lot of fun. I’ve heard that writing a book is a lot of not fun, and until you’ve written several the payoff isn’t too great. I’ve written a half chapter in a technical text, and I’ve tech edited a few times. Tech editing is pretty fun, you learn a lot and don’t get paid much. My colleague Charley Kyd (http://exceluser.com) has written a number of books on using Excel for business. He says he’s only made much money on the last one, an ebook about Excel dashboards. That strikes me as the way to go. An ebook, or even content in some help file format, plus some sample workbooks and templates, bundled together for sale.

  2. Maarten van Stam Says:

    Writing a book will most likely not bring you the bucks you envision, especially with technical books.

    What I hear however is that writing a book will (if you are able to sell a significant amount) give you the ‘real expert’ status.

    From that you’ll have the chance to increase your earnings on invitations to do some presentations where you actually get paid :-)

    In your case I would start with writing some ‘chapter-like’ blog items as Jon was mentioning in order to bundle that into a book. That will feel like fun to do, and end up with something called a book.

    Finalizing a product into a commercial one is a hell of a job. I guess creating a great tool will take 20% while creating the installers, documentation, payment system, support, backward compatibility etc etc will burn 80% of your time investments ….

    Again, with providing a bunch of free real great tools will give the Expert award and you’ll get more job offers/projects if that is recognized by the audience.

  3. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Simon:
    One problem with writing a book is that in the technical area there are people (like John Walkenbach in Excel and Ken Getz in Access) who have been at it for several versions now and every new version they just need to update the content and re-publish. To start from scratch now on established programs like Excel is a tough climb.
    Also there is frankly an exhaustion in the market for these products. I remember how excited everyone was to learn new versions of Excel and Access back in the ’90’s (that’s the 1990’s not the 1890’s). I don’t see that enthusiasm anymore. There are lotsa reasosn for that, but it’s most likely that people are just too busy doing their REAL jobs to play with these technologies (even if it would make them more productive – no time).
    There has also been a steady stream of anti-Office noise out of IT departments and the Blogosphere that has hurt the market for the kind of stuff we do and that power-users would do (which would be your main market).
    I am ALWAYS preaching to MS about how they have to market these products to the dev community but I haven’t seen any results for years. I can’t totally say that I have the magic answers to how to do this, but frankly much of the problem lies within the various MS internal product groups. Office development gets no respect within MS and I don’t see that changing. And so the Office Dev story has a slow leak that has sapped the energy out of the market over the last ten years. I would like to help turn that around, but I’m personally not sure that writing a book would help much until attitudes change back to excitement about the possibilities for the products – and that is not up to us to do (except in the limited sphere of influence we each have with our customers and tech-friends).
    Sorry to be a downer but I’m not sure if the market is big enough for an acceptable ROI for an Excel book.
    Dick

  4. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Hi Maarten by the way….

    Dick

  5. Simon Says:

    Dick – thanks, that really cheered me up! ;-) You are right though, and I think this is where Charley Kyd has done well – he focuses on the business benefit of using Excel, for dashboards and OLAP etc, rather than pure technical Excel.

    I was thinking of a spreadsheet risk book based around some of my Eusprig papers and stuff thats here. But if the Excel book market is limited, I think the ss risk market is minute. How much do you think the film rights might be worth??

    Jon I think you are spot on on the apps thing – get v1.0 out as soon as its not embarrassing and work on feedback.

    Maaten, you think even 5k is pushing it? maybe 5k euros? either way its not enough to cover the pain – looks like its blogging and freebies for me then.

  6. Biggus Dickus Says:

    “I think this is where Charley Kyd has done well – he focuses on the business benefit of using Excel, for dashboards and OLAP etc, rather than pure technical Excel.”

    What p***es me off is that there should be a way to make GOOD money supporting this technology. It is so ingrained in EVERY business and is so seriously under-used and mis-used. As I have said in presentations before (as you know) “Spreadsheets are forever”. I have no doubt about that fact.

    “looks like its blogging and freebies for me then.”

    How’re ya going to feed that footbal squad of yours then?

    So why, oh why isn’t there a burgeoning market for expertise in Excel is my question. Especially since if anyone REALLY scratches the surface of your average business spreadsheet they will soon realize the complexity and the value that could be gained from a SERIOUS book on the topic or of a capable consultant at a sensible professional fee. The logic is indisputable to me and yet I don’t see it happening – in fact I see it dwindling away.

    I have had a good consulting gig for years but ironically I seem to be just about the only Excel-specialist in Eastern Canada (I’m sure I’m not, but it seems so when I talk to MS Canada). But I am lucky I also do Access with SQL Server backends and integrate all of them together.

    But I have also found that I have less and less clients using more and more of my time each. So that means the need is expanding, not shrinking at those clients (?). So I can only imagine the same is true everywhere – if they’d only realize it. I can’t believe there isn’t a HUGE opportunity for these skills.

    Hopefully some one in MS will get the message before it’s too late (if it isn’t already).

    Dick

  7. ross Says:

    You dont have to put a pound note on every thing! Write a book for love Simon!!! lol?

  8. Simon Says:

    Love _OR_ spreadsheets???

    I do lots of things for love (this blog, free tools, footie coaching, helping Microsoft etc etc) but something somewhere needs to cover the mortgage.

    (I estimate putting adwords on the blog would raise a couple of pence a week!)

  9. Marcus Says:

    Hi Simon,

    Another avenue is an eBook in a niche area such as XLL development. The existing ones one the market (such as from Wiley press) are very expensive.
    The caveat of course is that a niche market is that you’ll have a smaller pool of potential buyers (this is a strength as well as a weakness). The general Excel book market is beyond saturated.

    Perhaps you could drop a guy like Stephen Bullen (Professional Excel Development) a line for his perspective on the ROI. Would he do it again (great book BTW Stephen). Another example is Bob Walsh who has published material specifically relating to micro ISV’s.

    “…enjoy posting to this blog… sneaky suspicion that writing a book is …a lot more grind.”
    There’s the e-Myth right there. Being a great chef doesn’t make you a great restaurateur. And just as you’ve discovered that writing the interesting parts of XLAnalyst were just a small component of delivering a polished product, you could probably translate that experience to writing a published book.

    Biggus, I like your perspective on the learning phase in the 90’s. I’ve got Getz et al’s Access Developer Handbook (both editions desktop and enterprise). But who would buy the 2007 edition. I don’t need another tome explaining everything, only what’s new.

    All the best – Marcus

  10. Biggus Dickus Says:

    By the way a scary thing happened when I was in San Jose that illustrates my point. A guy came up to me after my presentation and said he was an Access developer and he was glad to meet another Access developer.

    Just then Ken Getz walked up – so I thought I’d introduce him and watch his reaction….. None !! he didn’t know who Ken was !!!

    That’s not a good sign is it?

    Dick

  11. Maarten van Stam Says:

    Hi Dick,
    (and all others – it’s starting to be an ‘old boys’ network discussion :-))

    The guy didn’t know who Ken was? What world was he coming from?

    On the other hand, Ken didn’t remember me either when we bumped into each other at the Office Dev Conf in San Jose, despite all the SDR and DAC meetings where we shared the room. Oh well… Who am I? ;-)

    Oh and Simon… my guess is that IF you ever decide to write the book make sure you finalize your contract in Euro or Pounds. They start to use the dollar as wrapping paper over here as result of the current conversion rates …

    -= Maarten =-

  12. Mike Alexander Says:

    As someone who has written books, I have spent some time thinking about this topic. Here are my general thoughts:

    First of all, when you write a book you will average about an hour per book-page (Between putting together examples, creating sample data, writing, and taking screenshots).

    That means a 300 page book will take you approximately 300 hours to complete. With a $10,000 advance payment from a publisher, that translates to about $33 per hour of work.

    Plus, if you publish with a big name publisher, you only get 7%-14% on every book sale. This means that most technical books don’t pay off the advance payment.

    Now if you go to with an e-book (like Charley Kyd), you can keep more of the money, but you don’t get the advantages of marketing and distribution that the big publishers afford you. This means that you will rely on the power of web traffic alone to get your book sold. And as much as we would like to think all Excel and Access users have heard of Ken Getz, John Walkenbach, Jon Peltier or even Charley Kid, most people don’t care about our nerdy world of Excel and Access. In fact, I estimate that most of us get between 700 to 2400 unique users a month on our website. A paltry number compared to the number of Office users out there.

    I don’t know how many books Charley sold last year, but I estimate he sells between 40 – 60 books a month (based on his site rank and how that relates to my own e-commerce experience).

    Its clear to me that the benefit of any one book is not economic (at least not directly). The benefit of a book comes from the credibility it lends to your credentials and the clients that it can help sell. I have built my own consulting practice on the power of my books.

    After thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that takes a certain amount of passion to dedicate 4-6 months of your life to a single project; whether that project is a book, a blog, or an application. If you start with a sincere desire to share and help others, the money will follow.

  13. Biggus Dickus Says:

    “Oh well… Who am I? ;-)”

    We know who you are…..don’t worry.

    I remember sitting in the hall at a Sydney conference in ’01 talking to a local when Ken walked by and said “Hi Dick.” The guy said “Ken Getz knows YOU on a first name basis !!! ??? ” That was funny…

    In the 90’s it was like the ads where “When Dean Witter talks everybody listens” and everyone in the room stops talking to hear Ken speak. It musta been heady.

    Dick

  14. Dennis Wallentin Says:

    In my experience, developing and promoting commercial add-ins are both good and bad. Creating a solid tool, together with all the required documentation, is rather easy while promoting the tool is both expensive and difficult. Don’t expect to sell xxx copies of tool within the first years as it simple takes time.

    I believe it exist a market for an Excel tool that target risk.

    Thanks Mike for sharing Your experience on the topic. It sounds resonable that being an author (or co-author) of an Excel book with quality can attract new clients. Those who make a living of authoring seems to have three or more books running.

    Kind regards,
    Dennis

  15. Simon Says:

    Marcus – xll e-book, sounds like a good idea, although I was planning on doing that for free on the blog.

    Dick, I know folks like that, think they are experts, yet are unaware of the classic works/authors in the area (Getz, PED etc), and unaware of on-line resources like Excel-l etc. So ignorant they don’t know how little they know. sad but common.

    Maarten- good point on currency, and it can be good to go incognito. Eg If I do something really dumb I just say my name is Dick Moffat and move along.

    Mike thanks for the info, very useful. I’ve been doing this blog for just over a year now (370 posts ish) and I do think it is having an indirect benefit financially. The main benefit is discussing interesting issues with interesting people though. I’ll do a separate post on numbers, but they tie in with your estimate.

    Dennis thanks for that, I totally agree on where the effort is, and I think you are spot on with the 3 books to make a living. Unless you wrote Code Complete which has sold a couple of hundred thousand.

  16. Biggus Dickus Says:

    “Eg If I do something really dumb I just say my name is Dick Moffat and move along.” Good plan …….. ;-)

  17. Harlan Grove Says:

    I have to disagree with Biggus’s observation that spreadsheets are forever. Software generating spreadsheet files may be forever, and Excel as a viewer of spreadsheet files too, but development of major new spreadsheets is discouranged where I work, and various legacy spreadsheets are slowly being converted to Intranet applications.

    20 years ago mere spreadsheet users may not have been encouranged to experiment with macros or complex formulas, but they weren’t discouranged from doing so. To some extent spreadsheet monstrosities arose from this. Now experimentation is discouraged (at least from what I see where I work), so where would the spreadsheet developers who would be active in 2025 have developed their skills? Colleges, at least the better ones, don’t teach spreadsheet development. Outside training courses in Excel are mostly led by people who lack the knowledge to teach web page design. And gaining on-the-job experience is discouranged.

    Myself, I believe spreadsheets are very useful tools. However, I also believe most IT/IS departments in most large organizations simply don’t understand how to use spreadsheets effectively, and they’re inherently resistant to letting other departments develop their own applications or hire outside developers to do so. And as for those outside departments, there’s less and less opportunity for experimentation with available systems, and those available systems are much harder to learn from scratch.

    If Microsoft doesn’t push Excel itself (NOT Excel Services) as a serious development platform, what sensible IT/IS shop would take anyone else seriously who advocated for Excel development. Since Microsoft doesn’t see fit to push Excel, just how much future is there in Excel development?

    Just call me Cassandra.

  18. Biggus Dickus Says:

    “If Microsoft doesn’t push Excel itself (NOT Excel Services) as a serious development platform, what sensible IT/IS shop would take anyone else seriously who advocated for Excel development. Since Microsoft doesn’t see fit to push Excel, just how much future is there in Excel development?

    Just call me Cassandra.”

    Not at all !!! I agree with EVERYTHING you say !! That’s EXACTLY what’s happening at my clients !!

    The only people who can fix that work for Microsoft – especially in the Regions where they are knocking on doors and making technology pitches. I just had an MS person at their headquarters in Canada dismiss Excel as a potential element of an internal system. When I challenged him on the wisdom of that considering that Excel is one their company’s lead products he backed down. But I got the message.

    If THEY don’t get things going again for Excel then Excel WILL go away – it’s just that I think that’d be unfortunate for the world. To me the electronic spreadsheet is a great invention and I cannot imagine that killing that technology would be in the interest of the business world worldwide (and don’t think that that’s NOT what many people are trying to do).

    Remember how IT departments tried for years to keep the PC at bay – and they lost. They now look at spreadsheets as the ultimate “loose- cannon” that they must nail down and so they have a jihad against it. I just think that this sucks – not personally (really) – but for the business world.

    Ironically if MS and corporate IT departments succeed in killing Excel, somebody else will just have to re-invent it I guess ;-).

    Dick

  19. Simon Says:

    Dick
    “Eg If I do something really dumb I just say my name is Dick Moffat and move along.” Good plan …….. ;-)

    Thats not going to work so well for you!!
    (you should claim to be Hansen, he’d never find out)

  20. Harlan Grove Says:

    Dick. I think the difference between us is that you hold out some hope Microsoft will explicitly recognize Excel as a useful tool while I’m more pessimistic.

  21. Simon Says:

    Trees decay and die from the inside out, I think that is what is happening with Excel. I think there could be lots of value for MS in Excel, but I think they are lost in webland and desktop and Excel are dirty words.

    MS are so far up their arse wanting to ‘lead the services revolution’ they can’t see how far ahead of them their customers are using Excel. They are too busy re-solving problems as webbified services that were solved with Excel/Office in the nineties.

    Add in the tick box SOX hatred of spreadsheets and it doesn’t look like the best career choice. (Or a great book topic!) (what about migrating off spreadsheets?)

    I was under the impression that lots of business schools do teach spreadsheets, but maybe not development.

    The banks are getting more and more dependent on Excel/VBA though, everytime I look at jobserve there are more, better paid jobs.

    I agree though we need a lead from MS. Who thinks it will happen???

  22. Harlan Grove Says:

    Just checked the business school at my old college. There’s one first year course that covers spreadsheets in the context of ‘decision science’ (I just love BS terminology – convenient that BS also stands for business school, was that intentional?) and two full second year courses and a minicourse. If a student took them all, and figuring 7 hours outside class for every hour in class, 3 class hours a week over 11 weeks means 264 hours total per class. WTH, round it up to 300 hours. Figure half that for the minicourse, and that’s 1050 total hours focused on spreadsheets over 2 years. Note that that’s only 115 hours of in-class instruction. Bit short of the 10,000 hour mark. (Sorry about mixing up topics.)

    Now just how much Excel development work would the top 1/3 of these students do as part of their US$150K or more (much more) starting salary jobs? There’s little question some of them will be making heavy use of fairly complex spreadsheets, and they may be building their own models from templates they learned while earning their MBAs, but how many of them would be developing spreadsheets other people would be using? And, taking a EUSPRIG angle, what would you suppose the error rates were in such spreadsheets?

    10,000 hours may just about be right to gain some expertise if at least 3,000 of those hours had been spent on verification and error prevention. And an extra 1,000 on documentation would be useful too.

  23. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Harlan says: “I’m more pessimistic.”

    Simon says (bet he’s never heard that before) : “I agree though we need a lead from MS. Who thinks it will happen???”

    I AM optimistic because I believe that the desktop Office environment is actually making a stronger and stronger story for Excel (and Access by the way but that’s an even more desperate situation) especially if they REALLY want Excel and Access to be THE major Providers to SharePoint. If the sources (aren’t properly designed and executed, then the whole thing sucks – and SP will lose. Therefore there will be a NEED for more small p and large P “professional” Excel and Access development as we envision it.

    I believe MS will get it – in fact some of them may have already got it.

    I want to see what the balance of this year brings. Remember that there was a major commitment to VBA made at the ODAC from Bill G (who was probably reflecting the opinions of his managers on that issue) and Richard McAneff. There HAD to be a reason for those statements, but I haven’t heard anything about it since, which is getting discouraging frankly. Was it just noise? We’ll see I guess.

    Dick

  24. Simon Says:

    O14 – new VBAIDE, that would be a sign of commitment, anything less is just BS.

    Harlan I’ve seen some of the BS (both meanings!) spreadsheet stuff, and its a million miles from the stuff I do. I mainly do financial reporting, which is just adding up really, but accountants being accountants have made it bloody complicated adding up (job security an’ all…). It is just adding up though.

    That decision support stuff is much more thinking, much less spreadsheet wrestling. So even the possible 100/1,000 hours is probably not that relevant to the first job (or many of the others).

    Valuing an oil well in a spreadsheet is great, thats exactly what my brother does, he does have an MBA, but he also has 20 years as a chartered geophysical engineer.

    Most fresh faced MBA’s are going to be costing out changing stationery suppliers, not valuing billion dollar investments. But choosing between pencil sharpeners and self propelling pencils probably isn’t sexy enough for a student project.

    I don’t think they get enough experience analysing real world amounts of data. If they did they might be more switched on to databases.

  25. Harlan Grove Says:

    OK, so we agree that there are few if any college/university courses on spreadsheet development?

    So how/where would next decade’s spreadsheet developers learn their craft?

  26. Simon Says:

    Agreed

    I don’t think there is a next decades ss dev. I think ss dev could be a wild ride for the next few years. Then it will either be dead, or very lucrative, or possibly both.

  27. Patrick O'Beirne Says:

    Your annual earning projections are about right.
    My experience was rather more than one hour per page, because I had an editor who cleaned up my imprecise informal style; and it was reviewed by the European Computer Driving License people who know exactly what ordinary users (not the power users you’re aiming at) find hard to understand and made sure I made it as simple as possible. That meant I had to leave out stuff which I thought I could use in version 2 ; but you know how scarce round tuits are.

    I used Lightning Source printers and Amazon distribution so my margin per book is more than a publisher’s royalty, but less than ebook. Some authors don’t worry about ebook copying, figuring those people would never have bought it anyway.

    Bill Jelen seems to publish quite a few books for other people in his series, although AFAICR the Amazon rankings are not high. There’s a formula for estimating sales from ranking; I used to look at my book’s ranking every day, after a year I just let the cheques / checks get lodged by LSI.

    You’ve done well with the blog, there’s more posts here than on excelusergroup.org (I just posted a question there because Nick Hodge runs it and I wanted a database pov). Do you know how your stats compare to DailyDoseOfExcel?

  28. Simon Says:

    Patrick
    yes, they are a mere fraction of DDOE – see next post.
    Thanks for the info

  29. sam Says:

    Simon

    Re – Commercial Tools

    Sorry there are too many free bies on the net.

    Look at ASAP, it was free for a long time (with 2 forced upgrades a year)

    Today if you use it in a commercial organisation it needs to be registered (paid)…but I dont think most IS depts in large companies would consider buying ASAP….desptie the tons of time it would save…

    As an Individual I dont mind 2 forced free upgrades….hence would not buy…

    If you do decide to go with the commercial XL analyst…make sure its a COM addin or an XLAM and not XLA

  30. Stephen Bullen Says:

    “Perhaps you could drop a guy like Stephen Bullen (Professional Excel Development) a line for his perspective on the ROI. Would he do it again (great book BTW Stephen).”

    Thanks. Firstly, Rob, John and I wrote PED out of a passion for the technology – wanting to tell our story – rather than for (direct) financial gain. It took about 1 year full time for Rob and I, less for John. It’s paid its royalty, and the checks keep coming in – roughly enough to pay for my holiday each year.

    For PED, a lot of things came together at the same time to make it ‘the right time’ for me to write a book, and the same situation is unlikely to recurr. So looking back, I would definitely do it again, but I now have no desire to write any more new books (just updates to the VBA Prog Ref and PED).

    Financially, it’s only directly worth it if you have lots of titles that all sell well; JW can probably spend a year after each Office release updating his 40+ books, then live for the next few years off the royalties.

    The major benefits, though, are indirect. A few years ago, a guy at Barclays Capital was reading the copy of PED he’d just bought when a CV with my name on passed across his desk. That got me the job, and I now run a global Excel development team for a large US bank.

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