Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hey, World, Here I Am! (contributed by Gary K. Evans)

Gary K. Evans (www.evanetics.com) spent 17 years as an independent consultant and trainer in object-oriented development and Agile processes. He is now working for a major financial institution in Enterprise Agile Process Enablement.

Marketing You!

Finding work isn't the same as waiting for work to find you. A business plan of "Make lots of money" isn't a plan—it's a wish, not unlike "Win the lottery and retire." To become a successful consultant, you must have a plan. Think hard about what you do best, and build on your strengths. If you're uncomfortable around strangers or can't articulate in fifteen seconds the value you will bring to the client, attempting to be a lone-wolf 1099 is rather unrealistic. If you're not interested in marketing, bookkeeping, or the many other non-technical tasks required to run even a one-person business, plan on hiring—that means paying—someone to do these for you.

To find work, you must actively seek it out. This means marketing yourself. But don't limit yourself always to the same channels; your options will change over time. When I started out, my first client literally fell into my lap. I had invested fifteen years working for a well-known computer company until I received my severance notice, along with one-third of the other employees in my facility. I hit the ground running, looking for a W-2 job, but I was overqualified for every position I interviewed for. Then a New York company heard about the layoff and contacted me because I had the skills they needed.

For my next three or four engagements, I found work primarily through third-party groups who marketed me. On every engagement, I met people and cultivated relationships. In a short time, those relationships became a marketing channel as I began obtaining work from word-of-mouth recommendations. By expanding my base from just programming and design to teaching object-oriented technology, I aligned myself with several large OO consulting and training companies. When consulting positions were sparse, my training work served as a safety net. And, after teaching various OO courses (of varying quality) marketed by these companies, my dissatisfaction with them led me to start writing and marketing my own courses.

Next, I attempted cold-call marketing, with limited success. At the end of 1998, I made a conscious decision to try a more aggressive marketing plan, so I created a website. Then I started speaking at professional conferences. In 1999, I began writing magazine articles on object technology and OO software development and modeling tools. Then I had the privilege of being asked to serve as a judge for the prestigious Jolt Awards for software productivity, a position I have now held for eleven years. And two years ago I started a second business to produce a commercial software product for people who want to manage their nutrition and health.

My point is this: you must continually step out of your comfort zone. I'm not really kidding when I say that I'm now in my comfort zone only when I'm out of my comfort zone.

Dealing with Third-Party Placement

If you're an independent consultant, this doesn't mean you'll always have to find your own clients. Especially in the beginning of your independent career, you might find ready-made opportunities through third-party placement or system integration groups. Some of my best work experiences have come in this way. They handle the marketing, cold calls, payroll, and other details; I do the technology. The only downside? They get paid from my pay.

Don't fall into the trap of whining about this, however. Recognize that the third party you're working through has to make money, too. After all, they are doing the marketing, bookkeeping, payroll, and so on. Should you care what margin they are making from you? My position is simple: I have no right to know the margin and I don't care what it is. If I decide to work at $45 or $75 per hour and discover that the placement group is charging $125 per hour for me, so what? If $45 or $75 per hour meets my goals, I'm satisfied. Grousing over someone else's margin is bad public relations, earning you the label of malcontent. Then you won't get any more work through that group.

Negotiate, never demand. Keep your eyes and ears open, and if you learn what the third party is charging for you, just sit on that information until the next contract renewal or project. Concentrate on what you must do to make yourself worth $100 per hour, and let the placement group worry how to pass on the increase to the client. That's what they’re getting paid to do. As you gain industry visibility and credibility, you might find that more prospective clients begin to contact you directly about providing services to them. When this happens, you'll rely less on third-party companies and contractors to find work for you

Independent consulting is a way of working that has become common in many industries. It seems destined to increase as our economy continues to mutate into integrated, electronic cottage service industries. It has tremendous reward potential, and just as much downside. You can slice and dice your independence almost any way you wish, but you must also take care of business. If you really think you want to be independent, carefully count the costs, get prepared, and charge ahead. It could well change your life forever.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

So You Want to Publish Your Book (part 4/4)

Self-Publishing


It used to be that self-publishing a book was essentially an admission of defeat, acknowledging your inability to find a real publisher. Maybe that's why self-publishing companies were called vanity presses. Today, though, self-publishing is a viable option for many authors. Yes, it probably still means that you couldn't find a traditional publisher. However, numerous tools and options are available, and it is possible—though not likely—to achieve commercial success.

A Case Study


I can't describe the self-publishing business in great detail, but I have self-published one book. It was a special situation. When I was a child, my family lived in Europe for three years because my father was in the United States Air Force. We did a lot of sightseeing in Western Europe during the early 1960s. My parents wrote up notebooks about our adventures, complete with photographs, which became treasured family keepsakes. For my mother’s eighty-fifth birthday in 2011, my siblings and I decided to publish all of these notebooks together as an actual book. You should have seen the expression on Mom's face when we gave her the book. How often does someone present you with a book with your name as the author and you didn't see it coming?

So at least I've gone through the self-publishing experience once. I used CreateSpace, which is Amazon.com’s self-publishing service. It went surprisingly smoothly and was a valuable learning experience for me, in many respects. We aren't attempting to sell this book commercially, so I have no idea how well that would have worked in practice. Of course, that is an option with CreateSpace: you can have your book listed on Amazon.com immediately. These books are printed on demand, so you no longer need to stockpile—and perhaps ultimately discard—hundreds or thousands of copies from a big press run. With print on demand, when someone orders a copy, the publisher manufactures a copy and sends it to the buyer. They look just like regular books, although it's often easy to spot self-published books because of the minimalist cover design and interior layout from many do-it-yourselfers.

CreateSpace offers a wide range of publishing options. I took the simplest extreme. I did the cover design (“full cover wrap” = back cover + spine + front cover) and the interior design (both new experiences for me), and simply uploaded the resulting PDF files to CreateSpace.com. CreateSpace staff reviewed my files and concluded they would print satisfactorily, so I ordered a proof copy. I made a couple of small corrections in the cover layout, and my sharp-eyed sister spotted several content errors with a final proofread. I uploaded the corrected files, and again they passed scrutiny. I ordered a second proof copy, and we were done. The entire process cost just $63.34:

  • $10.00 dollars for an ISBN, so the book could be published using my own publishing imprint, Agent Q Bookworks, rather than showing CreateSpace as the publisher.
  • $39.00 as an account upgrade fee that cuts the cost of books I purchase approximately in half. This plan also increases your royalties if you’re selling the books through Amazon.com. CreateSpace has since replaced this Pro Plan option with another pricing scheme.
  • $3.58 plus $3.59 shipping for each of the two proof copies.
  • My mother's reaction: priceless.

This seems pretty cheap to me. I can purchase all the additional copies I want from CreateSpace for $3.58 each plus shipping.

So that is one self-publishing extreme, doing absolutely everything yourself. It was an awful lot of work, but this was a labor of love and, as I said, a great learning experience. I never imagined I would be scanning in eighty-three 50-year-old photographs and retouching them.

CreateSpace offers a range of other services if you’re not willing or able to do it all yourself. You can pay CreateSpace to help with cover design, interior design, copyediting, marketing and promotion, and distribution, in just about any combination, for prices ranging from a few hundred dollars up to several thousand dollars. Of course, even having a lovely new paperback available through major book distribution channels is no guarantee that a bookstore will elect to stock your book. There's not a lot you can do to influence that outcome, so far as I know.

I'm not pushing CreateSpace over other self-publishing alternatives. It's simply the one with which I've had some personal experience. Other self-pub companies include Lulu, AuthorHouse, DogEar, Booklocker, and many more. You will probably also want to generate electronic copies of your book to be used in various e-book readers. SmashWords specializes in e-books.

Self-Promotion


Regardless of which self-publishing route you choose, there’s one thing that everyone who has self-published a book agrees on: you have to be prepared to promote, promote, promote your book. Some people seem to feel that "If you print it, they will come." It's more accurate to say that, "If you print it and tell them about it, they might come." In fact, even if you go with a traditional publisher, you need to plan to spend a lot of time and energy on promotion and marketing. There are many websites devoted to tips for marketing your self-published book, so I'll let you pursue those on your own when you're ready. You can read numerous glowing testimonials from people who sold hundreds of thousands of copies of their self-published book and made a lot of money. The reality, though, is that this is highly unlikely to happen with your book. Sorry. But I wish you the best of luck!

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


Thursday, May 10, 2012

So You Want to Publish Your Book (part 3/4)

The previous two parts in this series (part 1, part 2) addressed targeting your book for an appropriate marketplace niche, creating your elevator pitch, choosing a publisher, and drafting a proposal. In this article I'll discuss some aspects of the book contract and give you some tips about staying on track during the writing process so you can actually deliver on time. This leads to a sense of relief for both the author and the publisher.

The Contract


If your attempt to convince a publisher that your manuscript would be a valuable addition to their lineup succeeds, congratulations! You've passed the first hurdle. The publisher will then present you with a lengthy contract that itemizes every aspect of the publishing agreement, more than you ever imagined possible. Naturally, publishers write these contracts in their own best interest, but you'll find that you can negotiate on many terms that might be uncomfortable for you.

For example, royalties are often expressed in terms of two or more tiers. Each tier states the royalty as a certain percentage of gross receipts (which is far less per copy than the book’s retail price) on a certain number of copies sold (less copies returned). So you might be offered a three-tier structure, perhaps 12% on the first 10,000 copies, 15% on copies 10,001 through 20,000, and 17% on additional copies sold. (These numbers are just examples; your mileage may vary.)You can negotiate on both the royalty percentages and the tier breakpoints, if you wish. Just remember that you won’t win every negotiation.

I’ve read—and signed—a number of them, but I am no expert on publishing contracts. I refer you to Scott Meyers’s web page for some insights on the contract. If you haven't seen these sorts of things before, I highly recommend that you have an intellectual-property attorney, a literary agent, or someone else in the business take a look at your book contract and see if there's anything weird in there that you might want to adjust. For example, I like to get the copyright in my own name, not the publisher's name. Maybe this isn’t important, but it makes me feel good. Also, some of the contracts I’ve seen had a clause that gave the publisher the right of first refusal on my next book. I always ask to remove that clause, as I don’t want to have any restrictions on where I submit future books.

Be careful not to commit to a contract until you have a really clear idea of where you're going with the book and are confident you can deliver without killing yourself. I know one consultant who began writing his seminal work some years ago. It wasn't long, though, before he realized that he simply didn't have the bandwidth to devote to the book along with his other responsibilities and family life. He was exhausting himself with the effort. Wisely, he decided that the book was a lower priority for him and abandoned it. Later on, he did author and co-author several other books.

Another established author once told me that he was way behind deadline for delivering not one, but two book manuscripts. It wasn't clear that he expected to complete either one, although he had happily cashed the advance checks from the publisher. If you conclude that you aren’t going to be able to deliver the manuscript on schedule, let the publisher know as soon as possible so he can take appropriate corrective action. This might involve adjusting the schedule, having someone else finish the book, or abandoning the project entirely. And you really ought to return the advance if you're not going to finish the book.

The contract will make it clear who is responsible for doing what parts of the work on the project. For instance, the publisher will generally hire someone to create the index, although I know one author who always generates his own indexes. I've always provided my indexer with a list of suggested index terms, but my list is usually ignored. You have to look at the index carefully to make sure that it contains the terms that will help the interested reader find all the goodies contained in the book. If the index (or any other aspect of the book) isn’t useful, the reader is going to blame you, because your name is on the cover.

Staying on Track


I have a personal life philosophy to undercommit and overdeliver, which helps me avoid making iffy schedule commitments. This attitude serves me well when I’m working on a book project. It will probably take longer than you expect to write the book. And simply writing it isn't enough. I always line up about fifteen friends and colleagues to review the manuscript, chapter by chapter, before the publisher ever sees it (see “Four Eyes Are Better Than Two: Reviewing What You Write”). This adds more time to the process. Also, I'm usually aiming for a book of a particular length, so I need to monitor the size of the book as well as the status of each chapter as I'm writing.

To help my stay on top of all this, I set up a status tracking spreadsheet at the beginning of each book project. You can see an example of one of my status tracking spreadsheets at the page of supplemental materials for this blog. I admit it, I'm a high-resolution process weenie and I like data, so this level of tracking is comfortable and interesting for me. It might not make any sense for you at all.

My tracking spreadsheet contains three sections in separate worksheets:

Chapter Status: I list all the book elements that I need to create, including chapters, foreword (if any), preface, any introductions to individual parts of the book, references, author biography, and so forth. For each such element, I track the following dates: drafted; sent out for peer review; baselined; submitted to publisher; received after copy editing; returned to publisher with changes; page proofs received; my page proof comments returned to publisher; comments on final pages returned to publisher. I establish target dates for major milestones, such as sending out chapters for review and submitting them to the publisher, so I can see quickly whether I'm on schedule.

Review Status: I note the date that I sent each chapter out for review and the target date by which I wish to receive feedback. For each of my reviewers, I record the date that I received their comments on each chapter. I also make a notation as to how helpful their feedback was, on a scale from 0 (not useful at all) to +++ (saved my bacon). The pattern that results lets me know who the most valuable (and timely) reviewers are; I’ll probably invite them back next time.

Even though I don't have any trouble getting reviewers to volunteer to participate in my projects, I'm astonished at how many of them fail to return any feedback at all. They don't even explain why they aren’t reviewing what I send them. It's as though they dropped off the face of the earth. Weird. If you sign up to be a manuscript reviewer and then can’t contribute, for whatever reason, please have the courtesy to let the author know as early as possible.

Size Tracking: I generally target my books for a particular approximate length, based on what I think will best fit the market. If you're not doing this, then skip this paragraph. I estimate the length of each chapter in words, based on my outline, and I record the actual number of words in the draft version that goes out for review and the final version of each chapter. My spreadsheet calculates the cumulative number of words to date and charts the actual versus expected word count so I can see what the deviation is. Some books have wound up as much as twenty percent longer than I estimated, although I'm getting better at projecting lengths and writing to those targets. I agree, this is kind of high-resolution, but it helps me get the book done in the way that I'm really trying to. Being a research chemist by background, I'm a data kind of guy, so this is actually sort of fun for me. Peculiar, I know.

The final installment in this four-part series will take a look at another viable option for today’s book author: self-publishing.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

So You Want to Publish Your Book (part 2/4)

Choosing a Publisher


If you scan the spines of the software books in your office, you’ll likely see a number of publishers represented. As an author, you need to identify publishers who might be interested in your work and will do a good job of both producing the book and marketing it. Look for publishers who release titles that you like, both for their content and for their visual presentation. (Speaking of titles, don’t get too emotionally committed to your original book title. The publisher might prefer an alternative title for marketing purposes. That's happened to me several times, and not always to my liking.) Also, look for a publisher who might find your book to be a good addition to its line. Large publishers often have several book series on various themes, so you might target your book for inclusion in a particular series. For instance, several of my books are in the Microsoft Press Best Practices series. My book on software peer reviews is in Addison-Wesley's Information Technology series. If you can pitch your book to be a logical fit for a particular series, the series editor might be very receptive to your proposal.

Some of the biggest publishers in the software book business are Addison-Wesley, McGraw-Hill, Microsoft Press, O'Reilly, Prentice Hall, and Wiley. There are many others, of course. Dorset House has a long-standing reputation as a publisher of high-quality books. Pragmatic Bookshelf is a relatively new publisher that has quickly established an impressive lineup of titles, mostly on programming topics. There are pluses and minuses with both large and small publishers. If you're just starting out as an author, you might get more personal coaching and guidance from a smaller publisher. I certainly did from Dorset House, who published my Creating a Software Engineering Culture book in 1996.

To help you select a candidate publisher, you might contact some authors you know who have published with a particular company to see what their experiences were like. Even if you don't know the authors except by reputation, go ahead and write to them. You'll find that most software authors are nice folks who are happy to help an aspiring writer.

I have always dealt with publishers directly. I've never used an agent, nor have most of the other software book authors I know. Word-of-mouth referrals can be helpful to get you in the door. People sometimes approach me with book ideas and questions about publishers. If I know them and their project seems to have merit, I’m happy to introduce them to my contacts at the publishers I’ve worked with. I did seek an agent when I was trying to publish my memoir of life lessons, Pearls from Sand, because I had no visibility or contacts in the self-help publishing world. I didn’t end up with an agent after all, although one agent kindly did point me toward the publisher who ultimately accepted the book.

If you're dealing with a small publisher, your initial point of contact will likely be one of the principals of the company. When dealing with a larger publisher, you'll generally work first with an acquisitions editor. The AE is responsible for evaluating ideas and proposals and landing promising manuscripts for the publisher. Publishers need authors as much as authors need publishers, so don't be shy about approaching a publisher with your idea, proposal, outline, or manuscript.

Opinions vary as to whether it's appropriate to submit the same manuscript or proposal to multiple publishers concurrently. I think it's fine, so long as you don't get carried away. In other words, I think it's reasonable to submit your book concurrently to a few candidate publishers for whom you think it would be a good fit. However, I wouldn't broadcast it out to every publisher of software books in the universe at the same time, hoping for at least one hit.

The Proposal


You start with an idea, a possible title, and maybe an elevator pitch. If you want a publisher to give your idea due consideration, you’ll need to submit a full proposal. Once you've identified candidate publishers, you might be able to find templates or suggested outlines for their preferred proposal format at their websites. Alternatively, if you’ve spoken to an acquisitions editor or other contact person, they should be able to describe what they like to see in a proposal. If all else fails, there's some standard information you should include in your proposal, which I will describe here. If you visit the supplemental content page for this blog, you can see several of the proposals I submitted for various books I have written. I'm not saying they're the best proposals ever, but each of them did persuade a publisher to take the book.

Once you've identified yourself and your position in the proposal, present a concise overview of the proposed book. Make it clear why the world desperately needs your book. Describe its major characteristics and the value proposition for the reader. Include a synopsis of the topics you intend to cover, either in narrative form or in the form of a high-level outline. The publisher doesn't necessarily need to see the full outline that you might have developed to help guide your writing, but he certainly wants to know your topics and how you anticipate organizing them. Estimate the final word count for the book and the approximate number of figures and tables you expect to include. By way of calibration, a 200-page software book probably contains around 60,000 to 65,000 words. My Software Requirements, 2nd Edition book is 150,000 words and 500 pages long. Figures are generally counted as 200 words each.

In another section you might call out the outstanding features of the book, including any hooks you've devised that would give the book a distinctive look, feel, and delivery of the information. If you plan to set up a complementary website with supplemental downloadable materials, describe that, too. The point of these sections is to convince the publisher that you have a uniquely valuable contribution to offer, and that you can deliver the content in a compelling way that readers will find accessible.

Publishers aren't in business just because they love books—they need to be able to sell whatever books they acquire, preferably lots of copies. Therefore, include a section on marketing information to help convince the publisher that this is a good business proposition. Describe any marketing hooks, ways the book can be positioned to particularly appeal to potential buyers. List the benefits readers would get. Summarize your understanding of the audience profile—the kind of people who would find this book irresistible—and estimate how many of them there are. Don't say, "Every software developer and project manager will want a copy of this book, so the potential market is at least two million copies." First, that isn't going to happen. Second, that doesn't help the publisher assess how to position the book in the marketplace.

An essential section of the proposal is to identify the competitive titles that are already on the market, as well as any books in the same space that you know are in preparation. For each competitive book, provide the title, authors, publisher, copyright date, page count, price, and a brief abstract. Describe how your book will complement, supplement, and (hopefully) be superior to the competition.

My book proposals include a section on the status of the work (“the Work” is how the publisher's contract will refer to your book). The publisher would like to reach a comfort level that you'll actually be able to deliver a usable manuscript on schedule. I know some people who write the entire book before approaching a publisher. I have never done that with my software books. Instead, I outline the book, and then I write a chapter or two to see how it feels and to get a sense for how the whole project might go. Then I can approach a publisher with confidence that I know what I'm talking about. In this section, I let the publisher know how much I've already written and my estimated schedule for delivering the rest of the content.

Include a section of author information with your full name, contact information, and professional biography. If you’ve published books previously, list their titles, publisher, year of publication, number of pages, ISBN, approximate sales, and any awards they might have received. Provide references to any articles, handbooks, or eBooks you have published. Even if you haven’t written a book before, publishers need to know whether you can string sentences together in a sensible way.

Along that line, publishers want to see samples of your writing. The general guideline is to submit two chapters that you’ve drafted, neither of which is the first chapter of the book. You want to let the publisher’s decision makers judge the quality and style of your writing. This will give the publisher an idea of how effectively you present material and also an idea of how much work it might take them to edit your manuscript into publishable form. If you haven’t written any chapters yet, make sure the publisher has easy access to some of your articles.

In the next article in this series, I’ll talk about the contracting process.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)