Writing a tech book: why and how?

There are a couple of reasons that could motivate you to write a tech book. Money shouldn’t be one of them.

You don’t get rich, period

First things first, you don’t write a technical book to become rich as you need the lower time to revenue ratio possible. In this regard, technical book writing is one on the worst possible example:

  • It is a very time consuming activity. Even if you know everything there’s to know about the subject - doubtful, you will need the time to write and to add relevant refernces. Then, you’ll be dependent on others to review your work. After that, you’ll have to let check the commented drafts, carefully evaluate if each is sound or not and act accordingly. Once done, it will be layout work, and so on, ad nauseam…​
  • It doesn’t pay much. Really.
    • For once, the lifespan of a book is (very) limited compared to that of a regular book. People are still buying H.P. Lovecraft nowadays, they don’t buy books about EJB 2. That means that the more adherent to a specific tech you are, the lesser revenues you’ll get.
    • But it doesn’t stop at this. Audience is also very limited and the same adherence rule applies. About 40 millions of Fifty Shades of Grey have been sold. Whether you like it or not, it’s a fact. It’s unlikely there are so many developpers, without even mentioning technology barriers: if you write about Java (in general), audience is less; if you do about Vaadin, ouch, that hurts to even think about it.
    • And now for the final blow. You’ll probably go to an editor to publish your book, thinking that would probably expand your reach. Perhaps (more on that later), but that will with no doubt decrease your cut, as your best pal will take between 85 and 90% of the revenue. Welcome to real life…​

As seen from above, a waitress or a janitor are probably paid more bucks, if you check per hour of work.

Good reasons to write

There are other very good reasons to write a book though. One of them is probably pride: pride in yourself or the desire to make your momma or your significant other proud. Having your own book in your hands gives a really nice feeling of accomplishment. It’s your baby, dammit, the product of your sweat and toil!

Another reason is fame, or more realistically, peer recognition. This one may be double-edged since you will need to provide a good deliverable or you will achieve the opposite. But if you do a good job, chances are people in the tech business will probably know about you and your book and look upon you in a favorable light, even when they didn’t meet you before.

It may also look good on your resume…​ or not. Personally, I do not advertise it on mine as I feel a recruiter may become afraid to deal with someone who he thinks will act like a diva. But I think it may be very dependent on the culture. Just be aware of that.

Last but not least, a very good reason to write is to strengthten your knowledge of the subject. Yes ladies and gents, authors are not (at first) experts on the subject they write about. That doesn’t mean you should write a book when you know nothing about the subject (though I wouldn’t advertise against it if you’ve enough time and motivaton), that just means that some areas are more or less obscure and writing about them is a chance to deepen your knowledge. When I began writing Learning Vaadin, I played with some applications and knew about the general architecture, but the finer points about client-server communication were lost to me. That didn’t prevent me to understand them in the process of writing. And I hope that I have achieved a decent degree of expertise on Vaadin now.

There may be other reasons, but since they don’t come to me naturallt, I guess they were not mine. Feel free to add your own here.

What do I need?

As said previously, skills is not mandatory per se. You could write a book on a subject you don’t know about. It will take you much more time, but it’s possible. Likewise, mastery of the language is not a requirement: you could ask people to review your book. And in the technical book, sentences should be concise and to the point.

IMHO, there are only three basic requirements: time, will and faith.

For time, well, I talked a little about that formerly but you should definitely understand this: either you got plenty of time right now and that’s fine, or you’re stuck with 24 hours days like us mere mortals and that means you’ll need to prioritize. In essence, instead of browsing around the Internet, you will write. Instead of playing casual games, you’ll write. Instead of talking to virtual friends on Facebook, you’ll write. Up to this point, I guess it should be pretty ok for everybody. But instead of going out with your friends, guess what, you’ll write. If at the end of a work day, you want to spend some time with your family…​ you have to write. And so on. As a sidenote, a friend of mine warned me before I undertook my journey that the last person he knew who did write a book ended up divorced.

Writing is time consuming. I wish I could give an estimate of how much time it took me, but I didn’t monitor. Just understand that writing is time-consuming, and having a salaried job takes you at least 8 hours a day, so plan. Guess how much time you’ll be able to work on your book each day/each week, then add 30% to produce a realistic planning.

Very close to the time thing is will. Because we are only human beings, and writing takes so much time over our other activities, sometimes you’ll have enough. Though it’s OK (and even recommended) to go out in the sun, you should always strive to write each day or even each week or at least to research something related to your book. It keeps you in the line. It’s self-discipline and for me, it’s one of the hardest thing to achieve when you want to be an author. Having an editor definitely helps you there (more later).

The last thing you need is faith in the subject you write on: you have to be convinced that the technology is going to change the world, end wars, make people happy or whatever. Definitely and without a doubt. Or don’t write. Remember, you’re going to make your book a priority in your life, so it better be worth it. If you don’t think highly of your subject, you’d better go back to what you were doing previously because all those sacrifices are not worth it.

Editor or not editor?

The most structuring step is to go with an editor or not. There are good reasons to choose the former, and bad ones.

If you’re writing a tech book, that means you’re a tech guy (or girl)++. This means that you like tech, and perhaps also sharing your love of tech. But in general tech people don’t like what goes around book writing: reviews, layout, marketing, advertising, public relations, sales, etc. If that is the case, go for an editor which will take care of that (more below).

Having an editor means you’ll have a contract, and in it an associated planning. If you think you do not have enough self-discipline to write regularly, such a planning could be the looming threat you need to go for it despite all distractions around. This is definitely something to ponder about.

Some editors are small and competing for visibility, some are definitely a standard and have the best reputation. If you have the chance to write for O’Reilly (or perhaps Artima also, for their Pragmatic serie), jump at it. The downside is that they have power, they know it, so your cut will be at the smallest. But you didn’t write for money, did you?

If you’re a new writer, and have no access to user groups, conferences, or audience in any way and have no prior reputation, I would definitely recommend going for an editor. It will help you in the writing process and open you channels. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re Adam Bien or Antonio Goncalves, both Java Champions, you can self-publish without much trouble.

As for some bad reasons, well, remember marketing and advertising? Don’t have high expectations on this side, they are completely oversold by editors. This is an excerpt from a mail conversation with my own:

I was wondering if you’d like to give me any suggestions regarding the promotions of this book, it could be anything, reviewers you’d like me to get in touch with, specific websites you’d like the book to be featured on, any speaking arrangements/events where you’d like the book to be promoted, etc. Any such suggestions from you would be highly appreciated and I’d be happy to implement them.

So in essence, you give them pointers and they contact them for you…​ What a big deal! To sweeten this, note that at the end of the writing process, you basically want to enjoy life again, get reunited with your family, see your friends and have no desire to go the extra mile; you’ll probably end up wanting to delegate everything to someone, even if they don’t do much, so think about that before telling it’s bullshit (which it is).


I think at this point, you have a good overview of what to expect (and what not to expect) from a tech book writing experience. IMHO, it may be related to a race. You train for weeks, it requires time and will. And during the race, it’s hard. But the nice warm feeling inside when you finish it is really something special. Go do it 🙂

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Also double as a trainer and triples as a book author.

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Writing a tech book: why and how?
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