A while back I wrote a book; well… most of a book.
It started with a Tweet from a publisher, re-tweeted by a friend, that showed up in my feed. The publisher was looking for authors interested in writing technology books for kids. I had been considering writing a tech book for years, even started a few, and I had recently posted a detailed blog post on how to 3D print objects created in Minecraft, so I thought I’d reach out and give it a shot.
I had a great conversation with the publisher on Twitter, which turned into an email conversation and eventually I was taking the next step and submitting a proposed table of contents for the book. The original title was “3D Printing with Minecraft”, and I designed the chapters around the idea of teaching the basics of 3D printing through exercises that could be carried-out using Minecraft. The approximate page-count came out to about 100 pages, and I felt like it was something I could do well, essentially expanding on my original blog post. The book would be structured like my favorite electronics book, Forrest M. Mimm’s “ Getting Started in Electronics “ with the first part covering theory, and the second part containing a collection of exercises.
The publisher thought this was OK but they were looking for something more substantial, so we went through a process of notes and re-working the TOC. The end result was something more like 200-300 pages and was a lot more like a typical tech book. It was now evolving into the eventual title “3D Printing with Reprap”, and the audience was no longer kids but beginners in general.
At this point I probably should have stopped. The book was no longer the book I wanted to write, and there were other constraints that came up which I wasn’t comfortable with and I knew would slow down my work, but this is the first time I’d written a “real book”, and so I trusted the professionals and pressed-on.
There was also the money. I was promised an “advance” that I thought I could put toward parts & equipment I’d need for the exercises part of the book. To me this was the big difference between writing the book on my own and working with a publisher, I wouldn’t have to carry the financial weight of getting it done alone.
Ultimately, I talked myself into continuing and began submitting chapters to my editor. This was when I realized another benefit of working with a publisher: someone else would be editing my work! I could focus on putting words and pictures on the page and someone else would make sure that my output would compile-down into proper English. This elation didn’t last long however, because the feedback I received resulted in more than simple grammar and formatting notes and ultimately, changed the book radically.
The overall push of the editors notes was to make the book integrate exercises with theory, again making it more like a typical tech book. Additionally there was a push to use different art, to move away from the hand-drawn style I had included (created by Jamie) and replacing it with primitive 3D models and screenshots, something like what you might see in “Windows XP for Dummies”. Again this felt wrong, but I reminded myself “they are the professionals”, and anyway, one more chapter and I should reach the threshold to receive part of my advance, and I can focus on the fun part of building & writing the example projects.
So I furiously typed away, pushing through OpenOffice crashes (did I mention I was forced to use OpenOffice?), ripping apart chapters and re-structuring, including the new art and emailing changes to the editor. After turning in more chapters than my contract defined as necessary to begin receiving the advance, I didn’t hear anything about it, so I asked. The response was that they chapters didn’t count until they were accepted , at which point I’d start to receive the advance.
At this point I started hearing less and less from my editor, and responses that came took longer and longer. Excuses were made and to fill the gaps I started working on later chapters until the book was almost complete. Eventually a month passed between submitting my latest edits and receiving a response, so I decided to reach-out to the editor and see what was going on.
I never found out exactly what was going on, but I received a long apology and was informed that the editor was being taken off my project. In her place the publisher would take over and delegate where necessary to a team of editors so we could get the project back on track. I was excited about this, I was starting to think that things were falling apart because of me, the quality of my work or lack of experience. It was a relief to know that things felt wrong because something was going wrong, and now it was going to be made right.
The publisher reviewed the work so far and a week or so later responded with an email that left me aghast. Long story short, he wanted to throw out everything that had been done up to this point and suggested a new structure, which happened to be just like my original one . In a nutshell, everything that the editor had made me change since the beginning of the project took the book down the wrong path, and we essentially wasted a year and countless hours doing what I felt was wrong. I tried to explain to the publisher that I had pushed against these changes, but it basically fell on deaf ears, and at this point it became less about fixing what the editor had done wrong and more about how I was providing unusable content, and would essentially have to start over.
Coincidentally, this also meant that I’d be going back to square-one in terms of receiving any advance. Bear in mind that this is over a year after the start of the project, and I’ve made significant personal sacrifices in terms of time and money to work on the book, and I’ve yet to see a dime of consideration from the publisher. This was also around the time that Jamie received a cancer diagnosis, and I had been hoping that I could recover some of the money I had put into the book project to help cover medical expenses.
I made a valiant attempt to re-work the first chapters to meet the requirements of the new structure and hit the mark to receive part of the advance. I went around-and-around with the publisher-editor who changed his mind about the direction of the chapter (or entire book) each time I submitted an edit. This, coupled with endless technical difficulties exchanging documents resulted in another few months passing by with no end in sight.
I was still hopeful that we could complete the project successfully, in a way that would benefit everyone involved, but the external pressures on me reached a point where I needed some support from the publisher to continue. I wrote a heartfelt email to the publisher explaining all the details of my personal situation, and a explanation from my perspective about how we reached this point, and requested the initial payment of the advance. What I received back could be summed-up as:
That sucks, but your book is now a mess, and I can’t tell you when we’ll be ready to compensate you.
At this point I walked away from the project for awhile and thought about my options. In filmmaking (in particular, editing), I’d been introduced to the term “kill your darlings”. The idea is that you can fall in love with work you’ve done on the film, that will make it harder for you throw them out during the edit, even if you should to make the entire film better. This was probably one of those times, and I probably should have burned then entire book and chalked it up to experience, but it was too hard, I had sunk so much time and thought and care into the project I couldn’t bring myself to walk away. I was also too optimistic, and I had a mission in mind for this book, to turn newcomers to 3D printing on to the Reprap project , and I thought this was too important to throw away.
The one upside of having received zero compensation from the publisher is that it makes a good case for our contract being invalid. Armed with this, I decided to go it alone, request cancellation of my contract and publish the book on my own. I wrote an email to the publisher explaining the situation, and received a gruff and curt response, including a signed letter ending our contract.
I converted the entire contents of the book to Markdown for publishing via LeanPub . I roped Jamie into editing the book, and we started working on turning into something worth reading. This continued for awhile, but it became apparent that much of the content would have to be re-done because it was written two years ago, and so much had changed in 3D printing, it was no longer relevant. I believe I made a valiant effort at this, but combined with everything else happening around me, it became intractable.
That brings us to today. It’s been several months since I committed any changes to the book, and every day the relevancy of the existing content rusts. What I’ve learned from the process is indispensable, but the body of work is probably less so. In the off-chance that it is of any value to others, I have made the repository containing the manuscript public, and I’m happy to accept pull requests.
If you’d like to contribute, you can find the source for the book on Github here:
I have also published the book in its current state and made it available for free on LeanPub. You can find and download the current version here:
My advice to other authors-to-be is, if it’s at all possible to publish your book without a publisher, do so. If you are writing a book that requires capital up-front to pay for research, equipment, ramen noodles, etc., make sure any publisher you engage with intends to pay you up-front. We have so many alternatives to the traditional publishing industry that it would be a shame to ignore them, and I hope if nothing else this post helps aspiring authors avoid experiencing what I have, and they are able to share their work with the world.