Herding Code 119: On The Writing Technical Books (with Jesse Liberty, Phil Haack, and Brad Wilson)

This episode of Herding Code the guys talk to Jesse Liberty, Phil Haack, and Brad Wilson about writing technical books. Jesse has written dozens of technical books, and both Brad and Phil worked with Jon and K. Scott on the recently released ASP.NET Professional MVC 3 book. What’s it like to write a book? Why do it at all? How does the process work? How is it changing? Is Angry Birds your favorite story? Join us for a very literary version of Herding Code to find out.

  • We start with a listener question from @tpdorsey (Terrence Dorsey): “*Printed* books? If so, why bother? I ask this as a print writer and editor for 17 of last 20 years.”
  • There’s a discussion of the value that the editorial process adds to books as compared to blog posts.
  • Twitter question from @schwarty: “Best way to work a first time deal? Submit queries? Try to team up with co-writers?” Phil, Brad, Jon, K. Scott, and Jesse tell stories about how they got their first book deals.
  • Phil notes that most authors get a start in other mediums – blogs, magazines, possibly StackOverflow in the future.
  • Jesse talks about his investigation of self-publishing. In the end, he decided that the editorial process tipped the scales towards working with a publishing company.
  • Jon references Twitter questions from @devhammer and @jglozano on dealing with procrastination, making time to write, etc. He points to positive pressure of working for a publisher under a schedule and a contract to get the book out the door. Brad talks about how peer pressure from other authors to keep up is also helpful.
  • There’s discussion about the challenge writing up an outline before starting the book. Phil talks about how the publishing industry in general is pretty stuck on older technologies like FTP, and in general the process feels like waterfall software development.
  • Jesse says that if you’re reasonably on schedule, publishers are pretty flexible about changes to the outline.
  • Brad answers listener questions from @stevenproctor “Have you found e-readers coming into their own to influence how you think about book?” and “has it changed how you think about layout/presentation for cross format reading” saying that it was difficult to write without seeing what the end result would look like, but he was very happy when he saw the end result, both in print and the e-book format.
  • Jon talks about how working with book templates from various publishers has taught him to appreciate the use of styles in Word, explaining a case where he was able to search for code snippets based on the styles that were used.
  • Kevin asks some interesting questions about whether working on the book puts pressures on when to ship the product, and whether writing a book about a product points out features that should be changed. Brad explains that the king of product changes due to writing (blogging in this case) is Scott Guthrie.
  • Phil talks about how Eilon (the technical reviewer) was good at keeping him from digging too far into minute details that nobody would care about. Jon explains that Eilon pointed out that the Controllers chapter was going way into the weeds before actually showing the most common use case, and Brad says that he’s in good company with an example from Charles Petzold’s book on Windows programming.
  • Jon talks about the tricky chicken-and-egg situation with trying to explain the MVC pattern in depth, since an in-depth explanation of the Model, View, and Controller requires an in-depth understanding of the other components. Jon asks Jesse about how he handles that, and Jesse talks about the importance of having a model user and getting volunteer readers as you’re writing.
  • Jon talks about the benefit of working with other authors. Brad talks about the this is more important with products with quick release cycles, and Phil compares book writing with software development techniques.
  • There’s a discussion on ensuring a consistent voice in a book with more than one author.
  • Phil, Jon, and Brad discuss the conflict between beginner and advanced content. Are the experts who are asking for advanced content representative of most readers? Phil points out that writing advanced content is a lot more fun, but limits the audience. Can a book please everyone? Is there a way to include beginner and advanced content? Jesse describes some ways he handles this, and says that it’s important to set expectations.
  • Jon talks about the decision to remove NerdDinner, referring instead to the MVC Music Store tutorial.
  • Jesse says that it’s remarkable that books are still selling well, since they’re competing with blogs, tutorials, videos, etc. He speculates that the main selling point for books now is in context: telling a story. Jon asks how he manages to do that.
  • Phil talks about the decision to put all the book’s code samples in NuGet (triggering the Haacked NuGet Drinking Game clause).
  • Jesse talks about the mismatch between the publisher’s requirements for a flow of completed chapters and the software developer’s desire to refactor.
  • Jon asks K. Scott how writing magazine articles compares to writing for a book.
  • That’s pretty much it.

Show Links:

Download / Listen:

Herding Code 118: On The Writing Technical Books (with Jesse Liberty, Phil Haack, and Brad Wilson)