December 30, 2014

Mechanics Of Writing A Book

I have always loved books, so the thought of writing one (or more) has never really been far from my mind. I have been fortunate to have been on the side-lines of the publishing business for a few books, so that whet my appetite even more. I have been a pre-press technical reviewer for a handful of technical programming books from publishers that there's a good chance you've heard of. I have also been a book reviewer for the Slashdot website, where you can find at least two dozen reviews written by yours truly. These activities were a source of encouragement to learn more about books.

##Fiction Or Non-Fiction?

I suspect that fiction is the hardest kind of book to write because you not only need to know how to write, but you also need an imagination that will provide you with what to write. As a computer programmer, my imagination is pretty limited, so that leaves non-fiction. Then there is the choice of topic. As a computer programmer and a pastor, I could write about a number of geeky or theological areas. In the end, for my first book, I went with theology and Apostolic Baptism was the result.

##Publisher Or Self-Publishing?

The next decision was whether to self-publish or to seek a publishing house to accept a book proposal. Working with a publishing house brings certain benefits and while many of those are attractive, the chances of most authors being accepted is pitifully small, especially if you are not a known name in the writing world. Further, most publishing houses look for more than just an intended outline of a book, they ideally want to see several chapters, at least three, completed to proof-reading condition, before they will commit to your book. As my intended book was not likely to be that large (it came in just under 100 pages in the end) those three chapters would be a reasonable portion of the finished work, so I might as well just keep going by myself after the first three chapters and do it all myself.

Interestingly, I have seen a number of authors start with self-publishing and then get recruited by a publisher when they see the quality of the finished work. In many ways this seems to be the best of both worlds. The publisher gets a book that they can see is a quality work before they pay the author anything. The author gets to deal with a publisher from a position of influence that most new authors do not have and this often results in a better deal for the author, especially in the area of retaining the electronic publishing rights to their work.

##Choosing LeanPub

As a geeky kind of fellow and a computer programmer, I have always liked the idea of ebooks. I've also got quite an enthusiastic inner-typographer. So whatever solution I went with was going to have to try to satisfy both of these needs. One of the natural tools for producing high-quality printed output is LaTeX. Sadly, it doesn't work so well with most ereaders. I needed something that could produce ebooks and LaTeX quality printed material. And if it could handle Markdown as well, that would be perfect. I was already using a tool called Pandoc for my sermons, so I wondered if I could use that to create my book. The answer was yes, but there would be a lot of configuration required to get everything looking high-quality. Somewhere around this time, I came across LeanPub and my problems were solved.

LeanPub is an online service for authors where you create books using Markdown, or more specifically Markua, which is a superset of Markdown designed for book publishing. The output from LeanPub is produced in three formats: PDF, EPUB and MOBI. Their book templates are gorgeous and look like they've come straight from a high-end book publisher. Even better, they also have the option to produce a high-quality final print PDF that can be directly uploaded to any number of printing services to produce the finished paper book. I was ready to pull out my credit card, but their price is free for the services, only taking a slim commission if you sell through their website.

(Update, update! Leanpub have updated their prices and as of Spring 2018 charge $100 to start a book and also have a number of monthly payment plans depending on how often you want to be able to update your books.)

I am very pleased with the results that I received through LeanPub for my first book and am now in the process of creating more books through them. Understand that I have no business relationship with them, beyond being a satisfied customer, so please take my strong recommendation to look at their services as an honest attempt to steer you right and not to make money off of you.

##Organizing Your Book

There are traditional ways of organizing a book that very few people could articulate, but that they would notice immediately if not followed. I found a lot of this information during my initial search for LaTeX stylesheets that would help me with my initial thoughts of self-publishing. While I did not ultimately use those style sheets, the information provided about book layouts and structure were invaluable.

I recall that the most useful LaTeX stylesheet was Memoir. It came with a 600 page user guide, beautifully typeset using Memoir and the guide contains a significant amount of information on how to layout and organize a book. Only after this was explained does the guide proceed to explain how to use Memoir to achieve said layouts.

##Your Content

For a non-fiction book, it's important to plan your content and ensure that your approach to the subject makes sense. I worked with my Presbyter (a pastor over pastors) to ensure that my approach was solid. I also had a safety net, because one of my proofreaders was also a Presbyter (for a different section of the state) and he verified that I had not made any mistakes with my doctrine. Knowing that I'd verified these points with knowledgeable men was a great relief for me.

##The Actual Writing

Writing is hard. And good writing is very hard. And Jerry Pournelle says that if you want to be a real writer you must write and throw away a million words. A book is not the best first writing project for most people. My preparation for writing a book was to have blogged for several years and having written an average of 40 sermons a year for seven years. That amounts to a good number of words of practice.

##Proofreaders and Copy Editors

I cheaped out here and skipped retaining a copy editor. I think I got away with it for two reasons. The first reason is that I am pretty picky with my own writing and will re-write a sentence if I don't like it. And I re-read everything the next time or two I come back to it. I write with my spell checker on and as part of getting ready to send copies out to my proofreaders I ran the entire text through the Hemmingway App. I didn't follow all of its advice, but it did cause me to consider every sentence in every paragraph to ensure that they worked well together.

Having skimped on the copy editor function, I opted for plenty of proofreaders. I had five proofreaders lined up and got two and a half out of five worth of proofreading. Life happens, so with more proofreaders, I still received a good quantity of proofreading with two of the folks needing to bow out. My two primary proofreaders were published authors and one of them was also a school teacher. One of my proudest moments was when the school teacher handed me back a marked-up copy of the manuscript and told me that there weren't as many errors as she had expected.

##Printed Proof Book

The next step was to create an account at CreateSpace and upload my manuscript. I selected a free cover layout and uploaded my own photographs for the front cover and author picture. Then it was a very simple affair to order a couple of print proofs. Even with postage, this step cost me less than $10, so my financial investment so far is still minimal. The proof books arrived in less than a week and I was greatly impressed by the quality. I had expected there to be an obvious indicator of the proof status of the book, but the only indicator was the word "proof" on the last page before the back cover. The cover print quality was excellent, the binding was solid and the inner manuscript looked just exactly like the high-quality PDF that I had generated from LeanPub.

I took the inexpensive road on the matter of an ISBN. International Standard Book Numbers are expensive in small quantities, so I took advantage of the offer from CreateSpace to assign me one of their ISBNs for free. If I were to ever sell this book through another publisher, I would need to get a new ISBN myself or through the other publisher. At this time, as I still retain all copyrights to the book, I'm not overly worried about this and will revisit the decision should the day come when I sign up with another publisher.


The act of publishing your book after you have reviewed the proof version is very straight forward. You just press a button to assert that you accept the proof version. Congratulations, you have published a book. There were more questions after that, but these are all to do with sales channels. At this point, you may now purchase completed copies of your book directly from CreateSpace. After carefully working through the sales channels questions, I just needed to wait a few days (turned out to be closer to a week) for my book to be available through in print or electronic versions.


My conclusion is that self-publishing a book is within the grasp of almost anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and the willingness to learn a few simple new skills. The process was greatly simpler than I had feared it would be after reading up on how to use LaTeX to create your own books. LaTeX is great, but for books that will also be targeted as ebooks, it is less helpful.

I am very pleased with the tools available online for either free or an inexpensive amount. LeanPub is a great service and I recommend them heartily for creating the book and selling electronic versions. CreateSpace printed excellent quality books in a Print On Demand fashion and I am very pleased with my resulting product.

If you feel that you have a book within you that is just itching to be written, now is the best time there has ever been to bring it to fruition.

Tags: Geeky Personal Books