Exploring the Core Motivation of Writing a Book

More than a week ago Niels and I released the VMware vSphere 6.5 Host Resources Deep Dive and the community has welcomed it with open arms. The book is finding its way across the globe, from Argentina to New Zealand. To see the massive amounts of tweets praising the books brings us pride and joy.

Over the last couple of days, I have received many inquiries what it takes to write a book and if I could provide some hints and tips. I thought it might be an interesting blog post. Three questions you need to ask yourself

  1. What is my core motivation for wanting to write a book?
  2. What are you willing to give up for pursuing this goal?
  3. Do I have the platform to launch the book and capture and maintain the attention of the book/brand?

Core motivation
The first question you need to ask yourself is why exactly you want to write a book? An answer often heard is not money or fame. It’s typically a charitable cause, such as to educate the community or a stepping-stone for one’s career.

The last reason is by far the most likely one that will provide you the return on investment. People respond differently to you once they found out that you wrote a book. It shows dedication, it hints at mastery of a subject, it differentiates you from the rest. Nay-sayers will automatically point to the option of self-publishing, but they forget that the leading word in self-publishing is SELF. You have to do it all by yourself.

If money is your answer, then I need to burst that bubble. The chances are that the same amount of time spent working at the local supermarket will be more profitable. What I’ve learned with publishing five books, is that the creation of a single page takes approximately 90 minutes.

The sole exercise of writing 300 to 500 words does not take 90 minutes. It’s the second-guessing, the formatting and the phrasing that takes a lot of time. Once you write something down, thoughts will start to flow; they will lead to more questions, they will lead to second-guessing your initial idea. This leads you back to vendor collateral, academic papers, or testing in your lab. And you will hit writer’s block.

90 minutes is a good number to work with when you are in the planning phase of the book. We wrote 569 pages. 569 pages times 90 minutes equals 51210 minutes. That is 853,5 hours.

Money
This number leads to additional questions. But first, let’s answer the money question, this intertwines with the platform question.

How many books does one sell? Duncan and I sold over 75.000 copies of the vSphere clustering deep dive series. I know that the early Bible of virtualization; VMware ESX Server, Advanced Technical Design Guide by Scott Herold and Ron Oglesby sold approximately 30.000 copies. Both are exceptions to the rule. Most successful self-published books sell between 500 and 1500 copies. Let’s say you earn 5 dollars per book, and you sell 1500 copies, you receive 7500 dollars before tax. If you spend 700 hours on the book, you will make a little over 10 dollars an hour.

Self-publishing books provide more revenue to the author than using a publishing house. Published books by VMware Press or any other publisher house will get you into bookstores. Unfortunately, this will eat into your royalties.

Deadline
Those 700 hours need to come from somewhere, and because you are writing a tech book, you are bound to the time limit of the software version. It doesn’t make sense to publish a book about the previous version of the software, so you typically have one year of writing. If you have a day-time job, you need to spend times in the weekend and evening hours. Let’s say you keep the weekends for your friends and family and household chores. That leaves you with five evenings to write. If you write 3 hours a night, that means you are spending 233 consecutive workdays to write your book. Question yourself whether you or your loved ones will have this stamina?

What are you willing to give up
So that brings me to the second question, what are you willing to give up. I’m not saying divorce your spouse, but if you want to keep your family happy, you need to get the hours from something else. Gym time, drinking time, game time or sleep time. Typically all of the above, because sometimes you will get sick, or other responsibilities will get in the way. Going back to question one, is this worth the ˜10K you probably make? When you want to use it as a stepping stone for your career, the money is just a nice bonus.

Platform
If you want to educate the community, or you want to get more exposure, then you need to have a platform already in place. This platform can be a successful blog, a popular Twitter account or you are a regular on a podcast. Due to the maturity of this particular industry (virtualization) you need to be a regular in the community to have people accept your wisdom. There are a lot of people sharing their knowledge, some not always as correct as they believe. So ask yourself, why would anyone want to buy your book? Why should he believe you? Are you seen as an authority on a particular subject by the community? Just getting a book out and expect people will buy it because of the subject is, unfortunately, a thing of the past. There are a lot of books about virtualization on Amazon and people need an extra level of confirmation before they spend their money.

Find your niche and share your knowledge! But, before spending a lot of time on writing a book and getting disappointed by the sales result ask yourself. Am I an authority on a certain topic and does the community share the same perception? A book can certainly help built this image. But in general, people already need to understand that you know what you are talking about. How can you become one? Publishing articles on your blog or LinkedIn will help. Appear on podcasts such as Virtually Speaking Podcast or vBrownbag. And speak! Speak a lot at local and neighboring VMUGs. Hone your skill, so that you can shine at VMworld.

You need to harvest that popularity and keep riding that wave. That’s why you need to have that platform. Otherwise, it will be a short 15 minutes of fame. Popularity has a momentum. People will forget, and the attention to your new book will soon be pointed at another new thing. You need to provide a platform that can maintain that momentum. Write about the book, publish sections of the book on your blog, speak about it in podcasts. This allows you to create better and bigger things after your first book, maybe a second one.

As with everything in life, nothing is self-contained. It’s always intertwined with other elements. This blog post is not to discourage you from writing a book, but hopefully, helps you prepare to launch a successful book. There is a lot of work that needs to be done before releasing your knowledge in the form of a book. Don’t let my words discourage you. To paraphrase Nike: Just don’t quit!

2 Comments

  1. Hey Frank,

    Reading through your post was like flashbacks for me to the time when I was writing books. You’re spot on with your assessment of the commitment to write a book. It sounds good on paper (pun sort of intended?) to write a book but it’s hard work and definitely requires sacrifice.

    When I wrote my first book (no shameless plug because it’s out of print at this point), I mostly wrote from 10:00PM-2:00AM on weeknights and during the day on Saturdays or Sundays. Though this was hard on me I didn’t realize how hard it was on my wife who had to deal with our young kids both during the week and on the weekends with little help from me. When I wrote books after that I was aware of the impact it ha don her and focused on only writing either during the evenings when the kids were in bed or when I traveled for work. Family time was family time.

    To anyone thinking of writing a book – I highly recommend having your spouse/significant other read this post. Every word is true and it would help set the right expectations. Having my name on several books is one of my prouder accomplishments in life and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to challenge themselves and share your knowledge with a wide audience. Just don’t forget to read this post to understand what to really expect.

    Congrats on the book Frank. I look forward to getting my own copy soon!

  2. Kuver P Singh

    July 11, 2017 at 15:52

    Very useful to think, at least try to start and got clear motive.

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