Noel Rappin Writes Here

Occasionally Asked Questions

Posted on August 27, 2006


I wouldn’t say it happens often, but I do sometimes get asked some questions about being a technical author. Seemed like a good place to start.

For a long time, the most common question was Did you pick the animal on the cover of the Jython book? The answer is no. The cover animals are picked by the O’Reilly production team, and the mechanism they use for assigning animals to books is somewhat mystical. I think we could have rejected it had we had a really strong reason (I know of at least one other book that has). For the wxPython book, Manning offered us a selection of a few different art figures, and we also picked the color of the spine.

The other most common question is something like Can you make a living at this? or more generally, how publishing finances work. I’m not a complete expert, but I suspect my experiences generalize. Tech books are generally sold on the basis of a proposal (in contrast to fiction novels from new authors, which are usually not sold until the book is complete). Publishers generally describe their proposal formats on their websites – I can’t talk as much about that part of the process because I came in after the proposal phase in both cases.

The contract specifies payment as an advance and a royalty rate. The advance is paid up front in stages as the book is completed. There’s room for negotiation on this, but it’s typically something like 1/3 on signing, 1/3 at the halfway point, and 1/3 when the final manuscript is approved. My sense is that newbie authors can expect an advance in the mid to high four digit range. The royalty rate the amount of each books sale that goes to the author (the amount is based on what the publisher is paid by the store, not on the cover price of the book). However, the amount of the advance is subtracted from the royalties – the author does not see additional payment until the total royalty amount exceeds the initial advance. At this point, the book is said to have “earned out”. In case you are wondering, the author does not have to return the advance if the book never earns out – the advance is a gamble by the publisher. A typical royalty rate is about 10%, but some publishers (notably Pragmatic) offer more. If there is more than one author, than the authors decide how the money will be split among them, and that split is also enshrined in the contract.

Oh, and if you have an agent, then the agent typically takes %15 percent off the top. Typically, they earn it, too, either by getting the contract in the first place, or by dealing with the publisher when you don’t want to.

Tim O’Reilly said on his blog some time ago that the typical O’Reilly book earns about $15,000 for it’s author. In my case, however, we earned less than that, since the Jython book has yet to earn out. In fact, it will probably never earn out – in fact, based on the figures O’Reilly gave in his post, it’s probably among the lowest selling O’Reilly books ever (at around 6000 copies or so), so I’ve got that going for me. I haven’t gotten sales figures on the wxPython book yet, but it’s Amazon ranking has been pretty good, so I’m hopeful.

I’ve just started writing some articles for sites like IBM developer works, which is more lucrative on a per-word basis, but I’m not planning on quitting my day job anytime soon.

That’ll do for now. As I think of some other questions of interest, I’ll post them here.



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