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Tools & Surprises For a Tech Book Author?

kdawson posted more than 4 years ago | from the chisel-and-clay-tablet dept.

Books 325

Fubari writes "I have questions for those of you who have written books: what writing tools have you found helpful? I want to start my book off right (so I'm pretty sure I don't want to write it in MS Word). What has and has not worked well for you? So far I have thought of needs like chapter/section management, easy references to figures (charts, diagrams, source code), version control (check in/check out parts like chapters, figures, etc.), and index generation. I would also welcome advice about what I don't know enough to ask about. Did you encounter any surprises that you wish you had known about back when you started out?"

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Adobe InDesign (1, Interesting)

bigjarom (950328) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193629)

Steep learning curve, but it's a breath of fresh air compared to Word.

Re:Adobe InDesign (2, Interesting)

stewbacca (1033764) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193669)

InDesign is lousy for anything beyond a few pages. Use InDesign for cover, flap, insert, back cover layout. Adobe Frame Maker is the answer if you want to go Adobe. It was purchased from another company, and thus, very un-adobe like, but it's what most people I know use for tech manuals. I'm a tech writer and we use Word at work. It's not as bad as you think.

Re:Adobe InDesign (4, Informative)

99BottlesOfBeerInMyF (813746) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194177)

InDesign is lousy for anything beyond a few pages.

It used to be, but it has gotten a lot better in recent years, pulling in much of Framemaker's feature set. It is a viable option these days and for some projects better than Frame.

I'm a tech writer and we use Word at work. It's not as bad as you think.

Did you read his criteria? Word is pretty awful when you try to use it with versioning and it is still pretty terrible for long documents. The continuing document corruption issues for large documents, especially with images makes it a poor choice for almost any long document, IMHO.

Shouldn't.... (-1, Flamebait)

Rick Zeman (15628) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193635)

...a "tech book" author presumably have enough tech-savvy to NOT have to Ask Slashdot?

Re:Shouldn't.... (2, Insightful)

Ironsides (739422) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193707)

Being 'tech-savvy' and knowing what is available are two different things. Or are you all knowing and instantly know all the best software out there to use?

Re:Shouldn't.... (1, Insightful)

Rick Zeman (15628) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193799)

Being 'tech-savvy' and knowing what is available are two different things. Or are you all knowing and instantly know all the best software out there to use?

If you have a book contract, the publisher has requirements for what they want. If you don't have a contract, you could write it in Notepad or vi for all that it matters....

Re:Shouldn't.... (1)

ta bu shi da yu (687699) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193889)

Yes, but that wouldn't make the man's life any easier, or even be very productive.

Don't equate "technical" with knowing every bit of software out there. The author of the question didn't actually say what they are technical in - perhaps they are an expert in LDAP, and may not know much about DTP. Let's put it this way: I'm pretty technical, but I don't pride myself on my awesome ability to use Microsoft Word!

Re:Shouldn't.... (2, Interesting)

tcopeland (32225) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193981)

> you could write it in Notepad or vi for all that it matters

Yup. I wrote my JavaCC book [] using vi + dbhelper.vim, DocBook, and a few little Ruby scripts to run all the example code. It's nice to be able to regenerate all the examples with a nicer format in 3-4 minutes or so. Good stuff.

Re:Shouldn't.... (1)

neonux (1000992) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193711)

...a low ID owner such as yours presumably have enough Slashdot-savvy to NOT have to ask this?

but well, at least you've read the FA! ;-)

Re:Shouldn't.... (3, Insightful)

Sir_Lewk (967686) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193749)

On the contrary, thinking of asking slashdot surely means he's *very* qualified.

Re:Shouldn't.... (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193877)

And wise enough to know when to ask for help, something too few tech people know how to do...

Re:Shouldn't.... (3, Interesting)

malcomreynolds (1358799) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193933)

Not in today's market. Many publishers want books out there really fast, so they are willing to take anyone who can spell the product's name. All you need to do is be able to take existing documentation and put it together somewhat coherently without really understanding what it means. I just did a tech review of a book on an open source admin product and it was obvious from the examples that the author had (probably) never used the product in the real world and possible never even administered a Linux system. I am actually glad that I was not mentioned for having worked on it.

Publishers provide this information (5, Informative)

Noodles (39504) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193641)

Check out the O'Reilly website:

Re:Publishers provide this information (1)

Cybersonic (7113) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194329)

This is a great reference! Thanks...

Re:Publishers provide this information (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194449)

Indeed, at the end of the day it's whatever the publisher can import. So for mine it's word (but then it's an MS security book I'm writing).

Of course if you're self publishing then whatever works for you and can spit out PDFs

Mellel (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193665)

If you are dead serious about writing, and don't mind paying for the best tools, Mellel is for you. It is a word processor application geared towards professional & academic writing, and the features are quite convincing. See for more.

Well. (3, Funny)

Creepy Crawler (680178) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193671)

I'd recommend [] .
There's also TorentReactor [] too for nice compilations.

Oh wait... you want to MAKE books? Oh, nevermind.

If you have a publisher, ask them. (5, Informative)

Web-o-matic (246295) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193673)

If you have a publisher already lined up, ask them what they want. Most publishers already have copy editing / print production processes in place, and are very specific about what they want from authors (e.g. what formats for images and graphics, templates for your chapters (often Word), and a style guide for writing, how figures should be referenced, etc. You can then use whatever tools you want, provided they deliver what the publisher wants.

If you don't have a publisher lined up, try and keep your materials in generic and easy-to-changes formats, so you can pour them into whatever format your publisher wants.

Remember, production is all about the publisher - it is not about you.

If you are self publishing, there are lots of web-based self-publishing companies - and they too describe what you need to feed them.

Re:If you have a publisher, ask them. (5, Informative)

clintp (5169) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193985)

I've written (and edited) tech books for major publishers (SAMS, Addison/Wesley, Pearson). I have to agree with the parent: it's not your call.

While you can write your book in anything you want be prepared to use THEIR tools for going back-and-forth with their copy editors, tech editors, and typesetters.

If you're comfortable in vi and using markup, that's great. However, don't be surprised when a publisher insists you use a Microsoft Word template and turn on document revision control for your chapter submissions. You may wind up taking your beautiful markup and mashing it into Word before sending it. Your proofs may come back as really awful Adobe Acrobat PDF files that make Foxit crash. Tough. Suck it up.

Producing ideas and words is your problem. Figuring out how to pass them between multiple people/departments/companies to get a book printed is theirs.

Re:If you have a publisher, ask them. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194293)

I'm going to tag a "ditto" on these 'it's up to the publisher' posts. Both of my publishers had specific systems and it was up to me to work with them.

That said, I did my actual writing in a raw text editor -- no messing around with formatting while getting the words down. Greater organization was handled the old way with papers stacked and spread across two desks made from doors set on short filing cabinets. Printing was handled quickly and cheaply by a late-model dot-matrix on eco-mode. Sometimes scissors and pen came into play -- but I'm old; I graduated before PCs hit.

I'd like to find a display equivalent for spreading things out on the desk, but I haven't seen it. I'll be interested if any posters have good suggestions.

After that it's a minor exercise to paste into Word or whatever the publisher wants, and that was a good final review stage before the publisher's editors had a go at it.

[Posting AC because, well, those were Web books...]

My own experiences writing a tech book (5, Informative)

bbutton (90403) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193685)

I'd have to say that there were a few surprises I learned along the way :)

First, expect it to be another full-time job. It takes up as much time as you have, and even more, and forget about having a personal life while you're writing it. The people I know who've done the best job writing a tech book are those who are independent consultants who have non-billable time or employees where their employer supports their writing a book. The extra time each of those kind of people can get to write during working hours is a huge help.

As far as using Word goes, it works well enough for this stuff. Expect to use a separate file for each chapter. I used a subversion repository to check everything into and out of, just to be safe.

Make writing a habit. Set a production schedule and stick to it -- its too easy to take a day off, which then turns into two days, into a week, and then just gets worse and worse. Set out a plan, both long term and short term, track your progress, update the plan as you go, and keep writing.

Finally, using a continuing example throughout the book might be nice for readers, to give them a continuing context, but it greatly increases the risk of a lot of rework on your part if you change your mind about something halfway through writing. You'll have to go back and re-edit everything that depends on the decision you changed. It does make it nice for the reader but much harder for you.

Good luck! Its a great learning experience, whether you finish the book or not.

-- bab

Re:My own experiences writing a tech book (0, Flamebait)

nikolag (467418) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194023)

"As far as using Word goes, it works well enough for this stuff. Expect to use a separate file for each chapter. "

Admit it, Word can not hold text more than one chapter in one file. MS Word is simply not-good-enough for anything that is longer than 10 pages.

Re:My own experiences writing a tech book (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194125)

MS Word is simply not-good-enough for anything that is longer than 10 pages.

You're delusional. I've seen multiple hundreds of pages in word docs (with loads of images in them too), and it doesn't blink.

Most people's problems with word stem from the fact that they expect it to work like a programmer's text editor, which is what it isn't. It's for you know, books and text like that.

Word can not hold text more than one chapter in one file

No, it's just easier to work with it that way. Do you put all your code in one file?

Re:My own experiences writing a tech book (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194221)

I support a university of academics (researchers etc) who regularly create and work with documents in the multiple hundreds of pages using MS Word - which often include complex layouts, need to be supplied to publishers with different requirements for equation formats - you name it.

We do run courses (internal) on how to make the best use of it, but MS Word does not have to be a barrier to proffesional work with very large documents - it just needs you to work the way it works best. Fight MS Word and you have a world of hurt, but learn its foibles and make use of the features it has and it works just fine.

I also know a significant number of very technically competent authors who tried moving from MS Word to do their work and slowly, reluctantly returned to it as every alternative they tried failed to meet one requirement or another or was simply too much effort to re-learn how to do their work, or they couldn't get any support for because not enough people use it. All of which needs to be considered when looking at the viability of alternatives. There's nothing worse than finding an obscure requirement late one evening before a deadline when you can't contact the supplier of some software you've decided to use to give you the hint you need to get it to work just how you need it - at times like those, MS Word and Google can be a godsend as someone has almost always had the same issue and written about it somewhere!

Re:My own experiences writing a tech book (1)

j0217995 (597878) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194391)

The different revisions of the Official Ubuntu Book I worked on I tried several times to use OpenOffice (the files were .doc files) and it was an epic failure. Espeically with tracking and comments, etc. I used Word for everything and it works great. Don't know why I would try to have the document as one single file, each file would be a separate chapter for me.

Microsoft OneNote is worth looking at (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193695)

I've used OneNote to help me collect notes, references and write chapters for two novels and multiple short stories. It's really one of the most overlooked Office applications and it's great for freeform collections of ideas.

FYI most publishers expect manuscripts in Word format, so I'd get used to that. A technical publisher may have more specific requirements. It's unlikely they will be using whatever tool you select.

I've never felt the need for automated version control. How big is this book?

Re:Microsoft OneNote is worth looking at (1)

jcarkeys (925469) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193903)

OneNote is a horrible document creator. It's good for taking notes, what it's designed for, but is definitely not useful for writing something the length of a book. It could be good for outlining and prepwork for writing, but for the actual document, use something else.

Re:Microsoft OneNote is worth looking at (1)

bschorr (1316501) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193963)

In fact that's exactly what I do. I create the outline in OneNote, maybe gather some research notes in it, but then send that content over to Word in order to do the actual writing.

LaTeX (4, Informative)

Ironsides (739422) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193697)

It sounds like you want LaTeX [] . It has a built in reference, chapter, figure/table referencing and an ToC system. It is great for equations and a whole host of other things. It does have a learning curve, but it works great. The one problem with it is that it does not have a spell checker. So what you do is type in Word and then copy/paste it into LaTeX for the formating and everything else.

Re:LaTeX (3, Informative)

Sir_Lewk (967686) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193767)

Or you know, just type it with a decent text editor that does the spell checking for you...

Re:LaTeX (1)

skeptikos (220748) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193773)

man aspell

Re:LaTeX (2, Informative)

bedonnant (958404) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193785)

latex + aspell maybe?

Re:LaTeX (2, Informative)

routerl (976394) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193843)

Check out the LaTeX editor [] . It includes many conveniences, like spell check, thesaurus, word wrapping, etc.

Re:LaTeX (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193851)

In other words, working in LaTeX is like programming. Instead of WYSIWYG, you have a plain text source file that gets compiled into the completed product.

Which means that your whole programmers toolkit is good.

Want to change something using a regex? Perl or sed to the rescue.

Want spellchecking while editing your file? Well, if you use emacs just his M-x flyspell-mode.

Want reasonable version control? Basically everything is good at version control on text files. They are diff friendly, and you can even use cool features like git log -Sbarnacle to find all changes you made that included the word barnacle.

If you're not already an expert at the whole cadre of text manipulation tools I'm talking about, you might be better off with an "IDE" like Word or one of the Adobe products.

Re:LaTeX (2, Insightful)

cab15625 (710956) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194141)

In addition to version control, another nice thing about LaTeX is the ability to leave comments in your document, just like in any other program. Comments like "this paragraph makes no sense, be sure to clarify it before sending to the editor", for example. Or point-form lists of what you want to get through in each section. It's a very handy programming tool to have access to when writing a large document. And just like when programming, the comments don't show up in the final "compiled" product.

Re:LaTeX (4, Informative)

jrothwell97 (968062) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193863)

Yeah, maybe LaTeX, but use a better front-end, like [] LyX. Then you can apply the formatting as you type.

Re:LaTeX (3, Interesting)

jcarkeys (925469) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193873)

Over break I've been learning LaTeX and certainly it's going to be everything a burgeoning author needs.

I've also been learning LyX and it's a WYSIWYM(ean) front-end for LaTeX. I suggest you try it.

LyX (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193901)

Screw the learning curve, use LyX. It is a front end to LaTeX that takes care of almost all of the complicated, but still lets you add complicated things (or even export to just LaTeX code) if you want to. I wrote my thesis using LyX and I was able to avoid 95% of the problems that I saw other students have.

Re:LyX (1)

gardyloo (512791) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194169)

Absolutely: use lyx. The users' mailing list is amazingly helpful.

Re:LaTeX (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193965)

This guy wrote a book using Latex, and he provides the source too! []

If I ever had to write a book, I'd be learning by example from above. I wrote my thesis and some IEEE papers using Latex too, not quite as amitious as a book, the learning curve at first is high, but eventually you can use cut and paste of complex formatting saving many mouse clicks. Plus a lot of wysiwig editors don't show the formatting, so you end up trying to fix something that's not visible. Everything in latex is explicit. I ended up using winedt for my Latex editor.

Latex is good for subversion since it's text based, subversion just stores the differences between check in's. Plus it's easier to see what changed between two revisions using the graphical diff.

Re:LaTeX (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194043)

LaTeX is what you want. Many books have been written with LaTeX and it won't drive you mad like Word (it's a bit harder to make your first steps, though). Packages exist for nearly everything, so if you have an itch, take the time to see who has already scratched it (on Linux getting these often requires installation of "extras" packages and it can be tricky to find which distribution package contains which LaTeX package).

There are several editing environments available. On Linux I've used emacs (with auctex and flyspell) and kile. Spell-checking is available in both environments. Equivalents exist for windows and mac. Also check out a bibliography manager like kbibtex (jabref, bibus).

Re:LaTeX (2, Informative)

cab15625 (710956) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194073)

There may be better tools out there if you have a big budget, but I'd have to agree. I got sick of word and its quirks when writing my thesis (sort of a technical book if you want to think of it like that). Emacs and LaTeX were a life-saving combination. Bibtex took some getting used to for the indexing, but that was the hardest thing to learn.

Formatting is easy. Large projects are easy. It copes with all the major image formats. And if using a text editor is not your thing, there are pseudo-wysiwyg gui's available.

On a side note, there are also (problematic) tools to convert your document to html and many other formats once you have it in tex.

LaTeX + make (3, Informative)

sugarmotor (621907) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194147)

Use latex and a Makefile.

Set up targets for every chapter separately; add features / other make targets as you go along.


Re:LaTeX (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194153)

The absence of a spellchecker is the smallest problem with latex. Spellchecking can be done by your favorite text editor (man vim) or external tools such as ispell/aspell. Depending on what you want to do "customization" can come with an extremely steep learning curve (sometimes as steep as running straight into a wall of solid rock):

- use of custom fonts is tricky for the beginner and even the advanced user usually won't try.

- exotic page layouts (i.e. everything latex doesn't "naturally" provide such als multicolumn layout with boxes/graphics spanning multiple columns) are hard to achieve even for experts.

- basically everything that's not provided by the basic set of packages will be tricky at best.

If these limitations are not an issue to you (i.e. you just want to get the job done with a pretty standard book layout) latex is definitely worth looking at. Otherwise look at dtp tools such as scribus or framemaker. But be warned: although the gui makes them _look_ easy to use i find it actually much harder to get decent results out of them than out of latex.

The unbeatable advantage of latex (and the reason more and more people are switching over from word to my latex-templates at work ;) is that it integrates extremely well with versioning tools and once you have written a decent makefile around it in order to include graphics and the like you'll go to great lengths before using anything else. Also, the generation of pdf with index and the likes is much easier than anything else i have tried.

Re:LaTeX (2, Interesting)

pngwen (72492) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194229)

Most serious academic work is done in LaTeX. My papers are all typeset in LaTeX. I use emacs to do it. The software is free (in all sense of the word), and the documentation is plentiful.

ispell will spell check it. You can run that in emacs as well, or just invoke from the command line "ispell -t". You can draw figures in any graphics program, export to eps, and then include them in your document. Tables, math, text, sections, all beautifully laid out for you.

So come on, join us Tex heads! As for the learning curve, if you can't grok LaTeX, you probably should not be authoring tech books.

Re:LaTeX (3, Informative)

Simon80 (874052) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194237)

You can learn LaTeX easily with []

Re:LaTeX (1)

James Youngman (3732) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194403)

I found the Kopka and Daly book very very useful. Maybe there are newer books for LaTeX 3e, but I found it a great resource.

Re:LaTeX (2, Informative)

James Youngman (3732) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194261)

So what you do is type in Word and then copy/paste it into LaTeX for the formating and everything else.


No, don't do that. Just use ispell -t for spell-checking, or edit your text with Emacs.

Re:LaTeX (2, Informative)

James Youngman (3732) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194379)

One minor point about LaTeX; it's a language, so if you are a programmer, expect to get sidetracked on issues of making it do exactly what you want, for no good reason other than the fact that for a programmer, that's fun. I know that when drafting my first book (that one was never published) I spent too much time crafting a spanner to put in the margin to indicate that that paragraph needed further work. Getting the spanner to face in opposite directions depending on whether it was on an even or odd page was a lot of fun, though.

I would post the finished macros, but the Slashdot lameness filter thinks there are too many line breaks between the LaTeX commands.

Re:LaTeX (4, Informative)

gringer (252588) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194389)

emacs, latex, auctex, flyspell -- wonderful combination. Oh, and you'll probably want git/svn for revision control (as suggested previously). There's also a latexdiff program floating around that can put changebars into your output file.

Flyspell allows you to have the wavy line spellchecker functionality that is fairly common now. It distinguishes between non-dictionary words that appear only once and non-dictionary words that appear more than once.

No makefile is necessary if you're using auctex. It's just C-c c for latex, bibtex, latex, latex, (pre)view.

The makeidx package allows you to create indexes (e.g. \index{ancestry!genomic}).

Yes, it's a learning curve, and the best way to start with emacs/latex is to work off some already written latex files, but the results that come out the other end are worth that effort.

Why not Word? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193705)

Why shouldn't you use MS Word?

I think you'll find that a LOT of publishers *require* MS Word. Maybe not the techy ones so much but an awful lot of them won't even touch anything else (in the same way that 99% of job agencies require your CV in Word format).

Additionally, Word may have its downfalls but the older version are top-notch for book writing and do most things flawlessly (e.g. chapter/section management, markup, annotation, and index generation).

It's nowhere near the same but my father-in-law is a professional, published author (not in the techy-field, he's a teacher) with a real publisher and agent (i.e. not that self-published crap) and uses nothing but Word. And it's not because he doesn't understand the alternatives or isn't aware of the options - Word just happens to be damn good at some things.

I still have a Word 2000 CD and licence (strangley, it's just Word, not Office) that I run over Wine etc. and it's only OpenOffice 3.0 that is making think of coming off it. Some things in Word are just fantastic once you have set them up (e.g. I can just type a line, highlight it as a custom heading style and it gets assigned a chapter number, the entire documents heading get renumbered and the contents/index are rebuilt to reflect the new layout). It's a pity that newer versions are such a stinking pile.

Re:Why not Word? (1)

Anpheus (908711) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193917)

I'd like to know why you think the newer versions, esp. 2007, is a stinking pile. I'm not going to give a spiel why I think it's not, I'd just like to know why you detest it.

Re:Why not Word? (1)

djupedal (584558) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194297)

WORD falls out on anything over 50 pages, especially with a tech book that contains drawings/images...pagination, accurate templating/style guide application and usage (opening/closing/TOC indexing), not to mention cross-platform compatibility, all fall off quickly. Past 150 pages is a quick trip to document hell. Forget about 'write once, use anywhere' (DITA etc.). Only an idiot/masochist would insist on working under such conditions.

10 pages or under and life w/WORD isn't so bad...sort of like never leaving the bubble of your parent's basement.

Re:Why not Word? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193957)

yeah, use word to write a book and paint to make the cover, because there's nothing more professional and gratifying than wasting your time on a WYSIWYG editor checking that the whole book is correctly formated (manually by you btw). ever heard of latex and other tools designed for this purposes?

Re:Why not Word? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194057)

In my limited experience of two book chapters, it depends. For a "large chunks of text interspersed with the occasional equation" style of book word is pretty much in it's element. But if you have lots of equations, and particularly if you have lots of *inline* equations, then word is still seriously lacking: entering equations is painfully slow and the result are, diplomatically speaking, readably hideous.

Re:Why not Word? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194077)

There are quite a few reasons not to use Word, particularly for technical books. It's one thing if the publisher *requires* it (and it's even worse if they use one-chapter-per-file, as cross-referencing flies out the window).

It's much better to separate the content from the presentation, and way more useful. It's also substantially easier to create aggregate documents outside of Word.

Personally I prefer DocBook, which I'll often pre-process to get marked-up source code samples, dynamically-generated images, and so on. Latex is obviously a similar, good choice.

Re:Why not Word? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194383)

Here is my experience with Word 2000 and earlier:

  1. Formatting, page breaks change depending on the printer driver.
  2. My colleagues produced inconsistently formatted text, despite being given a template; they tend to write documents at a very low level, adjusting formatting of individual words.
  3. I hated it when it crashed and took my work with it; emacs just doesn't do that.
  4. I can process LaTeX any way I like, am very familiar with it, and can get it to do everything I want, and have produced a very wide variety of output.

One typesetter to rule them all... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193709)

Well as a mathematician I believe in LaTeX as the end all for typesetting. It does all the things you asked for, and it does them well. And it makes math so pretty...

ms (de)press (1)

ridj (1436441) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193715)

If you are writing a book for ms press dont be surprsed if it ends up with many spelling mistakes and code ommissions, it's just "one of those things".

Just remember to.. (5, Insightful)

contra_mundi (1362297) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193743)

Save often!

Docbook (1)

WillKemp (1338605) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193791)

Check out docbook - an XML DTD. A text editor that can do programmable macros would be handy, so you can make keyboard shortcuts for the most common tags ("<para>", etc) - or one that already has support for docbook built in. Just mark it up as you write. It's easy when you get into the swing of it.

Tools an author do not make (1)

malcomreynolds (1358799) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193823)

I wrote my first one primarily using vi.

Tex and Latex , and when to use them (1)

brajbir (1109999) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193827)

tEx... :D :D :) if you are writing a Dummies book, use LatEx...

You'll never finish it (2, Interesting)

taustin (171655) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193837)

if you worry more about how to write it than you do actually writing it. Books were written with pencil and paper for centuries. Really.

Re:You'll never finish it (1)

Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193949)

No, most of them used ink.

Re:You'll never finish it (2, Interesting)

laymusic (140088) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194053)

On the other hand, the first novel submitted as a typewritten manuscript was "Huckleberry Finn", so not everybody who thinks about new writing technology is a bad writer.

Re:You'll never finish it (1)

djupedal (584558) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194337)

if you worry more about how to write it than you do actually writing it. Books were written with pencil and paper for centuries. Really.

Yeah, publishers love that...especially with bad handwriting.

And on the 8th day... (2, Interesting)

Zontar The Mindless (9002) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193845)

...God created DocBook [] and Subversion [] .

We use DocBook and SVN to author/edit/maintain the MySQL Manual and related documentation.

Most of us working on the MySQL docs team also use oXygenXML [] for editing - it's neither libre nor gratis, but it's not terribly expensive, and it works well on any platform with decent Java support (one of the few Java GUI apps I've seen that really works, and works well). Handles many common XML formats including DocBook, XHTML, DITA, and TEI. You can also supply your own DTDs/schemas for custom XML formats. Includes both code and visual editing views, as well as instant validation and a built-in Subversion client. Easy to produce HTML or PDF output from XML source. Also has some nice XQuery and XSLT tools if you need them.

Latex is what you need. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193867)

One word: latex. It does all everything asked, produces elegant results, has packages to tackle just about every sort of package or diagram you could want, and it's free. Not only that, but because you write everything in plain text and then "compile" it you won't have to deal with the old Word/Works/Other(TM) nightmare of "the program" crashing and wiping out the last hour/day/week of work in the process.

Try for more information.

From a published author of several tech book (2)

Dutch Gun (899105) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193879)

...why *don't* you want to use Word? It has the features you are asking about (minus version control, there are other solutions for that). I've used it for my own book, as well as contributions to about a dozen others I've contributed to. Honestly, it depends on whether you're thinking about self-publishing or working with a publisher. Here's my two bits, from the perspective of working with a publisher:

In particular, the tracking feature is extremely handy (required, actually) when going back and forth with a publisher or technical reviewer. But at least in my case, the other features you asked about didn't come into play for me at all. My publisher only wanted very basic formatting. For instance, there was no need for me to do anything but use the template they supplied. Images were supplied separately in EPS format, and just referenced in the text through a marker (*** Image 03-02.eps ***). They didn't want me to embed them in the document itself. If I wanted a sidebar, I'd just mark it: *** Begin Sidebar *** Each chapter was a separate, numbered document, and I wasn't required to create or maintain a table of contents. Formatting requirements were basic: 12-point Times New Roman for text, Courier 10 pt for the code, double-spacing, as well as some details about how to mark sections and subsections.

Essentially, if you are working with a publisher, they'll probably handle all the formatting and layout issues, and will likely ask you to submit your work in Microsoft Word format. Like it or not, this is what many publishers expect (at least, the two I've worked with). If you're not comfortable using a Microsoft product for whatever reason, then simply use OpenOffice. It's a fine product as well, and should have no problems importing and exporting basic Word documents for when you need to collaborate with the publisher.

Don't over-think this - any of the major word processors used today should be perfectly adequate for your needs.

Don't ask Slashdot (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26193891)

You may just get a goatse link in your book.

Also, provide all the "citation needed" requests.

Tools for writing (4, Interesting)

Tom Easton (1436447) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193897)

I started writing books (novels and textbooks) when all I had was a typewriter. Since then using XyWrite and now Word, I've written fifty or so books. Given that experience, I would say that while the things you list would sometimes be nice to have, none are essential. Take notes as necessary and maintain tiered backups (today, yesterday, last week, last month), and you should be fine. At the moment I'm working on a book on 3D printing (Futurist article available below). Initially, I gave each chapter its own file. As the chapters approached final form, I merged all into a single file, which is now (thanks to illos) over 16Meg. Tom Easton []

Tips (1)

thepainguy (1436453) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193919)

I have found that Word worked just fine for my book... [] ...which is more of a business book (but I was forced to deal with the same issues). The biggest thing to keep in mind is that the publisher is going to define everything using styles, so you really just need to worry about content and not formatting. You could almost use a very simple text editor. I would ask your publisher, if you have one, what format they prefer and what makes their life easier from a layout standpoint. Do they want you to define code samples using a different style or font? I can also give you some information on self-publishing if you want, as that's the route I chose.

Ask your publisher first (1)

wfstanle (1188751) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193925)

Choosing a word processor to use is important. I helped write a textbook published by Springer. They not only insisted on MS Word, but wanted its writers to use a template designed by them. We started to write the book in MS Word without checking with them first. We had to convert the document to make use of their template.

Face it, you will be dealing with business types and often they will insist on a specific word processor. I wasn't very happy about using a MS product but as I wasn't the primary writer, the decision was not in my hands. Some publishers are more flexible than others. Check first before you get very far into the writing process.

OO works just fine (5, Interesting)

nikolag (467418) | more than 4 years ago | (#26193983)

I have written one book (over 750 pages), entirely in OpenOffice.

I found it very well equipped for all the tasks I needed, plus export to PDF worked like charm. As a metter of fact it was also edited in OO, and pdf was sent straight to printing.

It can make index, table of contents, and some other things You will find usable. For example I linked over 200 images in text and not once did OO lose track of size, position or other thing in entire book.

On the other hand, I could not hold the document in MS Word to have same number of pages on several computers, it just re-numerated pages each time differently, moved images and did other nasty things, especially after thing got bigger (over 80 pages).

Besides LaTeX, I really can't think of something better than OpenOffice.

When I wrote a book, the publisher dictated tools! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194013)

Ironically it was MS Word.

If you are using a publisher, they'll dictate what you use.

If not, use LaTeX. Any book that is complex enough to be worth reading will exceed what any word processor can do almost immediately.

My advice is not to waste your time writing for a publisher. The odds of your book selling enough copies to pay back the advance are not in your favor, and by the time you factor in opportunity costs, you'll probably lose money for every hour you spend on the book. You'll come out ahead writing a book for yourself and publishing it as open source.

Making it work (1)

HatRoot (875638) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194029)

Turn off "Smart Quotes" in WORD if you use it. They play havoc with many other programs that might be needed to paste your manuscript into during the publishing process. Such as adjusting the font or point size, justification, text spacing and little things like that.

Saving your work in ASCII is a real good thing as everything can read ASCII without any trouble at all.

Spelling and grammar count for a lot also.

Most of all, read your markets "Writers Guidelines" thats where they tell you all these little things you really do need to know. When in doubt, ask. (This is making the assumption that you have a market or publisher already picked out. If not see comments on ASCII above)

If you don't have a market picked out consider the self published e-text market. If you go that route you are talking .pdf, Kindle, Amazon or the like which still like ASCII. Don't scoff, this is getting more popular as traditional publishing houses fall behind the curve of internet paced markets. e-Books are the future.

Hope you do well with your project!

Well as a Writer and an Editor... (1)

skribble (98873) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194091)

Use Word...

...or if you have some strange issues with Microsoft, or don't have access to a native version of Word, Open Office will work. Word is actually quite good at this sort of stuff, plus this will give you the most flexibility in the long run (at least as far as publishers go). The exception is if you are self publishing or handling copy edit/tech edit/ and layout yourself. See the problem with other tools is that you will find that most production people (including copy/development/ and many tech editors) are trained to use Word, and using something else will a create huge workflow issues and may require some sacrifices in the production process, resulting in an overall negative effect on both the timeliness, editorial effectiveness, and cost of producing your book.

Now many publishers are at least considering the use of docbook or a similar XML type format (since often most books end up in XML for easy output to various print and online mediums), but for now it's just not an ideal format either since the tools haven't evolved to be that useable for many editors. See the thing is, I assume you want a well trained copy editor and such, and many copy editors, are good at language, not technology, so they just don't work well with LyTeX or XML or whatever.

Now again... if you are self publishing, do whatever you want. Otherwise if you don't use Word (or something Word compatible) you will be limiting your publishing options significantly. (BTW unless you are self publishing, InDesign is a terrible option... it's a layout program not a writing tool, and many publishers still use Quark, or some other layout tools.)

Advice from an Editor and Writer (5, Informative)

paddbear (200274) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194099)

I've worked for a number of publishers, such as O'Reilly, QUE, Dummies, as both an author and editor.

Don't use Framemaker, InDesign, Pagemaker, LaTex, or any esoteric format UNLESS THE PUBLISHER TELLS YOU.

Every place I worked for/at took WORD (MAC or Windows). They also gave you a DOT (template) to use.

As for other tools, I like Zotero instead of EndNote.

Bottom line is your publisher will TELL you what to use. If you don't have a publisher yet, Word is your best choice to start with. O'Reilly has a good DOT available to use if you don't want to roll your own.

Oh--and no matter what people tell you, OO is not Word to the publishers.

Have you looked at scrivener? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194101)

Gets some pretty good reviews, and targeted specifically at writers of long texts. Includes chapter management and version control.

Have only used it briefly - but liked it.

Speaking as an author... (1)

mrjb (547783) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194109)

I've written "Growing Better Software" (go grab yourself a free* copy). At first I thought LaTeX would be the way to go, as I was pretty sure I'd need to provide my finished result as PDF. I didn't want to spend a lot of time fiddling with layout, but focus on writing- and this is exactly what LaTeX promises.

I found LaTeX gives you a very convenient way to separate chapters; you can simply have one main file and include the several chapters in there.

However, I found the learning curve rather steep- books are rather complex documents, so there's a LOT to learn before you know all the nooks and crannies. And so, every time I wanted to do something near-trivial, I had to look it up (no, I didn't start by ploughing through a several hundred page manual first- I wanted to focus on writing, after all). Also, I found myself spending too much time correcting syntax errors in my markup, rather than actually writing- I found that worse, in fact, than needing to 'fiddle with the layout'.

I got so tired of doing things in LaTex' convoluted ways that I switched to OpenOffice halfway the project. It worked like a dream- I simply set the page/paragraph/chapter layouts and finally could focus on actually writing. As it turned out, I spent less time fiddling with the layout than previously in LaTex. Having used Word before on 300+ page functional documentation, I also found OpenOffice to be much more stable than Word. Indices, page references etc. were a breeze, as was creating the PDF.

Perhaps the book doesn't look as good as a professionally typeset document- judge for yourself. In any case, for my particular purpose, OO.o worked better for me than LaTeX. Perhaps you need to write a lot of math formulas, in which case LaTeX may suit your specific situation better.

* as in beer- conditions apply.

Just use LaTex (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194119)

Just use latex. It does everything you need.

I've written six books (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194133)

I'm a professional, full-time author. I've also worked as a commissioning editor. I won't tell you who I am because I like anonymity and Slashdot can be a bear-pit at the best of times.

Firstly, don't be down on Word. It's the best word processor out there. It has faults, sure, but it's light years ahead of most other tools, if only because of superior changes tracking and revisioning. And I speak as somebody who writes about open source software.

But ultimately the tool you use depends on the publisher's requirements. One publisher I wrote for was a Word shop. Another used text files and CVS. I'm fairly sure a third I almost wrote for used whatever method the author wanted.

Secondly, bear in mind that authoring is extremely hard work. It's really fucking hard work. My first book was the hardest thing I'd ever done. Hands down. And I'm been through all stages of education. This things make you a better human being, of course, but you'll be left wondering how you ever managed it.

It will eat your free time. All of it. I wrote my first book while working full time in a deadline based job that left me almost no time at all (i.e. up at 6am, back home at 7pm). I don't know how I did it but I do remember that it took up my weekends, evenings and all my vacation time. I'm single. if I'd had kids, I've no idea how I'd have done it.

Thirdly, writing is only the start. Actually, just a small part of the entire process. You need to revise it, then you need to respond to editing comments. And it's not over then either. Once the book is published you will need to help publicize it, because the people who work in publicity for publishers usually know very little. Some books are marketed by virtue of being from certain publishers, such as O'Reilly. But most books have to fight for whatever attention they can get. People believe that "if you build it, they will come". The truth is the inverse of this. If you write it, nobody will know it exists until you spend countless hours telling them over and over and over again that it exists.

Expect to blog, expect to run excerpts, expect to do podcasts, expect to try and get as many mentions as possible on Digg or Reddit (which means, effectively, putting your life in the hands of disposed teenagers). A Slashdot review is nice, but that means putting your heart in the hands of disposed 30 year olds who truly believe they know everything.

Expect to get addicted to Amazon sales rankings.

So, in a nuthsell, it's fucking hard work, and the job is about 50% finished when the book rolls off the printer production line. Oh, and did I mention that you will NOT make any money? Seriously. You won't. You might make pocket money. Get as much money up front as you can in the form of an advance. This is especially important in our current economic climate when many publishers will probably go bust.

Some tools (1)

Gribflex (177733) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194157)

Id start by asking your publisher, they will know what format they will want. If they don't have any recommendations, then I would stick to something standard, that's good for writing long text.

Word and OpenOffice are both out. While they are fine tools, they are really designed for smaller documents.

Framemaker is a good tool, and is industry standard. It will cost though. Last I checked it worked on linux, mac and windows, although that was a long time ago.

You could take the plain text route, and use either latex or docbook. Both are good, and both are reasonable standards.

The most important thing: who to work with? (5, Interesting)

James Youngman (3732) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194187)

I wish I'd known I had chosen the wrong publisher.

I published a book with SAMS (an imprint of Macmillan Computer Publishing, which is not related to the British publisher called Macmillan). I was working with some half a dozen other authors and only needed to complete a couple of chapters (the page production rate that Que require from authors is so huge that I'm sure I could not have achieved that as a sole author, at least not if I wanted to take the time to check the copy I was submitting).

The basic problem was that MCP's editors (I guess copy editors initially) loaded the text I gave them into Microsoft Word (I assume, I can't remember if they confirmed this). It immediately "corrected" all the punctuation. Since the book was about Unix, there was an abundance of single and double quotes, backticks, and so forth. They all got totally screwed up. On proof reading, I spotted these, fixed them and sent the corrected text back. Then of course they loaded the text into Word again and broke everything a second time.

The whole experience was frustrating and I was left with an author credit on a portion of a book that was riddled with stupid errors. I am embarrassed to have been associated with such a farce of an attempt at a technical book. I will never again work with any publisher in that group.

I should disclose that following publication, I had other difficulties with MCP in that they published the text a second time in another book under their Que imprint, without consulting me or paying me. They rectified that when I complained, though I didn't know to do so until I noticed my text in a book I browsed in a bookshop. So there is some subsequent bad feeling on my part, so take it as read that you're not getting a dispassionate report here. Mind you, the book was published ten years ago this year, so I've calmed down a bit now.

The list of publishers I'd consider collaborating with now is much, much shorter - only about four publishers (plus any others I don't know about - and I'm sure there are many - who will accept camera-ready copy).

Re:The most important thing: who to work with? (1)

larry bagina (561269) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194267)

Just curious -- who are those four?

DocBook (1)

Zoko Siman (585929) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194201)

DocBook sounds like you could benefit from it a lot. It's a standardized XML namespace ( which allows you to use the more popular XSLT stylesheets. AND you can put a customization layer on top of that should you want.

You'll typically transform from XML to TeX and then to any of the 98234098409234 other formats that tex can be exported into.

GELL (1)

larry bagina (561269) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194241)

Git, Emacs, LaTeX and Linux.

LaTeX and CVS (1)

peterwayner (266189) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194253)

I've used LaTeX (specifically TeXShop) lately for my latest books ( Translucent Databases [] , Disappearing Cryptography [] , and Policing Online Games [] . It does a remarkably good job with handling equations and it's easy to understand --- if you think like a programmer. You can just insert macro codes whenever you feel and you can also redefine the markup language whenever it strikes your fancy.

That being said, it takes some time to understand because errors in one section can trigger error messages in very different places. You need to think like a programmer to find them.

I've also used CVS to store the various versions of the document. LaTeX uses pure text files and so most of the features of CVS/SVN cross over.

I can say that I've used InDesign and come away impressed. You may also consider using MS Word because the copy editors and others who work with you on the project will probably insist that it's the only word processor that they know how to use. Sigh.

Do the Jack Kerouac thing . . . (2, Interesting)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194259)

"I have questions for those of you who have written books: what writing tools have you found helpful? I want to start my book off right (so I'm pretty sure I don't want to write it in MS Word). What has and has not worked well for you?"

Learn from a master, Jack Kerouac, from Wikipedia, about his book "On the Road":

"He completed the first version of the novel during a three week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. Before beginning, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper [11]into long strips, wide enough for a type-writer, and taped them together into a 120-foot (37 m) long roll he then fed into the machine. This allowed him to type continuously without the interruption of reloading pages."

Even if O'Reilly turns down your manuscript, they will laugh their asses off when that long roll lands in.

As a published author/editor (2, Interesting)

Psychochild (64124) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194277)

I edited a book on business and legal issues in game development [] . Not exactly a tech tome, but I'm a programmer by training, so I hope I can share some insight.

The important thing, as others have mentioned, is a question on if you have a publisher, if you are going to look for a publisher, or if you want to self-publish.

If you are going to self-publish, take a long, hard look at what you're doing. Does this have to be in book format? Or, would setting up a convenient website be better? There's a certain cachet to having a published book, but for a lot of tech things I'd prefer to have an online reference. Even if you do have a compelling reason to put the work into dead tree format, having a companion website is highly advised.

If you have a publisher or want to find a publisher, I'd recommend doing that first. When my co-editor and I thought about our book, we wrote up a Table of Contents for the book and pitched that to the publisher. We went to a publisher of other books on the game industry and they were really receptive to our idea. If you're going to write the book on your own, you might want to write up a chapter in addition as you approach publishers.

Once you find a publisher, they'll give you the information you need. They might want everything submitted in Word format, as ours did. Use the tools they recommend to ease the process. The last thing you want is an irate publisher, trust me on this one.

Finally, work with an editor. If you're self-publishing, get an editor! Another pair of eyes with the ability to go through your work with bloody red pen is absolutely vital to ensure that you aren't writing boring crap. If you're working with a publisher, try to get on good terms with your editor from the start and build some respect both ways. The editor's job is to improve your work, so understand that every nugget that is created by your keyboard isn't always made of gold. Your editor is vital to the long-term success of your work.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

* It takes a lot of time. More than you probably think right now. Even though I was "only" an editor (ha!) for chapters contributed by others, it was a full-time job and then some. Expect to write every waking moment you're not doing something to ensure your survival (eating, sleeping, earning money). Do whatever you can to stay focused, because it's going to take a lot of work, and a lot of times it will be boring. Re-writing a chapter for the fourth time in so many weeks because it just doesn't seem to want to come together defines "test of endurance".

* Don't expect to get rich. Some people get into writing a book thinking it's the path to riches; it's not. A book that does well sells a few thousand copies. But, as one person put it, a book is an awesome business card. ;) Use the book to open doors and provide other opportunities for you that can help you achieve your goals.

* It really is awesome to have a published book with your name on it. It's a tremendous sense of accomplishment to have your book sitting on your bookshelf.

Hope that helps a bit. Good luck with your work!

Scrivener (2, Informative)

Tom (822) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194309)

If you're on a Mac, I can recommend Scrivener.

It is for text, so if you need something that does your layouting and figures and tables as well, it's probably not right. But I love it for its organisation features, where your book is treated as individual chapters and sub-chapters that you can drag around and sort as you like, something that's saved me a loot of copy & paste when you realize that this part would make a much better chapter start and that part over there really ought to be explained earlier, etc.

Scribus (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194319)

I'm amazed it hasn't been mentioned (that I see). Perhaps not suited to drafting stuff, but for final page layout it seems to be perfect.

Alternatives (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194325)

I wrote instruction manuals for a previous employer, for about a year. During that time I used WordPerfect and Word. I very quickly learned to avoid Word (plenty of unpredictable bugs),and learned to love WP's (only one bug that I found, and it was 100% predictable) "Show code" function. Since I was doing writing and layout at the same time, I wouldn't have survived without it. The ability to examine everything the program sees and change it at will was an incredible problem-solver.

Mind you, those were the days of Windows 95... Things may have changed since then.

I can think of only one alternative to using MS Word, other than WordPerfect or OpenOffice: use a text editor. That way you can concentrate on the text when writing. When you are done with that you can use eg Scribus (a DTP programme) to do the chapter layout, or let someone at the publisher worry about it.

Two books down, here's my advice (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#26194363)

First, my books:
Animating with Blender []
The Essential Blender []

The last one usually hangs around #1 seller on Amazon's 3d Graphics section, so you can judge my authority on that I guess.

I've worked with several technical publishers (Wiley/Sybex, Focal, No Starch, APress) as both an author and an editor, and at all of them, the manuscript pipeline has been MS Word. I've used OpenOffice, which has worked fine. Some publishers use the change tracking and notes features, some do edits with comments right in the text (weird but true).

As an author, you don't have to be concerned with generating a ToC or an actual Index. Keeping a running list of nice index terms is to your advantage, though. So really, if you're running a modern OS and have a word processor, and ftp client and an email package, you're set up. There really aren't any surprises.

Other than one other poster here who commented on how freaking much time it takes. They're correct. I was writing books over the last two holiday seasons, and my publisher wanted me to work on one this year, but I figured my family would officially kick me out if I tried for three in a row.

If this is your first time, get some feedback early on (first few chapters) from your editor. Ask them to be completely honest. I know some editors will tend to baby you a bit, but personally if I've written something that blows, I'd rather hear it bluntly.

Ask them to send you a properly formatted sample chapter from someone else's manuscript so you can be sure you're using their style guide correctly.

Troff was used by W. Richard Stevens (2, Interesting)

Rick Richardson (87058) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194399)

"The last line of a right hand page should not end with a hyphen. This has been a style rule for many years, yet it is amazing that most word processors do not do this! I just smile when I pick up a book produced with something like Frame and you immediately find these errors. Needless to say, troff does this correctly, and has for 20+ years. A friend commented to me that normal evolution would have gone Word to Frame to troff, but instead, the computer industry has gone the other way!"

-W. Richard Stevens, author of 7 popular technical books. [R.I.P.]

Some advice from an author (1)

__roo (86767) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194421)

I'm about to finish my fourth book for O'Reilly, Beautiful Teams: Inspiring and Cautionary Tales from Veteran Team Leaders [] (which should be out in stores by March).

As far as tools go, my coauthor, Jenny, and I wrote our first book [] using Microsoft Word, but could just as easily have been using OpenOffice, Pages or any other word processor. One thing that was enormously useful was EndNote [] for managing the bibliography. Our next two books were in O'Reilly's Head First series (PMP [] and C# [] ), and we wrote them entirely in Adobe InDesign. (People think that there's a whole team of people designing and laying out Head First books -- it was just us, our editor, and an awesome but overworked graphic designer, Lou, who helped improve our layouts once we had them in reasonable shape.) InDesign isn't exactly the easiest tool for a book author, but it was sufficient. But it made me really appreciate word processors!

A few things that really became clear to me over the course of working on these books:

a) Pay attention to what you're delivering to your editor, and what they'll do with it. Publishers have their own set of templates and production stuff to get camera-ready copy together. Head First was a very interesting lesson in that, because Jenny and I actually produced a lot of camera-ready copy ourselves. But for most books, whatever you turn over to your publisher will get transmogrified into their own internal format.

b) The production editor people I've worked with and talked to (not just at O'Reilly, but at other publishers, too) have been extremely competent, and it's their job to take whatever it is you give them and make it work. It needs to be copyedited, typeset, and reviewed, and sent to a printer. I highly recommend getting to know them, and being as flexible and agreeable as possible (they generally won't ask you to compromise your vision for the book -- it's generally about technical stuff, like how to deal with footnotes, references, images, etc.)

c) You asked about version control. One of the best authors I've ever worked with, Karl Fogel [] -- he's a contributor to Beautiful Teams, and also just a great guy -- wrote a fantastic book called Producing Open Source Software [] , which you can buy from O'Reilly or download for free from the website. (Anyone who's interested in starting or contributing to an open source project absolutely needs to read that book. Disclosure: I was a technical reviewer for it.) In true open source fashion, Karl made his version control repository for the book [] available, and that's a good model to copy. Jenny and I didn't do anything quite so formalized; we just shared folders, and that was sufficient for us (even with hundreds and hundreds of image files for each Head First book).

d) This is the most important thing: make sure you have a clear idea of what it is you want to write! It's easy to get started on a project, only to have it trail off because you don't really have a whole book's worth of material. The more you can outline, the more research you do, and the more you prepare, the better the book will be.

Now, that's all assuming that you have a publisher lined up and a contract signed. If you don't, I highly recommend reading through the excellent Writing for O'Reilly [] section on their website. They walk you through all of the steps of proposing a book [] and the mechanics of actually working with a publisher [] -- and from everyone I've talked to, it's very similar with almost every publisher.

One thing I wished I'd realized when I started out was that I wasn't 100% clear on exactly what it is that the publisher's role is. Their role is to produce, print, market and sell the book. An editor is a lot like a project manager -- it's his or her job to get the book out the door, on time and under budget, without compromising the vision. But it's your job as the author to make sure that vision stays intact. The very first experience I had was with a somewhat rookie editor, and he had some, well, questionable ideas about how to structure our first book. He was eventually switched out for a truly excellent editor, Mary, who was amazingly helpful in helping us get a great book out the door. But I felt like for a month or two, we spun our wheels a bit, and if we'd taken charge a little more, we'd probably have gotten it out the door a little more quickly. (Luckily, everything turned out in the end, and that first editor ended up moving onto something non-editorial -- he was a great guy, just not cut out for the job.)

Oh, since I need to insert an obligatory plug: in Beautiful Teams, we have a great interview with Tim O'Reilly, who explains a lot about what it took to put such an incredible publishing company together (and he says a bunch of other interesting stuff about working with teams, too).

I hope some of this helps! It's a bit of a brain dump -- but it's all stuff that would have been helpful from the beginning.


Andrew Stellman
Building Better Software []

As the author of several tech books... (1)

agshekeloh (67349) | more than 4 years ago | (#26194423)

The most important consideration is the format desired by your publisher. If your publisher wants doc files, you get to use Word.

Any publisher's staff is overworked and underpaid, just like the rest of us. If you make your editor work harder because you won't work to the company's requirements, then they won't work as hard on your book. You want them improving your book, believe me. You don't write as well as you think you do. Nobody does.

Will the publisher try to work with you when you present your manuscript in a bastardized mix of LaTeX and POD? Sure. But you won't make friends. And being friends with your publisher's employees is essential if you want your book to actually appear on bookstore shelves.

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