Reflections on writing a book

Nov 27, 2010 by

It’s now been about five months since the book has been out and it has been interesting for me to reflect on the entire process of writing, publishing, promoting and waiting for reviews. One of the claims I made in the book is that people can often benefit by thinking about their work as a series of performances. For me, writing the book was just another avenue of performance like many others in my life including speaking and playing music. A lot of the ideas in the book are about improvisation. In many respects the book was improvised. The writing was a very organic process. While I knew there were certain ideas I wanted to express, I didn’t know precisely how the ideas would be realized in words nor precisely which examples and other supporting material I would provide. In most cases I just began in a certain direction and the path revealed itself with further research and writing. I had to trust that this process would produce a desirable final product. Along the way I had constant visions of being unsatisfied with the published book once we got to the point where I could no longer make any changes. In fact I expected that I would not want to read it at all since I would find myself critiquing it and wanting to change things after the fact.

One of the toughest times for any performer is having to deal with reviews. It’s not just the critical feedback that may be hard to deal with but the disappointment that can come from pouring your heart and soul into one aspect of a performance, only to have that completely overlooked in favor of something that you thought of as inconsequential. Worst still is when some people totally misinterpret an aspect of the performance or just don’t get it, according to your own expectations. Most mature people, and not just those who are artistic performers, know that you have to accept the limitations of your ability to appeal to everyone. You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time. Fans of one performance may pan your next one. Additionally, you cannot expect that all feedback will be authentic. Friends, family and colleagues might say they liked your performance when they really hated it while those in a competitive position might pan it while secretly admiring it and taking inspiration. As they say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

So five months on, what is the state of the book?

I am actually not sure how many copies the book has sold although it wouldn’t take me much effort to find out. I received a report at the end of June when the book had only been out for two weeks and I had sold several hundred copies by that stage. I will receive another report in January. I am somewhat encouraged that the book appears to be ranked number seven on an Amazon list of most wished for books in software design tools and techniques. For a book that’s been out for such a short time, that actually seems to be pretty impressive. I guess we’ll see whether it translates to sales.

There have been a number of very positive reviews and one review that found the book did not live up to expectations. I’m most satisfied by the reviewers that appreciate some of the unique content such as the discussions about feedback loops and hunting, diversity, and the caution that I gave to those that blindly or over-zealously apply the book’s ideas, or for that matter, any other ideas that are given out as advice. Generally, people seem to find the concepts appealing and recognize that there is a lot of content in the book – possibly even too much. Some reviews complained that the book is too academic or too long and I can understand why they might feel that way. I had always intended that the book have a lot of detail and that all sources would be cited. Generally I find that too many books nowadays do not list sources. I personally that a real disappointment as well as somewhat disrespectful of other authors. In terms of the depth and breadth, one of the reasons I wrote the book is that I had found all previous discussions about jazz and business have been too lightweight, espousing a lot of the less tangible connections but not giving much detail about the specifics of execution.

One thing I’ve had to fight from before the time before the book was published is the notion that the concepts described in the book are only applicable to software development. Early on, the publisher made a mistake in releasing an unapproved edition of the back cover blurb that implied that the book was only applicable to software. This was subsequently fixed but copies of that blurb are still floating around on the Internet. In its published form, the back cover of the book recommends that it be categorized under Innovation / Collaboration / Management and the only reference to software is the fact that I work at IBM. Either that or the bogus blurb or perhaps simply the content is enough for many online and brick and mortar bookstores to list the book only in the software section. There is certainly a good share of software development stories in the book but I like to think it is well-balanced with the other content.

The list price of the book is a little high, in my opinion, although I did manage to get list price lowered once before publication. I don’t think it is unreasonable given the unique content in the book and its depth and breadth but I would prefer to try and get more readers, even if it means less money in my pocket.  I think the list price on Amazon is great. In Canada, I believe most people are buying it from Amazon because Chapters, the largest Canadian book chain, sells it at the Canadian list price with only a membership discount. I also found out that Chapters won’t carry the book in the stores (although it’s listed on their computers) because the publisher’s margin is apparently too high. No reply from the publisher on what the deal is there.

Despite my prediction that I would not want to read the book after its publication, I have in fact read it a number of times. I have been surprised to find myself happy with the content. I was at first amazed that I could not find any mistakes but have since found enough to maintain a list of erratum.

If you’re interested in selling lots of books, writing is only half of the task. Promotion is other half and I’ve found little time to give to that and need to do more. I’ve been writing a series of related articles and just started the third in a series of articles for InformIT and have another to write for another site/publication. Of course I am trying to push the book in talks here and there but it’s hard to do so without feeling like a salesman!

The main reason I wrote the book is that I wanted to collect all my ideas and opinions about working and put them in one place. I have often joked that it’s my manifesto. Yet more than anything, I wanted to inspire people to think about some of the ideas. In the preface to the book I wrote “This book is an artistic expression that captures some of my personal thoughts about the world in which we work and play.” I believe that art should prompt a response in senses, emotion or intellect. In this respect, it was great to see one reviewer write: “You may not agree with everything, but it will make you think.” Knowing that the book evoked that reaction gives me a lot of satisfaction.


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