Sunday, November 19, 2006

Less Frequently Asked Questions

Hi. Miss me? Thought not. Well, I've been feeling increasingly guilty about not posting something here, especially as the comments continue to trickle in -- we're up to eight now that I've cleared off some comment spam!

I'm going to boldly ignore the three partially written posts and do another round of publishing questions.

How's the wxPython book selling? Not bad. Got my first-ever royalty check a couple of weeks ago (actually, a royalty direct deposit). Went well into the low three figures, which is relevant to the older question about how much money you can make at this thing. (To be fair, that's artificially lowered a little bit because some of the royalties still were going to finish paying off the advance. I was hoping that the book would substantially outsell the Jython book, which hasn't happened yet. A little surprising given both the relative health of the mailing lists for the two tools and also the fact that the wx book had a substantially better rating on Amazon. And oh yes, I know what the Amazon rank is. Also the current total of reviews -- thanks to all ten people who have gone to Amazon and side nice things.

The implication of the Amazon numbers would seem to be that either a) Amazon is selling fewer books than four years ago or b) Manning doesn't have the distribution within bookstores that O'Reilly did. I suspect the latter, especially since the Jython book seems to have had more foreign sales.

What tools do you use to write the books? I'm actually pretty interested in this one with respect to how other authors do it. It seems to me that there isn't a fully satisfying tool for authoring technical books. In both cases, the main tool decisions were made before I came on board. For the Jython book, we used Word. There was exactly one positive of this -- it was nice to use the change-tracking system to do comments back and forth. Word, though, seems to be optimized for a two page office memo, and is really a pain for anything more complex. Especially when you are changing font styles frequently for things like code literals, or inserting code blocks, or numbered lists (which can be nightmarish). Most of my demo code was written in jEdit. O'Reilly provided a Word template with predefined paragraph and character styles for things like lists, headers, and literals, and they then automatically converted that for production.

Manning had something similar, but we only used it directly. For the wx book, we used ReStructured Text and a CVS server to do change tracking. This enabled us to do the writing in an ordinary text editor -- I used jEdit again (Robin used Emacs, I think). The CVS server was a great idea. Using ReST had some benefits -- for one thing, it was much easier to integrate figures and code snippets with include statements. The biggest downside from just a typing standpoint was tables, which were a pain. However, Manning would only accept submissions in Word at that time, so we had a kind of convoluted system where we would auto-convert the ReST to OpenOffice, then hand save it as a Word file. Once we turned the books in, we were stuck doing final proofreading and edits in Word. (Although Robin and I used Writely, now Google Docs, to do our change lists from the proofreading -- that worked really nicely). One significant difference between the publishers was that O'Reilly did the indexing in-house, whereas Manning asked us to do it. It's actually more difficult than it looks to do well -- I'm under no illusion that we did the index as well as somebody with more experience would have.

One more question along these lines upcoming, but it's longer and it's late. I'll try not to wait six weeks.