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So, I'm Writing a Book, Part 2: The Topic, The Proposal, The P&L and The Contract

Apr 17, 2009

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When I announced I was writing a book, I mentioned that I intended to write a little series about the process. For the most part, this series is for me: I have a tendency to forget details and suffer from a "can't see the forest for trees" syndrome. I'm hoping by documenting what happens as I write this book, it will help me remember and appreciate.

But I also like to think that anything I learn during the writing of this book may help other new authors as they venture into the strange and (not always) wonderful world of book publishing.

Choosing A Topic

After Wendy Sharp, Peachpit New Rider's Acquisitions Editor, contacted me about the possibility of writing a book, the first thing we had to decide upon was a topic.

Naturally, my first instinct was microformats. That's what I had been blogging about, it is what I was currently most interested in, and it is what attracted Wendy to my blog.

However, Wendy informed me she had a few concerns about doing a book on microformats:

  • It's almost impossible to sell a book about a topic that has already been mostly available online.
  • Since I had already written so much on my blog about microformats, I would be at a huge disadvantage for a print book.
  • The first book on microformats, John Allsop's Microformats: Empowering Your Markup for Web 2.0, hadn't sold particularly well (at least from Peachpit's perspective).

So Wendy gave me a list of other web design topics she was particularly interested in publishing. Upon looking at the list, the topics were good and definitely ones I felt comfortable covering. But my mind kept going back to microformats.

All of her points are completely valid but, from my own experience, I've discovered that there is still a large group of web folks out there who don't even know what microformats are. And those that do, struggle (as I had) to understand when and how to properly implement them … despite the available information.

I just kept thinking that I could write a book to help change that; a book that breaks microformats down in a simple, approachable and easy–to–understand fashion. Ambitious? Maybe. But that's where my head and heart are.

So I had to convince Wendy.

The Pitch

And, frankly, it was pretty easy to do. I simply explained my idea of "making microformats simple:"

  • Conversational language to explain microformats, rather than a bunch of geek-speak
  • Lots of examples of different ways of implementing microformats based on various content
  • Focus on semantic markup, rather than non-semantic <div>s and <span>s
  • Covering new developments in microformats that address concerns about usability and accessibility
  • Simple so that it can appeal to a broad audience: designers, developers, content authors

Also, since Wendy had earlier expressed an interest in POSH, I emphasized that my book would focus heavily on semantic markup in the examples. So it wouldn't just be microformats, but microformats with good POSHy examples.

She agreed and the proposal process began.

Putting the Proposal Together

Peachpit has a proposal template that I had to complete. It includes information about me, information about the proposed book, information about competing books, etc. Here's a few of the questions/sections:

  • Key features/main selling points
  • Intended audience
  • Length of book
  • Table of contents (the mo' detailed, the mo' betta)
  • Sample chapter
  • Proposed writing schedule

Some of these questions I had no idea how to answer, like the length of the book or the writing schedule. So I just guessed at those.

A week and 20 pages later, I completed my proposal. Wendy informed me that she then had to pitch it to her marketing and promotions people. These were the folks who would decide if, based on my proposal, Peachpit could sell my book and make a profit.

And so I waited.

The P&L

About a month later, I heard back from Wendy that the marketing/promotions folks gave her the go-ahead to put together a P&L. That's a profit and loss statement, where she calculates the cost of the book against the potential for profit. If the P&L were accepted, then I would be given a formal offer.

I wasn't too involved in this process, and I don't think authors usually are. Wendy, as an editor, knows far more about publishing and can best determine what is needed to keep costs down. However, she did check with me first before finalizing it.

While I never saw the P&L (which I really didn't care to, and I don't imagine it is something that is normally shared with authors … though I could be wrong), here's what I do know was included:

  • The book would be 336 pages.
  • The book would be 2-color: black and white for text and screen captures, with a second color for code highlighting and "design elements."
  • My advance would be slightly less than we had earlier discussed, in part due to the horrific economy.
  • I would receive royalties of 10%.
  • The book would be titled Microformats Made Simple.

And the P&L was accepted.

The Contract

Next up, Wendy sent me the contract. I've never seen a publishing contract, so I'm assuming this one was fairly standard. It included stuff about copyright, deadlines, royalties, etc.

The contract's writing/deadline schedule is pretty aggressive (or at least it feels that way to me): one chapter per week. The final manuscript is due to Peachpit on August 24, 2009.

It seemed a bit daunting, but I figured I could handle it. And I didn't have any issues with any of the other bits of the contract. So, I signed two copies and sent them to Peachpit. A few weeks later, I received a copy with the publisher's signature. And the deal was done.

Agent? Lawyer?

Now, before I even got the news that the P&L was accepted, my friend Andy Clarke had advised me to get an agent. He even offered to connect me with his agent.

But I decided not to follow up on that advice. Why? Well, first of all, I knew I wasn't going to be making much money from this book, so I didn't want to give any money away. Secondly, I just couldn't wrap my brain around the idea of having an agent. Seems so "Hollywood," and that just isn't me. I may regret this decision later. Now, though, I don't really care too much.

And I didn't run the contract by a lawyer. Again, may regret that decision, but I figured I was lucky enough to get this opportunity in the first place, so I didn't want to have some lawyer breaking apart the contract and have me looking like some diva.

Any of you reading this who think that was a dumb move, oh well. You may get a chance to say "I told you so." But I'm comfortable with this now, and if there is a lesson to be learned in this world, I always learn it the hard way.

In Part Three

That's about it for what I wanted to cover in this article. Next up, I'll talk about the author questionnaire for marketing/promotion purposes, book cover considerations, and templates and style guides.

Oh, and for the record: I've completed two chapters already (woohoo!) and have started on the third. In part four of this series, I'll talk about how I got started, some of the challenges I faced and, hopefully, where things stand with regard to my editors (because I'm still waiting to find out about that myself).

HTML5 Cookbook

Interested in HTML5?
Get the Cookbook!

I was a contributing author for HTML5 Cookbook, available for sale on Amazon! Get yours now! (I hear chapters 1, 4 and 5 are particularly good.)

P.S. Don't forget my book Microformats Made Simple is still for sale!


Share the Love

Juarez P. A. Filho's Gravatar

Juarez P. A. Filho opines:


Wow… I’m very excited about it. I love Microformats and I think we need a book covering that. I read Microformats: Empowering Your Markup for Web 2.0 and hope improve my skills with your book. Keep nice work. Cheers.

Emily's Gravatar

Emily responds:


@Juarez - Thanks for the support! I really appreciate it and hope the book exceeds your expectations :)

Alex Diablon's Gravatar

Alex Diablon opines:


Congratulations. I’ve always wanted to write a technology book, but never was able to get a book published, much less a proposal accepted. I’m curious as to how a computer book publisher contract is structured. Is there a generic form of the contract your readers can view? For example, does the contract require you to help promote the book? Does it restrict what else you can do on the same topic? Who owns the rights to the book? Just curious from an aspiring author.

Emily's Gravatar

Emily responds:


@Alex - I’m not sure if there is a generic contract out there. I searched Peachpit’s site and didn’t find anything.

What I signed seemed fairly basic/standard. It did not include any requirements for promoting the book and it does restrict me from writing any book for another publisher that would be considered competition.

The copyright is in my name, but Peachpit has all rights to publish, revise, republish and sell the work.

Hope this helps!

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The Coolest Person I Know

Emily Lewis

Yeah, that would be me: .

I'm a freelance web designer of the standardista variety, which means I get excited about things like valid POSH, microformats and accessibility. I ply my trade from my one-person design studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106 USA.

A Blog Not Limited is my personal blog where I pontificate about web design, web standards, semantics and whatever else strikes my fancy. Head on over to Emily Lewis Design if you'd like to see my work or, even better, hire me.


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