Ultimate guide to writing your first technical book
Towards the end of my Ph.D., my supervisor suggested that I convert my Ph.D. thesis into a technical book. While that may sound very easy to achieve given the thesis was already near completion, writing a technical book versus a Ph.D. thesis are two very different things. It was also at this time that I realized that aside from conference presentations, poster sessions and journal articles, there was yet another class of publication- technical book. Writing either a whole technical book or contributing a chapter to someone’s technical book is a great way to disseminate your scientific contributions. In this Ultimate guide to writing your first technical book, I share the entire process of writing a technical book to help the first time authors.
What is a technical book?
A technical book is a volume discussing a specialized, usually technological, subject matter, and having a tutorial character. Technical books are usually written by professionals in the given field, and are aimed at teaching the reader about a specific topic.
Topic of my technical book
My technical book is called Multi-robot Exploration for Environmental Monitoring: The Resource Constrained Perspective. The purpose of this book was introduce the challenges of multirobot systems and their potential use towards environmental monitoring. Environmental monitoring applications could include aspects such as weather forecasting, algal bloom monitoring, pollution monitoring, radiation monitoring and the likes. So, let’s dive deeper and document the whole process from start to finish.
Motivation for writing a technical book
When it comes to writing a technical book, it is going to be a very demanding and often daunting task especially at the early stages when you start out with a blank canvas.
The two main motivations that got me through the writing process were knowing that I had an impactful message to share with the world, and secondly, building my personal brand. These two factors were my Why that pushed me every day to write even when I did not want to.
I strongly suggest that you find your Why before starting to write because it will make the process much easier. You should NOT get into the mindset of writing a technical book for making money.
Publishing your technical book
Once you are clear on the motivation and determined to write a technical book, the next step is to identify a publication route. There are couple different routes for this:
The traditional publishing route involves connecting with a publisher that has previously published technical books. In my case, while surveying the related books I came across a couple publishers like Elsevier, Springer , Princeton University Press, Cambridge university press etc.
Once I had identified a couple such publishers, I began learning about the process to express interest to publish with such publishers. This could happen in one of two ways- either the Editorial staff already knows about you and your work and reaches out to you to publish with them, or, you reach out to them expressing the intent to publish. In my case, it was the latter as I was in the early stages of my career and working towards building my personal brand.
The proposal I sent across had the following components:
Names and affiliations of the book authors
Tentative table of contents
Book title and abstract
Target audience and benefit to the readers
Once I sent the proposals across, they were sent out for independent review if the Editorial staff felt like the book fits the overall scope and current editorial focus.
Eventually, I got the green light from Elsevier and then began the process of writing the book.
In case you are having a tough luck getting through to traditional publishers or for whatever reason want to take charge of writing, editing and eventually publishing your own book, you can opt for the self publication route.
For instance, Amazon Kindle Self Publishing is one such venue which allows authors to publish their own books though in academia this may not be very prevalent yet.
As for my case, the reason why I chose traditional publishing over self publishing was because in the traditional publishing route, you are assigned an Editor and a Project Manager. This helps you work with a mini team to set deadlines, keep track of the project and submit files for final typesetting according to rigorous guidelines. In the self publishing case, you basically have to do all this on your own or ask friends and family for help.
Process of writing a technical book
Now that you have an agreement with a publisher (or have opted for self publishing), it is time to get to writing your technical book.
The first thing you need to do is come with a plan. This includes having a look at the state-of-the-art in the field, what topics you want to cover, the target audience and how you want to structure the book. A lot of times, people make the mistake of starting to write without having a clear plan in place. This can lead to a lot of wasted effort as you may end up going in different directions and not being able to meet the expectation. Once you have the plan ready, the next step is to start writing.
It is important to have a regular writing schedule and to not get bogged down by the details. The goal at this stage is to get the content down on paper (or screen). You can always go back and revise the content later.
One important thing about book writing stage that I wish I knew sooner was handling the images. A technical book will likely have some form of images to supplement the text. As a technical book is meant for commercial use (you will get some royalty for every copy sold hence, the commercial intent), it is very crucial to plan and manage the images from the get go. What I mean by this is that plagiarism, not only for the written content but also for the images is taken very seriously. You cannot simply copy-and-paste images for your book. You either need to design images from scratch to call them your own, or, obtain due permissions to reproduce the images for commercial intent. This is where having a team to guide me came in handy though we only dealt with this step towards the final production stage which could have been addressed sooner.
Once I realized this, I ended replacing a lot of my figures with either custom or figures with formal permits to comply with legalities. Once the content is ready and all figures are accounted for, the draft is then sent to be reviewed by an expert in the field outside your team to provide an assessment of the content; content correctness, relevance and the overall structure of the book.
Once this review is complete and the reviewers are happy, the draft will undergo final copyediting and the figures will be optimized and vectorized so that they can be resized to multiple dimensions as required by typesetting. This is followed by final typesetting where the book is laid out with proper sections, chapter headings, and illustrations. This final file is then sent to you for proof reading before printing.
Once the book is ready and goes on sale, typically the part that comes next is marketing of the book. The role of the marketing team at the publisher is mostly to create a marketing package; creating a website, marketing collateral and to conduct book launches. The self-promotion part of marketing where you promote your book on social media is typically left to the author. Though in my case, I had to prepare my own marketing collaterals and market it on my own with limited marketing support from the publishers.
Of course, the journey towards a book publication by no means ends here and requires a lot of effort on the part of the author to mature the book over time, bringing in new content and having it peer reviewed. Though if you are not on a tenure track or do not have the budget to support this to a large extent, you can always leave the book as is.
Tools for preparing your technical book
Over the course of writing and preparing your first draft of the technical book, you would possibly need several tools for various purposes. Here are some of the tools I used for my book:
Typesetting: You would need a base software that would allow you to typeset your book. Typically this could be LaTex of MS Word and it is very likely your publisher will give you a template for either to get you started. I settled for LaTex over MS Word so I could easily recycle some of my past technical writings from conferences and journals.
Graphic Design: Another critical component of your book manuscript will be the imagery for which you would need to do some edits even if you aren’t a professional graphic designer. One approach I hear some busy Professors take is to work with TAs or VAs to outsource this bit and have them prepare the requisite graphics for the book. In case you do not have the funds for such engagement, you can always use freemium graphic design tools. I ended up using Inkscape for preparing vector graphics and Gimp for removing background.
Bibliography management: As your book grows, so will your bibliography and you really need to have a good handle on the list of references. The good thing with LaTex is that you can prepare a Bib file and store all your references there and only the ones that are actually cited in text will appear in the list of references. You can also use additional Bib Management tools such as Zotero or my FREE Bibliography management template on Notion.
Project Management: You really need to be on top of things when it comes to writing a technical book. For this, I feel having a project management tool is critical. While your Editorial team might set checkpoints for you, it is through this tool you can ensure you make it on time. You could easily set up a Project Management system using Google Sheets/ Excel or use online tools like Notion, Trello, Asana etc. which are meant exclusively for Project Management. Your Editorial team may be least bothered with how you manage the project at your own end so this is mostly for your personal use but is very handy to keep track of all the deliverables.
Backups: Needless to say, you need to keep backups of all your work- not only the book manuscript, it’s files and figures but also supplemental material such as email conversations, copyright permissions, etc. that may be required for final publication. I always kept one offline copy on an external SSD and one online backup on the cloud storage for extra precaution.
Must knows for writing a technical book
In hindsight, there are several things I wish I knew sooner while I was writing my technical book. So, in no particular order, I’ll list them out here for the first time authors:
Pace yourself. When I was writing my proposal for the publishers, there was a question asking the tentative timeline and I was about to put something in the order of months. But know this, writing a technical book is painstakingly long and I ended spending a bit over a year getting it in publication-ready format. So, remember to pace yourself during this journey and keep ample time to reach your goal. When the proposal is accepted, you will enter into a formal agreement with the publisher wherein the publication date will be set in writing so be mindful.
Budget yourself. One thing that came as a big surprise to me while I was working on the book was the monetary requirements. For instance, some of the tools needed for your particular technical book might require a paid license. Or, a bigger surprise is that most of the copyright permissions for the figures you intend to reproduce for commercial use will be paid. So, you need to have a budget to be able to settle such expenses before you book goes into publication. In the article titled “Out of pocket costs for academic book authors”, Laura has mentioned several such out of pocket costs that one might incur in the course of publishing their book.
Target the right audience. You are writing a technical book with the intent to be read but without an audience, the technical book would be nothing more than a personal hobby project. Getting the target audience right is tricky but critical as this dictates the scope of your book- how broad and how deep you would need to go to cater to the said audience.
- Market yourself. Depending on how your publisher sets up post publication support, you would need to come up with a plan to also market your own book and build up your personal brand. In my case, I sold the first few copies through the publisher but thereafter, I have been doing my own marketing to gain more visibility for myself and eventually my publications including my technical book.
In this article, I shared my own experience writing and publishing my first ever technical book. It was a very long and rigorous journey but I learnt a lot in the process and hence thought of documenting my learning through this article. Normally, I used to see Professors attempt to write and publish technical books and some even have multiple under their belt so I really wanted to give it a go. In this article, I shared my mindset behind publishing a technical book, the tools I used, the approach towards securing a book deal with a publisher and the must knows of technical book writing. Will there be a V2.0 of my book or another technical book in the future? I don’t know that yet but if there is one, I’d be better prepared this time having gone through the journey once from start to finish.