Publishing a 3rd-Party Book: intellectual property agreements

Most companies have you sign an intellectual property agreement when you start, saying that anything you do under the auspices of the company that relates to the company’s business belongs to the company. Make sure that the publishing contract states explicitly that you, as the author, receive the author royalties and also make sure that you get something from the company that says that, notwithstanding your intellectual property agreement, you are the author of this book and that you are entitled to the royalties. If you don’t get this amendment, the company could legitimately come back to you and say that you owe them your royalties because of your standing agreement with them.

Speaking of intellectual property agreements, I should mention that I’ve always altered these when I am signing them. The line that says about how all intellectual property I develop that’s in any way connected to the company will belong to the company I make an insertion on and add the following:

This statement does not include, nor is it meant to include, books, magazine articles, training materials, or documents written for other companies.”

Depending on the company you’re dealing with, they may ask you to write down the names of the books and magazine articles you might be working on. Be as prolific and vague as possible because you just don’t know what you might find yourself doing in a year and a half.

It is easy to justify this by saying that you do all kinds of things for the STC, for writing students, and for other people. You also have a number of miscellaneous writing projects in the background that you work on occasionally, so it would be inappropriate to assign the rights to these, particularly if you’ve come up with these prior to coming to wherever it is that you are now. Only rarely have I ever had any kind of quibble; most people think it’s very cool that you’re an author and cut you a surprising amount of slack. (Hot tip: When discussing this, never use the word “moonlighting.”) The big thing about maintaining clear intellectual property rights is never to do anything outside the scope of your duties on company time or with company equipment: not only will that violate the agreement with the company, it’s just bad form.

Publishing a 3rd-Party Book: Being an employee

If you’re actually working for a company as an employee, there are several ways you can approach this. The first is to pitch this as an outside project, over and above your day job. I don’t recommend this! Unless you’re young and in good health and really like chronic sleep deprivation, this is a Bad Idea.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, writing a book will be the single biggest professional undertaking in your career to date. If this is your first book, you just have no idea how much work this is going to be. And if you’ve written books before, you’re still not figuring on how difficult it is doing a fulltime job in the day and then trying to put in another 6 hours of writing at night. You get pulled in multiple directions and that’s even assuming that you’re going to be working only a 40-hour week at the day job. (The only writers I know who end up working 40-hour weeks are hourly employees with tight overtime restrictions.) Your work in both venues will suffer, so don’t do it. Lay out for the company just how much time and energy it takes to write a book. Treat it like any big project and don’t let them whittle you down. (Use the facts and figures in the previous series of posts about the likely timetable.)

Now, you might be able to do something if you a guarantee in writing that you’ll be working half-time while you’re doing the book. I did this once when a database company I worked at was going through a cost-cutting phase and tried to get everyone to take a salary reduction (basically because the guy who ran the company was a fool who thought he knew how to manage money). I went half-time for several months and wrote a book with the other half of the time.

If you work for a company, I suggest that you pitch the idea of a book this way: you write the book. You get assigned the task of writing the book as your official job. You get your normal wages. You also take care of coordinating things with the publisher and doing all the legwork to set up the deal, and you get the royalties as described in the previous series of posts.

Typical questions and answers are:

Q. Why should we pay you a salary AND royalties?
A. First, because this requires special skills that are far above what you normally have me do here for salary, and second, because this will be more than an 8-hour day, particularly at the end of the process. I will definitely be earning the royalties. [Note: you really will, I promise. This is going to be grueling.]

Q. Why shouldn’t we get someone cheaper?
A. You can always get someone cheaper, but the value of having me do it is that I already am heavily familiar with the product I’m writing about and I know where to go for all the internal information. Any other author you get, even if they’re local, will not have the product history I do nor the knowledge of the people in the company. Expertise is not something you can pick up overnight. Also remember that I have product knowledge, I know how to put the publishing deal together, and I have the internal company contacts. Each of these skills can be found elsewhere, but it’s very difficult to find all three of them in one person. And if you do find them, it’ll be clear to them that you need them very badly, so their price will probably go way up. The bottom line to all this is the bottom line: you’ll get the book you want faster and better with me than with anyone else.

What I’m describing is going to require a fair amount of negotiating skill on your part, but it’s worth it. And FWIW, this is no worse than the negotiating you need to do with publishers if you don’t have an agent. Don’t doubt me when I say that you’re going to earn all the money. It’s an awful lot of work you’re setting up for yourself.

It’s possible that you’re going to deal with management that’s too cheap to want to pay you anything other than your salary. At that point, look at the deal and ask yourself how much writing a book is worth to you professionally. Be prepared to walk away from the table and say “No, this is way too much work and I’m not going to do this for just my salary. Thanks all the same.” (I’ve done this on book deals: if the money’s not good enough, I’ve told them that I don’t work for that little.) In particular, get a signed deal that you won’t be working more than 40 hours a week: books can easily become The Job That Ate My Brain.

Publishing a 3rd-Party Book: NDAs

I got a comment on the recent series about publishing a 3rd-party book about your company’s products that said:

I’m not sure about where you work, but almost everywhere I’ve worked, such a book would either violate my non-disclosure agreement, or any profits I earn on such a book would belong to my company under the terms of my employment contract.

Great question! Let’s talk about this. In fact, I’ve written so much that I’ve got several blog posts to add by way of answering this question.

When you write a book for publication about anybody’s product whether you work for the company or not, you’ll be privy to internal information that will be covered by a non-disclosure agreement. If you’re writing about a new release of a product, it’s almost certain you’ll need to sign an NDA because what you find out before the product is released will be valuable information to the company. But the important part is that none of this will be going into the book.

The things that are covered by the NDA that you need to know are things like:

  • What the new version of the product does before it’s released (but after it’s released, it’s not a trade secret)
  • How many people use the product and what percentage of those upgrade to a fancier product? (This information doesn’t go into the book, but it’s important to know to help focus the book and to pitch it to the right group.)
  • Are there similar products in the company being developed that may affect this book? Can you do a similar book for a “lite” version that may be about to be released?
  • What sales/marketing pushes are coming up that you can piggyback on? (Once the push happens, it’s not a secret either.)
  • Is the company about to buy another company that would have products that are supporting/competing with this one?
  • Is the product you’re suggesting to write about going to be discontinued soon?

As you can see, this information is vital for planning the book and writing it, but it’s not something that ever needs to go explicitly into the finished book.

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Summary

The advantages of doing books about your company’s products are many: you can control your marketing niche, you establish yourself as a force to be reckoned with in your field, and you will reduce your support costs while increasing customer satisfaction. Keep in mind that, if the author’s point of view is that writing a book is a lot of work with only minimal amounts of fun during the process, coordinating the effort necessary to create the same book is at least as much work… but probably with most of the fun removed. Nevertheless, creating a book for your company’s products is a lot like having a baby: when you finally see it, you tend to forget all the pain and effort that went on in the months before and you say “I’m so proud! This has to be the most beautiful one in the whole world!”

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Splitting the difference

Earlier, I described how it probably wasn’t worth your while to self-publish. Depending on your needs, though, you may be able to split the difference between self-publishing and the three-corner deal described in the previous posts on this subject. For example, for a couple hundred books, you might use Lulu.com. The production quality and formatting won’t be anything fancy, but it’ll be a book with a slick cover. (Lulu.com books are pretty good and I like them, but buying something that looks really good can be very expensive per copy.)

If you want to do a run of a couple thousand books (or more), you may be able to talk to a small, specialty publisher. For example, Double Tall Press, XML Press, and Scriptorium specialize in smaller niche markets. There are dozens of other small publishers that may be able to provide you with boutique services but still keep your per-book costs down on smaller runs.

The biggest disadvantages to most of these is that they don’t have big departments and budgets for distribution and marketing. However, if most of what you need is someone to help you produce a book and you can then market yourself, this may be a viable option.

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Long-term considerations

In addition to the marketing and documentation considerations already discussed, there are some significant long-term advantages to doing a book about your company’s products. The first of these is the substantial savings for customer support. Consider the following: the actual amortized cost of a typical customer support call—figuring actual time on the phone, research and callback time, initial and ongoing support rep training, workspace costs, and general administrative overhead—starts at $25-$50 and can go as high as $115 for particularly technical products. Each book sold can be counted on eliminating at least one support call; moreover, these support calls are going to be the type of calls usually covered within the typical grace period for a new product (“How do I install this?” “How do I configure this?” “How do I get this to work with other products?”). Assuming that books cost your company $10 each and they save one call each at a cost of $40 per call, buying and distributing 1000 copies of the book can save the company $30,000 in direct overhead costs.

Harder to measure but no less valuable is the level of customer satisfaction provided by having a good product book. Your customers will feel a measure of comfort in having a book about the product. It leads them to believe that you have anticipated their needs and taken steps to answer their questions.

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Other considerations

You’re going to need someone at your company who is the primary information contact for the author (and initially for the publisher as well). This person could be a senior writer, the technical publications manager, the product manager, or the engineering lead. They will be responsible for running around and tracking down information for the author (who may well live in another part of the country) from anyone directly connected with the product¾the developers, the documenters, the sales people, the product manager, and so on. Management must also grant a fair amount of authority to this person so they can get this job done and not be shuffled to one side. (Depending on the tightness of the book schedule, a mandate from management that allows the primary information contact to pre-empt all but the most critical tasks is not inappropriate.)

The primary information contact will also be responsible for coordinating reviews, identifying potential problems to management, and generally removing as many obstacles to the creation of a good book as she or he can. When the book is done, the primary information contact should get a large acknowledgment in front of the book for their work, as well as a cash bonus from the company.

The publisher will usually have a clause in the agreement about “final editorial control.” If you like the look of the publisher’s other books (and you probably will, or why did you choose them in the first place?), then it’s in your best interests to trust the publisher’s judgment. They’re in the book biz, not you, and they’re unlikely to make a decision that will adversely affect their ability to sell additional copies of the book. However, you will be able to heavily influence the shape of the book by approving the initial detailed outline and by working with the author for effective reviews. Similarly, while your company will usually have the clout to negotiate substantial input into the cover design, the publisher will have final control over the design. Again, the publisher’s design choices will be aimed at selling as many of the books as they can. Relax and let them do it.

If you’re considering doing a really small book (such as a pocket reference or tip guide), the cost per unit is likely to go down. The cover price will be around $7.95 or $9.95, so 20,000 copies might cost as little as $2.50 each. You can probably accelerate the writing and production schedule as well, and produce the book in as little as 3 or 4 months rather than the usual 8.

If you’re planning on doing several books, you might want to talk to the publisher about a specialized imprint, with its own special logo or a snipe across the spine. An imprint will set the series off on the shelves and further bolster the market position of your company and its products in the minds of shoppers. The imprint will also probably appear on a separate page of the publisher’s retail catalog, drawing the casual shopper’s attention to the books. For example, Sun Computers arranged for a special SunSoft imprint through Addison-Wesley. Keep in mind, however, that getting an imprint or a series of books for products and companies that don’t have a significant mindshare is pretty ambitious. The bottom line here is “Money talks.”

What if your company doesn’t have a lot of visibility in the marketplace for a specific product or venue and you don’t have a need to underwrite the number of books necessary to justify the book to a publisher? You might propose a book on a more general topic that has a strong market appeal and then include a version of your software. For example, suppose your company has developed an amazing tool for developing Java scripts using a visual interface. The book might be about developing and using Java scripts in general and then be illustrated with examples that use a cut-down version of your product (conveniently available on a website for download or, less frequently now, included on a CD in the back of the book). The value that’s been added is usually not only an inexpensive version of the product, but a number of additional tools, libraries, scripts, and information that is not currently available anywhere else. For a demo version, you can also include a discount or an upgrade option for users who want to get the full retail product.

Publishing a 3rd-party book–What do you do with a warehouse full of books?

There are lots of things you can do with copies of a third-party book about your product. You can use the book as a giveaway at trade shows, a value-added product in your company’s product catalog, or as a bonus for registration. Avoid trying to use the book as the primary product documentation. Customers tend to expect that a third-party book will be a secondary source of information, not the sole source, and will probably view this behavior for what it is: cheap. (On the other hand, Dan Gookin’s DOS for Dummies was so blindingly good, Microsoft bundled it as the primary printed documentation for DOS 6.2, for which they deservedly received rave reviews.)

Perhaps the best use of third-party book is as a marketing piece to be added to other product packages. Consider how you open your software packages: you pull out the disks, the manuals, and the envelope containing the loose sheets of information. You sift the envelope for the registration card, the quick reference card, and the clearly important material, after which the ads and come-ons frequently hit the recycle bin right away. By packaging an entire book, you guarantee that the purchaser will save it and probably take a look at book at some point: no one throws away a book right out of the package, no matter how irrelevant it may seem at the time. At worst, it’ll go on the user’s shelf, with the product name on the spine constantly reminding the user of your product.

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Putting it all together

Now that you’ve got all the pieces, here’s how the mechanics of a typical deal would unfold:

Suppose you’ve a product that only has a user base of 25,000: very respectable, but probably not enough to get a publisher to do a book about it on its own merits. You figure that you can use 10,000 copies of a book for a marketing effort as a giveaway item bundled with another product, and another 10,000 as a registration premium for this product, for an initial order of 20,000 copies. The publisher figures that they can probably sell another 3000-5000 through their normal channels, so the total copies in the market will be about 25,000.

Assuming a cover price of $29.95 and a 75% discount, each book will cost $7.49, so 20,000 copies will cost you $149,800. You’ll probably need to pay the publisher $60,000 on signing the contract (before the author starts writing), another $60,000 on publication (the day the book first sees the light of day), and the balance within 90 days. Depending on how you’ve set up the contract, you’ll probably receive a large portion of the books you’ve purchased at publication, and the remainder within a few months.

By the way, if your marketing effort is very successful, you may use up your pre-purchased copies of the book sooner than you expect. If you do, there’s no reason why you can’t go back to the publisher and ask them for another 5,000 or 10,000 at the same price. They’ll be glad to do this: after the first purchase, every additional copy the publisher sells is gravy. You should be able to get the same or similar terms. (If you’re really planning ahead, you’ll want to put a clause in the original contract that guarantees you the option to buy additional blocks of, say, 500 or 1000 copies at the same price.)

Publishing a 3rd-party book–Scheduling the process

Getting a book written about your product takes a lot of advance planning. Here’s a sample timetable showing some standard benchmarks and the minimum times for a typical book.

February 1:    Draft the initial scope, purpose, and outline, and start looking for author.

March 1:    Author submits detailed outline and writing schedule to company for review and approval; start contract negotiations with the publisher.

April 1:      Detailed outline and writing schedule is approved. Company signs contract with publisher, publisher signs contract with author. Writing begins.

April 15:     Publisher starts design effort for the cover and initial marketing materials (such as catalog copy).

May 1:       Author submits first chapter for review to publisher, company. Outline and focus may be adjusted at this stage.

May 15:     Review comments for first chapter are incorporated; chapter sent to editing at publisher. Some fine-tuning of the scope possible at this stage, but no substantial scope changes can be made without affecting the delivery date.

June 1:      Cover design circulated between publisher and company, changes made.

August 1:   Author completes manuscript; last chapters are sent in for editing.

September 1: Final pre-production work completed, cover design finalized and signed off, book is sent off to printing.

October 1: Book back from printer.

This schedule shows you that it will take at least 8 months to create a book from start to finish. Remember that this schedule assumes that absolutely everything will go smoothly, but there have been many cases where the schedule took a lot longer. It would be wise to make plans in your marketing efforts to allow for potential delays. Some common reasons for delays are:

  • difficulty in finalizing an agreement with the publisher,
  • difficulty in finding an acceptable author,
  • difficulty in deciding on the outline (usually more of a problem inside the company, with Marketing, Engineering, and the CEO duking it out),
  • difficulty getting timely reviews and technical information from the company,

and the ever-popular

  • delays in producing the final version of the product being written about.

Above all else, though, the most significant reason for delays in getting the book out is a problem with the writing. The author may get sick, the schedule may be overly optimistic, information may not be available, reviews are held up, some sections may take longer than expected, or the author may simply be late. Do what you can to prevent these obstacles before they start, and budget for the likelihood of the rest.