What Do You Need to Know to Turn an Idea for an Article or Book into a Published Work?

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The answer to that question is right here!


According to a 2003 survey conducted by Jenkins Group, Inc., a Michigan publishing services firm, 81 percent of Americans would like to write a book. And, although it appears that a similar study about writing articles has never been done, it's probably safe to say that a fairly large number of people have entertained the thought of writing for a magazine as well. There are certainly enough books on the subject to back up this theory, as well as support the 2003 survey's findings; a recent search for books on writing at Amazon.com returned an astonishing 149,911 hardback and paperback titles.


With so many books on writing available, choosing the right one to help you get started can be a daunting task. To begin with, only a fraction of these books are designed to guide you through the process of turning an idea for a technical article or book into a published work. And unfortunately, many of the books that focus on this aspect of writing contain material that's outdated and no longer relevant. For example, most describe how to query an editor by way of regular mail, even though today, the majority of editors prefer to be contacted by e-mail. (And there is a significant difference in how e-mail queries are submitted.) Or they fail to provide information that every first-time author needs to know, such as how to use tables and artwork and how to revise early drafts until the wording is clear, concise, and strong. More importantly, almost all of these books neglect to mention just how difficult the task of writing can be. They also fail to offer suggestions on how to develop good writing habits; habits that will help you overcome any obstacle you are likely to encounter.


From Idea to Print: How to Write a Technical Article or Book and Get It Published is different. First and foremost, it contains up-to-date information on everything you need to know to turn an idea for a technical article or book into a published work. I can make this claim without hesitation because I contacted several editors and an agent to find out how they do business before I documented the process a writer should follow when creating and submitting a query and/or a book proposal. Furthermore, it combines and summarizes important information found in a wide variety of resources, some of which are available only to authors who have already signed a publishing agreement with a publisher. For example, when you sign an agreement with a large publishing house like McGraw-Hill or Prentice Hall, you normally receive a copy of their "author guidelines," which you are expected to adhere to as you prepare your manuscript for publication. Portions of Chapters 6, 7, and 10 were developed by combining the information found in the author guidelines used by six well-known publishers that specialize in producing technical and educational books. Similarly, a careful analysis of the publishing agreements I received from publishers I have worked with in the past, as well as a comprehensive examination of agreements I received from friends and colleagues who have worked with other publishers, went into the creation of Chapter 4—a chapter that took me just over five months to complete and that many early reviewers have said is the most important chapter in this book.


More importantly, much of the information found in this book is derived from my own personal experience writing technical articles and books for publication. When I set out to create this book, one of my goals was to capture, in writing, tips and suggestions I have offered friends and colleagues who have sought my advice in the past. Another was to reinforce many of the concepts presented with real-world examples taken from my own writing projects that were ultimately published by companies like McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, CMP Media, TDA Group, and IBM. But I didn't stop there. As I developed the manuscript for this book, I relied heavily on the feedback of subject matter experts to ensure that the information being presented was both accurate and complete. For example, two attorneys who specialize in intellectual property and publishing agreements reviewed and provided valuable feedback on the sections in this book that address understanding and negotiating the terms of a publishing agreement (Chapter 4) and describe how to avoid making libelous statements, how to avoid plagiarizing others, and how to avoid copyright infringement (Chapter 7). As a result, if you have little or no experience writing, this book will give you a clear and accurate picture of the steps involved in authoring a technical article or book for publication. It should also answer any questions you may have about turning an idea for an article or book into a printed work. If, on the other hand, you're an established author with a list of published works to your credit, this book may teach you a few things you don't already know.


As I alluded to earlier, Chapter 4 of From Idea to Print is designed to introduce you to a very important document that most writers receive after getting an offer to publish their work—the publishing agreement. The following material was taken from that chapter:

The Publishing Agreement

Many first-time authors are so excited that someone wants to publish their work that they don't pay a lot of attention to the terms and conditions outlined in their publishing agreement. Instead, they skim it, sign it, and send it back, without giving it a second thought. However, once an agreement is signed, it becomes a legally binding document, and some of the terms and conditions they have agreed to can, and usually do, have long-lasting consequences.


At the very least, a publishing agreement is designed to supply answers to the following questions:


  • When does the agreement (and by extension, the author-publisher relationship) take effect?
  • Who is legally bound by the terms and conditions of the agreement?
  • How will the author's work be prepared for publication and when will it be delivered?
  • How and when will the author's work be published?
  • Who will have final approval over the published work's format and appearance?
  • Who will own the copyright to the published work?
  • What rights to the author's work are to be granted to the publisher?
  • How much and when will the author be paid in exchange for these rights?
  • How long will these rights be tied up?
  • What promises and guarantees is the author required to make?
  • What happens if someone claims the author did something wrong (for example, infringed someone else's copyright)?
  • What are the consequences if either the author or the publisher fails to comply with the terms of the agreement?
  • When does the agreement (and consequently, the author–publisher relationship) end?


And, although authors and publishers rarely have serious disagreements, if a difference of opinion does arise, the publishing agreement forms the basis for resolving any and all disputes.


Given that they've been designed to provide the answers to these and other questions, publishing agreements tend to be lengthy and complex (most are typically ten to fifteen pages long, single-spaced). And reading one can be an exercise in boredom and frustration—particularly if you're unfamiliar with most of the terminology used. Nonetheless, it's imperative that you take the time to carefully examine any agreement you receive, and more importantly, that you understand the immediate and long-term ramifications of each provision it contains before you sign and return it. Because once an agreement is signed, you're legally obligated to deliver on the promises you've made in it—and for the price that you've agreed to.


Although the wording in publishing agreements can vary (primarily because the writing styles of the lawyers that draft them differ), most adhere to a similar format. Typically, they begin with the title "Publishing Agreement," "Publishing Contract," or "Agreement" and continue with a preamble, in which the names and geographical locations of the parties involved are provided and the book to be published is briefly described. The term party is a lawyer's term that's used to identify the persons or businesses that are legally bound by a contract; the geographical location of each party is required because where the parties live and work often determines which state's laws will apply should a dispute between the parties arise. The preamble is followed by a series of numbered paragraphs, referred to as "clauses," that spell out the specific terms of the agreement. Most publishing agreements contain anywhere from fourteen to twenty clauses, and some of these clauses have multiple subclauses.


An example of one such clause is the "out-of-print" clause. There are few things an author would like more than to see his or her book become a best seller that continues to earn royalties throughout the duration of its copyright (which is the life of the author, plus seventy years). Unfortunately, most books have a much shorter shelf life—the longest that any of my books have remained in print is just over five years. Because of this, many publishing agreements contain an out-of-print clause that gives the publisher permission to stop producing a book if demand for it is no longer sufficient to warrant its continued manufacture and sale. In some cases, this clause also defines how rights are to revert to the author once the decision to stop publication has been made.


You would think that a book would automatically be declared "out of print" according to its earnings—for example, if its sales fall below 500 copies a year or if the author fails to earn at least $800 in royalties in two consecutive accounting periods. However, many publishers resist the use of such guidelines, preferring instead to wait until their supply of books has been exhausted, even though they may only be selling two or three copies a year. And, with more and more publishers utilizing print-on-demand and e-book technology to make backlist titles available, a book can technically remain "in print" long after all physical copies have been either sold or destroyed.


Even if a publisher allows a book to go out of print, it typically does not notify the author that the book is no longer available. Instead, it's up to the author to make this determination. And, in most cases, if an author discovers that his or her book is no longer for sale, the out-of-print clause requires them to request, in writing, that the publisher put the book back into print. (Again, with today's technology, there can be a question as to what exactly "into print" means—does it refer to a printed book, an e-book, or something else entirely?) Usually, the publisher then has some period of time, often anywhere from eight to eighteen months, to respond by either putting the book back into print or by licensing the reprint rights to another publisher. If the publisher chooses to do nothing in the period in which it is required to act, the publishing agreement is normally terminated. Even then, the reversion of rights is not likely to be automatic. Instead, the author may be forced to ask for and receive written Reversion of Rights or Termination of Agreement documentation from the publisher before all rights previously granted will be reverted.


To ensure that a publisher doesn't keep a poorly performing book in print forever, it's imperative that the out-of-print clause be worded in such a way that leaves no question of when a book goes out of print. This is especially true now that digital and on-demand publishing can make the literal meaning of traditional out-of-print clauses obsolete. (Publishers are likely to favor a clause that defines "out of print" as meaning that the book is not available for sale in any format.) Ideally, the out-of-print clause in your publishing agreement should state that your book is to be automatically considered out of print if annual sales fail to reach a specified level (say, 500, 1,000, or even 2,000 copies a year). Having an out-of-print clause worded this way puts you in a much stronger position to insist on a reversion of rights when your royalty statement indicates that sales have sharply declined.


(In Chapter 4, you'll be introduced to fifteen clauses that are found in most publishing agreements and, in many cases, you will receive recommendations on how to make the terms and conditions of these clauses more favorable to you.)

Staying out of Trouble

In Chapter 7, you will learn how to keep from alienating or offending others by using bias-free text, and you'll discover why and how to avoid making libelous statements in your writing. You will also learn what plagiarism is, as well as what you can do to avoid it, and you'll become knowledgeable about things like copyright, copyright laws, the public domain, the "fair use" doctrine, and the proper way to "reuse" someone else's copyrighted material in your work.


One of the most interesting topics covered in Chapter 7 has to do with self-plagiarism and copyright infringement. The following except from Chapter 7 explains what self-plagiarism is and illustrates how it can lead to copyright infringement:


As the term implies, self?plagiarism is the reuse of significant portions of one's own work without acknowledging that the material is being reused and without citing the original work. Typically, self-plagiarism is considered to be an ethical issue in situations in which it is implied that a publication consists primarily of new material, such as in academic publishing or educational assignments. However, the practice of self-plagiarism can also be illegal if the copyright of the original work has been transferred to another entity, which is normally what takes place when you sign a publishing agreement that allows a publisher to produce, market, distribute, and sell your work.


In 1994, Pamela Samuelson, the Richard M. Sherman 1974 Distinguished Professor of Law and Information Management at the University of California, Berkeley, with a joint appointment in the UC Berkeley School of Information and Boalt Hall, the School of Law, identified several factors in which reuse of one's previously published work should not be considered self-plagiarism. These factors are:


  • The previous work needs to be restated to lay the groundwork for a new contribution in the second work.
  • Portions of the previous work must be repeated to deal with new evidence or arguments.
  • The audience for each work is so different that publishing the same work in different places is necessary to get the message out.
  • The author thinks he or she said it so well the first time that it makes no sense to say it differently a second time.


Samuelson also stated that "Although it seems not to have been raised in any of the self-plagiarism cases, copyright law's fair use defense would likely provide a shield against many potential publisher claims of copyright infringement against authors who reused portions of their previous works." While this statement may be valid if the same publisher holds the copyright for both works, that's not always the case when one publisher holds the rights to the previous work and another publisher holds the rights to the second work. I know, because when I started writing DB2 Certification Exam Study Guides, I learned this firsthand.


My sixth and last book with McGraw-Hill, DB2 Administration All-In-One Exam Guide, happened to be my first book on DB2 certification. The purpose of this book was simple—to prepare the reader for two DB2 7.1 for Linux, UNIX, and Windows certification exams (Exams 512 and 513). But, when IBM came out with a new set of exams for DB2 8.1 (Exams 700 and 701), the material in that book quickly became dated. Yet, McGraw-Hill made the decision to not update this book to cover the new certification exams. So, when Pearson Education/Prentice Hall learned that both IBM and I wanted to make an updated version of this book available and that McGraw-Hill had no interest in producing a revised edition, they extended me offers to publish three new DB2 8.1 Certification Exam Study Guides.


Shortly after signing the publishing agreements for these new books, I discovered that the topics covered on Exams 700 and 701 were almost identical to the topics that had been covered on Exams 512 and 513 (which I had just written about). Unfortunately, I also learned that I could not reuse any of my material from the DB2 Administration All-In-One Exam Guide because McGraw-Hill now owned the copyright for that material; if I attempted to reuse any portion of that material, I would be guilty of both self-plagiarism and copyright infringement. And, because McGraw-Hill felt that the DB2 8.1 books would harm the sales of my previous book, they indicated that they would bring a lawsuit against me if they thought I infringed on their copyright in any way. Suddenly, I found myself under contract to write two new books on essentially the same subject, and I was forbidden to reuse a single sentence from my previous work (which was approximately 800 pages in length). I did it, but it was a painful exercise in rewriting and revision that I promised myself I would never go through again.


Later, when I left Pearson Education/Prentice Hall and went to MC Press for similar reasons (Pearson Education/Prentice Hall did not want to revise my DB2 8.1 books for the DB2 9 exams and MC Press did), I had Pearson Education/Prentice Hall revert back to me all the rights I had given them in exchange for publishing the DB2 8.1 books. And I did not sign publishing agreements for the DB2 9 books until I received a statement, in writing, that the rights to the DB2 8.1 material had been returned to my possession. This guaranteed that Pearson Education/Prentice Hall could never sue me for copyright infringement because I now owned the rights to my material and could freely reuse portions of it in any way that I pleased.


Since then, I've learned to look for ways to hold on to the right to reuse portions of my material in other works so that I won't get into a similar situation. For instance, because parts of the articles that I write for my regular column in IBM Data Management magazine have the potential to be incorporated into the manuscript of a future book on DB2, I have a special contract in place with the magazine publisher (TDA Group) that allows me to freely reuse any material I create for the magazine in a future book if I so desire.


As a writer builds a vast collection of material to draw from, there are cases in which he or she may try to reuse portions of his or her material that has already been published. (Reusing material in a book to create a magazine article is one example; reusing material in a book or magazine article as a blog posting is another.) After consulting with an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law, I believe that the factors for reuse that Samuelson identified in 1994 are a good set of guidelines to follow. However, they may not necessarily represent the factors a publisher will use to determine whether an author's work should be viewed as self-plagiarism.


At a minimum, you should avoid acts of self-plagiarism unless you meet the criteria outlined in Samuelson's guidelines. Otherwise, you run the risk of disappointing readers—especially if they're expecting something new. But more importantly, unless you have safeguards in place to protect you, keep in mind that whenever you self-plagiarize, you run the risk of copyright infringement. This is particularly true if different publishers end up owning the rights to different works that contain identical material. Consequently, if you truly want to avoid claims of copyright infringement, treat your own previously published works (where copyright was assigned to the publisher) as you would any other copyrighted work that has been authored by someone else.

Final Thoughts

I begin the book From Idea to Print: How to Write a Technical Article or Book and Get It Published by saying that writing is hard work—a worthwhile task that is rarely easy. I also point out that writing an article or a book and getting it published can be extremely rewarding. It took me just over a year to write my first book, The Developer's Handbook to DB2 for Common Servers, and, although I didn't know it at the time, the publication of that book started a chain of events that literally changed my life. Fifteen years, twenty-two books, and numerous magazine articles later, my name has become synonymous with DB2 for Linux, UNIX, and Windows, and I have received several accolades and awards as a result.


The goal of this book is to provide you with everything I know about the craft of writing technical articles and books. I trust you will find the information contained in this book helpful and well worth the time you will spend reading it.