AEC Marketing: Should you write a book? (Vol. 2)

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Julia Petrakis indexed and completed the final edit for my book

This posting is the second of a series discussing book writing and AEC marketing. Here, I explore the input costs and challenges.
In the previous posting, I discussed the rewards of book writing. The third posting will show you how to make the go/no-go decision on a book project and what you can do to increase your chance of success if you decide to proceed.

Book writing is most definitely a delayed gratification exercise.  Even though I’ve spent my entire life as a person who earned a living through writing and journalism, the project to write Construction Marketing Ideas Practical strategies and resources to attract and retain profitable clients for your architectural, engineering or construction business took upwards of two years, with many stops and delays.  In hindsight, many of the delays were unnecessary and, while the work proved to be significant, I made things worse by falling off track and “giving up” for long periods of time.

However, these circumstances are certainly more common than not when you set out to write a book and (I’m sure) the problem is even greater if you are not a writer by trade.  In fact, without some natural writing ability and inclination, I wouldn’t even try the idea unless (a) you have really strong and useful ideas worthy of expressing (with the help of an editor) or (b) you have lots of money to pay for a ghost writer.

In other words if you are an architect, engineer or construction business owner who struggles to put words together, you should focus your efforts on marketing activities closer to your own interests and values.  You will simply find it too hard to sustain the effort required to complete the project.  (If you have the resources to pay for a ghost writer, you are probably in a special place where you don’t actually need the book for marketing.  You will also have advisers who can help you with the process, in that case.)

Assuming you can write reasonably well, the next stage is to figure out how to complete the project.

I’ll break that down into the key components.

Deciding to “Go” on the project

I’ll cover this in greater detail in the next posting, but I first needed to resolve the project’s economics.  Printing several thousand copies of an untried book seemed quite dangerous, and various “self publishing” services (such as lulu.com) seemed truly expensive.  They might allow me to get the book in print for not too much cash upfront, but the potential revenue from the project seemed far too low to justify.  Finally, I discovered the solution to the economic challenges — the wholesale printer of print-on-demand books (which the public services use to get the actual printing and distribution completed.  Lighteningsource.com deliberately does not encourage individual self-publishers — they expect their clients to be knowledgeable about publishing conventions, technical production standards and the like.  Fortunately, as after all I’ve been publishing regional construction trade newspapers for about two decades, I had no trouble qualifying.

I also realized I had several years’ worth of blog entries and enough knowledge about the topic to complete the process.

Getting the writing done

Despite this knowledge, when I sat down at the computer to start writing, I felt a real block on how to organize the material.  I decided I needed some professional assistance, so researched the concept of a “writing coach” on the Internet and discovered Cindy Shearer.  Her services aren’t inexpensive — they in fact are one of the book’s largest input costs — but she gave me some guidelines about the best way to frame the research and framework for the book.  Another resource is the Publishize blog and newsletter.

Over the years, I’ve learned I write best in the morning, so I freed up an hour between five and six a.m. for about two months to write the first draft.  I decided not to worry about perfection — I simply wanted to get the job done.

In about three months, I had a draft ready for review from my first editor, my wife, Vivian (who is a professional writer by trade herself.)

The reviewing and editing ordeal

Here, we ran into something of a roadblock.  Vivian found the book to be tough going.  I had much repetition in the first draft and some of the concepts were not clear to her.  She struggled through a few chapters then simply stopped working on the project.  I really couldn’t force her to continue.  Frustratingly, the book sat on the “to do list” for several months.

My choices then were to contract with another editor or simply to look at Vivian’s early chapter notes and see if I could learn some lessons from them.  As I reviewed her editing notes, I discovered that I could replicate some of her suggestions — and I noticed the problems of repetition and unclear writing in later chapters.  This editing process took several weeks.

Design, indexing and final editing

Our newspaper designer, Raymond Levielle, took on the task of preparing the initial galley proofs and designing cover options.  I decided the book needed an index and here had an incredible bit of luck.  Through Elance.com, I contracted with Julia Petrakis, who developed the book’s index and (most significantly) completed an extremely thorough copy editing which caught many typos, grammatical inconsistencies and other errors.  We went through three rounds of changes as we caught mistakes and corrected them.

Meanwhile, Raymond Levielle came up with five alternative cover versions.  I posted these online and invited readers to vote.  This served to help the marketing of the book and allowed me to choose the cover most likely to succeed.

Next we needed to obtain an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) used by the book-selling industry help publishers and retailers manage ordering and inventory.  Canadians are fortunate in that the Canadian service for ISBN is this country’s national library (in Ottawa) and the library does not charge for ISBN registration.  (The service is privately managed in the U.S., for a fee.)

Our designer completed the files to the technical specifications required by Lightningsource.com.  We received a final print proof, caught even more errors, and then released the book.

The direct costs to me for indexing, coaching, graphic design and set up fees at the printers reached about $2,500.00.  Of course, we need to add the time required to work on the project.  I didn’t log my hours but expect I spent upwards of 100 hours on it.  Even if I go with a low billing rate of $50 an hour, the time cost reached about $5,000.00.  Obviously this is a significant amount of money — and of course, I had no way of being sure anyone would purchase the book upon publication or whether other good things could happen.

However, these costs, I now see, actually make the book writing excise even more valuable simply because the barriers to completion are relatively high.  While thousands of books are published each year, the effort and discipline required to complete the project is so great that your chances of success on publication are reasonably high.

However, I wouldn’t take short cuts on any of the essential issues here.  First, you need to have a realistic budget.  My cash cost, for example, really was less than $3,000.  Sure, I needed to use time for the project, but I used hours where I couldn’t get much other business (or for that matter, family or personal pleasure) done.  I also had  chosen to write on a topic where I have knowledge, relevant market connections and a reason to communicate. And, with this Construction Marketing Ideas blog, I certainly had the framework of a market.

Then, when I decided to go forward, I sought help on the critical points where I could not do things myself, including the organization-coaching at the start, and design, indexing and editing at the end.

The result, thankfully, has been a successful book that looks professional, has received solid reviews, and has already sold enough copies to recoup the cash cost investment (and the time required to write it.)

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