Crystal Lee (she/她)

How to write a trade book, according to Bruce Schneier

Opening comments about book writing: There's writing vs. selling a book. You're selling the book to multiple people: the agent, publisher, and then later to people who read it. They want to know that (1) people will read it and (2) you can write to deadline. It's important as a first time writer that you can convince the publisher that you can produce 80k words in a row. With tech, it's even worse -- being bogged down is bad because tech moves quickly and then it becomes irrelevant. You might have to submit chapter by chapter -- they want to make sure that you're writing to deadline.

Writing a book requires having book-length ideas. If you have something to say that requires 60k words, then you should be writing a book. You know really good New Yorker articles that became really mediocre books -- a great 6k essay that doesn't make 60k words' worth.

It's hard to distinguish yourself from a pile -- better to be introduced by a trusted agent. I was talking to a colleague about the insurance industry -- editor said "insurance is boring, book will be boring." How do you recast the proposal to make sure that the book itself seems interesting? This is a matter of convincing an editor / someone in the publishing industry that it will be. People are looking for sales. There's a lot more about the process, but I want to focus on the actual book writing. A book tells a story.

The book makes a promise to the reader -- it's on the back cover -- "if you give me $30 and 5 hours of your time, I will teach you X." The book tells us the story of that thing you're doing. There are characters in the form of ideas, and they will interact with one another. There will be some resolution where the ideas will end up in a different place. It takes the reader along for the ride. When I write an op-ed for NYT, Atlantic, etc, I have a very tenuous relationship with the reader -- if the piece is boring by sentence 3, they're clicking away. With a book, it's different: someone has already bought the book and is opening it. You can meander in a book -- this is much more true in fiction than in nonfiction -- you have a lot more leeway because the reader has signed up for you to be a tour guide. I think books are generally too long (100k is too long! Even 80k is too long; I try to shoot for 60k and then end up at 80k and I'm annoyed). The modern mass market reader should be 40-60k; I like to see smaller books but I haven't figured out how to write them yet.

How do you find an agent?

Ideally, you are introduced to an agent by another author. That's going to be your best bet. Unless you're famous, sending something cold is really hard. In general, you should have an agent because they know stuff about contracting that you don't. They are expensive but it's worth it -- if you want publishers to bid on your book, you can't do that yourself. I tend to have the same publisher, but when I was switching around, the agent really earned their fee there.

All the cool kids are doing short chapters these days. It oddly gets people to read more! Even though the chapters are smaller, the book is the same length and it seems to move faster. As you get more mass market, you'll see less navigation (subchapter numbers, etc) -- you see that in tech or academic books. You also notice in my books that there are no footnotes because they scare people (yikes, academic!). Instead, I use endnotes and keywords, but nothing in the actual text to let you know that it's there.

An agent will certainly take your call, but you really only get one of those. When you really get into it, it's when you already have a proposal.

Could you say more about the craft of writing and putting words together? It feels like such a slog.

Writing advice is so individual that I'm not sure that it translates: write in the morning, write in the evening, make time for it, do it in between, etc. I don't write front to back, I write bottom up -- I jump around. I can never submit one chapter after another; it seems uncommon but I'm writing all the chapters at once. The beginning of writing of book feels fun because you're writing something new! The end of writing a book feels fun because you're almost done!

How do you fight perfectionism?

Perfectionism will kill a book. Put words one after another. My book is done when the deadline hits.

Do you use any software for writing your books?

I use Microsoft Word. I'm in two phases: either I'm not writing a book (where I don't care about Scrivener, and I'm doing other things), or I'm writing a book and I'm too busy to learn how to use it. All I care about is words in a row: Word is good enough for that.

How should I think about translations for my book?

Foreign rights are bought and sold -- it will happen without your consent and without your awareness. Translation has nothing to do with you at all. There's a conference every year in Germany where rights are sold -- it might be managed by your agent, but it might happen without your knowing at all.

How many pages make a tiny chapter?

I say 3-4 pages, but that is not useful. It depends on font, spacing, etc. I say 1200 words.

What software do you use for page numbers?

Nothing. I do everything manually at the end.

How do you find the right tone for the audience? I'm used to writing for academics; how do you write something that has substance but then also write something that everyone can read.**

You're going to leave out details. You're going to simplify. This will happen all the time -- writing a popular book means pissing off academics. There is no real way to do both; there is no way around giving up rigor.

What is a decent number of sales for a trade book?

I truly don't know; probably high thousands, under 10k. The publisher will think about how much revenue your book will bring in; I'll bet that it's not above 10k with discounts, pre-orders, etc. A lot of publishers don't know what's going on anymore. Even 20 years ago, they thought that they did, but publishing is so weird nowadays.

What about cross-over books?

Some presses will publish cross-over books (like MIT), but most don't. If something is marketed as an academic book, it's not going to be in a bookstore because it's not profitable. If you want it to be successful, you want to shoot for being in an airport.

How should we think about book covers?

When we're choosing covers, we think about what the cover looks like when it's tiny, when it's a thumbnail on their phone when they're deciding whether or not to buy it on Amazon. Half of sales are digital now, which makes the entire cover experience different: what goes on the flaps, what's on the back -- that has changed a lot now. When the standard thing now is the Amazon page, it looks totally different now: you can tell when a publisher has paid for better page design on Amazon. Don't worry too much about your book title; the only goal of the title is to get people to read the subtitle. The only goal of the subtitles is to get people to read the back of the book and then buy it. If you have an obscure gaming reference in the title, that's great! Explain it in the subtitle, and use that to get people into the book.

Do you have guidance about publishing books under a free license?

I have no experience with this. Your book isn't going to get reviewed; it's looked on poorly by the industry with few exceptions. That's probably unfair but it's true. One of the reasons why there's so long of a lead time between finishing the book and when it's published is getting the book to be reviewed. Publishers want a copy of the book, send it to the New York Times, and then have them write a review, and then have that review ready for the back of the book. It's a terrible system -- you can make the publication cycle faster, but then your book isn't going to be reviewed.

Do you have any advice on book promotion clauses?

You don't have negotiating power, contracts are bad, but you basically sign it anyways. I'm not sure that book tours really matter anymore; it was so that a local newspaper could write about you when you're there. Google and Amazon will host authors; internet book events are good. "In conversation with" talks are great -- the more online stuff you do, the better. In person stuff is not useful in terms of publicity. If a publisher gives you a big advance, then they might spend more to promote your book. Every book on the "new releases" table at Barnes and Noble -- publishers paid for it to be there. Top books on Amazon -- publishers paid to be there. Podcasts are good publicity, but they're also great because it helps you think about your book. You learn to talk about it in different ways. Podcasts are a great way to publicize your book, not so much book tours these days.

What will happen to us with Chat GPT?

The LLMs will change this process -- they can't write the book -- but they can definitely write the shorter things. People will take their ideas and put them through the AI and see if there's anything that they missed; you could think of it as a first draft outliner or writer to up everyone's game.