What I’ve Earned (And Learned) From Writing “Beginning Ruby”

As the author of Beginning Ruby, I make money for every copy sold in print and electronic formats (as well as some miscellaneous income I’ll cover later). It’s not much money – but that wasn’t the motivation for writing the book.

In this post I’m going to show you how it all works from my point of view including sales figures, pictures of my royalty statements, information about my advance, and similar gruesome stuff. There’s even a section at the end about how Apress pissed me off a bit (though I don’t regret the experience with them – they’re a good publisher generally, though less so since their restructuring) and why I’m happy with you pirating my book if you so choose (though this is by no means an encouragement to do so – it’s still illegal, alas!)

October 19 update: After being received well by readers on Hacker News and Reddit a week ago, this story was Slashdotted with an inaccurate summary on October 16 – the same day my daughter was born! :) I therefore redirected all traffic to this site to a cancer donation page as I couldn’t rebutt the nasty comments and I had bigger things on my mind at the time. I feel, however, I need to give some extra information throughout this post to clarify the points that were misunderstood by a minority of readers. These added notes are in bold italics.

The Advance

The “advance” is a sum of money you get from your publisher up-front while writing the book. Ostensibly the advance supports you while writing the book, but really it’s to ensure you get the book finished. For the first edition back in 2006 I got an advance of $6000. Apress gives you a third at a time at these points: 1) when three chapters are completed and approved, 2) when two thirds of the book is completed, and 3) when the manuscript is complete. So my $6000 was spread over about 9 months.

Note: Some non-writers make the mistake that an advance is a type of grant or bursary and that once the book is out, you earn more money per copy sold. The word “advance” is well chosen, because the payment is simply royalties in advance. So if you get a $1000 advance and make $1000 in royalties in the first year, you get no extra money. The royalties made once the book is actually selling “pay back” the advance you received earlier. The only advantage to you is that if your book bombs and doesn’t even sell enough copies to pay back the advance, you (usually) don’t have to give the publisher back a penny.

How Much Do I Get Per Book?

Print Copies

The retail price (RRP) of Beginning Ruby is $40 (give or take a penny) but my publisher, Apress, makes a varying amount per book – I don’t know why (Update: I’ve been told by informed readers that the varying net price is because different retailers and distributors get better discounts than others.). An “average net price” is shown on my royalty statements but this fluctuates. It’s usually anywhere between $18.00-$19.00. Let’s say $18.50. Of this $18.50, I get:

  • 10% ($1.85) for each of the first 4000 copies sold
  • 12.5% ($2.31) on copies 4001-8000
  • 15% ($2.77) on copies 8001-12000
  • 17.5% ($3.23) on copies 12001-25000
  • 20% ($3.70) thereafter

Note: If I promote the book with an affiliate link to Amazon.com and make 4% commission on their $26 sale, I can add another dollar per sale.

E-book / PDF Copies

Despite selling the e-book directly at $27.99, the net price for the e-book comes to about $18.00 overall. Since there are no printing or supply chain costs, though, you get double the royalties on e-books. If your print copies are currently earning a 10% royalty, say, you get 20% on the e-book sales. This means at the 10% mark, it’s $3.70 per e-book, $4.62 at the 12.5% level, $5.54 at the 15% level, and so on.

Sales Figures

As an introductory book to a programming language, Beginning Ruby has seen perennial sales – it’s not a time specific book (like, alas, 90%+ of Rails books). The biggest burst was around launch – as for most tech books – but the sales didn’t drop off significantly for the first edition over its lifespan. In 2 years (8 full quarters), 7673 paper copies and 486 e-books were sold. The sales in early 2009 boosted this up to approximately 8500 paper copies and 500 e-books total for the first edition, although the statements since 2008 are so hard to read I haven’t got an exact figure.

The second edition of Beginning Ruby was commissioned in late 2008 and came out in August 2009, so there are no sales figures for it at all yet. Once there are, I’ll be posting again. It’ll be interesting to see if the second edition experiences a similar burst to the first. Other Apress authors have suggested it will.

In the grand scheme of things, selling about 9000 copies of a technical book is neither cause for a great celebration or despair. The book easily paid back its advance in the first two quarters and it’s provided Apress with about $170,000 in net revenue over two years (of which about $19,000 has ended up with me).

Royalty Statements

The salient details have been given above but I want to show off some of Apress’s royalty statements. Back in 2007 they looked like this:


Note: You might appreciate seeing John Resig’s royalty statement for roughly the same period for Pro JavaScript Techniques. Somehow my book outsold his, but he got a better advance ;-)

I thought these statements were pretty cool. I couldn’t always figure out why the reserve was being calculated as it was or what the “licensed rights” were, but I could easily see how many copies I’d sold in both print and e-book format per quarter and had a good history and breakdown of my payment.

Note: See the 30% withholding in taxes at the bottom right? It turns out if you don’t identify as a US tax payer (and have the required number – which, alas, forces you to then file tax returns in the US), the US tax man will still steal 30% of your royalties (though oddly not your advances) to fund all sorts of nefarious nonsense. Luckily, if you’re in one of several countries with a tax treaty with the US at least, you can claim back some or all of the withheld tax from your local income tax. It’s not easy though.

In 2008 Apress implemented a new, supposedly better backoffice system, and now royalty statements are like this:


Apologies for the image quality; I took it on my iPhone and Photoshopped it.

This statement turned up today and it merely covers some e-book sales that occurred in the gap between the first and second edition (which is why it only covers about 150 sales). So, it’s one of the simpler statements I’ve received but I still feel like a degree in steganography to figure it out. I get the jist, but they do crazy things like split a 12.5% royalty up into a section for the 10% and another for the 2.5%.. then you have “proportional ebook royalty” sections added on. You also get your “reserve” back after 18 months and when you add those in as well.. it’s a train wreck compared to the 2007-style statements. I know I’m not the only Apress author to feel this way.


If you didn’t see the reference to “reserves” in the above royalty statements, scroll back up and check. Essentially you get a cut of your royalties hidden away for 18 months (technically “6 periods” – but since a period is a quarter, that’s 18 months) in order to pay for any “returns” – books that bookstores send back to the publisher which they can’t sell. In 2007 I believe – though I’m not sure – that I had $2200 of royalties taken away as reserves. I then got these amounts back sometime recently. Curiously, the taxes for these reserves were taken away back in 2007, so even though it was “income” US tax wise, the income didn’t materialize till 2009. This confuses me as much as I’m sure it would you.

Licensed Rights

On the royalty statements above, you should see references to “Licensed Rights.” My first editor told me that these are payments you receive for foreign versions of your book, for inclusion on systems like O’Reilly Safari, and “similar.” I’ve asked a couple of times now but I’ve never found out what these amounts are specifically for and I’m not aware of any translated editions of Beginning Ruby. (Update: On October 13 – 6 days ago – someone from Apress contacted me to let me ask questions about some of these issues, but I haven’t had a response as yet.)

The Second Edition – A New Advance But Royalties Go Back to 10%..

In late 2008, an editor at Apress – Michelle Lowman (Update: Who, by the way, was a great editor.) – got in touch with me about writing a second edition of Beginning Ruby. Since 2006, a number of library preferences had changed, URLs had changed, and there were quite a few updates or new sections to do (such as references to Ruby 1.9, new libraries, GUI development, and alternative Web frameworks).

Now, I wasn’t particularly keen on doing a second edition for a variety of reasons, but the Apress contract states that if you don’t, they have the right to do it without you, have someone else’s name slapped on the book, and, I believe, you get money taken out of your royalties to pay for various bits of extra work. Having my book pulled from under my feet didn’t sound appealing so I signed up to do it.

The weird thing about doing a second edition is that it’s not really treated as a “second edition.” Instead, it’s like an all new book. You get a new advance ($6500 in my case – $500 more than my first but significantly worse due to the USD-GBP rate at the time) and you have to go through all the same motions as with a new book. Your royalty rate and sales figures are even reset back to square one! So you’re straight back to a 10% royalty after clawing your way up to 15% after 8000+ sales. Ick.

The Free PDF Fiasco (or How Apress Really Pissed Me Off)

Since the money wasn’t too hot and I’m more interested in print sales anyway, I went into second edition negotiations with an insistence that the electronic/PDF version of the book could be freely available – as in beer, rather than speech. After all, the e-book’s sales were poor – the print edition outsold it 17 to 1 – and Apress had made a pitiful $7500ish over 2 years from it. Like Seth Godin and, well, hundreds of other authors, I believe free electronic copies can significantly increase mindshare and print sales. With a book like Beginning Ruby, the majority of readers want a print book, so it seemed a no-brainer to keep sales strong in a market with growing competition (from Manning, particularly).

I have no reason to believe my editor didn’t fight my corner, but whenever she took it to the meetings (where all the top Apress honchos decide what books to publish and how) she came back saying that the top brass weren’t keen. I begged and begged, wrote a couple of pleas, and offered to talk directly to these people to get my ideas across, but nope – nothing. The only compromise that was reached was that a couple of chapters could be released per month, separately – which is about as appealing to readers as getting a tenth of an orgasm. Even this didn’t make it into my contract, and I did push on it.

(Update: Some readers have, rightly, pointed out that there are different business cases regarding giving away e-books in order to encourage print sales – and not all books are likely to meet the criteria. I would have agreed for my first edition, but my second edition is entering a far more competitive atmosphere – it’s no longer the only up to date book. Also, despite good sales and great reviews, my book hasn’t been noticed by a large swathe of the most experienced Ruby community.. the same people who recommend books to others! If the more experienced folks can “test” the book for free, they’re more likely to recommend it to the newcomers. My book isn’t even listed at the officially sanctioned Ruby book listing at ruby-doc.org – as an aside, it once was with a snide comment next to it, but I believe the maintainer has a grudge against me ;-) )

Eventually the book was published in August 2009 and I have yet to see how it will sell. What really flipped my lid, though, was seeing other Apress books like Dive Into Python and Pro Git getting the treatment I wanted. You can read both of these awesome titles online, in full, for free. Offering electronic content for free to promote print book sales isn’t an alien concept to Apress so someone’s playing favorites over there.

Pirate My Book? (Yes, that’s a question mark.)

(Update: This is the most contentious section and the most misunderstood. I am basically saying two things: 1 – if you pirate my book, I think that’s pretty cool, and 2 – I’m running a thought experiment on the ways around the legal restrictions there are. Note that I am NOT saying “you should pirate my book” or “please break the law and get into trouble” as some Slashdotters believe. I say this is NOT a good idea if you are not aware of the risks. So, no, I’m not going to pursue you and I actually think it’s great when I see my book being pirated, but I cannot advocate you break the law.)

My reaction to seeing other Apress books getting the free, electronic version treatment is: I’m good with you pirating my book! (Update: “I’m good with you” NOT meaning “You must,” as some Slashdotters believe.) Now, of course, I can’t actively participate in pirating my book but, heck, it’s around on plenty of “free e-book” sites and on RapidShare. There are even links on Twitter to torrents like this. I am happy for you to pirate my book, but.. I’m NOT A LAWYER, and I can’t guarantee what Apress would do about it – so you’d be doing it off your own back! So, uhm, don’t pirate it? ;-) The only condition, of course, if you do is that if you like the book and you think a print copy would be swell to own, please buy one – even if it’s just for someone you know who wants to learn to program! :-) (Update: I’ve received e-mails from readers who went on to do exactly this.)

Now – a thought experiment.. According to my contract, I own the copyright to the entire book except for the cover, table of contents, and the indexes. My contract also states that I have exclusively allowed Apress to publish and reproduce my content. So.. I suspect that if you took my book, removed the cover, contents and indexes, and turned it into a PDF with a cover of your own creation, Apress couldn’t do anything about it because everything would be my copyright. Now, I cannot allow you to do this, but I would not pursue you if you did ;-) So, er, don’t do it! (Update: Yes, I’m aware this is “cute” language but my message isn’t too obscured – I like seeing my book pirated but I cannot legally demand you do so or to break the law!)


As a way to become well known, to have something awesome for your résume, or to satisfy an ambition to “write a book and have it published”, writing a book and getting it published by a major publisher isn’t a bad way to spend your time. If a little fame and respect are all you want, one book is enough. If you want to earn a serious income from books, you need to pump out several books. That’s why most tech books seem to be by authors who’ve written a single book or many books (I seem to recall Knuth making that observation once).

I’d argue that unless you’re writing a very niche book (that’s unlikely to earn back its advance) or a book that’s likely to be extremely popular, you should avoid the major publishers and instead find a mid-sized publisher that can offer more attractive royalties. Advances look appealing but if your royalty rate sucks, it makes no difference unless you think you’ll never earn it back. Instead, look for a publisher like The Pragmatic Bookshelf that can offer you 50% royalties. (Update: There has been a lot of FUD over the Prags’ royalty rate which Dave has countered here.) Even if I’d sold only 2000 books for $18 net (versus 8500 at Apress), I’d have made the same money! The marketing that a publisher like Apress can provide doesn’t quadruple your sales, so you’d be ahead. Smaller publishers are also easier to talk to (from what I’ve heard) and you can negotiate better licensing deals with them.

I certainly couldn’t say I regret my Beginning Ruby experience, though. The above is all stuff I’ve learned because of this process and there’s a lot you don’t know as a no-book newbie. Getting even one book under your belt with a “regular” publisher can open your eyes and have a big effect on your way of thinking. I’ve also got to work with some really interesting people at Apress (most of whom who have, sadly, left or been fired in the big scaledown they did recently). The effect of Beginning Ruby has only been positive to me, even if it hasn’t gone as smoothly as I’ve wanted.. and it could certainly be worse than receiving random checks with indecipherable royalty statements every few months!


  1. Denis Hennessy Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve often been curious about how the book publishing business works (finance-wise) and this was a great insight.

    Another advantage I’ve noticed with publishers like the Prags is that the PDFs are unencumbered with nasty DRM so you can search them easily and move them between computers. I’ve bought many ebooks from them because of that (in fact, I’ve often bought both the print and PDF versions). I’ve only ever bought one PDF from apress (not yours) and I promptly returned it when I realised it was password protected.

  2. Charles Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:16 am

    As a consolation, your book is my favorite Ruby book and I still use it every once in a while. Keep up the good work, and I really think you deserve more for your efforts.

  3. Vasudev Ram Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    Interesting post, Peter.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    - Vasudev

  4. rk Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Hello Peter,

    I’ve not read your book, I learned by the mad-science method of try-fail-repeat, but I have no doubt that it would be useful.

    Your story has shed new light on Apress for me, and the now disappoint me greatly. The fact that you made ~11% off their gross revenue, when the Pragmatic Programmers, would have given you roughly 4x that looks like a complete and total rip-off. Admittedly, your purpose wasn’t entirely monetary … but let us be honest: you deserve more of the money than they do. (After all, Apress didn’t write the book!)

    Even Lulu seems like a better alternative to me, because they let you pick prices freely. Free eBook and $40 printed copy? No problem.

  5. BookReader Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    While O’Reilly, Pragmatic Programmers, Packt and other publishers publish DRM-free & password free ebooks, APress continues selling password protected books that can’t transferred to some book readers without some ebook management software and in general are much harder to handle.

  6. James Robertson (jrbookmarks) 's status on Thursday, 08-Oct-09 17:19:44 UTC - Identi.ca Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    [...] http://beginningruby.org/what-ive-earned-and-learned/ [...]

  7. Peter Cooper Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    Bookreader: You’re right. And even as an author this pisses me off when I want to look in my own book! My solution? I found an unpassworded version of my book “elsewhere” and now use that! Other readers may or may not like to copy these actions ;-)

  8. SD Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    this experience tastes both sweet and sour….but it teaches..thanks…

  9. Nocensor Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    Hey, change “orgasm” back to “blowjob”. Don’t cave to the faux-PC crowd. It makes a lot more sense the first way! A writer writes from his OR her own perspective — it’s not an evil thing that you happen to be male. Don’t become corporatized!


    Jean Paul Sartre waved off the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature. His explanation: “It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner. A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.”

  10. JP Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    So if you own the content, why don’t you just put it up on a site like the ProGit.org site? The ProGit.org site doesn’t give the impression that it was created by APress.

  11. zmoney Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    What a great post — I’ve never heard this information before!

  12. admin Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    @JP: Contractually, I can’t. I can sample a certain amount but despite owning the copyright, my contract with Apress says that I give them the exclusive right to publish the work as a whole in any format (I believe).

  13. Geoffrey Grosenbach Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    Thanks for the honesty and for making this information public, Peter.

    I’m biased, but self-publishing is the way to go! (Especially for someone like you who already had 15-20k RSS subscribers before writing your book).

    In addition to my own experience at PeepCode, I’d like to point out Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs who have sold over 1,000 copies of their self-published book at $30-40 each ( http://javascriptrocks.com/performance/ ). In addition, you get the business knowledge that’s only gained by running your own show and selling a product directly to your customers.

  14. Fabio Cevasco Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

    Well, thanks for sharing. I came this close to publishing a book two years ago but it didn’t work out because the other co-author didn’t quite do his part and in the end I lost interest to the whole thing [http://www.h3rald.com/articles/42/]. Obviously I didn’t get a thing then, but I figured I wouldn’t have got huge amounts of money even if it was published, compared to what the publisher.

    That’s how printed books work, I’m afraid, and especially technical books (unless you can squeeze better deals). Personally, I wasn’t too concerned with the money — it would have been my first book, I would probably would have written it even for free, and certainly I wasn’t planning to support myself based on advances and royalties!

    Let me tell you one thing: you got your book published in the end, that’s what matters. You’re a prominent figure in the Ruby world so next time:

    a) you can ask for more
    b) you can change publisher (I can recommend a few, if you don’t have enough imagination :P )
    c) you most certainly can be smarter :-)

  15. Parag Shah Said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Have you considered self-publishing purely in an electronic format, and perhaps put your book up on Amazon to be read on the Kindle?

  16. Mike Woodhouse Said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 1:26 am

    +1 for the interestingness – thanks.

    I rather suspect that Apress will be one of the first up against the wall, come the revolution – their editing quality is, er, variable at best and they seem rather mired in pre-net (what’s the right word for that?) publishing mentality.

    The Prags seem to me to have it most right, more so since I read your remarks on their royalty policy. O’Reilly may (emphasis on “may”) get it, although I wonder if they may be copying *what* the Prags do, without understanding *why*.

    Looking at my desk, where my most-frequently referenced books live, the count by publisher is Prags 7, O’Reilly 6, AW 3, Apress 3 (of which 2 are actually the friendsofed imprint). Wiley and Prentice-Hall get one each.

  17. Destillat KW41-2009 | duetsch.info - GNU/Linux, Open Source, Softwareentwicklung, Selbstmanagement, Vim ... Said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 1:53 am

    [...] What I’ve Earned (And Learned) From Writing “Beginning Ruby” sehr interessanter Einblick den uns der Autor nicht nur, aber auch, auf die kommerziellen Aspekte gewährt. [...]

  18. Aleksey Tsalolikhin Said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:29 am

    Thanks a lot for sharing that! Look forward to seeing your next book. :)

  19. Derek Chen-Becker Said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    Well, if only you had posted this last year! I’m one of the Co-Authors of “The Definitive Guide to Lift” for APress and it’s a little upsetting to see that our experience wasn’t unique. I definitely agree with you on the royalty statements. We just got ours (well, so far I’m the only one of the three of us to actually receive it) and it reads like a tax form. All things considered, though, this is pretty small compared to some of my other complaints. You can see more here:


  20. Marco Said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 6:20 am

    Peter, i´m Marco, i´m from Brazil and one thing i can say for sure: i learned how to program with YOUR book. Unfortunately we dont have access to a printed version of the book here, so i went for the pirate pdf. I dot like it, i want the real book, so i´m planning to import it. Thanks for the great job, specially with the first 10 chapters. Regards.

  21. Peter Cooper Said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 7:22 am

    Marco: That’s awesome! I’m glad you’ve found it useful.

    I know that things in Brazil can be a bit expensive (sky high import taxes, I think?) and have no problem with anyone who genuinely can’t afford (or justify) the expense to get a head start with a PDF found in “other” ways :) This is one of the things few publishers address.. that books can be ridiculously expensive in other parts of the world.

  22. Mark Murphy Said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    I second (or third or whatever) the self-publishing approach. My firm (CommonsWare) sells three books on Android application development. Print editions are in Amazon and other online stores; digital editions are available via subscription from my Web site. It is not that much more difficult than going through a traditional publisher, and you have *much* more control.

    I licensed print rights to one of those books to Apress, and it’s in the Top 5 Worst Business Decisions I’ve Made.

    Note that the PragProg 50% royalty is on net price, meaning you have to subtract out the discount to bookstores and resellers (typically 40%, 55% for Kindle to Amazon) and printing costs. As a result, the actual take isn’t that much higher than with an Apress, though I’m sure it is at least somewhat better. With the right self-publishing setup, you can earn closer to 50% of list price on print. Self-publishing digital editions, of course, has higher margins yet due to no middlemen.

    If you’re only doing one book, it’s probably not worth the hassle, but if publishing is a significant portion of your business, it is definitely worth considering.

  23. Eddie Said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for the book – I own the first edition & found it very useful.

    Thanks also for the inside track on IT related publishing. For comparative purposes, here’s a related story.

    My own partner is an academic, with several published books. The ROI for academic authors is much lower than your own experience – her last joint-authored work came with a £500 advance & has earned less than £300 each in subsequent royalties, despite selling out the first print run (2000) & being translated into Japanese.

    Unless you’re a leading/popular historian or the like, academics don’t write books for the money – its for career advancement, RAE (research assessment exercise) & such reasons.

    Not sure what my point is, or whether I have one! But, thanks also for all your other efforts in the ruby/rails domains….

  24. Eddie Said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Just a quick update, sales of the book mentioned were closer to 4,000…..

  25. Franklin Webber Said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    This is the exact understanding of what is happening, at least in a particular slice, of the author/publisher space. Thank you for writing a book for little to nothing. Your efforts and similar one-off authors have helped me immensely in my career.

  26. Mark Pilgrim Said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    Author of “Dive Into Python” here. Funny you should mention licensing… I recently had an unpleasant conversation with Apress brass (at least 2 levels of management higher than anyone I’d ever talked to before) about the fact that “Dive Into Python” is published under a Free license. The particular issue revolved around the fact that Apress doesn’t actually have the exclusive right to publish the book on paper — a fact which came as a great surprise to them when someone else actually did it (and got it listed on Amazon.com). But this spilled over into my current Apress book (“Dive Into Python 3″ — due out any day now) which is licensed slightly differently but still available online for free.

    As for “how I did it” — I made them put it in writing, and I gave up a lot of other concessions during contract negotiations to get it. But I think the argument is getting harder, not easier — in 2003, I didn’t get the impression that it was much of a big deal at all. They wanted me to finish it / print it, I said “OK, but it stays under a Free license,” and they said “Well, sure.” In 2009, it was a fight — one which my editor was willing to undertake on my behalf, but a serious fight. There is apparently a strong contingent within Apress that is against anything “non-traditional,” including open licensing.

    In the end, they wanted the book enough to “put up with” my quirks. (They originally approached me about writing “Dive Into Python 3.” I had no plans to do so, and there was no book half-written and already published.) But the tide seems to be turning against openness. I don’t hold out a lot of hope that they’ll say “yes” to a Free license for “Dive Into Python 4.”

  27. Peter Cooper Said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Just wanted to thank you for writing in, Mark. Really appreciate hearing your side of the story! (as I’m sure others will)

  28. Peter Jones Said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Scott Meyers has an excellent article about writing technical books: http://www.aristeia.com/authorAdvice.html

  29. Bill Pollock Said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 12:29 am

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for this very interesting post.

    At No Starch Press, we’re not a fan of scheduled royalty payments (the sort that you received), because the effective royalty is typically closer to the initial, 10% royalty, than it is to that out-of-reach 20% royalty. (That’s by design.)

    As for clear royalty statements, I’m all for those. We try to keep ours simple.

    With regard to royalties, from what I understand the Pragmatic Programmers pay what they describe as about 50% of profit — not royalties. That’s a huge difference. Royalties are paid as a percentage of net sales (gross sales less returns). Profit is a completely different calculation: Take your gross sales, deduct all costs, and share the profit that’s left. The question that I have is how are those costs are determined and what if there is no profit? There’s a trade-off either way. The author of the blockbuster title should win under a profit-sharing arrangement, but most technical books are far from blockbusters.

    Our alternative at No Starch Press is to offer most of our authors a kind of cafeteria plan that works like this:

    15% royalty with no advance (the advance is a loan, anyway)
    12% with $5,000 advance
    10% with $8,000 advance

    Our PDFs have *always* been DRM free. With regard to offering books for free, we’ll do it if an author feels strongly about it. (I have mixed feelings and I’m not afraid to share them :)

    Otherwise, there are certain similarities in the Apress and No Starch Press publishing agreement because it’s based on the agreement that I wrote for No Starch Press when I started our company in 1994. (I also cofounded Apress but I haven’t been involved with the company since 1999.) I prefer our original to their modified version. You can have a look at here: http://nostarch.com/no_starch_agreement.pdf


    Bill Pollock, Founder
    No Starch Press

  30. Anna Said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 12:56 am

    Really interesting article -I know quite a lot about the trade side of publishing (i.e. fiction and mainstream non-fiction) but not too much about tech books. I had always assumed that publishers such as Apress would be far more relaxed when it came to the whole ‘free’ thing, as I would imagine that it is a great way to promote the title, but clearly not.
    I have a friend who works on the financial side of a UK based academic publisher (paying author royalties etc) and he has said how ridiculously complicated it can get. I can see it must be even more so if publishing in the States!
    Thanks for the insight.

  31. Tim O'Reilly Said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Thanks for the excellent post. It’s always great to get an inside view of the deals our competitors are making.

    I thought I’d add a couple of clarifications of questions you seem to have, based on common industry knowledge (not inside knowledge of anything APress):

    1. You say “The retail price (RRP) of Beginning Ruby is $40 (give or take a penny) but my publisher, Apress, makes a varying amount per book – I don’t know why.” That’s because they sell some copies directly from their website at full price, some through wholesalers, who get a very deep discount, some through big retailers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon, who also get a very deep discount, some through the few remaining independent bookstores, who generally get a somewhat smaller discount, and some from international distribution, which probably get the biggest discount of all, since there are more middlemen between you and the ultimate consumer.

    2. You say “Despite selling the e-book directly at $27.99, the net price for the e-book comes to about $18.00 overall.” Same answer as #1 above, but with less evidence to support it. This suggests that APress is selling copies through some indirect channels. At O’Reilly, we do sell ebooks not only direct from oreilly.com but also through other channels (Safari Books Online, Amazon, Stanza, scribd, and many more), which is why we have an average price that isn’t the same as our list price. We also sometimes run promotions (e.g. buy two, get one free) that result in discounts, and have a different price for ebook bundled with print from ebook sold separately. All these things might contribute. But I don’t see lots of evidence for this at APress. As you suggest in your piece, they haven’t been a leader in digital distribution. I’d ask for some clarification about why the net price for the ebook is different from the list price.

    3. You say “Now, according to my contract, I own the copyright to the entire book except for the cover, table of contents, and the indexes. My contract also states that I have exclusively allowed Apress to publish and reproduce my content. So.. I suspect that if you took my book, removed the cover, contents and indexes, and turned it into a PDF with a cover of your own creation, Apress couldn’t do anything about it because everything would be my copyright.”

    I’d be very careful with your assumptions here. “Owning the copyright” doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means. I haven’t seen the language in the APress contract, but I suspect it says something to the effect that you grant them the exclusive right to publish, distribute, and sell (etc.) the book for the duration of the copyright. If this is so, the ONLY thing that you get from still owning the copyright is the ability to reacquire the rights in the event APress goes out of business.

    It’s a bit like owning a house. You own it, sure, but if you have a mortgage on it, the bank has a claim on the house that supersedes your ownership. The contract between you and the bank supersedes the title in your name.

    4. I sympathize with your desire to make the book freely available online. We’ve done it for many O’Reilly titles when the authors request it, and we make books available for free online after they go out of print. We don’t do it for all books because while there are some cases where free online exposure can help sell print books, there are also many cases where it seems to sell fewer books. A lot depends on whether a book is already visible or not. (See my old essay from 2002, Piracy is Progressive Taxation: http://openp2p.com/pub/a/p2p/2002/12/11/piracy.html) But most importantly, I’d hesitate a bit here because as print book sales decline, ebook sales are on the increase. APress seems to be way behind the curve here if their ebook sales are only 5 or 6% of sales. For O’Reilly as a whole, online ebook sales (of all kinds) are about 20% of sales, and increasing rapidly as new ebook channels develop.

    “Free” should be seen as a strategic tool for publishing. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it hurts. You need to understand how and when to use it. If there’s lots of competition, you’re an unknown, and the competition is print only, free can help everyone understand how great you are. But if you’re already well known, free can reduce your overall sales. (That’s the whole point of the “progressive taxation” analogy I referrred to above.)

    Sometimes authors want to get the word out more than they want to make money. If publishers think they can still make enough to cover their costs and their risks, they’ll go along. In other cases, they won’t.

    Whether we make books free or not, we always make our ebooks DRM-free.

    4. Your experience with escalating royalties shows how it’s easy to be wowed by the top end of the scale, but it’s difficult to reach it, especially in today’s diminished book market.

    5. As Bill Pollock said, don’t confuse “50% of profits” from the Prags with a 50% royalty. I do think the Prags have one of the best deals around, but it isn’t as much better than others as it might appear. (See the discussion of publishing costs in point 6 below.) It’s also important to remember that ultimately, the amount of money you get is the product of the number of copies you sell times the royalty rate, not the royalty rate per se. And that depends on the reach and brand of the publisher as well as the quality of your work. Publishers sell more copies than self-publishers because they’ve worked years to get the reach.

    6. In the comments, Geoffrey Grosenbach makes the point that with self-publishing, you get to keep all the revenue: “Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs who have sold over 1,000 copies of their self-published book at $30-40 each.” From what I can see on their site, it looks like they are selling, for that price, four short books (which may be ebooks only – it isn’t clear) plus a software tool. Not quite an even comparison.

    It’s worth doing the math on what it would cost to self-publish a book like Beginning Ruby. Costs go up rapidly the smaller the number of copies you print. APress probably printed 8-10,000 copies of your book at a manufacturing cost of $3-4 each. If you were to self-publish, you will find that you might print, say, 1000 copies at $8 each, or 2000 copies at maybe $6 each. (It could be more. I’m not as close to book printing prices as I used to be.) So you’re out $8-$12000 up front. So lets say you’ve guessed exactly right how many copies you will sell. You printed 1000 copies for $8K, and sold all 1000 for $30K to $40K (depending on where you set the price.) You made $22K, or maybe even $32K, versus the $19K you earned with APress.

    But now imagine that you decided to print 2000 (as most beginning publishers do – they can’t resist the lure of the lower unit price from the larger volume. Guessing wrong on how many books you’ll sell is one of the many risks of publishing that most beginners under-estimate. It can totally change the profitability of a book.) You’re now out $12K up front, or if you were over-eager, maybe even $15 or $18K. And you still sell only 1000 copies. Suddenly your take is $18K (or maybe $28K if you went for the higher price.)

    But then there’s this: you had to ship out each of those 1000 books, one at a time. Put them in an envelope or box, get postage or UPS pickup, deal with customer service calls when the book didn’t arrive as quickly as the customer expected. Not to mention that you’ve got 2000s book that you’ve got to store somewhere. Depending on the size of the book, that could be something like 80 cartons. Definitely going to crowd your apartment or office.

    (Oh, and before that, you need to get someone to proofread and copyedit your book, unless you’re a flawless writer. Someone to do illustrations and design a cover. You have to figure out how to market and sell it.)

    I know all this because I started out as a self-publisher 25 years ago. I got people to do all that stuff pretty quickly because it’s a lot of work. A lot of work that took me away from higher value jobs I could be doing. So I hired people, built a company, and started doing them for others as well. In short, I became a publisher.

    I have never discouraged anyone from self-publishing. It’s how I got started, as well as most of the other publishers you guys know and respect, like the Prags, No Starch, Manning, etc. But don’t discount how much work it is.

    Thanks again for the frank and informative post.

  32. Dylan Clendenin Said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    Two more Apress online freebies (just to continue to build your case) are:

    The Definitive Guide to Pylons:


    The Definitive Guide to Django:

  33. Cre Said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    As far as DRM’d PDFs, I know in Preview on a Mac you can open up the PDF, hit the PDF button in the lower left and just crank out a new PDF. I’ve done this for a few PDF’s I bought from Apress and it’s worked just fine to get around the DRM.

  34. Alan Bradburne Said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    It’s great to see this being discussed so openly.

    Being a first time author for Apress with ‘Rails Social Networking Sites’, I was very timid in my negotiations and I seriously regret that now. I’m torn between being incredibly frustrated at the business side of Apress and being very happy with the people there I directly worked with.

    My book is now woefully out of date and essentially worthless (based on the 6 sales in the last quarter) and it’s frustrating as hell not to be able to do anything about it. Apress didn’t want to work on a 2nd edition so the text is sat there rotting. Unfortunately after the re-org at the publisher, all my attempts to find someone to talk to about ‘freeing’ the text seem to have gone to /dev/null.

    As much I’d like to think that self-publishing is the answer, Apress did provide essential advice and guidance (along with the required kicks up the arse) for a first-timer like me. Maybe next time though…

  35. Levi Figueira Said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    I’m no writer, but I’ve always thought about how publishers are ripping their customers with ebook pricing… They cost waaaaaay too much for the little to no printing/distribution costs. Besides, IMHO, PDF versions of a book should be distributed *for free* with print versions. I much rather read/buy a print edition of *any book* (technical or not), and PDF works well for mere reference or quick lookup on technical books alone.

    Book publishers are following the footsteps of their music and video counter-parts: they’re not really understanding how *digital distribution* works. They assume it’s just a quick-buck, with a lot less costs and “since a lot of people pirate it anyway, we’ll jack up the price to those who actually buy it to make up for those that don’t”. Do I need to get into how much “wrong” is in that statement?

    I guess there is still market for some sort of “middle-grounds” publisher, that is open enough but still making a buck to support marketing efforts… ;)

    Best of luck for you and your work. It’s #1 material and I seriously hope to see more $$ coming your way from it and future works! :) Keep it up !

  36. Stoo Said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 4:58 am

    Interesting and informative article. I was wondering how you got involved in writing the book? Did you approach Apress with the idea? Were they looking writer’s? How did you get started as a technical writer?



  37. JH Said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    The University of Alberta has a machine that prints books on demand. http://www.expressnews.ualberta.ca/article.cfm?id=8849

    Adding a service such as this into your supply chain eliminates up-front costs that Mr. O’Reilly speaks of but likely increases your unit costs (due to low volume). That is, unless the machine is running with demands for streams of books (not just yours) all the time in which it shouldn’t much matter what your individual volume is as long as everyone’s keeping a service like this busy.

    The bottom line, that the publishers are seeming to ignore (just as the record and movie industries have ignored and look where it’s getting them), is that people are finding different and innovative mediums to distribute the media of their product. These mechanisms are targeted at eliminating supply chains and middle men, reducing the cost to the consumer and increasing market penetration to consumers. The long touted “reach” Mr. O’Reilly speaks of is becoming replaced by the internet and is being seen as less valuable because of it.

    Publishers can ignore authors and put up their sob stories of losses, advances, creative accounting etc., as long as they control the distribution chain. This tyranny, though, is coming to an end as technology replaces that value for a fraction of the cost with more money coming back direct to the producer of the product. The terms of the game are changing.

  38. mario Said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 7:58 am

    This is one of the most interesting reads on the net. Good insight, feedback from both authors and publishers. I see why I’ve been a big of O’Reilly books. O’Reilly has his house in order! Many O’Reilly titles capture the essence of the subject in the same way the classic K&R white book did (best programming book ever).

  39. Beginning Ruby Author: Publisher Wouldn’t Let Me Give eBook For Free… So Pirate My Book (Sorta) | PHP Hosts Said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    [...] us to an interesting post from Peter Cooper, the author of Beginning Ruby, where he breaks down how he gets paid for the book, including the advance and royalties, giving a nice clean explanation of how authors get paid for [...]

  40. Josh Said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    Great post, this is featured on TechDirt.com today. I have never seen such a candid explanation of what goes on behind the scenes of book publishing. I’m an amateur writer considering a technical book but this tells me clearly to stay far, far away!

    And it’s really nice to see Tim O’Reilly share such a lengthy, insightful post. (Thanks Tim).

  41. anonymous Said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    I actively boycott Pragmatic because of the way they spam Wikipedia with retail links all the time.

  42. Alan Harris Said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 1:51 pm


    I’m an author with Apress, I wrote “Pro IronPython” (http://www.apress.com/book/view/9781430219620) over the course of about 2 months. I can totally agree / sympathize with everything you stated here. I quite like writing, and so far my experiences with Apress have been positive ones (although the process of writing the book was SO UNBELIEVABLY FAST that sometimes I forget that I actually completed it).

    I think most people would be very surprised to learn how books are written, how many times a copy changes hands and between how many people it does. I literally, bang to bullet, completed the process in perhaps 3 months (2 of writing, 1 of review) and it was out the door. Insane. Same advance, breakdown, etc.

    Not 1 day after the book came out (and I wanted an e-book version as well) I found it pirated all over the internet. In a way, it didn’t surprise me at all. I debated downloading a copy but I didn’t feel like having to potentially explain the act later (you see, I -wrote- the book, officer.)

    Anyway, just reaching out to another Apressite.

    Best Regards,
    Alan Harris

  43. kd Said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    My understanding following discussion with one of Apress’ editors is that if you provide a free ebook, you’re going to publish under an open source licence. Once you do that, they will reduce the advance to some degree.

    My experience with Apress was pretty positive – I think they’re one of the better technical publishers out there.

  44. .log : докатились Said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    [...] steal this book: Peter Cooper, the author of Beginning Ruby, breaks down how he gets paid for the book, including the advance and royalties, giving a nice clean explanation of how authors get paid for [...]

  45. Ennuyer.net » Blog Archive » Rails Reading - Oct 20, 2009 Said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    [...] What I’ve Earned (And Learned) From Writing “Beginning Ruby” [...]

  46. Amy Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 1:43 am

    Just to rebut what Tim O’Reilly said, we are selling 4 *minibooks* for $39.

    The total page count for all 4 together is about 300 pages — and that’s 300 landscape pages, with more illustrations and fewer lines of text than a traditional book. The book itself is something like 40,000 words.

    There is definitely a comparison to draw here.

    Our book is topical, up-to-date, and narrowly focused on solving an actual problem. It’s also extremely well-written, illustrated and explained.

    For the record, I was in the process of writing a book for O’Reilly on a similar topic a few years back. And despite the fact that my coauthors (3, in order), turned in subpar work which I rewrote, when I was 450 pages in — and having devoted much of my vacation time to finishing it — O’Reilly (the company) said “You can’t slip and you can’t cancel.” After it was so clear that I was busting my ass to finish, as fast as I could.

    So I told them where to stick it.

    Let’s just say my experience with “real” publishing houses is poor. O’Reilly, for example, didn’t want to pay for a technical editor. As someone who has done paid tech editing for “lesser” publishers like Que and Sams, I was shocked. They expected people to bother to edit 30,000-word chapters for free… and expected that it would give them trustworthy results.

    I have had a vastly superior experience writing for myself, and soliciting help from friends with the tech reviewing. (Of course, I don’t need a lot of editing to begin with, since I’m a Type A perfectionist & I’ve been writing and ruthlessly editing myself for years.)

    Oh and we’ve made nearly $30k off our book so far. All of it ours, except for the taxman’s slice.

    Self-publishing is definitely the way to go… IF you have enough motivation to actually do it yourself.

    If you don’t have enough motivation to do it yourself, you might consider just giving up and letting it stay a dream. Because writing for a publisher when you aren’t really motivated is a special kind of hell.

  47. David G Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    I am not a lawyer, and I have not seen the contract detailing the “exclusive license” with your publisher, but I am guessing that the holder of the “exclusive license” can exercise their right and request that you begin proceedings against any copyright infringer. As copyright holder you are in the best position to enforce that copyright.

    Failure to protect the “exclusive license” may bring you in violation of the terms of that license agreement and the publisher may go after you to recoup their expenses…

  48. Peter Cooper Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    @David G: There are no provisos for specific remedies, but yes, that’s the sort of thing I would have expected also. I doubt such a thing would be enforced by a publisher generally except in the most insidious cases – after all, most books are pirated but I doubt many publishers go to those lengths.. especially due to the significant international/cross-border issues.

  49. Lyle Johnson Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    Just a quickie: People who are interested in this subject would probably also find interesting Mark Pilgrim’s recent post on the consequences of publishing a book under the GNU Free Documentation License (see http://diveintomark.org/archives/2009/10/19/the-point).

  50. James Turnbull Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 2:27 pm


    Great article. Interesting to see others having similar challenges. Your book sells a bucket-load better than any of mine – my mama always said “Write a programming book – no one reads those sys admin ones…” Should have listened to her… :)

    I’ve given up trying to track down and understand my royalty statements … incomprehensible gibberish from what I can see.

    I’ve also given up fighting the piracy tide – initially when a new book is released I Google up all the pirate links and email them to Apress – these days I don’t bother. It seems like a drop in the ocean and I literally don’t have time to track all of them down.

    I’m considering my options for future books – self-publishing is one but a lot of work, open sourcing is another and even choosing another publisher. Of course, being the planner I am I talked to authors from No Starch, Prags, O’Reilly and others about their experiences and discovered that no one is 100% happy with their publishers.

    The theme did seem to be that publishers are in it to make money (well doh! :) ) and that they often treat authors are unfortunate inconveniences on the path to that money. :)

  51. Peter Cooper Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    @James Turnbull: Interesting to hear! Thanks for dropping a line (by the way, if any other authors want to comment, even anonymously, please do!)

    It’s interesting to hear you were so persistent with chasing down the pirates initially. I’ve always been pretty pissed off if I didn’t see my book being pirated with all the others because “WTF? My book isn’t well known enough to be pirated??” but maybe I’m just a giant narcissist.. :-)

  52. Christian Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    Very interesting read (comments, too)! I’m currently in the process of writing a book for Pearson/Addison-Wesley, and so far I’m having a hard time relating to alot of the complaints. Granted, I’m still in the early stages, but the publisher/editor has been nothing but nice, providing all kinds of luxuries for me as an author. We’ll see how I feel when I’m done :)

  53. Julio Javier Cicchelli Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    As a follow up on Amy’s opinion, there are a lot of people out there who prefer to avoid the publishers (no matter the reason) and keep control over the content and the publishing of their book. Of course, this option requires more risks than the publisher option but the satisfaction is worthy of it.

    If for any reason, you want to write a book and you don’t know how to publish it, there is always http://www.lulu.com that will help you with that.

    ROCK ON!

  54. James Edward Gray II Said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    I wrote two books for The Pragmatic Programmers. I was 115% satisfied with how I was treated by them at all times. I can’t really imagine better working terms.

  55. Peter Cooper Said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    Dave Thomas of The Pragmatic Programmers/Bookshelf has written a post to counter the FUD regarding their royalty practices (i.e. the deduction of costs before paying royalties).

    Interestingly, we discover that 51% of their books earn between $10k-50k in royalties. Can’t sniff at that!

  56. [Time code]; Said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    [...] Peter Cooper posted a blog about his experience publishing Beginning Ruby for APress, a blog that got extraordinary traffic after being featured on Slashdot with a [...]

  57. Daniel Steinberg Said,

    October 23, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    I worked for O’Reilly for years and loved my time there and respect the people there — including and especially Tim — but take exception to his saying “As Bill Pollock said, don’t confuse “50% of profits” from the Prags with a 50% royalty. I do think the Prags have one of the best deals around, but it isn’t as much better than others as it might appear.”

    I have had this discussion off line with Tim and shared with him dollar amounts that I am earning from my Cocoa book that I am writing for the Prags. It is not just percentages, it is also dollars. It is MUCH better than other publishers. I’ve co-written a dozen books or so for a bunch of different publishers. My last four books have collectively well outsold this one so far and yet I’ve made many times more money off of this one already than the last four put together.

    I may be biased as I currently edit books for the Prags but I edit books for the Prags because of the way in which they treat their authors. In my three years there our decisions always come down to how it serves our readers and how it serves our authors. I’ve never heard “how it serves us” trump either of those.

    Daniel Steinberg

  58. Jusan Said,

    October 28, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing us your experienced on how you started. I absolutely loved your article. I am sure a lot of readers will inspire your post.

  59. PK Said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    Great Post. Its a bold move to publish all these details openly. It helps immensely understands pros and cons involved in writing technical book.

    Beginning Ruby is a great book for starters in Ruby. We have come up with “Interactive Programming Books” which helps beginners to pick up new language very easily. Readers can execute or edit code snippets right out of the book. Visit http://roorky.com to see “Interactive Programming Books” in action.

    – PK

  60. Gavin Sinclair Said,

    November 25, 2009 @ 12:54 am

    Thanks for the great post, Peter, and the great comments (everyone else). If I was in the market for an introductory Ruby book, your frankness here would have me rushing to buy your book. I hope some Ruby newbies feel the same way. Good luck with any future books.

  61. Helen Neely Said,

    November 29, 2009 @ 4:05 am

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read online that has truly lifted the lid on what seemed to most of us as a very good and financially rewarding experience. But your post here has shown that to not be the case. If publishers treat their authors like you describe here, then there’s nothing in there for these authors.

    Judging from your sales figures and payments, I would say one makes more money promoting books on Amazon than you make as the author. It’s not all about the money, the experience and fun matter too. But all these do not count if the publisher does not value you as a talented individual.

    Nce book BTW :)

  62. igorbrejc.net » Fresh Catch For February 8th Said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    [...] What I’ve Earned (And Learned) From Writing “Beginning Ruby” [...]

  63. Internet Entrepreneur Extraordinaire: Peter Cooper Said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    [...] about how much money he makes for ads on RubyInside.com, and he writes about the fascinating insider details of his pain and gain as an Apress author. When you read this amazing post, be sure to check out the A-listers who added in their comments on [...]

  64. GG Said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    Please note that copyright regulations are very much a local issue. While – I believe – all the world countries’ copyright laws assert that you are not allowed to redistribute your own copies of someone’s work without the author’s consent, most of them have some “fair use” provisions. Now these are the ones that probably vary quite wildly around the globe. In my country, apart from, e.g., provisions allowing schools and churches to freely use copyrighted works in certain ways (and the like), individuals are explicitly allowed to obtain copyrighted works for (sole) personal use. I.e., some forms of “piracy”, as understood by North American folks, are actually perfectly fine. I don’t think it hurts the sales of books all that much, though, since you can’t download a printed tome, and those who really need them will buy them in paper anyway. I’ve already bought several not-quite-cheap books simply because I was able to make sure in advance that I wouldn’t regret spending the money.

  65. Bob Ray Said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    Great read, Peter. Thanks.

    I’ve done a number of books for various publishers and have some stories that would make you weep (well, they made me weep). I had an agent, briefly, who told me that my stories were nothing compared to what he had seen.

    One publisher insisted that I do a Commodore-64 version of a book. I negotiated a substantial advance because I knew it would be a dog. It was, and the publisher subtracted the advance from the royalty payments on my other books.

    Another publisher I wrote for was sold just as my book was about to go into production. The new owner wasn’t interested in publishing the book, but strung me along for three years before returning the rights to me. If I were to write another book for a major publisher, I’d insist on enough of an advance to soften the blow of the book not being published (or negotiate a hefty kill fee).

    I’m not sure how well this would work with tech. books, but major publishers are often open to escalating royalties after a certain number of copies are sold. At that point they’ve recovered the initial costs of the book and can afford higher royalty rates. I had one contract that escalated to 18.5%.

    People thinking about doing a book should keep in mind a rule-of-thumb that I learned from a successful author with many books under his belt: When you’ve finished your draft and have everything the way you want it, you’re about 1/3 done with the work. That’s been about right for all the books I’ve done.


  66. Mimi Lee @trufinancial Said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 6:03 am

    Hi Peter,

    It is interesting that you shared all these information here that detail. I had written a few internet related books back in Hong Kong about 12 years ago.

    It is very true that every publisher function in different and every author gets different ways of compensation too. I was a new author at the time and I didn’t know there was “advance” offered, so I didn’t have any advance at all. However, since I was doing it when I was on maturity leave, I was all good :)

    I felt like “giving birth to a child” every time I wrote a book. Not sure if you have the same feeling (consider you are a guy, LOL).

    However, I must say, not ALL smaller publishers are “easier” to talk to, as they have tight budget and they sometimes are picky to what they publish.

    I had an experience that I had done a book on WAP (if you recall way back in the time when cell phone just started to be able to browse the web, it was in WAP). I had an offer from this Taiwanese WAP telecom company which planned to hire me and have my book published, fell through :(

    Since the lifespan on WAP was so short (like beta tape), I lost the whole opportunity to even take it to another publisher.

    So, anyone who has passion on writing, make sure you choose a good publisher :(


  67. The Economics of Publishing, Part 2 – Larry Ullman Said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    [...] across posts by two other writers: John Resig, who is better known as the creator of jQuery, and Peter Cooper, who has written a book on Ruby. Both writers post scans of their actual royalty statements, which [...]

  68. Ken Said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    Hi Peter,

    I just wanted to say that your book was great. Having read this post, I didn’t realize that technical book writing was more a labour of love rather than an avenue to riches. Your insight into the e-book was also great. I am one of those guys that bought your book hard copy and then got “free” e-copy of the book for my mobile device. While I enjoy the feel of flipping pages when I am in the office or at home, carrying a 400+ page book around is not my idea of a good time. Have you considered giving the e-book away for free when the person has purchased a hard copy?

    Keep up the good work. I’m a newbie Rubyist and loving it (mostly because of your work and the “Poignant Guide”).



  69. Christopher Pitt Said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 7:30 am

    Hi Peter,

    I stumbled on this page while researching for my second book. My first book (http://www.amazon.com/Pro-PHP-MVC-Chris-Pitt/dp/1430241640/) was published by Apress and I share many of the views that you have after working with them.

    It’s been nearly a year since the book was published and I have yet to see a single royalties statement. I have received 3 cheques from Apress (all of them devoid of any sales data), amounting to about $1000. I received no advance for the book.

    I have fought with the co-ordinating editor to give me ANY statistics regarding the book. A rough estimate of sales, gross profit, anything. I gave up after a while…

    My desire was to learn by writing it, and that’s what happened. Looking back on it now; I realize just how appallingly Apress has dealt with me. I’m sick just thinking about it.

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