There might be a book inside of you waiting to be written.
In this episode, we talk about tech publishing with Katel LeDû, CEO of A Book Apart.
Ben Halpern is co-founder and webmaster of DEV/Forem.
Christina Gorton is a Developer Advocate at Forem. She is a LinkedIn Instructor and technical writer.
Katel LeDû is the CEO of A Book Apart, where she helps passionate tech community members become successful authors. She’s also a personal and professional transformation coach, focused on helping folks cultivate creativity, develop social awareness in themselves and at work, and embody sensitivity and empathy as superpowers.
[00:00:00] KL: The books that have really been popular have had a strong presence of talking about how we work not just what we do and that feels like something that’s sort of going to keep expanding.
[00:00:23] BH: Welcome to DevDiscuss, the show where we cover the burning topics that impact all of our lives as developers. I’m Ben Halpern, a Co-Founder of Forem.
[00:00:31] CG: And I’m Christina Gorton, Developer Advocate at Forem. And today, we’re talking about tech publishing with Katel LeDû, CEO of A Book Apart. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:41] KL: I’m so delighted to be here. Thank you.
[00:00:43] BH: Katel, can you tell us a bit about your career background?
[00:00:46] KL: I’ve been in publishing almost all of my career, everything from magazine publishing back in the early aughts at National Geographic when sort of first started getting into the .com territory. So that was kind of an amazing start. I’ve worked in music publishing, so slightly different kinds of publishing. And most recently, and for the last eight years or so, I have been running things over at A Book Apart. So doing book publishing and that has by far been my favorite. Maybe I’m a little biased because that’s where I’m immersed right now, but it truly is kind of an amazing world where I get to work with authors and editors and people who just love to write and want to express themselves that way. And I get to publish something that they work for a long time on and really hard on. So it’s really cool.
[00:01:41] CG: You know, you’re the CEO of A Book Apart. Now can you tell us a little bit about that and what your role is like as the CEO?
[00:01:48] KL: I do everything from setting marketing strategy and customer service. I get in there every day. We’re a really small team and a small company, which I really love. I love sort of having my hands in everything, but I do things like that, the day-to-day things, operations, all the way to acquisitions, which is essentially vetting new proposals and finding authors to write about on topics that we’re really interested in. I do a little bit of everything. So I’ve often found myself a little bit not worried, but kind of insecure. I've been a generalist so much of my career, but it’s just someplace I really feel like I thrive and it has served me. And I feel like I’m able to help a lot of folks in a lot of different places instead of focusing on one thing. And that has just worked.
[00:02:38] BH: Can you fill us in about the product offering for A Book Apart if anyone’s not familiar with what your publishing ethos is and what you offer to whom?
[00:03:40] CG: I love that they’re short. I have several of them. They’re definitely something that you do feel like… I think sometimes in our world where we’re learning so much all the time, you get a book and you feel like it’s a chore, whereas like this, you can get through and get good information at the same time. So I definitely appreciate that.
[00:03:57] KL: Yeah. Thanks for saying that. It’s so funny. I mean, one of our books is literally called Just Enough Research. And that title feels like I wish we could call all of our books Just Enough X because it really does feel like we’re trying to give the reader just enough to really put it into use and to feel like they’ve learned something or gleaned something that’s really practical and important.
[00:04:21] CG: Since A Book Apart is a publisher that focuses on books about technical topics, do you yourself have a technical background?
[00:04:29] KL: Oh, my gosh, I don’t.
[00:04:31] CG: It’s all good.
[00:04:33] KL: It’s really good actually. I like talking about this part because before I came on board with A Book Apart, which was in 2013, I was working at National Geographic on the Digital Team. And I found myself in a place where I was having a lot of trouble just being in conversations with, you know, I was on the product side. I was on the content side and I was struggling in conversations with folks who were doing the design and the development. So I decided to just kind of like start learning about that. Right? I did the basic kind of HTML and CSS coding bootcamp. I just like did it and learning a bit of that language and understanding how things are put together, how they’re structured just really helped me understand those conversations a lot more. So I really value, again, knowing enough to have better conversations and I hope to come to those conversations as a person that appreciates all of the different disciplines that go into building something. So I think I’ve sort of encapsulated someone who knows enough to maybe ask questions that I wouldn’t have asked before. And also sometimes I get in over my head and that’s when I needed to say, “Take a step back,” and say like, “Okay, I need to ask someone who’s more adept at this.”
[00:05:55] CG: So what does the process look like from start to finish to make one of these books, be a book?
[00:06:03] KL: When we start working with an author, sort of when we sign the contract and we really kick things off, it’s about 13 months from the starting point of when the writer starts writing the book to when we go to launch. Now that 13 months is very ideal. As the last couple of years have shown us, a lot of things get in the way, life, global pandemic, all sorts of things. But we base an average writing time on four to five months. Now some authors will take longer than that. Some authors will take less time than that, but that’s roughly average. And then we go through a pretty intensive editorial process for four to five months. And then the rest of it is production, laying out the book, making sure all of the images are cleared and good to use. And we’ve got all of that in place, producing the e-books and going to the printer, which is a really exciting part of it and then all the way to launching the book and selling it to folks.
[00:07:06] BH: How do you come to understand how much to allocate to each one of these processes? Is it possible that you could say like, “Hey, we spend two times too much time on this portion of the process, which doesn’t really make the book that much better”? What does it mean for the book to get to a point of enough quality and what you want it to be? So someone not directly in the space, I can kind of imagine some of it, but I have no clue like how much you’re supposed to put in and get the result. Where does this come to be? Is it sort of baked in industry best practices or do you have to be more deliberate about your expectations?
[00:07:52] KL: I think if I was speaking for sort of all publishers in general, which I know I’m not, and I know that’s not what you’re asking, I would say it depends, and that answer stinks. But I will absolutely tell you from our experience over the last few years, we have really, really honed exactly what you’re talking about, what each phase really needs to be, what we would consider successful. The two things that we really feel are the most valuable investment, of course. The writing is sort of a separate entity from this, even though when we do kick off a project, we like to check in with the author, we like to just really make sure that they feel supported and not like they’re going off in a vacuum and writing something that may or may not end up being what we all expect. So we feel like that’s a really important piece of it. But the other two pieces are the editorial process. That’s why it’s so long. We do a lot of editing. We do a lot of editorial. The main reason for that and I think an important reason for us is that we want the editorial process not only to produce a quality book, but we also want it to help the author become a better writer. Right? And feel like they’re collaborating on this very creative and emotional thing that they’re doing and putting out into the world. We want them to feel really invested in that. That’s sort of why we put so much effort into the editorial process. We also want the editorial process to produce a book that is inclusive and that has research that has a diverse group of sources, and that takes time. I think anything that really is a creative output and an energetic and emotional output requires time. And we feel the same way about the marketing piece of it. One thing I can say is that most publishers do not spend a lot of time on marketing and we just feel like that is a very important part of it. So we have dedicated a good bit of resources to that.
[00:10:06] CG: I used to help edit at DigitalOcean for a little while and I worked with editors who were way better than me and I loved when they edited my stuff because I learned so much. I love that you all take the time for the authors that you have to like really show them how can you be a better writer as you go on and stuff. I think that’s extremely valuable and really cool.
[00:10:28] KL: Yeah. It’s also really fun to spend that much time. I really think that writing a book, it’s a feeling of birthing something into the world. You really put a lot of time and energy in it, if you have ever written anything. Truly, if you have ever written an email that is meaningful, that you want to make sure you get the point across, you know sort of what that can feel like and how attached you can get to this thing that you create. Yes, it’s words, yes, it’s potentially black and white, but it can be really meaningful. So we want to treat it that way.
[00:11:19] CG: How do you all choose the topics that you decide to publish?
[00:11:24] KL: So the topics that we’ve published, I think we’ve expanded sort of what we consider relevant in the tech industry and for folks who work on the web. When you look at our earlier books, there are a lot of programming languages, it’s content strategy. But you’ll see we started publishing books that talked about how we work as well as sort of like what we do, right? So we have a book on public speaking, a book about management. The criteria that we review proposals around is, is this a topic or subject matter that feels necessary, timely, like that it will be appealing and interesting to our audience? And does the approach and does the presentation of the thesis, the book idea, does it do so in a way that’s conscientious? And thinking about sort of like how we operate in, not just the industry, but in the systems that we operate in. So the main thing that we like our books to do is really help the reader solve a problem that they’re having or learn how to like navigate a challenge that they’re seeing.
[00:12:38] BH: What’s the process for ultimately deciding on who is the right person to write a certain book?
[00:12:45] KL: So we’ve been amazingly lucky. I would say most of the books that we publish are books that were proposed to us, pitches that we received. So it’s really incredible. We have sort of a consistent influx of proposals and it’s really amazing. However, we have gone out and talked to folks who are either writing on a particular topic or speaking on a particular topic and asked them if they’re interested in writing a book. It’s worked a few times, but as it probably won’t be surprising, it’s very different to decide you want to write a book versus being asked, like, “Do you feel like writing a book?” Usually the answer is no. It’s very understandable because it’s a big undertaking. So we sort of backed off of that a little bit, but I will say one of the things that we’ve really focused on especially in the last few years is really expanding what our authors look like up until a certain point in time. Our authors are all white. A lot of them are men. So we really wanted to change that. And in the last couple of years, we have very much in earnest actually started to deliver on that. It’s late in the game to do that, but it’s really, really important.
[00:14:06] CG: Have you seen that most of the people coming in are proposing or even that you’ve reached out to, are they people who have written something before? Or are they newer or a mix of both?
[00:14:15] KL: It used to be in the beginning the authors were really folks who were already doing a lot of writing. And now we work with new authors all the time, which is really exciting because that’s also something we really want to encourage is authors aren’t like specific people. You need an idea. You need a strong commitment to explaining that idea, to talking about that idea, and you need a little bit of organization. Okay, maybe a little more than a little organization, but that’s what we can help with. Right? It’s really having a point of view, having an idea and being committed to not just doing the work of writing, but also being open to the collaboration that comes along with editing and sharing your work with someone who’s going to critique it, inherent in that is a lot of stuff. Right? A lot of emotions.
[00:15:09] BH: Have you ever had to cut a relationship with an author because of quality or because of any other reasons? I could imagine in this space, people might occasionally get flaky and that might be a reason it doesn’t work out, but can you just kind of speak to that? I imagine that’s kind of like a tough part of the job is like deciding when to not follow through with a book that you’ve started.
[00:15:33] KL: It’s gut wrenching. It’s really hard for everyone involved. I think this is a really good question though because it is part of it. We don’t say yes to every proposal. When we do pass on a proposal, we do try to provide feedback. Even if it is like a brief, like this is just not a fit for us, and here’s why. In some cases, if the subject matter feels like a good fit and we’re just not clear on the approach or the scope, we’ll say that. We’re actually seeing a lot of folks like taking that feedback into consideration and resubmitting and we’d love when that happens. We’re really open to that. And in terms of needing to cut something off that’s sort of already underway, that has happened a couple of times. I’m grateful that it doesn’t happen all the time. And I think that’s really due to the way that proposal is the way that we talk to authors in the beginning and really try to get into a relationship with them where everyone really feels like they’re on the same page. That usually has happened because something isn’t working, right? It’s not necessarily that the writing is bad or there’s something wrong with the author. It’s really that like the scope or the approach that they pitched, it just isn’t working, and we’re not seeing it kind of coming to that fruition that we all hope. And at that point, we do have a conversation about it, right? We sort of say like, “What is going on here?” And sometimes it does mean like it won’t work and we have to take that book out of the queue. So the other sort of piece of this that you mentioned, the flakiness, I don’t think that anyone has necessarily just flaked out on writing a book. I really believe that I don’t think that that has happened, but people who want to trade a book, and it has felt like, “Yes, this is a fit.” And we’ve kind of started going down that path and it just hasn’t happened, it’s really truly been because like writing a book is a massive endeavor and something else is getting prioritized and that happens. I mean, again, it’s gut-wrenching and I think it’s disappointing for everyone involved because now we don’t get to publish that book, but that person also isn’t completing this thing that they decided they wanted to do. And again, we have a conversation and we hopefully come to a mutual agreement that it’s just not working.
[00:18:12] CG: Since we were just talking about sometimes people maybe have a pitch or something that’s not quite the right fit or maybe you’re not sure exactly how it’s going, do you all have any like exercises you do to help people kind of unlock that story so that you can progress?
[00:18:30] KL: I love this question so much because this is my favorite part of the process, I think. When we see something that really feels like, “Oh, there’s something here,” and either we’re not seeing it or the author is maybe not quite sure how to present it, there definitely are exercises we do to start with our proposal process starts with a form that we have available online. So we’ve crafted that over a long period of time to hopefully elicit exactly what you’re talking about. Right? It’s not just an outline. It’s not like you’re just submitting an elevator pitch and the title and that’s it. We’re really asking questions around, “Who is this for? What are the case studies or examples that you’re going to pull into this? What are the main concepts? What are the takeaways that you’re hoping the reader will have after they read the book?” And really thinking about it a little bit more holistically. We hope that that also serves as a bit of an organizational mechanism too. If we still need to do a little bit of work after that, we have outlining exercises that really tend to help kind of put more structure and more scaffolding around ideas that may feel a little bit not mushy but just not feel as strong really helps that come together.
[00:21:52] CG: Is there a general way you think is best to structure books and chapters about technical topics?
[00:21:57] KL: Yeah. I think over the years, we’ve landed on a general structure, again, a general scaffolding that works really well for presenting the kind of subject matter that we work with. But I will say that we do really also work hard to preserve an author’s voice. We really don’t want every book to sound the same. We don’t want the personality to be edited out of them. So we really do focus on that. We want the author’s perspective to come through with sort of how they sound in their tone and in their voice. But speaking to sort of how I might help someone kind of create a good outline or a really solid draft, this has actually come up a lot and our managing editor and I decided that we should write a book about how this all works. Right? So that is really exciting, and I’m so happy you asked that question because the first book coming out in 2022 will be a book all about how to write and publish a book whether you are self-publishing, whether you’re working with a publisher, kind of spans a big range of how you can do it.
[00:23:08] CG: Congratulations, by the way.
[00:23:09] KL: Thanks.
[00:23:11] BH: Where do you think career information, career publishing is going? Is there anything you’re thinking about as far as the future of the format, like longer books, shorter books, like how are people going to use books as part of their learning journey? How do you foresee any evolution? Any thoughts about where things are going?
[00:23:33] KL: Gosh! If you had asked me this when I first started with A Book Apart, I would have, I don’t know, probably given a very like unsurprising or like bland answer about, I don’t know, less people are going to be reading physical books, but that has just been shockingly not true as long as I’ve been in the game. Paperback and print is really still a huge contender. We sell a lot of those books. I think digital is obviously hugely useful, especially in a digital sort of industry. But I think print is just a really nice way to kind of like have especially a book that is short and sort of a kind of guide book that you might want or a reference book that you might want to keep handy. But aside from sort of like straight up format, I would love to actually produce more of our books as audio books. We have a few. I would love to see our books be really accessible to as many folks in sort of as many ways as possible. So I think that would be really cool. And then in terms of subject matter, the books that have really been popular have had a strong presence of talking about how we work, not just what we do, and that feels like something that’s sort of going to keep expanding.
[00:24:53] CG: So what is your biggest piece of advice for any of the developers listening who really want to get into publishing something?
[00:25:03] KL: I think without sounding cliché, I mean, really, truly do it, raise your hand. If you want to be published somewhere specific, whether it’s an online magazine or a book publisher, look for their submission forms. Most publishing companies and magazines have instructions right on their website about like what they’re looking for and how to do it. So I highly recommend just looking for those and putting your hat in the ring. I also think another really helpful thing is to develop a writing practice. It doesn’t have to look super intense, just something that allows you to write on a regular basis that feels motivating to you, that’s inspiring to you that you want to come back to whether it’s journaling, whether it’s morning pages, whether it’s writing yourself a note every single day or once a week, just kind of having something that feels like a practice that is ongoing.
[00:26:02] BH: Thank you so much for coming on.
[00:26:04] KL: Thank you so much. This is really fun.
[00:26:15] BH: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Jess Lee, Peter Frank, and Saron Yitbarek. Our theme song is by Slow Biz. If you have any questions or comments, email [email protected] and make sure to join us for our DevDiscuss Twitter chats every Tuesday at 9:00 PM US Eastern Time. Or if you want to start your own discussion, write a post on DEV using the #discuss. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.