So You Want to Write a Book

After a day when the phone rang every thirty minutes with some new calamity demanding your attention, you might have gazed out the window and thought: Sheesh, I could write a book!

Well, could you? Do you have the time, the skills, the expertise, the connections? If you've ever thought of hanging out a shingle and being your own boss as a consultant, nothing beats a book to establish credibility with clients. Ahhh, sweet dreams of independence! What does it take to become the next Tom Peters or Peter Drucker?

Robert J. Thierauf knows. The professor emeritus of information systems at Xavier University in Cincinnati is the author of 31 books about business and IT. We're not sure how he finds any, but in his spare time Thierauf is a regional director of the 7,000-member Rolls Royce Owners Club. We spoke to him about his work just before his departure for a Rolls Royce rally in Cleveland.

CIO: Where do ideas for an IT book come from?

Thierauf: Ideas come from the current literature and from talking to experts in the field. I go to different conventions, meetings and so forth. But my real push for new ideas comes from the literature. I go through 200 computer-related magazines every month. I try to get a feel for what is going on in the field, the trends in terms of new ideas, new types of systems. Then I create research files and break them down into different categories. But I won't write about a topic area that I have no interest in. I write about things that really excite me, get me going.

How long does it typically take for one of your ideas to get into print?

In late August 1999 I sent my publisher my 32nd book proposal -- a detailed preface indicating the need for the book plus a 15-page outline. They gave me the contract. The book's due at the publisher June 1, 2000. It takes me about one year to put everything together and then about half a year for it to get into print. That's my particular time frame for a typical book in the fast-changing computer field.

Do you write daily?

I normally write in the morning for two and a half to three hours and then do errands, work out at the YMCA and stop by at the university. Sometimes I write in the evening if I'm running behind. I have no research staff because I know exactly what I want, and therefore I can do it faster than if I try to tell somebody else how to do it for me. I research mostly by telephone and write everything on yellow pads. I type it myself because my handwriting has gotten so bad even I can't read it sometimes. Also, typing allows me to do an extra revision. I'll say, "Gee, that wasn't too clear, let me go back and do this and that."

How do you manage the time to write all those books?

I don't use e-mail.

When writing, do you have a specific audience in mind?

I write for the practitioner. All the research I do is from the standpoint of the practitioner, though there is some underlying theory. Practitioners are people with a problem. They've heard about some new technology -- for example, OLAP or knowledge management systems -- and want to know more about it before they start a project for their organization.

When they pick up one of my books they'll find the first part focuses on theory, while the second part describes applications in the typical areas of strategic planning, marketing, manufacturing, finance accounting and humman resources. A person in marketing will probably read the chapter on marketing first. Then he or she may go back and read other chapters. There's usually a chapter on the historical development of the particular system too.

What advice would you give to a beginner who's about to start the writing process?

Start with research files. You can do research on the internet, but you really need to sit down and read article after article to get a good feel for what's going on. When I begin writing I have everything already done in terms of research.

Let's move to the economic side, marketing and persuading a publisher to print a book. If I'm thinking of striking out on my own as a writer, what should I do first?

If you're a brand-new author, you'll have to go beyond simply writing a couple of sample chapters for the publisher. You will still write and send the chapters. But then they'll have sample readers look at them, and those people won't like this, and they won't like that, and the publisher will tell you they're not going to pursue the project because of a particular problem with your manuscript. I recommend going to just one publisher first, getting some feedback immediately and then rethinking the whole approach. Don't bother sending out a whole bunch of stuff to different publishers.

How should I choose that one publisher?

Suppose you are looking into data warehousing. There are probably already 30 books written on the different facets of data warehousing. Choose a publisher that is already publishing in that area. And, of course, you've got to show how your book is better than the ones out there because of things you've done differently. But the real problem isn't choosing a publishing house, it's the editors. A bad editor will tell you to make changes based on the sample readers' feedback, but if one reader suggests one thing and another says the complete opposite, what can you do? The editor has to be firm. And a good editor knows the field thoroughly.

What kind of financial benefits can a beginner expect for a first or second book?

In the past I've gotten advances of about $3,000, but there have been so many mergers among publishers that they don't have to compete against one another for writers as much, so advances may be lower. But I've made more than half a million dollars from my books over the years. My book entitled Decision Making Through Operations Research was first published in 1970. Today the field originally called operations research is called "management science." That book went through several editions and into many languages and has sold roughly 100,000 copies. Today there are many titles out, and so much competition that the chances of selling that many are really about zero. So you're talking maybe selling up to 10,000 copies these days. Book sales have really dropped off badly for everyone.

If you had to give a single bit of advice to someone who was hoping to write his or her first business text, what would that be?

Always start with materials you know best and are easiest for you. Develop a very detailed outline and start with the easiest chapters first. When people start on the most difficult things, they often get discouraged.

This story, "So You Want to Write a Book" was originally published by CIO.

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