Discover more from The Fat Software Engineer
Building a Second Income Stream by Writing a Book
Spoiler: It’s quite possibly the hardest way to build a passive income stream.
Having multiple income streams is something I have mentioned in my plan to get to £2,000,000 invested post and I believe is a great strategy to help achieve Fat FIRE. The king of all income streams is a passive one. Imagine making money whilst you sleep?!
In this post I will discuss quite an obscure income stream that I have built; writing a book. I intend to be as transparent as I possibly can be without doxxing myself and will discuss:
How I got approached to write a book.
Why I agreed to do it.
The process of writing a book.
(The bit you’re all reading for) How much money I am currently making from the book and hope to make in the future.
Would I do it again?
My top tips for you if you want to write a book too.
How I got approached to write a book
I have always enjoyed writing and have maintained various personal blogs for years. I have done the classic Software Engineer thing and bounced between various platforms and self hosted solutions. Over the years I have had blogs on Blogger, dev.to, Medium and Wordpress; not forgetting this one that you are now reading on Substack. I wish I had been consistent with this over the years and just stayed in one place. It would have made it possible to track my own technical growth and potentially actually build regular readership. Had I known a little more about SEO, I would have done this.
I digress. Over the years, some of my posts have been popular. Very occasionally they would be featured on Hacker News or be in the first couple of search results on Google. There is no “trick” to this and whenever I have tried to replicate it I have failed. You just have to write interesting things, share them with potentially interested networks and people and hope it catches their interest. There is some evidence that posting at certain times can help you grab that virality factor, but this is such common knowledge you are going to see an influx of posts at this time, I therefore recommend just posting whenever suits you.
One of my Hacker News posts caught a good amount of attention. Not long after (probably a couple of days) I got a message from someone from at a well known technical book publisher asking if I’d be interested in writing a book. I agreed to a non-committal phone call but truthfully I was pessimistic. After doing some research I discovered that this publisher had a very mixed reception from previous authors and customers. I did find some authors claiming to have had a good experience but generally if you read Amazon reviews and look around on Reddit; the general consensus is that the quality can be low and the content can be skin deep.
I was fortunate to have a friend who had just had a book published with them and could have an open chat about it. He shared that if you do want to publish a high-quality book with them, you need to be the gatekeeper of that quality. They are more interested in ensuring you meet deadlines. This was also my experience.
Let’s get writing
So far I haven’t really said anything positive about this publisher, so it might surprise you to know that I agreed to write the book. I ultimately did it for the following reasons:
I have always wanted to write a book. This seemed like a good opportunity to do it and I try and follow a “default to yes” mantra when it comes to my career.
I liked the deadline-driven approach. It meant I would need to be accountable to someone else during the process and I work well like this.
Even if the books was only semi-successful, it would help grow my personal brand. I figured this might help me to command a higher salary in future job negotiations. I also figured if the book was well received, then I might be able to get paid public speaking engagements which could be another stream of income.
It would be another income stream in it’s own right. My goal is to gain financial independence and up until this point I was heavily dependent on my full time job. Layoffs in big tech are well reported and my days could be numbered. Diversifying my income stream made sense to me (and still does).
I did share my concerns with the publisher’s representative and due to this I think I managed to negotiate a fairly good commission percentage. We agreed to $1500 as an advance and then a royalty percentage of between 15% and 20% of net sales, depending on how many copies of my book were sold. They assured me that they think it would sell well but were not very forthcoming of sharing evidence for this.
I agreed to write the book in mid 2022. The first thing I had to do was write a book outline.
It seemed strange to me at the time, but as part of the outline I had to tell them how many pages each chapter would have. As a first time author I had no idea what to write here. The funniest thing to me was they negotiated on this point. “For Chapter 3 you have said it will be 40 pages, can it be 50?”. I just agreed as honestly I had no idea.
Once they were happy with the book outline, it had to be reviewed by technical reviewers. Strangely, it was up to me to find these technical reviews too, so I just asked friends of mine. I would rather the publisher had found these reviewers as it would mean that I would likely receive more critical feedback which was important to me as I really did want to put my name on something high quality. Also, they do not pay the reviewers (so I did).
Once my outline was approved, I started working on the first chapter. Once it was complete I had a few rounds of back and forth with the editor who gave helpful feedback truthfully. They did not know the subject area but as the book went on they actually had tried to learn from my book and give me feedback on both content and grammar. This was a really positive experience generally and I looked forward to my editor’s reviews.
After she was happy, my chapter would be sent to my technical reviewers and I would start the next chapter. Half way through chapter 2, I would receive chapter 1 back with technical feedback suggestions. In my naivety I had not considered having to work on multiple chapters at once when I committed to a deadline. This definitely put the pressure on a little bit and did mean I had to start working early in the morning before work, late in the evening after work and then at the weekends to keep roughly in line with their deadlines (I did miss a few, they were flexible within a few days as long as I could show some progress).
This whole process took around a year. Once my book was in final draft, I was sent a final version to review and I was asked to re-draw some of my diagrams to make sure they were in line with the publisher’s style. Finally it was sent to the technical reviewers for review and sent back to me for one final sign off. Quite literally a few days layer it was available for purchase on Amazon globally as well as the publisher’s website, cool!
If you’ve got this far and are enjoying the post, please do subscribe to be the first to hear what this fat software engineer has to say (plus it really helps me out).
Let’s talk money
The book has been available for around 90 days so far and has generated around £6,000 worth of sales. It’s hard to know exactly how many copies of the book this is exactly, since the numbers I get sent don’t seem wildly accurate and I have limited visibility. For example, my book is available on Apple Books, but in my royalty statement they don’t include this platform. Since I receive ~15% of this amount, so far in royalties I have earnt ~$1100. However, I need to earn $1500 to “pay back” my advance so am yet to receive anything more than my advance. I am hopeful that in a couple of months this might lead to a passive income of $100-$200 per month for a while. The topic of the book should remain relevant for a long time, but as with all things in the tech world I imagine someone will write a newer book on the same topic in the not so distant future or perhaps some of the technologies mentioned will update substantially and my book will no longer be up to date.
Beyond a couple of LinkedIn posts and posting on Twitter, the publisher did not really support me much with marketing. This was a little disappointing but also my fault; I think if I was to write a book again I would spend more time looking at how the publisher has marketed previous books and ask them to commit to a certain amount of marketing dollars. I wanted to promote my book on Twitter through ads since that is where the audience for my book is, but they said I’d need to pay for this.
So, would I write a book again? No I don’t think so. I have been approached by a more respected publisher since and the economics are similar (if not slightly worst) but they do spend a bit more on marketing. However, I think I could spend my free time in the next year doing more to build a passive stream of income that is hopefully more profitable than this, and probably with less effort. One option I might consider is self-publishing, but this blog is more than enough for me for now and scratches my writing itch.
If you are a first time author I think I would recommend you do it. Writing a book has opened the doors for me that I hoped it would. I have gained almost 3000 followers on Twitter since publishing the book from people asking me questions and general well-wishers. I have already used this audience to build another income stream (that I will discuss in a later post) and I can use it again if I want to sell another product. I also just really enjoy being part of a relevant and highly engaged community. Whilst I’m on that point; for all its warts, tech Twitter, in my opinion, is a generally welcoming and lovely place. I have received so much support and kind words from other folks.
As well as the Twitter followers, I have been invited onto a couple of podcasts and to speak at a conference (unpaid). This in turn should grow my social media following more (if I have the confidence to do it, so far I have been non-comital but trying to work towards a yes) and it means the fly-wheel should keep on turning.
When I was in university, I always admired those who wrote technical books. To me, it meant you must be an expert in the field and I always respected those who were published. Becoming an author has shattered that illusion for me a bit which is sad. The barrier to entry to being an author is pretty low now and the quality isn’t always there. For some publishers it’s more important to get a book out quickly which will sell due to being in vogue. I predict over the next 6 months you’ll start to see a slew of “ChatGPT and $insert_your_favourite_language_here” books of varying quality.
I know this post comes off as negative, but I am proud of the book I wrote. It takes a lot of commitment and great time management. I have a lot of respect for the writing process and respect anyone who manages to get a book to the published state. Furthermore, I did earn some extra cash outside of my full time job which will help me on my path to fat FIRE. Finally, it did help me build another income stream as well as build my personal brand which I may be able to use to command a higher salary in the future (although for now this remains untested).
If you have ever wanted to write a book, give it a go. Just be sure you have 10+ hours a week for a year that you can dedicate to it. If you are not as lucky as I was to get a publisher to reach out, most of the popular technical publishers are open to potential authors reaching out to them, just take a look on their websites.
My top tips before reaching out to publishers or committing to write a book would be:
Blog first. Try and stick to a schedule of publishing a high quality blog post every week for 2 months. This is very similar to what writing a book will be like and will also give you a portfolio of work to share with the publishers you approach. This may help you find topics that interest you.
If you do get interest from a publisher, don’t be afraid to negotiate the royalty percentage and advance a little. From reading various blog posts around the web, it seems that some authors got much better deals than me, and some quite considerably worst. Some of this will depend on how much they want your title and you as an author. As a first time author you probably don’t have that much leverage. However, I do believe you have some and I did negotiate up to 15-20% royalty from a starting point of 10%.
Research the publishers other books and how they marketed them. What is their quality like? What is their reputation like with buyers and other authors? Feel free to reach out to a couple of authors on Linkedin who have published using that publisher; I found most were welcoming and open to having a conversation. You can also feel free to leave questions below this post and I’d love to help.
Ensure you care enough about the topic to obsess about it for a year. As well as writing the book, you’re going to have to read other books on the topic as source material and to ensure you understand the space.
Try and build an audience whilst you write. Twitter is great for this. Engage with the “famous” folks in your field and just generally be helpful. Follow some of the relevant hashtags for your books topic and answer beginner’s questions.
Note that your job doesn’t end when the book is published; you’ll likely be expected to be involved with marketing somewhat. This might be giving away a few free copies on Linkedin, doing some interviews and podcasts. Your books success will be directly proportional to how much you are willing to do here, so don’t underestimate its importance.