Traditional Publishing — Blog Post #1
Authors have more options to get published than they used to. In the past, an author had to convince a publisher to take their work and physically print it. This made the publishers the gatekeepers controlling what was published. While that is no longer the case, and many authors are self-publishing, I think there remains a romantic vision, an urban legend if you will, of what traditional publishing was like. My first book project was published by a traditional publisher, and other than not having an agent, I think what I experienced was typical of what published authors had to deal with in the ‘good old days.’ I think more of today’s authors would be less infatuated with what they think publishing used to be if they knew more about what really went on.
Back in 1995, I was working as a Sybase Database Administrator. My previous work had been designing antennas for spacecraft, but I was concerned that the defense industry was not growing and I had become tired of the security required. Several years before I had decided I needed to make some decisions about my career path. I had been trying to organize all our slides (yes, physical slides, Kodachrome) by setting up categories and keywords to describe what was in each photo. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was trying to build a data model which would be the basis of a database. As part of my looking into career options, I found a magazine that covered database technologies. In one of the articles they said that anyone that knew Sybase, a relational database software package, was highly employable.
I liked what I read in the magazine about relational databases. I suited my desire to organize and control and it sounded like a more secure career path. My employer at the time has just purchased a set of Sun workstations for my group and I was asked to help select software for the new systems. I looked at several database packages. I’ll never forget how arrogant the Oracle salesperson was. I preferred the entire sales experience with Sybase, and at the time, it was the new kid on the block. My employer purchased several software packages, including Sybase, and training was included. I chose to take the Database Administrator classes and enjoyed them. I was setting up the Sybase system at work and decided it was time to make the career change.
I was growing frustrated with the security restrictions at work and I felt the defense industry was going to be in a downturn for a long time. I wanted to be a Database Administrator, also known as a DBA, full time. I also knew that I did not have a lot of experience. I studied the Sybase manuals and the materials from the training classes and started interviewing. I was surprised to find that my lack of experience wasn’t what most of the interviewers commented on. They were surprised that anyone actually wanted to be a DBA. I got a job as a DBA at, of all places, Sybase. At the time, they needed more DBAs for their own internal operations and they couldn’t find people that actually wanted the job. I am not making this up. I was hired, and a wild fifteen-month adventure began. I got the experience I needed supporting multiple critical databases as well as a healthy dose of corporate drama.
I was working as a DBA at a commercial company. Because I had been working in the defense industry, where you have cost-plus contracts and no real competition, I was concerned that I didn’t have much credibility in the commercial world, where there was lots of competition and the marketplace was harsh. I was learning as fast as I could, and at the time, reading technical books was the best resource available. Remember, this was 1995, you could not ‘google’ database administration, Google didn’t exist! It was clear to me that being an author of a technical book was the best way to quickly establish yourself as someone that was experienced. I hadn’t really considered writing a book myself because I wasn’t experienced, but fate was going to change all that.
I had been working full time as a DBA at Sybase when an email arrived (we did have email) from a major publisher. They wanted to publish a set of books all about Sybase. I wanted to work at Sybase to get as much experience as possible, but I didn’t realize that it was also the first place a publisher would look for authors. The email was pretty simple, all it said was that they were looking for authors and there was to be a meeting in a few weeks. I was sure I wasn’t qualified, but, fatefully, I went to the meeting anyway. The meeting room was small and packed with people I didn’t know. Every one of them was a technical writer at Sybase, except for me. I was the only person there that had actually done the DBA job. The technical writers all talked confidently about what great writers they were.
The publisher handed out a list of what they wanted from potential authors: a table of contents and a sample chapter. I had no clue what to do, but, on the other hand, I knew what I wanted to write. It was simple, I wanted to write about all the issues I was seeing in my DBA work, all the issues that I had to deal with every day. The publisher had very definite dates by which we had to send in our proposals. I had seen many database books in the few years that I had been doing DBA work so I knew what was typically published on the topic. I had no trouble layout a list of chapters, and I started writing my sample chapter. It took a lot of time, but it didn’t seem that hard to generate material. I knew I was less experienced than most DBAs, and the meeting had shown me the world was awash in technical writers, but what did I have to lose? If nothing else, the process forced me to organize my thoughts, which helped me on the job.
I was very aware of the publisher’s deadlines and I got my chapter done a few days ahead of time. I remember leaving work one day, crossing the railroad tracks to take my printouts to FedEx to get them to the publisher on the east coast the next day. I was excited that I was trying to get published and I wasn’t sure what might happen next. I waited, and checked my email a lot.