Friday, October 9, 2009

Amateur tools for professional works

Tyler (one of my co-authors on DGL) sent this link to me this week and it made me realize that I had some things to say as well.

First off, I agree 100% with Peter's assessment of the Royalty Statement. It reads like a tax form and it took me several passes to really figure out what was going on. The previous statements make a lot more sense. I can't fathom why they would want to make the statements more difficult to read, but who knows. It seems like we've really had to push hard to get any kind of numbers out of APress, almost like they're trying to hide things from us. So far Tyler and Marius haven't received their statements, even though it's more than a week since the statement should have arrived according to the contracts.

My second major complaint about the process was that we had to use Word to write the book (OpenOffice, in my case). At the time that we were negotiating with APress on the book, we were probably 60% done with it already, but it was written in LaTeX. Some of the other publishers that we were talking to either said that LaTeX was no problem or that they had previously helped people translate work from LaTeX. This was actually our main concern at the time, but we had such a positive recommendation on APress from someone else that we decided that this wasn't such a big deal. In hindsight, it was huge. LaTeX is designed to write large, structured documents and make it easy for the writer to do so. Word is not, and it would be extremely difficult for someone to convince me of this after our experience here.

Word, as a WYSIWYG editor, forces me to not only be a writer, but to be a typesetter and layout artist. That's fine if you want to write a one or two page letter, but for a 2-300 page book it was painful. Styles do little to alleviate the pain. Cross-referencing and indexing are also trivial with LaTeX, but not so simple in Word (or OO). Another thing that I loved about LaTeX that I missed in Word/OO was that LaTeX has a listings package that syntax highlights code for you. We just defined Scala's keywords and syntax in the LaTeX preamble and all of our listings looked very nice. This wasn't supported by APress' style sheets, and even if it was I don't know of any software that would do this for you. I don't think there's any way for me to adequately explain my frustration with using the wrong tool for the job here.

Related to this is APress' stylistic decision to not use numbered sections or page numbers in references. Instead, it was decided that when we need to reference a section, we should simply use the chapter or section name. This was really hard for me to swallow, especially since the LaTeX version does section and page numbered references just about automatically. That means that whenever we would add a listing or move an existing one, we had to hand-renumber them. It also means that text reads like:

Additionally, we use Lift's binding mechanism (see the "Binding Values in Snippets" Section)

instead of

Additionally, we use Lift’s binding mechanism (Section 3.11.1)...

Oh, and in the LaTeX PDF, those references are hyperlinks to take you directly to the right place. No such luck in DocWorld.

My third complaint is that there was little downstream information flow from APress in terms of editorial decisions. We found out after the fact that the title was changed from "Exploring Lift" to "The Definitive Guide to Lift". We also found out when we were nearing completion that there would be no index at the back of the book, something that I find incomprehensible for a tech book (this is also something that's trivial to do with LaTeX). Finally, as we neared the publishing date we were told that the appendices would no longer fit in the print version. The appendices are well referenced from the text so this was not a trivial change to the book. In the end we compromised by making all of the appendices available for free here:

There was supposed to be a page at the back of the book explaining that due to printing limitations the appendices had to be placed online, and giving that link, but somehow that page never made it into the book. I'll take some blame on that for not properly proofing the final draft, but it was embarrassing and frustrating when the book came out and most of the questions on the mailing list were "Where are the appendices?"

In the end it was a learning experience, just like it was for Peter. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was a bad experience, as it was definitely a pleasure (for me, at least) to work with the copy editors and other people in the production process at APress. I think that mostly I hope that this post will serve others who are looking to write books that they need to really carefully consider all of the aspects of what goes into writing a book, and what to look out for. I think I would have been happier with the process if I felt like there were less surprises. I also think that if I have to write another book I won't use Word. I think it would be far simpler to fake the same look using LaTeX class and style files than to go through that headache again.

One final note. Unlike Peter, we already had our work licensed under the Creative Commons before we signed on with APress. Because of that, I still maintain the open source version of the book here:

My complaints here notwithstanding, the APress version is a good book, and if you want to get started in Lift please check it out.