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Jeffry Houser won't be contributing to any Flex 4 books No matter what Amazon.com thinks

The Setup

A "Better than average" associate of mine approached me about contributing a chapter to a Flex book he was cowriting. My chapter was to focus on building Flex Components; something I do a lot of with my company, Flextras. It seemed like a good fit, so I agreed.

Eventually, talks with the publisher broke down. While I feel bad about leaving my friend in the lurch I'm not quite sure if this is my fault. This is my take on the situation because I want to get it out of my system.

The Build Up

First, I was approached last December about this opportunity. I've turned down Flex book authorship agreements before; but since this was just a single chapter the amount of effort was significantly lower. I was willing to sign on. I was put in touch with the publisher contact in early January and I requested a contract. They asked for chapter delivery in early February.

Can you please send me a contract?

I always ask two questions when asked to provide content to someone else with regards to such situations. The first is "What about ownership?" It is my long term goal, whether good or bad, to own as much of me as possible.

The second is "What is my compensation?" I always ask about compensation, never how much I get paid. Compensation can come in many forms, and sometimes recognition or exposure can take place of cash. In this case, I think the chapter authorship would have been a great way for me to promote my business of selling Flex Components.

The compensation offered was a flat fee, $400. My friend thought the rights of my contribution would revert to him and his main co-author. I was uncomfortable with that, but said I would have to see the final contract wording.

I waited for the contract from the publisher. They contacted me in the final days of January to extend the chapter delivery to the middle of February and to let me know that the contract was on the way.

I waited some more. In late February they contacted me to ask where my contribution was. I told them I was still waiting for the contract delivery before I would put the writing into my schedule. They said they would get back to me; and they did.

I finally got the contract the week before I left for the 360|Flex conference. As a sponsor and a presenter I had too much on my plate to even look at it; but I prioritized it for the day I got back from 360|Flex.

I decided that they had kept me waiting for 2 months; I could keep them waiting for two weeks. Perhaps that was my failure.

What does this contract really mean?

The day I got back from the conference, I reviewed the contract and sent them a list of questions and concerns. The contract was a work made for hire agreement; and I had to sign away all rights to the content. This was not unexpected on my point, but was a bit contradictory with what my friend had led me to believe. It may be possible that I'd be signing my rights to the publisher who would then be signing them over to the two main authors.

I wanted to clarify some things about the work made for hire and derivative works. There are only so many ways for a single person to regurgitate the same content. I, in theory, make money off selling Flex components and my primary means of promotion is through writing and presenting about how to create components. I needed to protect my right to continue to do that.

The chapter content could easily be considered a derivative work of screencasts I created with The Flex Show; or presentations I have given. I needed to protect my rights to still present and distribute said content. I also needed to protect my right to create future screencasts or presentations or articles on the same topics without them being considered infringement. I consider many of those things to be complimentary and non competing, but they are certainly derivative. I wanted the contract to clarify my ability to do that.

I also asked for some additional compensation, such as a listing in the "About the Author" page of the book. I also wanted to restrict the use of my name in promoting future editions of the book. If someone were to rip out, or re-write, my contribution at some future point I didn't want my name still attached to it.

I also asked for rights to distribute my chapter contribution digitally. I didn't expect that to fly; but wanted to ask anyway. I'd have loved to offer up the chapter to the readers of DotComIt's newsletter.

I also asked that, if the book were to ever go out of print, that the chapter rights would revert back to me. I wasn't sure this would fly, but I did negotiate such rights regarding my ColdFusion books.

I'm still Playing the Waiting Game

I waited two weeks. The publisher contacted me again, this time to ask for the status on my contribution. I said the contract issues were not settled and I was waiting on them. I re-iterated some of my concerns.

Silence!

I wait another month with no word before contacting them asking for status. They told me they no longer have need of the chapter. I asked why. But given their communication thus far, I am not expecting to hear anything back.

I feel slightly bad to have "ditched out" on my friends. The publisher put no effort into bringing me on board; so when the ball landed in my court I delayed due to other pressing issues. That was my reaction, which probably didn't help things along. But, all in all I was not the hold up.

Would you buy a book because it has my name on it?

I decided, in this post, not to make mention of the book or the two main authors. But, if you search on Amazon for my name; I'm apparently listed as an author. I have a slight problem with the publisher using my name to falsely promote their book. I'm pretty sure I am not the only contributing author beyond the two main authors; so why my name? Could it be because I'm moderately well known in The Flex Developer Community as the producer of The Flex Show perhaps?

Will my name sell books? I doubt it. If so, will it harm my personal brand if people buy a book with my name on it only to discover I had no contribution in the book? I'm not sure on that one...

Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
Raymond Camden's Gravatar In my opinion, you did everything absolutely correctly. As an author myself, I can more than understand your fears and I think you went out of your way to make them clear to the publisher. That they did not reply quick enough was unfortunate, but nor your fault.

That being said, I'd be pretty ticked if my name were listed as a contributor on Amazon. You were patient with the contract stuff, but this is something I'd say you should be a bit more insistent on. I'd email them on Monday and ask for a resolution by Wednesday, Friday at the latest. If they do not reply, you can contact a lawyer, and you can also use the 'Product Reviews' area to make it known.
# Posted By Raymond Camden | 4/10/10 5:44 PM
Jeffry Houser's Gravatar Ray,

Thanks for taking a read; I appreciate the thoughts. I think you bring up a good point regarding use of my name.

I'll contact the publisher and see where that goes.
# Posted By Jeffry Houser | 4/10/10 6:04 PM
Joeflash's Gravatar I'm sorry you're having so many troubles with your current book project. I had the good fortune to receive some coaching on the tech publishing industry before I got involved, and connected with a great agent who has been really good at clearing up any misunderstandings between myself and my publishers, and going to bat for me when things were dragging.

Part of the problem you are describing is Amazon and its book listing process. If the book is in a series, Amazon will assume, until they are told otherwise by the publisher, that the next book in the series will have the same authors, and even then, Amazon takes their sweet time in correcting any errors. For the longest time, up until a few weeks after the Professional Flex 3 book launch, Amazon still had the wrong authors listed and the wrong cover.

The other thing to consider, and this came as a shock to me as first, is that the publishing industry does certain things in a way that may not be according to the standard common sense rules of business. I've been told that a certain amount of patience and faith is a requisite for contract negotiations with publishers. In addition, the publishing industry, contrary to popular opinion, is really struggling, teetering on the edge of total financial collapse: the margins are incredibly low and the staff scarce. Maybe your editor wasn't doing their job, but maybe they had too many other books and authors to take care of and your requests fell through the cracks. I'm not condoning the experience you had with your publisher, but I understand it, and I've been through similar situations. My feeling is that, if you had an agent that was on the ball, they would have contacted the appropriate personnel within the publishing company and got that sorted out.

Don't give up on tech publishing, Jeffry. True, the money is not great, but no one becomes a writer nowadays for the money: it's about sharing what you know, and reaping the rewards from being a leader in that community. Tech publishing can be incredibly rewarding if you have the right co-authors, the right agent and the right publisher.
# Posted By Joeflash | 4/10/10 6:11 PM
Jeffry Houser's Gravatar Joe,

Thanks for your thoughts. You may not know, but this is not my first book project. I wrote three ColdFusion books in the CF5 / CFMX timeframe, close to 10 years ago now.

By many accounts, I was pretty good at it. My acquisitions editor actually told me that if he was the emperor; he would use me as the base for his clones. ( This was before anyone knew the name of Jango Fett ).

Anyway, I haven't written in a book since that time, so there is no way Amazon.com got my name on the new book as part of a series.

Unfortunately, despite your urgings, I think I have given up on the tech publishing industry. The publishing industry has not recovered from the 'dive' it took after the dot com bombs; and they aren't quite sure how to recover to their former glory.

Programmers don't buy books to learn languages anymore. They plow through the documentation, then turn to Google or StackOverflow.

On paper I'm the perfect person to write a Flex book. When the publishers came knocking I floored most of them by asking questions like:

"What is your estimated market for the book?"
"What do you think your penetration of that market is going to be?"
"How is this book going to be different than the other books coming out?"

I received a lot of blank looks as people told me that O'Reilly had a good selling Flex book. I didn't want to sign up for a copycat book at the time. My impression is that they are scrambling around with no real direction or idea how to reach their audiences.

Since am not actively pursuing writing engagements, I'm not sure what an agent would offer me (or I them). But, I appreciate your offer on twitter to make the introduction.

I have turned my "writing" energy attention to other pursuits, such as The Flex Show and The Flextras Friday Lunch. Although I wouldn't consider The Flex Show a profitable venture; I have made more dollars with it than all three ColdFusion books combined.

The 'good karma' I get from podcasting is more than I ever got from writing books.

I have considered self publishing. I estimate that moderate sales will net me more profit than large sales through a major publisher. But, as I said my creative energies are directed towards other things at the moment, so I don't forsee myself self publishing anything in the near term.

Thanks for taking a look and I appreciate the thoughts.
# Posted By Jeffry Houser | 4/10/10 6:40 PM
Joeflash's Gravatar You raise some interesting points there; I've been considering the state of the tech industry and where it's going myself, although I'm not quite ready to give up on the printed word just yet.
# Posted By Joeflash | 4/10/10 9:10 PM
David's Gravatar Jeff. You and I have talked about this in the past. IMHO, your over concern for the 'derivative' question, in general, should rule you out of any such considerations.

I don't think writing about how to create components would ever be used to stop you from doing that work, legally or ethically. The same with you presentations. Who is really going to go through the trouble to bring you to court over that. And for what gain?

Still, as we've discussed before, it's a concern for you, and I just don't think these kinds of engagements are for you.

As fir the timelines. They took their time, you can take yours. If the authors aren't managing their timelines, you don't need to do it for them.

Cheers
# Posted By David | 4/10/10 10:04 PM
Tariq Ahmed's Gravatar Ya... The book industry is an odd one. Some publishers have their act together - but most don't. I'm glad I've been able to work with Manning Books, those guys are super organized and really work with their authors.
# Posted By Tariq Ahmed | 4/10/10 10:09 PM
Jeffry Houser's Gravatar @Joe,

I still have a strong belief that there is value in the printed word. For going from nothing to competent the book format gives a superior experience. Google Searches / Blogs and/or StackOverflow are really for filling in the small gaps in your knowledge. Also, sometimes a book is a lot nicer than being at the computer or a having a digital "version" of the book.

When I wrote my CF books; 20K units was considered the break even point. Today, 5K is considered a raging success.

That said, the publishing industry is definitely evolving. I haven't the foggiest idea how things will play out. I'm sure books will be here for a long time; but they may turn into a premium / collectors option [like Vinyl records?].

@David, I'm infamous for covering my legal bases. These days people sue over crazy things. If I create a series of screencasts using a similar content to what I had described in the book chapter; sold 1,000 USB drives of this content to my Flex Show audience for $50 a pop; there will be a chance that I will have reached larger distribution and made more profit than the print book. Would that not be a reason to sue; especially if they can claim they own the screencasts since they are derivative works?

If the publisher truly had no care about me doing such things, it should have been no problem for them to add in a few sentences to the contract clarifying things. I honestly don't know if that was a point of contention or not; as they never responded to my requests / queries.

@Tariq
I'm glad to hear that someone has their act together in the publishing industry.

One other item to add for those listening. One of the authors contacted me off blog. He said he completely understood the situation and supports my view point. I'm very happy not to have inadvertently burned a bridge.
# Posted By Jeffry Houser | 4/10/10 11:19 PM
David's Gravatar I agree with your point Jeff - and they should have been willing to remove the language you indicated, or specify exemptions. It smack of "my way or the highway", which is unusual when you're *asking* for contributors! The reality is, however, their (the publishers) lawyers don't let those changes happen and it gets into a logjam.

I'm simply suggesting that you should refuse to engage in these matters as they regularly yield the same results. I don't think it's worth the energy you put into it. IMHO.

You'd be much better served starting your own distribution channel - ad based PDF's, for example.
# Posted By David | 4/12/10 1:47 PM
All Content Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Jeffry Houser. May not be reused without permission
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