Five Questions to Answer When Self-Publishing a Technical Book

We asked Gayle Laakmann McDowell, author of Cracking the Coding Interview, a bestselling book for technical interview preparation, for some advice for technical self publishers. Here she outlines the five essential questions one needs to consider when self publishing a technical book. We believe this is useful even for other non-fiction writers and self publishers.

The best advice for authors of a similar genre (anything in the business / technical type) is to think about your book as a business. Writers are entrepreneurs, and writing a book is a business. The same concepts apply to both.

Building a great product is important, but it’s not everything. You need to think about the following questions:

Is there a big market?
How many people want your book? Your book won’t sell well if it’s too “niche.”
Is there good demand in your market?
Just because people need your book doesn’t mean they actually want it. Is your book useful to your market? How useful? Are they already looking for something like yours?
There is a tradeoff between the size of the market and demand; the bigger your market, the less “perfectly suited” it is for any one person. My book, for instance, is only for software engineers and would be considered very “niche.” However, because it’s a small and focused market, it outsells any of the “general purpose” interview books out there.
How much competition is there?
You should be aware of the existing competition for your book. If there are a ton of other books out there, you need to hope that you’ve written a really, really good book (and that’s hard!).
Remember though that just as too much competition is bad, too little competition is bad too. There’s often a reason that there isn’t competition, and it may mean that there isn’t actually a big market out there.
How will you market / promote your book?
You can’t expect to just write a great book and suddenly have people desperate to buy it. You need to think about how you are going to promote it. Do you have a popular and relevant website or blog? Do you train people? There are many ways to promote a book or product, and you need to find one that works well for you and your market.
What is the minimal viable product?
In start-ups, there’s a concept of the “minimal viable product,” which is the quickest product that you can build that basically solves the customer’s needs. It might not be fully functional and do everything that they want, but it fulfills their most pressing demands. If you release with that first, it will help you get customers and to understand what customers really want.
The same concept applies to non-fiction / business / technical / reference books. The 5th edition of Cracking the Coding Interview is a 500 page paperback book. The 4th edition was “only” 300 pages. The first version? It was a 20 page PDF.
The first edition was the “minimal viable product.” It wasn’t perfect – in fact, it was far from perfect – but it was enough to establish that there was a good demand, a good market, and a good reason to continue to develop the book.
The wonderful thing about print-on-demand services like is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time writing the “perfect” book so that you can print 3000 copies of it. You can write the “minimal viable book,” and then write a bigger and better version once you figure out that lots of people want to read it.

Note 1: Read the interview with Gayle about her experiences of self-publishing and her book “Cracking the Coding Interview.

Note 2: We have extended the deadline for Tech Publishing Festival to August 5, 2012. If you are looking to self publish a technical title, make sure to submit your manuscript before the deadline to avail free design and distribution services.

11 thoughts on “Five Questions to Answer When Self-Publishing a Technical Book”

  1. i want to get my cook books published ………………can u please tell me the procedure that i need to follow and the approximate expense for that

    1. It certainly is true for majority of new startups. I think the point here is that you can and should think of publishing a technical book as starting a new business. Framing it like that helps in deciding better ways of writing and marketing the book.

  2. My book is related with oriental economics. It is very useful for the researchers in the sector of History of Economic Thoughts…

  3. The second book I intend to publish is again for a ‘very niche segment’ – the first line managers of the pharmaceutical industry in India. Thanks a lot for your very valuable inputs which are also practical.

    I shall be thankful if you could elaborate a little more on “a well written book”/

  4. M.V.S.Murthy writes on 22/08/12: I had submitted a technical e-book “Guidelines for operation and maintenance of Spillway Gates on Dams” , submission id:1306.A revised version of the book is now ready for upload. I feel it answers all the 5 questions satisfactorily.
    1) there is a big market as all the Engineers manning Dam Gates in India and abroad are potential users as there are no such guidelines with practical hints.
    2)There is hardly any exclusive literature on Maintenance of gates even on Google
    3)To promote the book,all the Water Resources Departments of various states are approached with a Preview of the book and indicate where to get- e book or print book
    4)As the book is to serve the Engineering community and not for earning,it is offered at a nominal cost. as print-on-demand is possible and free downloading could offered also.
    These points are placed before for consideration and early comments via e-mail to

    1. The answers in the interview is routine and applicable to all Books. The objective of writing a Technical book should be essentially to impart knowledge, useful to a ‘niche’ group of readers, sans any commercial angle. It should be in the realm of a Reference or Handbook. Public who are in need of such knowledge will buy and read the concerned parts. ‘Self-publication’ where the print order is commensurate with the demand is ideal for technical Books. .

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