01 October 2015 Giving away a book.
10 days ago I put my latest book, Surfactant Science: Principles and Practice onto my Practical Surfactants site as a free eBook in 3 formats: ePub3 for iBooks etc., mobi for Kindle and pdf for a more old fashioned reading experience. Why did I write it and why did I give it away?
This is the 3rd book in the "Principles and Practice" series after Nanocoatings and Adhesion Science. When I co-wrote the first one with Dr Nigel Holmes I had no idea that there would be a Principles and Practice series, but that's how things turned out. The first two were "real" books published via DesTech. I really enjoyed the discipline and quality standards of working with their marvellous editor, Dr Joseph Eckenrode. But I also found that conventional publishing (and this is not specific to DesTech) works at a glacial pace. And because I am so passionate that technical books should be live, app-linked books that should be readable in modern formats on tablets and phones, I was keen to get the surfactants book eBook-only, done the way I wanted it to be.
Going from the book written in Word to nice eBook format more or less requires going via Adobe InDesign. It's a powerful program not for the faint hearted. Although I could solve many of the problems, it took an intensive day with a real InDesign expert to get me into good habits. So instead of 6 months from finishing the book and seeing it published, it was 6 days. And when I got some feedback on some minor point and also remembered that I had another app that I could include in the book, the next revised version came out 3 days later. I find this ability to tweak the style and content of my own book within InDesign a huge luxury.
The reasons for writing a book rather than just having the Practical Surfactants website was explained in an earlier blog about the Adhesion Science book. Books are great for extended arguments to make the whole case for my approach to the subject. Websites are great for bite-sized specific issues. So both have their place. My ideal is to have the book linked to the apps on the web page so that there are no "dead" ideas in the book, they can be explored live with just a click or a tap. The long-term ideal is to have the apps in the book itself. This is technically possible with ePub3 and for the previous book I tried hard to implement it, but the ePub3 infrastructure is simply not up to handling the sort of complex apps that I write.
The other reason for writing a book is that it forces a much greater discipline. The website can sweep many issues under many carpets. There is no place to hide in a book. And as I work hard to better understand things for the book then the apps get better so there are fewer things swept under the carpet on the website. So perhaps the whole book-writing thing is simply my way of getting me to learn a vast topic much better.
Except! In the 10 days since I launched the book, with just a comment on LinkedIn, a Tweet and an email to people I know in the surfactants world, the book has been downloaded more than 700 times. By internet standards that is nothing. But by technical book standards that's quite impressive. Although I've tried to make the book as easy as possible (especially by having the link to the apps), it is still a big, technical book with plenty of equations. Of course everyone likes "free" and maybe many of the downloads have resulted in disappointed people faced with something far too big and complicated. But I prefer to believe that it's been downloaded because it is meeting a need.
And ultimately, that's why I write books. Over the years I've learned all sorts of great stuff from all sorts of people and what I've learned has been of a huge help to me. So now it's my turn to give something back to the community. The advantage of doing it via a big eBook is that anyone can get back to me with criticism/complaints/suggestions and I can respond by making the book better.
So what is the fourth (and final!) book in the series? Solubility Science: Principles and Practice. So far it is only 1.5 chapters and one app, but all books have to start somewhere and this one has a long, long way to go. I've set myself the (mad?) challenge of writing it with a basis in statistical thermodynamics. Those who know me find that most amusing because my grasp of anything in thermodynamics has always been very weak. But the thermodynamics I am using is amazingly powerful and as I hinted above, one reason for writing a book is to force me to learn new stuff. To make it explainable to and useable by others it has first to be explained to myself and put into practice. Although I was confident that I would be able to write the previous 3 books, I still have many doubts about this one. But then I remember my despair at ever being able to understand some parts of adhesion and surfactant science and so I plough on in the hope that it will all work out.
Writing is a strange activity. I wrote the first draft of the surfactant book in a rush and then had to attend to other matters for a while. When I got back to the book I was horrified at all the mistakes and misunderstandings and more or less had to start again. But without that first draft there would never have been a second (and third and ...). No doubt I'll have a similar experience with the new book. Wish me luck!