I write about Vim – a modal text editor – a lot. In fact, in early 2018 I was approached by Packt Publishing – what I’ve later learned to be a “quantity over quality” publishing house. Over the next 6 to 9 months I wrote a 300-page “Mastering Vim”.
It was a stressful endeavour, with a publisher rushing to meet internal deadlines and eventually sending an unfinished draft to print. There were many highlights too, like actually cranking out 300 pages of material, or getting to work with Bram Moolenaar – the creator of Vim himself. Now that a few years have passed and the book is at its 3rd edition, complete, and re-released – I’m a lot more happy with the result.
I can write a whole other essay about my experience working with the publisher, but that’s a horror story for another time.
I didn’t write to make money, but it’s nice seeing a couple of hundred dollars trickling in every quarter. Putting together spreadhseets is my favorite past time, so here’s a breakdown of my earnings from the time I wrote a book with Packt.
As of April 2021, the English version of my book has 14 reviews on Amazon averaging at 5 stars (that’s more than I would hope for), which likely helps keep the sales at a somewhat of a steady level.
I was signed into a default “16% of net receipts” contract, with a $2,000 advance given out to me. The advance was split into 5 milestone-based installments: the first preliminary draft, 6 preliminary drafts, the remaining preliminary drafts, the final drafts, and the publication. Although I didn’t urgently need the money, and the publisher may have just sent it as a bulk $2,000 payment after the publication.
Eventually I received a PDF for the first quarter of my book being sold… And here are the financials for Q4 2018:
|Print #||Print $||E-books #||E-books $|
A whopping 363 dollars and 20 cents in royalties! I didn’t really think anyone would be interested to read the book, so seeing 284 copies sold I was pretty ecstatic!
Selling printed books seems to pay $5.55 per copy, while e-books only bring me $1.12.
Now I didn’t see any of that money, since I would have to “pay back” the advance. I know it’s called “the advance”, and I knew that I won’t be getting that first check in the mail – but it sucked a bit nonetheless.
After that I received some great news – my book was going to get translated to Japanese! During my last trip to Tokyo I made some friends who were interested in Vim as much as I was, and one of them - Masafumi Okura - decided to translate “Mastering Vim” into his native language. The legend found close to three dozen mistakes in my book too, and is solely responsible for the third edition of Mastering Vim!
Turns out the translation rights are expensive, and I’m getting my cut as well – $1,586.26! That’s more than the first quarter of sales!
Packt advertised my book for a few months or so, but they seemed to have quickly lost interest. I received my first 5 star review on Amazon though, which was great! I spent the next month refreshing Amazon reviews daily, after realizing that to be a path to acquiring a mental illness.
2019 came, and here are my next 4 quarterly statements:
|Quarter||Print #||Print $||E-books #||E-books $|
I sold 86 print books and 447 e-books in 2019. You can see the higher numbers correspond to seasonal sales. Notice the prices for Q3 and Q4. E-books sold in Q3 pay me as much as $3.64 per copy, while in Q1 it’s a meager $1.67 per book. Print edition payout stays much more consistent.
Altogether, I earned $1432.66 from my first full year of selling “Mastering Vim”.
Here are my 2020 earnings:
|Quarter||Print #||Print $||E-books #||E-books $|
That’s $1,533.38, a $100 more than in 2019. The patterns seem rather predictable, with Q2 and Q3 being slow, and Q1 and Q4 displaying a noticeable spike.
Finally, Packt offers service subscriptions – I believe the subscription is for the courses they offer, but I can’t say for sure. Payout per subscription is small, and I’ve earned $158.10 over the 9 quarters since publishing “Mastering Vim”.
Across $3,329.24 in book sales, $1,586.26 in translation fees, and $158.10 in subscriptions, this adds up to $5,073.60 over the 2+ years the book has been in print. Looks like it can make for a decent supplemental income if you write enough books, but I’m saying that based on a sample size of one.
Throughout this time, my earnings per copy average at $5.16 for a print, and $1.93 for an e-book (using weighted averages for quarterly sales).
And here’s the last number in this post – this one purely for fun. Based on the 16% royalty rate, Packt probably earned $31,710 from “Mastering Vim” so far.
After learning about “Radical Candor”, I became obsessed with providing candid and compassionate feedback. I’ve been especially focused on the ability to communicate areas of growth for individual on my team.
And then a colleague of mine shared “The Feedback Fallacy” (published in the Harvard Business Review), which points to some research and outlines a few key problems why focusing on negative feedback might not be the best choice. Research shows that:
- people are bad at assessing other people
- we learn best with positive reinforcement
- focusing on shortcomings impairs learning
- excellence is specific to an individual
Like many pieces of business literature, it reads like an “all-or-nothing” approach (“negative feedback - bad, positive feedback - good”), and the most effective approach is likely somewhere in the middle. There’s a place for positive and negative feedback, and it’s the focus on positive reinforcement that I see as a primary takeaway from this article.
I’ve noticed that my assessment of others’ performance changes over time. It often depends on what self-help book I’m reading at the moment if I’m being entirely honest.
This piece made me think of the portrayal of successful people in media: there’s an inherent cultural belief that successful people know what makes them successful, and all you need to do is to follow in their steps! What is often omitted is a mix of luck, some talent or hard work, topped with another serving of being in the right place at the right time. Warren Buffet can probably tell you what’s the smartest thing to do with ten thousand dollars you have in your savings account. It’s unlikely that his advice alone will get you to his 98.2 billion dollar net worth.
It seems like once you get past basic competency, success identifiers seem unpredictable.
I attribute part of my professional success to having a reputation of a person who “gets shit done”. I naturally value qualities associated with that style of work. It’s only natural that I prioritize on communication and organizational skills when assessing the performance of others.
In fact, the article made me think about how I landed with the reputation as a problem solver. Every time I accomplished a project on time, owned the problem space, involved the right parties, or raised alarms early – I received positive reinforcement. People I worked with valued those qualities, and years working with those people shaped what I perceive as an effective work style.
Yet, this work style is effective for me, and is not a solution for my peers.
Since reading “The Feedback Fallacy”, I started focusing on the outcomes I like, as opposed to qualities I believe are valuable. Where before I would say “Great comms on project X!”, now I focus on specifics: “I know what you’re up to on project X, which helps me communicate with stakeholder Y and plan resources for the project Z”
I’m not an ill tempered person, and it takes quite a lot to get me riled up. In the pandemic however getting frustrated has been oh so much easier!
For once, there are less face to face interactions, which makes me feel removed from whomever I’m talking to. The interactions that happen over video chat feel a lot less personal, and despite regular deliberately scheduled 1:1 time it’s harder to connect with colleagues on a personal level.
Then there’s the lack of water cooler interactions between meetings. A colleague of mine correctly pointed out that before the era of video chat meetings, we’d have the time to decompress and process content between meetings with those micro-interactions. Having just a minute or two “off the record” after a large call helps process, frame, and align prior interaction. And just sharing a laugh or being able to say “well that was stressful” helps reduce the inevitable daily stress buildup.
Finally, all of the above is true for everyone else - and we’re already in a melting pot of individuals with different communication styles. People are getting frustrated, making other people even more frustrated. It’s a frustration chain reaction!
All of this led to me into a cycle of sending some snappy responses, feeling terrible after time would pass, setting up time to profusely apologize face to face, and wowing to never overreact to work stress sources again… Until the next encounter that is. It all culminated with me getting entirely too frustrated between 8:00 and 8:05 am last Thursday and taking a day just to decompress.
And that reminded of something I’ve learned years ago, and I something I would practice with rigour - until the background frustration level rose that is.
Early in my career I’ve been taught to cool down before sending that angry ping or an email – type it up, leave it in my drafts - come back to it an hour or two later.
In 9 out of 10 cases I end up deleting the message feeling relieved that an incoherent stream of hatred never saw the light of day. Most of the time when I’m angry I don’t really have a goal I’m trying to accomplish (other than inform all the parties involved of my feelings), and that’s not a great basis for professional communication.
In the remaining case, I would end up completely rewriting that email to remove the hostile tone and focus on the source of the issue instead. There are problems that are worth addressing with candor – but candor is too often conflated for the lack of tact.
And it’s hard to take a break at work - because there are often so many things to do, and so little time to do them. Which makes taking a minute to breather feel like a waste of time, when it’s one of the most productive things you can do in the long run.
So here I am, putting these thoughts into writing to remember to take a break before initiating aggressive communications – hopefully the more I think about this, the easier it gets to remember to pause, self-assess, and disconnect.
A couple of months ago I had a conversation with a fellow employee – let’s call him Balgruuf – who decided to quit the grind and become a career coach. Shortly after I’ve witnessed them interact with our mutual acquaintance – Farengar – who was in a difficult spot in their career. Balgruuf was enthusiastically instructing on what are the exact steps Farengar must take, and in what order. It generally felt like Balgruuf had this whole career thing figured out, and Farengar just stumbled along. Needless to say, Farengar quickly changed the topic.
I haven’t stopped thinking about mentorship since that day. In the 10 or so years of my career so far, I’ve had a number of mentors - both formal and informal. I also get the opportunity to mentor people around me – both sides of the relationship really fascinate me.
I’ve had some mentors who worked really well for me - and some who didn’t. I also had more different level of success with mentoring people myself. And one of the defining factors in a successful experience was this: people conflate mentorship with giving advice – two different, but oh-so-close feeling things. Let me elaborate on the difference with a tangentially related example.
Sometimes my wife comes home and shares frustrations that inevitably arise after a long day at work. There’s little to no room for my input, because she needs somebody to just listen, or maybe a rubber duck to talk at. And sometimes my better half wants to hear my thoughts on the subject. Needing to vent and asking for advice are two completely distinct scenarios in this case.
Just like in my home life, sometimes people come looking for an advice. But more often than not, they’re looking for mentorship.
Giving advice is prescriptive, while mentorship is more nuanced, and takes more finesse from both parties.
In Relationomics, Randy Ross discusses a role that relationships play in personal growth. He talks about the harmful “self help” culture which discounts the value of human element in self-development.
This is the gap where mentorship fits in. There’s one huge “but” though, and that’s the fact that the person needs to be ready for the specific feedback they might be getting.
Mentor is there to guide the internal conversation, encourage insight, and suggest a direction. Mentor is there to identify when someone who’s being mentored is heading in a completely wrong direction, or not addressing the elephant in the room.
In fact, I’ve been noticing a trend at Google to avoid trying to use the word “mentorship” overall, to avoid the go-to advice slinging attitude of your everyday Balgruuf. And it’s been a helpful trend - since framing mentorship relationship around guidance and reminding mentors to let those who are mentored to drive the growth is crucial for healthy peer to peer learning.
Even if so-called mentor has some aspect of life completely figured out for themselves, the person who’s mentored must drive the whole journey. Otherwise there’s really no room for growth in that relationship.
I’ve had this blog since 2012, and I’m only now getting close to my 100th post. All because I’m a perfectionist, which sure as hell didn’t make me a better writer.
I love writing, and I feel like I’m getting better after every piece I write - be it publishing blog posts, journaling, countless design docs, navigating email politics, or writing a book. I write a lot, about many different topics - if I’m interested in the topic for at least a few hours - you can bet I’ll write about it.
Then how come this blog barely gets one post per month?
I meticulously research and edit, generously discard drafts, and it often takes me days strung across weeks to put something together. Something that I feel is worthy of being displayed next to my name. Perfectionism at its core, attached to hobbyist web content.
I struggled with this when writing Mastering Vim too - the first edition was rushed out by the publisher long before it was ready, with various errors and inconsistencies in it, and a few downright unfinished bits. It took over a year of me avoiding even thinking about the book and two more editions to become comfortable with merely sharing that I published a book.
And all of this sucks the joy out of writing. I’m not a for-profit writer. It’s not part of my career path, and I obviously didn’t go to school for it (not that I went to school for anything else). And it sure as hell shouldn’t be grueling to have to come up with what to write.
This blog has a rather modest following - it brings in around 3,000 readers a month, with a few regulars sprinkled here and there (honestly - I would love to meet at least one of you weirdos someday). I don’t target a particular market niche, I don’t have a content or SEO strategy, and I opportunistically monetize to cover the website running costs.
What’s crazy is that nearly half of that traffic is organic search for a quick note I jotted down back in 2013! I could spend weeks putting together a literary love child and not even get a fraction of attention this back of the napkin screenshot received.
Back in 2012 I used this blog as a way to categorize my discoveries about developing software, and later what I’ve learned about working with people. Over the years I gradually expanded to travel (including that time I lived in my car for a year), and general things I like - like keyboards or tabletop role playing games.
I’m putting this together to remind myself that I love writing and why I started this blog. That not every piece of content requires hours of research, or even have a clear audience in mind for that matter.
I wouldn’t have blinked an eye flooding this blog with unfiltered thoughts, perspectives, and experiences if it wasn’t attached to my real world persona. It’s easy to throw out something I perceive as “unworthy” anonymously. It’s mortifying to publish such a piece at my-first-name-last-name-dot-com.
So here it is, the first post I wrote purely for fun! I’m still taking a light editing pass on it, and drastically cutting it down in size - I’m not a savage! But unlike in my usual writing, there’s no clear value I’m providing or a skill I’m trying to teach - and that’s a huge step for me. Feels good!