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Technical Writing for the Kindle


Al Stevens is the author of numerous programming books and a long-time contributor to Dr. Dobb's. Al can be contacted at alstevens.com


The "eBook" paradigm is gaining popularity mainly because of the success of Amazon's Kindle e-reader device and the hundreds of thousands of eBooks available for download. This popularity was underscored by Amazon's recent announcement that its eBook sales has for the first time surpassed sales of hard-back (not paperback) books.Other companies are on the bandwagon, including Apple with its iPad and Barnes and Noble's with its nook. eBook reader software is available on PC and Apple platforms. You can download eBooks to your iPhone, Blackberry, and iPod.

At relatively high prices. Kindle books are typically narrative text, fiction and nonfiction comprising mostly words. Programming books have generally lagged behind mainstream books because technical books have requirements beyond that. This article is about using tools available to Kindle authors to write and publish computer programming books for the Kindle.

Pros and Cons

The advantages to using a Kindle are threefold:

  • Books are instantly available for wireless download without an external Internet connection
  • Books are usually less expensive than their printed counterparts
  • You can carry your entire library with you wherever you go.

Many books are free. Many others cost only $0.99.

The advantages to authors are even greater. Kindle authors are typically self-publishers. You write, edit, layout, and publish your work yourself.

Kindle is like a "vanity press," in which authors pay a publisher to edit, produce, and print the book. But with Kindle you don't pay anyone. And you do all the work yourself.

With traditional publishing, you submit a proposal to a publisher or literary agent and wait for a publishing contract. Or a rejection. If your book is accepted, you deal with acquisitions editors, copy editors, production editors, and all that until the book is finally published. Not so with a Kindle book. You do it all. Your book is not rejected simply because a publisher thinks it won't sell. You even decide the price to charge.

Whatever you submit to Amazon gets published, assuming, of course, you have the rights to publish it. If you want to change something later -- content, price, cover -- do so and upload the changes.

Publishing on Kindle gives you access to Amazon's Author Page, which provides an online personal website for you to list your books, both print and Kindle editions. Here's a link to my Author Page on which you can find links to my books.

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001K8M1SA

There are disadvantages to being a Kindle author, too. Some of them align with the advantages just discussed. The good news is also the bad news.

First, you are your own worst editor, which means the book is no better than your ability to write and produce a book. Second, there is no marketing support. No salesmen plugging your book at bookstores. No bookstore shelves for exposure. No reviews in newspapers and magazines. And third, you compete with hundreds of thousands of other Kindle books, many -- perhaps most -- of which are not very good. Remember, this is the poor man's vanity press.

The Kindle is not particularly conducive to research. You can't flip pages, for example, and a traditional index is impossible to produce because there are no page numbers. There being no pages, as such, there can be no footnotes, although endnotes are possible. The page format has limited dimensions and is user-configurable, which can defeat your best formatting intentions. Source code, tables, and such can be a bit of a challenge.

Disadvantages notwithstanding, now is an opportune time for computer authors to join the eBook trend. Print media computer books are on the critical list. Unless you are writing about the latest trendy hot topic, publishers are not as interested in programming and applications books as they used to be.


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