Starting a Publishing Company: Month 1

I started a publishing company! Spellbook Press launched this week, taking preorders for our first book, Supernatural Django ORM Performance. Check it out!

The Idea

I’ve wanted to run a publishing company for years. I’ve also known for a long time that I want to publish short, focused technical books on niche topics.

However, it was only last fall that I felt strongly enough about the theme of the company to start working. The concept I decided on was focused books between 30 and 100 pages on technical topics with a fantasy theme.

For examples of well-done technical titles within this page range, see “The Log” by Jay Kreps or Jesse Storimer’s books.

Aside from the length, I wanted every book to follow certain rules inspired by D&D adventures. For example:

  • The cover would feature a full-color fantasy illustration
  • The experience level would be explicit (“For adventurers level 1-3”)
  • The interior would contain fantasy art and maps of technical concepts

Cover Design

I first envisioned publishing stapled-together books with a design similar to the iconic 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons modules from the 80s. If you haven’t seen these books, they look like this:

Adventure Module U3: The Final Enemy

As I doodled cover mockups, I became less certain that technical books using a D&D-inspired cover would appeal to readers. Instead, I tried to combine fantasy art with enough whitespace that the cover would fit in on a bookshelf with the likes of O’Reilly and Pragmatic Programmers. That way, if I could get a print version of the book on the shelf at my favorite local book store, Powell’s Books, someone might buy it.

Django Microservices

In my “refined” version of the cover design, there is a meaningful color (probably for series identification), a fantasy illustration, and runes on some combination of the front, back, and spine.

Now I just need is a designer – but I can’t afford paying someone yet.

To help with this, I decided to publish two books in 2019 instead of one, so that I could use the first book to bootstrap better design for the second. The first book would be a shorter title on performance-tuning the Django ORM that I would give myself permission to botch design on. The second would be a longer book on building microservices with Django, with better design.

The image I hacked together for Supernatural Django ORM Performance with the Shutterstock editor and a piece of stock art looks like this:

Supernatural Django ORM Performance

This isn’t a cover that I want to publish, but I’d like to see if it’s good enough to sell preorders.

I’m still torn between having a “weird” design that stands out and a normal-ish cover with a fantasy illustration. But at least now I can run an experiment: will anyone preorder?

Interior Design

So, the exterior will feature a fantasy illustration. But what about the interior? Here is my mockup:

Chapter Interior

The most important element of the interior design of a Spellbook Press book is the map. Every book will have a fantasy-themed map of the concepts in the book, and every chapter will have a map of the concepts in the chapter. For an example of this, see the book Designing Data-Intensive Applications, by Martin Kleppmann.

The other distinctive element of the interior design is that the books will be scattered with fantasy illustrations and bits of themed text. For example, a blurb might appear in a sidebar or chapter introduction from a powerful wizard who expresses his disdain for vile unbounded queries.

Learning Features

Aside from the text itself, I intend to build additional learning features into each book.

  • Every book will offer an audio version at a higher price tier, and if video ends up being a popular request, then I will develop the same content from the book as a series of 3-5 minute videos.

  • Every chapter will include a quiz in the text

The example application featured in both Django books I’m writing this year is a learning web app called Spellbook Quest that I plan to tie into the books. So, in the future, you could use Quest to keep track of your learning goals, add non-Spellbook content to a goal like “Learn Django Models,” and complete quizzes from your Django Spellbooks interactively.

Press Ethics

I think about ethics almost as much as I think about books and technology, and Spellbook Press will reflect this thinking.

Just as I believe that every software developer serves the common good first, businesses must do the same. To serve the common good with Spellbook Press, I am committed to:

  • Seeking B Corporation certification in 2020
  • Using 100% renewable power in all business operations
  • Using technology and products that have the least harmful impact on the environment
  • Developing fair contracts with writers based on guidance from the Author’s Guild
  • Buying from Portland, Oregon, and United States businesses as often as is possible
  • Employing workers at fair market rates
  • Seeking out diverse authors, artists, and designers to work with
  • Releasing an annual Social Responsibility report with details on all these commitments

Experience Report: Month 1

What is it like to start a publishing company? I can tell you about my first month in business. Here is what I accomplished in January:

  • Chose two topics for 2019: Django ORM performance and Django microservice design
  • Put in about 40 hours of development work on code samples
  • Told at least 10 people personally that I was starting a publishing company
  • Reached out to publishing industry and artist acquaintances in my neighborhood to network
  • Picked a name – “Spellbound Press,” which I had to revise to “Spellbook Press” because there was already a Spellbound River Press
  • Read half of Joe Biel’s A People’s Guide to Publishing – highly recommended
  • Registered my business with Oregon State
  • Designed a simple logo with Logojoy
  • Registered and signed up for @SpellbookPress on Twitter

I’m happy that services like Shutterstock and Logojoy exist. With zero design skills, I can still launch a business. Thanks, internet! By the way, here’s the logo I chose:

Spellbook Press

What I Want to Publish

Supernatural Django ORM Performance is an example of one type of book I want to publish: short, focused, and technical.

Along these lines, in 2020 I plan to publish at least one more book on the following topics:

  • Building microservices with Django
  • Deploying Django apps on Kubernetes
  • Building microfrontends with Django and React

However, there are a slew of topics I want to publish short books about. In 2020 I’d like to publish topics like the following:

  • Creating interactive text adventures with Twine or other tools
  • In-depth explanations of a particular algorithm or protocol, like RAFT
  • Building applications for IPFS
  • Using Neovim, Visual Studio Code, Intellij IDEs, or Emacs
  • Writing plugins for Neovim and other editors
  • Primers on HIPAA, GDPR, and other regulations for programmers
  • Histories of MUDs, BBSes, or IRC
  • High-performance REST APIs with Falcon
  • Deep explanations of how Docker layers work
  • Monitoring Kubernetes-hosted applications in GCP and AWS
  • Behind the scenes stories or architecture reviews of open-source projects
  • The Gremlin query language and a graph database like Titan
  • Adding inventory control to a Unity game
  • Serverless web apps with Python and Google Cloud Platform
  • Programming on Chromebooks, iPads, or Desktop Linux
  • Dungeons and Dragons for programmers, or other “topic you love, but for programmers” books
  • Interviews with programmers on a theme (“How did you get started in iOS development?”)
  • Path from programmer to manager

Follow Me!

Want to hear more about this? Join my newsletter or follow @SpellbookPress. If you have an idea for a book about one of the subjects I listed, get in touch! My email is “a @”.