Sending two signed copies of my book to a guy I’ve never met in Michigan

Chris Dawson
Mar 27, 2016 · 4 min read

This is not a story about an internet scam. Three years ago an opportunity to write a book for my favorite publisher O’Reilly Media fell into my lap. When I finally submitted the book for technical review last summer, the comments were devastating. Then, someone found me on the Internet and reminded me of the real reason I write.

Of course, there are a million tiny stories that make up writing a book. I could tell you about my underhanded attempt to get a different cover image and how I almost lost the book deal. I could tell you how I wrote for six months and then was told to scrap everything and start from scratch. I could tell you about the half dozen email drafts to my editor saying “my newborn daughter isn’t sleeping, I have a stressful day job, so F-off and stop asking me when I’ll get the next chapter!” But, the most difficult moment during the writing of this book was getting the comments back after the book went to technical review, one of the final stages in writing a book for O’Reilly.

Technical reviewers are chosen as subject experts, and I’m sure they want to produce feedback that proves that. I cannot imagine a technical reviewer getting away with saying “it looks perfect to me!” without drawing the ire of an editor. At the same time, I knew the book was not without imperfections, and expected to get critical feedback. My difficulty was with the surprising tone: reading “this hot mess won’t even compile!” was deflating. Someday I’ll pen a summary of all the organizational challenges when writing thirty pages of prose concerning three pages of code: code morphs and changes over the course of those thirty pages and keeping it all in sync is a bigger challenge than I ever could have imagined. After three years of ups and downs, that phrasing hit me particularly hard, and I wanted to delete the entire book from my hard disk and just acknowledge what I knew all along, that I was not fit to be an author, especially an O’Reilly author.

Then, out of the blue, I got an email. It read:

“Hi there — I just stumbled upon what I’m hoping might be *your* GitHub book from O’Reilly, and I’m only a few minutes in, but already deeply enamored; I have some questions (mostly due to missing info caused by Early Release status, I think?) and couldn’t find any obvious contact info etc. but have a feeling from browsing your repos that I’ve found the right person — can you confirm, and LMK if it’s OK to bother you with a few questions, typos, etc. as I start to devour this tome? Thanks!!! :)”

When a book goes into technical review, at about the same time, it also goes into “Early Access.” Early access makes it available to the hungry long before it goes into print or even PDF. It was here that DFG found my book, and then with a little bit of research, found me. For a few months we exchanged emails where he provided many comments leading to many valuable improvements. It made me realize who I wanted to write for: not the technical reviewers, who were chosen because they already know it all and can point out the flaws.

My story as an author does not being with me at the peak of my career. The book came to me when I shared my GitHub API backed Android blogging tool with someone I met accidentally at Google I/O. The person I shared this idea with had written several books, and he asked if I would contribute a chapter to his ongoing book about GitHub. I didn’t get to write this book because I was a star at a successful startup. This opportunity came to me because I was a new father, worried about competing with younger developers with better degrees and fewer familial obligations. I made something so I could keep on blogging, because that blogging often happened while my sleeping infant rested on my chest at 3 in the morning. I was just hoping to stay competitive with the 15 minutes of free time I had at that moment in my life.

That’s who I wanted to connect with through this book. People in the midst of a transformation. Others unsure of themselves in the moment. I’m not entirely sure who DFG is but I felt a kinship there in that neither of us were living in San Francisco, working for Facebook or Google.

Yesterday, I finally dropped two books in the mail to DFG. Both of them with my signature on them. My new friend who I’ve never met will add his signature to one, and send that copy back to me. That’s what I wanted all along, to connect with people, share something of myself and have them see meaning in it. My journey with the book is complete and, more importantly, my relationship with the book is complete. I’m happy.

(My book is called “Building Tools with GitHub.”)

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