E-books about principles of design, and specifically about web design, are getting more and more popular. Years ago these kind of information can only be found on universities, but now they’re everywhere and people are taking them in like hungry lions.
If you don’t know this, well, seriously, what rock have you been living under last year?
- Sacha Greif wrote “Step by Step UI design”
- Jarrod Drysdale wrote “Bootsrapping Design”
- Nathan Barry wrote three e-books, “App Design Handbook”, “Designing Web Applications” and “Authority”.
When I saw David Kadavy’s “Design for Hackers: Reverse-Engineering Beauty” I was like:
Wait! This is a REAL book? Published by an actual PUBLISHER? And it hit #18 on Amazon? What is this?!
Getting a real book published by an established publisher is a big deal. There’s still a lot of prestige in being a published author. Nowadays, the entry requirement into the world of self-publishing is very low, therefore the fact that an actual publishing company is willing to take a risk on you signals that what you have to say is of some value. Having a book under your name can open many doors and provide many opportunities. Plus, it must be an amazing feeling to see your book on the shelves of a random bookstore.
However, getting that book deal isn’t easy, nor is selling a decent number of copies. I had so many questions. Why didn’t David go the e-book route? How did he get a book deal like that? How did the #18 on Amazon happen? How much money did he make? Was the whole experience worth it? Admit it, now you are wondering about the same things, aren’t you?
Well, it’s a lucky day for us, because today, we have David Kadavy here on 1stWebDesigner, and he will tell us all about it
In this interview:
- How David got a book deal by hitting #1 in Hacker News.
- How he managed to write an entire book in only 6 months.
- How he promoted his book in a way that it debuted at #18 on Amazon.
- How “Design for hackers: reverse-engineering beauty” lead to speaking gigs all around the world.
- How David went from having to work miserable jobs to being able to work only on the projects that are interesting to him.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m David Kadavy from Kadavy. Inc. I’m the author of the book “Design for hackers: reverse-engineering beauty”, a book that teaches people the fundamental principles of design. I speak about design in different conferences around the world. I’m also an adviser for several start-ups. You can find out more about me at kadavy.net.
How did you get into design in the first place?
Well, I’ve been always obsessed with drawing, ever since I could hold a pen.
In 1995, my brother left his computer at our house while he was away at college. I got an AOL account and made my first web page back then.
Then, I went to school to study graphic design and continued tinkering with HTML and creating websites.
Eventually, everything converged, and I ended up working as a web designer for a couple of startups.
What is your professional web design-related experience?
I graduated in 2002 with a graphic design degree, which was a classical design education, learning about principles, colours, and things like that.
I then started working in the graphic design department of an architecture firm. I was building websites and creating interactive CVs to showcase architectural work. I worked there for several years.
Also, at that time my work was published in “Communication Arts” magazine. I guess many web designers are not familiar with it since that was in print design. This was a big career milestone for me.
Then, I moved to Silicon Valley, and started working for start-ups. I worked as a creative services manager for WorkMetro where I did web design and managed all the branding. Then, I worked for another start-up called SustainLane, which was kind of like Yelp for green products. I also spent about a year trying a bunch of different projects. I built Facebook apps, participated in a couple Hackathons, and basically wandered from café to café just hacking away at different things.
Then, I started doing freelance work for start-ups, my clients were oDesk, PBWorks and User Voice.
I was blogging during all that time, and once I started writing about design for hackers, I was approached by a publisher and got a book deal very quickly.
Did your blog, kadavy.net, play a big role in your professional success?
Yes! I have been running my blog for 9 years now. I met a lot of interesting people, got jobs and clients, and got a book deal through it. I owe everything to it. Starting my blog was the best decision I have ever made!
You have written a book “Design For Hackers: Reverse-Engineering Beauty”. What is it about?
“Design for hackers” breaks down fundamental principles of design. It’s not a list of 10 quick things that you can do to make your site look better. It’s more of a framework that helps you to understand design, so that when you go about your day and observe things, you would see them in a different way. I do that by reverse engineering things like impressionist paintings, Roman architecture, and so on, and then weaving together the way that those same principles are still present when you are creating design with today’s technology (e.g. for websites or apps). The tagline is “reverse-engineering beauty” and that’s pretty much what I aim to do.
This book is for everyone who wants to understand the design better. It can be a developer who is building apps and wants to be able to create better designs, or a marketer who wants to use design to convey her message, or even a web designer who wants to improve his skills. You see, when you are learning about web development, you can google an error and get an answer, but there isn’t anything like that for design. You can’t just google “my design doesn’t look good” and get an answer for it. That’s why I’m trying to provide some sort of framework for people so that they can understand design better.
You started writing about design for hackers before you had a book deal. Why were you interested in this particular topic?
I was just sitting at a café with a friend. He said “You know, design is really a mystery, and whenever you talk to a designer and try to understand it, they just shrug their shoulders and say that they just feel it or something”. I immediately thought that this was not the way I see design: there are certain factors that come together that make good design.
I then did a talk “Design for the coder’s mind” at Barcamp (that’s an unconference where everyone can speak). In that talk, I covered the basic design things, like colours and proportions and typography.
Later, I wanted to speak at the SXSW conference. In order to speak there, you have to submit a proposal, and that proposal has to get a lot of votes. I didn’t feel like I had enough followers to pull that off, so I decided to write a really good post, and then submit it to Hacker News, with hopes of getting more votes. That post was “Design for hackers: why you don’t use Garamond on the web” and did really well. My publisher found me through that post and asked me if I was interested in writing a book about it. I was.
Here’s the funny thing: I didn’t get accepted to speak at SXSW that time. I did end up speaking there once I had a book deal. That particular proposal wasn’t accepted, though.
Okay, so you got an e-mail from the publisher, and what happened then?
Well, I was also approached by another publisher, but they wanted to change a lot of things about the book.
Also, I talked to some agents, but decided not to hire one. You see, agents take 15% of your earnings, and since I already had a book deal and was simply exploring my options, giving them 15% of what I’ve earned didn’t seem appropriate.
I got an attorney, who looked over the contract and made sure that I understood everything, and the publisher worked with me to make sure that I was comfortable with it. Plus, there was an advance.
How long did it take to go from that that initial e-mail to a book that’s available for sale?
It took 3 months to negotiate the contract and get it signed. I wrote a book in 6 months (my publisher originally wanted me to write a book in 4 months, which I definitely couldn’t have done). Then, there was the editorial process, which took about a month. “Design for hackers:reverse-engineering beauty” was released 3-4 months after that. So, from getting that e-mail to the book coming out, there were about 13-14 months. It’s a much faster process in the technology niche than in many others.
A book in 6 months, it’s pretty damn fast. How did you manage to get it done on time?
Well, I’ve been blogging for 6 years at that time, so I was used to writing at that point.
However, writing a book is a much more rigorous process than writing a blog post, so it was a challenge. Honestly, I simply dedicated my entire life to writing that book for half a year. It was winter in Chicago, it was very cold, so I wasn’t leaving my apartment a lot, and I wasn’t travelling. You know, I keep hearing this from people, and I have to agree: writing a book is a miserable process. On one hand, you kind of suffer, on the other hand, it’s a lot of fun. Brute force was the way “Design for hackers: reverse-engineering beauty” was written in 6 months. I just did that and didn’t think about anything else.
What is the process of writing a book look like?
Well, when we put together the proposal and got a contract, there was a preliminary outline that we agreed upon. I pretty much stuck to it. It was a matter of writing each chapter.
I have developed several categories of the things that I do throughout the writing process: rough draft, research, editing..
There’s what I call ‘scaffolding,’ which is writing down bullet-points that summarize what I want to say in that chapter, which really helps to make things clearer in my mind.
There’s also the rough draft, which is basically writing without worrying whether it’s good or nor, just getting stuff out of my brain.
Then, there’s research, I put things that I need to research further in the brackets while writing the rough draft, and then look them up later.
I also have this thing that I call exploratory research, which is basically going where my mind takes me, reading on various topics, opening up my art history book, and so on, and then seeing if any useful idea came out of it.
Also, throughout writing this book, I got a good feeling for my brain and my creative process. I’ve noticed that there are certain times when I’m more in the mood for certain parts of my process than for others. There are also tricks that I can use to get myself in the right mood, such as music, or drinking tea, or changing the lighting in my room. I really have a feel of how my brain works. That’s all because of the sheer necessity to be creative on command.
You’ve mentioned that your book hit #18 on all Amazon books and #1 in technology books on the launch day. That is really impressive! How did you do that?
Well, the most powerful thing was the support of the Hacker News community.
I got the book deal because my blog post was #1 on HN. Once I announced the book deal, people were excited, so much that, once I launched the book, both the post about it and the actual Amazon link to it ended up on the front page. I was really surprised when it hit #1 in the techonology books and #18 in all Amazon books. However, it makes sense that since HN was the community that made it all happen in the first place, they were eager to buy the book once it came out.
Okay, so let’s get to the part that everyone is interested in: how much money did you make from the book?
Honestly, I think that I’m not allowed to share that information, sorry.
I can say that it definitely isn’t a lot, though. When you go with a traditional publisher, they always take a very large percentage of it, which is fine, since they make a lot of things happen. I knew that from the beginning, therefore my focus was to use that book to get people interested in my writing and to be able to eventually produce more things from which people can learn.
When it’s all said and done, I will probably make about as much money off of book sales as I might working at a solid designer job for 6 months. Keep in mind that this will be over the course of several years, and besides writing, I’ve been working to promote the book for more than two years now. Also, keep in mind that I was fortunate enough to have a book that did very, very well. The majority of authors (I think I heard 7 out of 10 somewhere) never sell enough books to see any money beyond their advance. It’s really a labor of love.
Traditional publishing is not the best choice if your goal is to make money. The way most people make money through their books is by having backend business, such as consulting or speaking, etc. Sure, someone like Tim Ferris, who has sold loads of books, makes a lot of money from the actual book sales. That’s not the case for most authors, though.
The book would have never happened without the publisher, from the get go it was about getting it out there and having a book as a calling card, and being able to use that to get more people interested in what I do.
Would you agree that whether you publish an e-book or an actual book, there’s a trade-off: with e-books you make more money, while with a paper book you get more prestige and opportunities?
I think that’s pretty accurate.
You do get more prestige and credibility going with a traditional publisher. However, they also provide some value: they gave me an advance to help me pay my bills while I wrote a book, there was an editor, a whole team of proofreaders, they did all the layout, they got books on the shelves, and so on. When I was in Singapore, someone was like “Yeah, I bought your book at this book store down the street”, which was amazing. There’s no way I could have done that on my own.
My publisher also handled all the foreign language deals. My book is now out not only in English, but also in Polish and Korean, plus the Chinese version is coming out this summer. Traditional publishers help you to get a book in front of a lot of people.
What opportunities did you get as a result of writing this book that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise?
Yes, absolutely, it changed my life.
I have traveled all over the world speaking about design. I have been lucky enough to have people approach me with offers. Lately, it’s been getting to a point where I get speaking fees, and that’s almost out of necessity, since I get so many invites that there’s no way I could do them all. I love travelling and I love speaking, so that’s amazing.
I’m also mentoring start-ups with 500 start-ups incubator. I’m basically an on call mentor, which means that I’m available for all the companies in that program, so they can e-mail me and arrange a time to talk. I’m also an investor in at least one company that I’ve mentored. It’s a good way to be a part of various start-ups without having to focus entirely on one particular endeavor.
Would you recommend writing an actual book to other web designers?
You should only write a book if you feel that you have something to say. I know that I felt this way, I had a point of view that I really wanted to present, and that was my motivation. You know, I think that it would be a much tougher road for someone whose main motivation is money, because I would have a harder time motivating myself with this reason.
You know, I think that the only reason that you should write a book is if you feel that you have something to say, and I felt like I have something to say and a point of view that I really wanted to present, and that was the motivation. I think if you have other motviation, such as oyu want to make a lot of money, or you want to get more clients, I think it would be tougher road. Personally, I’d have a harder time motivating myself with those reasons. I think if you have something to say go for it. However, first do the blogging, because if you can’t get people to intereted in a blogpost it will be really hard to get them interested in buying a book.
What would you advise to people who want to write a book, a real book, just like you, but aren’t even sure where to start?
I’d say write about what you know, even if it seems simple and obvious, because what might seem obvious to you isn’t obvious to somebody.
Do that you will be teaching people, and if you are teaching people, they will be interested in what you have to say.
Thank you, David!
In a nutshell:
- Patience and persistence pays off. David got a lot of opportunities through his blog. He has been blogging for 9 years now, though.
- Don’t be afraid to explore ideas that interest you. The whole design for hackers thing started as a conversation with a friend. Then, David made a speech on the topic, then wrote an article about it, and finally got the book deal. Meanwhile, most of us would simply forget that conversation, and go about our life as usual.
- Make sure that you create the best content possible. The popularity of “Design for Hackers: Why You Don’t Use Garamond on the Web” wasn’t completely random. Sure, luck played a part, but David put a LOT of effort into writing this article, and making it a great fit for HN audience.
- Create products that people want. Hitting #18 on Amazon is impressive, but it isn’t surprising, especially when you consider how eager the HN audience was to get the book. Pay attention what problems people are struggling with right now, and then try to offer a solution. This makes selling much easier.
- Keep in mind that you won’t make much money if you go the traditional publishing route. Yes, J.K. Rowling made more than $1 billion with Harry Potter,sure. That’s not very likely to happen for the most of us, though.
- Only commit to writing a book if you feel that you have something to say. Writing a book is really tough and for most people money alone would not be a sufficient motivation to go through with it. Plus, you are not likely to make much money anyway, so what’s the point then?
- Make an effort to meet interesting people on a regular basis. Don’t do it because you expect something in return, though, because you are not likely to make any friends this way. Meet people who are genuinely interesting to you. Maybe something will come out of it, maybe not, but at least you will have a great time!
- Educate people on the topic that you know a lot about. As David said, some things might be obvious to you, but they probably aren’t that obvious to many other people, so don’t be shy. Share your knowledge.
Interested in David’s blog? Start here!
Here are three great articles from kadavy.net:
- Design For Hackers: Why You Don’t Use Garamond On The Web - Yup, that’s the post we have been mentioning throughout the whole interview, the one that got David a book deal.
- Mind Management (Not Time Management) - In this article David explains the importance of aligning our mental state with what needs to be done (as opposed to obsessing over minutes and hours).
- The Way I Work - In this article, not only David describes his typical day, but also shares some thoughts about productivity. He works a bit differently now (article was written in 2009), though.
You can find more great posts at kadavy.net!
Agota is a digital nomad who makes a living writing. She has a hard time staying in one place and loves slow travel. As a result, over the last five years, she has lived in United Kingdom, Spain, and Greece, where she's currently staying for the summer. Agota believes that travel is a great way to learn more about yourself and about the world, and that pretty much anyone can afford it if they set their mind to it.