The Way I Write a Book

A book is a very small startup company.

Over my first five job-years I worked on dozens of different episodic television shows, pilots, and movies. The editor’s union employed me to run week-long workshops for editors, and over those years I trained hundreds of seasoned professionals. Every day I explained the sensitive new computerized devices of the 1980s to a very craft-oriented group of predominantly older men who had been making movies and television programs for my entire life. Literally every bit of content I had ever seen was produced by this group of people, my “students.”

Still, I was not an expert: I didn’t have much practical experience with film making or broadcasting or computers — but I did have hundreds of questions and I had access to every resource I’d ever need to get answers. And when I figured something out, my only real skill was an ability to explain it. My rule was always: how would I teach this to my mom?

At the April 1991 National Association of Broadcasts (NAB) convention in Las Vegas, there were 80,000 industry folks, and fancy city-block sized booths from giants like Sony, Panasonic, Chyron… it was the old broadcasting industry at it’s peak with just a hint of new computer companies showing up in tiny booths in the outer limits. If you knew where to go you could see prototypes for digital video, graphics devices, and new approaches to editing. The convention was huge, so large that no city but Las Vegas could host it. It took days to explore.

The Evolution of a Plan

On my first day of NAB, as I walked the enormous hall, it became immediately clear that none of these people realized how radically their jobs were about to change. Over the next few years the broadcast industry would need to learn about computers; people in Silicon Valley were going to increasingly need to create products that replaced elements of the broadcasting and filmmaking workflow; and filmmakers would benefit by understanding electronic issues like timecode and pixels.

At the various booths I’d stop in someone would say “Rubin, you should write a book explaining this” referring to whatever complicated piece of the puzzle they represented. As I walked the show, a sketch started to form in my mind of a rosetta stone for the three industries that were converging, and a reference guide that would help me navigate.

On the second day of NAB, as I walked through the halls, my position had changed, and I’d tell people that I was researching a book on the new technologies. I was gathering information and I wanted them to take me more seriously. By saying I was going to do a book, I got demonstrations of products, I got business cards and contacts. I was trying it on like a suit, and seeing how it fit.

On the third day of NAB I was invested in the idea, and told people I was currently writing a book on nonlinear editing, and when they’d ask if it would have X or Y in it, i’d say yes, and make a note. I was starting to describe it to people with increasing degrees of detail.

On the fourth and last day of NAB I told people I was finishing up a book on nonlinear editing, and it would be released soon. I was almost done and just getting some last minute info at the show…

I’d been talking about it for days and it felt achievable. By the last day I was worried about competition, I wanted to discourage any like-minded individuals from pursuing. If someone heard it was an idea, they might think they could beat me to market, but if it was “almost done” then they’d probably hold off, and wait to see it before they decided to move on it or not.

By the time I was leaving NAB I had committed to this book. Now I had to write it. I announced to anyone who would listen that it would be available at the next industry trade show, the SMPTE show, in five months.

Production

Publishing it myself was the only way this made sense. I had five months to release it, which meant less than four to write and design it; there wasn’t enough time to find a “real” publisher and talk them into it. But more importantly, a textbook like this could sell for $40: as an author I’d maybe make a 10% royalty. But I’d make 5X that if I did it myself. The upside was great. I had a pretty good idea how to produce a book, and I knew where to find the audience who could use it.

Very quickly I had a rough draft, but I needed domain experts in dozens of fields to fact check. And while everyone was excited for me, I couldn’t get anyone to give me the kind of attention I needed. I was on a tight deadline and I was asking for favors. The manuscript was unedited and unchecked, it was summer and I had to print soon if I wanted to debut at SMPTE.

When all else failed I decided to do a short run of a few hundred copies of the reasonably un-finished volume. I added an acknowledgments — and thanked everyone who said they’d help, whether they had or not.

When the book came out at SMPTE I did not get a booth; instead I walked around and handed copies out to everyone involved. I didn’t tell them it was a short print run. When they saw their names in the front, they finally read it, and once they read it, they quickly responded with notes and corrections.

Results

The first edition of Nonlinear was never sold. Based on everyone’s feedback I re-edited the entire volume and produced a “2nd edition” that debuted at the NAB show in 1992, the perfect moment to have a book like that. Nonlinear was adopted widely and kept selling out, which made me want to make a much better version. The third edition was released at Sundance in 1995, the flashpoint year for the adoption of nonlinear editing in Hollywood.

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I tuned the subtitle as the topic and market evolved — from “electronic film and video editing” to “digital film and video editing” to “digital video and film editing.”

By the time the fourth edition released in 2000, I was done. I was hardly the expert I needed to be and I was ready to move on. And the industry had finished its slow transition from film to digital editing— the book, thank god, was obsolete.

It remained in print for a few more years and supported me for a solid decade; I still think of it as my most successful project.

Written by

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.

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