Chris Mills interview
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Published on May 22, 2006
Digital Web Magazine: A quick check of Flickr shows you partaking in the festivities at SXSWi. You don’t look like a businessman or a literary person. You look more like a Web guy. A giant, hippie Web guy. Is Web design/development your native language, or were you in disguise?
Chris Mills: Yeah, I decided that the best disguise to choose to infiltrate the corporate world of Web design was a giant hippie suit!
My background didn’t start in literature, or computing, or print design—like many of my cohorts in the Web design community. My path was a pretty indirect one. My degree is actually in biochemistry, but after realizing that I wasn’t as passionate about fondling test tubes and inhaling bacteria as I first thought, I decided to look for something else.
I’d always had an affinity for language and had always been interested in computing, after discovering this thing called the Internet at University in about 1996, so I decided to answer a job ad for a “Trainee Technical Editor” at Wrox. I was instantly impressed when the interview offer included the line “Wear casual dress.” So I turned up in a pair of ripped, faded jeans and a Sepultura t-shirt, slightly embellished the truth on how much tech knowledge I had, got the job and the rest is history. It’s great having a job to be passionate about, and one that gives me the chance to work with so many friendly, intelligent people.
DW: You are passionate about the open source philosophy, aren’t you?
CM: Indeed, I am. I’m a huge fan of Linux and open standards, because they allow anyone with the will and the knowledge to achieve wonderful things, without having to shell out large piles of cash to buy software, or be locked into dealings with specific vendors. It’s also great that anyone can fix bugs and release improved versions of the software.
This is why I’m also very excited about the way Flash is moving—check out Aral Balkan’s OSFlash site for more on open source initiatives being developed to allow Flash development without needing to rely on the Flash IDE. And then there’s ActionScript 3 and Flex Builder—even Adobe themselves are starting to move towards Flash as a platform, although I’ll accept that’s not true open source. But there are open source alternatives available, such as OpenLaszlo.
DW: What is the origin of the name friends of ED (foEd)?
CM: This is the most common question I get asked about foED. Basically, the “ED” stands for “Every Designer.” It fits in beautifully with our philosophy of being more like friends than educators, walking alongside you toward your goals, rather than looking down on you.
I bet that crushed your dreams of freaky little pixies named “ED,” didn’t it?
DW: Another dream dies. Who does foED see as their primary audience? What is your company’s identity, compared to large publishing houses?
CM: I like to think that we serve as the “Indie label” tech publisher—the anti-establishment, cool-school guys. We like our books to be innovative, exciting and cutting-edge and not just idiot’s guides-by-numbers. We also like to be friends with our authors, rather than just business colleagues, as I said. Of course, this stance does have its risks. Show a bunch of tech authors a bar and they turn into wild beasts, so keeping up with these guys can be hard work—I’ve got the scars from SXSWi to prove it!
DW: What is the relationship between Apress and foED? What’s the connection with the now-defunct glasshaus?
CM: foED and Apress serve as sister brands. foED caters to the more artsy and creative type of geek (Flashers, standards-based Web designers and developers, UI-designers, motion graphics producers, etc.), whereas Apress caters to the more hardcore programmer types (.NET, MS Office development, Java, PHP, databases, etc.).
glasshaus was a sub-brand of Wrox focusing on Web development books, back in the day, which I helped to set up along with a number of wonderful people, including Bruce Lawson, accessibility advocate, and all-round diamond geezer and Simon Mackie, who’s now an editor for Sitepoint, among others.
DW: What is your role as Senior Editor? Do you have the final word on green-lighting projects?
CM: I spend most of my day running around like a headless chicken, answering hundreds of mails, avoiding phone calls, seeking out hot new tech topics, finding authors to write about them, editing chapters and yes, green-lighting projects.
DW: I have an idea for a guaranteed bestseller: a book on weight loss achieved through sex and Web design. Is foED strictly interested in technical books, or are you open to “softer” subjects such as visual design, information architecture—or my book?
CM: Yes, we are open to “soft” subjects, but not soft porn—although your book idea does sound very promising.
DW: Why should a potential author approach a print publisher, rather than publishing an ebook on their own, as 37signals did?
CM: There has been so much debate about this over the years. I’d say it’s largely down to your personal preference as an author. If you go through a publishing house, your freedom is limited and you may get a worse deal than you would if you went it alone. But, the publisher takes all the investment risk away from you and offers you a wealth of services to make use of. You get to share the event with an experienced, knowledgeable editor, who helps you craft the overall structure/content of your book. A copy editor makes sure your grammar and spelling is up to scratch. You don’t have to deal with the hassle of laying out or marketing the book. An established publishing house will have a much better distribution network for selling your book, including knowing how to reach libraries and other potentially huge markets. And so on.
However, if your independence is sufficiently important to you and you have the determination to go it alone, you can do so, possibly with great returns. I’ve got a lot of respect for the guys at 37signals, and what they’ve achieved. However, if you don’t have an audience the size of 37signals’ (who are well-known not just to Web designers but also in the business world) you may be quite disappointed with your sales.
DW: I would also think that it depends on the subject matter. A book that has fewer pages and isn’t text-heavy might be a better candidate for a self-published PDF book than, say, a 300 page book on DOM scripting, at least for some potential purchasers.
I see a lot of authors acting as Amazon affiliates for their own books. Do you recommend this? What effect does Amazon have on publisher profits, in general, and how much are sales affected by the reviews at Amazon?
CM: When a book first comes out, an author may still be “earning” back their advance (and not all authors receive an advance), so any income during that period will be from being an affiliate or selling the book directly. I would encourage everyone to buy books through authors’ sites, so they’ll be assured of receiving as much of their hard-earned money as possible. After that initial period, of course, royalties will certainly be higher than affiliate sales—you’ll be receiving them on all books no matter where they are sold. In answer to your question about Amazon’s role, they certainly get the word out to an enormous audience, although they also demand deep discounts, which cuts down on profits somewhat. Amazon reviews have a fairly large influence on sales, which is why a lot of publishers solicit reviews from reviewers. They generally say that if you attract one review, then others will follow. It works the other way, too—it is a fairly common practice to solicit negative reviews of competitors’ books, although I’ve never stooped to that myself—I’m a good boy!
DW: Do you approach prospective authors or accept unsolicited book proposals? Are book agents necessary?
CM: Both, really, although I’d say most often we approach them. As for agents, most of our authors don’t have them, although some do—it doesn’t make any difference to us. An agent can take some of the hassle out of contract negotiations and other stuff at the start of the process, and they collect a small percentage of the advance for their trouble. I’m sure an agent would argue that they do a lot more than this, but this is just my view, from what I’ve seen.
DW: What advice can you give someone who is working on a book proposal?
CM: The official Apress “Write for Us” page contains useful advice on writing a book proposal.
Other editors may do things differently, but I like to retain the author’s personality all the way through the process, so there’s no set template for proposals. Unless they come to me with a perfectly detailed proposal that fits exactly what I want to publish, I tend to spend a few mails or phone calls jamming ideas with them. I like to go all the way from vague ideas scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet (which, as you all know, is where all the best ideas are conceived) up to complete proposal stage. Even then, there’s room for a certain amount of fluidity—there has to be, due to software and spec updates and new brainwaves that sometimes come to light at 2:00 a.m. after a few Black Russians.
DW: What do you look for in potential authors? Do they need to be well-known and have a high-traffic blog?
CM: It always helps to be a luminary, but it isn’t essential, by any means. Authors have obviously got to know their stuff and be able to communicate it to others—you’d be amazed by the number of potential authors I’ve encountered who either don’t know what they’re talking about, or can’t string two words together. I’d say that apart from that, I look for enthusiasm and a positive, friendly attitude—someone who’s pleasant to work with, who will go around the streets with a loudhailer, shouting about their book until either they get locked up, or everyone in that town owns a copy of their book and they move on to the next town.
DW: What percentage of book sales does the typical author receive? Do you offer advances or strictly pay royalties?
CM: We normally offer a first time author a bag of peanuts per book. Proven authors get two bags of peanuts, or a watermelon. We occasionally give special premium rates to our favorite authors. For example, Jeremy Keith got a pint of Guinness and a bag of pork scratchings.
OK, OK! Put the knives away and I’ll give you a serious answer. We are actually unusual in that we make all our contract terms and standard royalty rates available for public consumption, so you can see straight away what you’re getting into before you even approach us. Again, this fits into our “right on” ethos. The rates sometimes differ slightly, but not by much. As for advances, I can’t really give you specific information here, but I will say that we are competitive with most of our competitors’ rates.
DW: Does an author work on his/her own until completing the first draft, or do you get involved earlier? Once the first draft is done, how long does it usually take to have the book ready to ship to bookstores?
CM: I usually give the author(s) extensive feedback on formatting, style, scope, etc., during writing of the first few chapters, until they are nicely settled into the “writing zone.” Once their material starts hitting the mark more often than not, I then largely leave them to it, giving each chapter a read to make sure I’m happy with it and checking what the reviewers have said about it.
From starting a conversation with an author, to the book appearing on the shelf, typically takes 6 to 9 months.
DW: Is there any way I can trick you into revealing classified information on upcoming books?
CM: We’ve got a great book coming out by top Web accessibility minds such as Cynthia Waddell, Shawn Lawton Henry from the W3C, Jim Thatcher and others.
Tom Green and Jord Chilcott, his geek sidekick, have an exciting book on the way about Flash 8 Video—this was an awesome book to edit, as the examples are so cool. Imagine having yourself staring out of all the video screens on Times Square! Video walls and superimposing also feature heavily—video is going to explode very soon.
I’ve also got some very cool Web standards books on the horizon, featuring a lot of really talented guys from both sides of the pond. This is one of the areas we’re most interested in at the moment.
DW: It’s time for the Lightning Round!
CM: Girlfriend and one sweet little three-year-old long-haired hippie son.
DW: Bestselling foED book of all time?
CM: Probably the first New Masters of Flash book.
DW: Bestselling book currently?
CM: CSS Mastery, by the esteemed Andy Budd, Simon Collison and Cameron Moll. Jeremy Keith’s DOM Scripting book is not far behind.
DW: Location of foED headquarters?
CM: Berkeley, California, although I’m based in the UK.
DW: Who chooses each technical reviewer/editor?
CM: Me, unless the author has a preferred tech reviewer lined up already.
DW: Are you actually just Rob Weychert pretending to be British?
CM: Judge for yourself. I have a longer beard, but his has more overall mass, I think. We’re both very metal indeed, so let’s call it a tie.
DW: Blogs you enjoy (other than those of foED authors)?
CM: Molly, Robert Nyman, Bruce Lawson and Girls Are Pretty.
DW: Century in which you plan to update your Apress blog?
CM: Never, but my new blog at foED will be live by the time this is published. Check it out!
DW: Clever sleuthing uncovered that you are in an inexplicably popular heavy metal band and that you don’t like the Beatles. Please defend yourself.
CM: Guilty as charged. I play drums in the mighty Conquest of Steel, an 80’s metal band influenced by the likes of Manowar, Iron Maiden, WASP and Judas Priest. We have spikes, beer and infectious metal tunes that’ll keep you nodding your head until way after the amps have been turned off. The amps do go up to 11. As for the Beatles, I can accept that they’re influential, but they don’t really “rock” as such. They kind of glide.
DW: The detective I hired said you have a story about contacting Steve Champeon (of webdesign-L and WaSP) to contribute to the glasshaus CSS book. Care to spill the beans? (I hesitate to use that phrase, as it probably means something unspeakably rude when you Brits use it.)
CM: This answer is an excerpt from my forthcoming book “101 Reasons to Hate Bruce Lawson.”
Ok, here we go. No disrespect to Steve meant here, as he’s a great guy, but when we were planning the first edition of the Cascading Style Sheets book, we were reading webdesign-L a lot, and we came to the conclusion that Steve was a pretty stern guy, judging by his “take no BS” attitude on the list. I was given the job of contacting him to ask if he wanted to write for us.
Meanwhile, Bruce set up a fake Steve Champeon hotmail address, and sent me an email basically saying, “No, I never want to write for your nasty little publishing company, especially not after reading your pathetic little missive. And I’m going to tell all of my fellow Web developers to avoid you like the plague.”
I totally fell for it, hook, line, and sinker, turned to Bruce, face as white as a sheet, gibbering. At this point, he and the rest of the office started laughing, and Bruce showed me the email on his screen.
The real Steve Champeon then replied to me about a day later, with a very polite email, accepting the job.
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Chris Mills is a developer relations manager for Opera—he edits and publishes articles on dev.opera.com and labs.opera.com, liaises with the community to raise awareness of Opera and collect feedback, and evangelises about Opera software wherever he can. Outside of work, he is an extremely avid music fan, enjoying playing and listening to a wide variety of music, including metal, folk, punk, electronica, prog, and more. His main band at the moment is the mighty Conquest of Steel—http://www.conquestofsteel.co.uk.
Carolyn Wood of pixelingo is a web designer, copywriter, content strategist, and the Editor in Chief of Digital Web Magazine. Her long list of loves includes the web, design, storytelling, and making lists. If you meet her, ask her to tell you the story about the midwife and the bank robber.