27th November, 2008

I am not John Cleese

OK. Lets start this post about my book Beginning CSS Web Development with one of my favourite reviews.

...for a Brit his humor is NOT funny! Collison needs to read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” if he wants to learn about British humor. In the meantime, just skip it; you’re not John Cleese!

That’s an American there, telling me my British humour isn’t funny. Meh, I don’t care, and everyone else thinks both myself and the book are funny. Anyway, he’s right about one thing. I am not John Cleese.

Now, if you’ve time to spare, come with me now as I embark upon a retrospective look back at the process, aiming as I am to work out whether it was really worth all the bother or not…

Two years on, I barely remember I even wrote it

I’ve been very careful not to say too much about my book since it launched, save for the odd promotional item. In fact, I didn’t realise how easy it would be to totally forget I’d written it. Maybe its because writing it lost me seven months, my ability to focus on my other work, and the girl I loved left me. Hmm. It was a funny old year.

Its over two years now since I first pulled a fresh copy out of the box in Autumn 2006, and I rarely go back to look at the thing. I’m certainly not one for continually stroking my ego in that way. The book is hidden away at home and does not get surreptitiously left out when hot girls are visiting (which is a rare occurence these days).

The highs - solid 5/5 reviews and gushing praise

For months it was receiving superb reviews on the US and UK Amazon stores - holding at 5 stars out of 5 for some time, and only outsold by Meyer, Malarkey and Budd (the latter’s book featuring a chapter by me anyway). Websites I loved, magazines, and bloggers I’d once learned from were recommending my book, and it was certainly an exciting time. It was thrilling to see my name on a book, and a joy to receive emails from people who felt they had finally seen the path to CSS enlightenment. I underestimated how well the book would sell and how many plaudits it would receive.

Out of date quicker than you can say “Flock”

So, now its two years since the book debuted. A month after it was published, IE7 was released, essentially outdating the hacks and cross-browser methodologies within. I was not really able to mention CSS3 or anything cool like that either. The list of errata was growing due not only to copy and code errors, but also due to advancements in CSS techniques and the fact that two years of internet is like 10 years anywhere else. Gradually the tide has turned, and I’m now receiving more emails regarding readers’ problems, and starting to see my star ratings on Amazon begin to nosedive.

I’m absolutely fine with the criticism. Its in some ways merited, seeing as time has moved on and the landscape is shifting. Still, I do wish some people wouldn’t take the trouble to write negative reviews when they’ve got their facts wrong. It seems that its the thickest, laziest and most brainless people that want to litter the online world with their incredibly inaccurate rants about the work of others. My favourite was the first review that took me below five stars, that ranted about the book’s lack of advanced techniques, despite it clearly being titled Beginning CSS Web Development.

Was it really worth it?

After all of this time, I wonder how I feel about the book. It served me well. It paid for a new boiler in my house, and a few other decent bits and pieces. It raised my profile and saw a few more people take me seriously as an author and as a web standards advocate. It actually was funny too - I am regularly told - with innumerable references to tea, biscuits and general irrelevances. I was so keen to ensure the book wasn’t just another dry code manual, and I think that worked out pretty well.

Yet, on the face of it, the book had no personality - it was the colour of a wasp, in a generic black and yellow publisher’s jacket. As a thing to hold and flick through it might as well have been a VCR manual. The second edition featured more copy errors than the first (such as the name of my company), and as time has slipped by, it has become less relevant as a CSS document. In some respects, I wish it would go away.

I think maybe it was worth it

But then again, I still get emails from young designers who have found it to be an invaluable way of understanding CSS. They gush with gratitude and I love that. I really love that. My confidence is low sometimes, so that kind of thing naturally makes one feel a bit zestier. Ultimately, I now feel I can look at the whole experience more subjectively, with more experience and more understanding of what I let myself in for.

Ah, fuck it. Lets end on a good review:

Beginning CSS Web Development is one of the finest introductory guides I’ve ever read on any subject.

Yeah. I ain’t no John Cleese, but I did write one of finest introductory guides that chap had ever read on any subject. That alone makes me feel a bit better about it all. There’s plenty more gushing praise right here.

The real reason why I wrote the book

One thing that very few people know is that, despite me having reasonable success with every venture I’d ever undertaken, my late Grandfather really didn’t think I was of much use and thought (largely due to not knowing what the internet was) my latest explorations with the web were worthless. I had no way of illustrating to him that what I was doing actually mattered.

So, I agreed to write a book all of my own. I wanted him to see his name, and the name of his Grandson, on that book jacket. I knew it would make all the difference. A few months before he passed away in early 2007, I gave him a copy of the book. He still had no idea what it was about, but he told me that I’d made him very proud. And he meant it.

With hindsight, I guess that means that losing my relationship, losing my mind, suffering criticism from fools, dealing with constant errata problems - and not being as funny as John Fucking Cleese - makes it all worthwhile. In fact, maybe I am proud of it.

So, would I advise anyone else to write a book?

No.

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