What is a tech reader?

18 August 2014

If you write a tech book, eventually, you’ll be asked to find tech readers. It may not even be for your book! I’ve been asked to find tech readers for other people’s books several times, especially if the book is geared towards beginners. I teach, so naturally, I know more than a few new coders.

But… what is a tech reader?

The job

Simply put, the tech reader is the person who reads the book with an eye to technical accuracy. Grammar, layout, spelling: None of these are your bag. You make sure that the explanations make sense. You run the code to make sure it works. You point out if the author has glossed over something major, or if they’re using something that hasn’t been used yet.

The level of experience you need varies. A book should always have some tech readers who are the intended audience (so, possibly, beginners), but you also need experts to read the book. A beginner will pick up when they get confused more easily than an expert, but an expert is more likely to point out when you’re incorrect, or leading someone down the wrong path.

For example, Doug Hellmann was one of my expert technical readers for Teach Yourself Python in 24 Hours. Back in the day, I had planned a chapter on pickles (because I had to have 24 chapters and was having trouble with what should go in the middle of the book). He was the one that suggested that I should probably just teach JSON instead.

My beginners chimed in when they felt I was going too fast, and were experts at noticing when I was using something I hadn’t explained yet (like showing a for loop while teaching lists, even though I wasn’t covering for loops until the next chapter). Stuff like that is difficult for an expert to pick up on because, well, for loops and such come naturally to us.

The pay

I’m going to be frank about this: The pay is not great. Some places will toss a bit of money at you (around a few hundred dollars) while others will offer you a copy of the book. It not only varies by publishing house but by individual book. Some books simply end up with more of a budget for readers. A book that needs both beginners and experts will have more money allotted to technical readers than one aimed just at experts.

So why do it?

If the pay sucks but it’s going to take you a while to do, why would you bother to be a tech reader?

The biggest one: If you want to be a writer, this is a great way to get your name on the list. You get to chat with the editors and other authors as well as show off your chops. There are other ways to get your foot in the door, but when it comes to breaking into the writing scene, I recommend knocking on all the doors you can find.

Sometimes, you just want to do good turn for someone in the community. I have tech-read books because I consider someone a friend, and I want their book to be as awesome as possible.

It’s also a wonderful learning opportunity, if you happen to be a novice. Not only do you have a book, but you have access to the author. Not clear on a point? Shoot off an email! During the tech review, my job was to basically sit around and wait for my readers to email me with questions.

Finally, it helps create a better book. We always need more tech books. I know, it seems like there’s already a ton of tech books out there. Unlike a novel, though, tech books have a very short lifespan. Within a few years, they’re out of date, and a few years after that, they’re often useless. We need a stream of new books and updated books to help spread ideas and bring new developers into the fold.

How do I become a tech reader?

If you’re already friends with an author, then I would suggest telling them that you would like to be a tech reader. Most of us keep a list on hand for when our editor inevitably asks us to gather some people (I know I do).

If you see a booth for a publisher at a conference, talk to the people staffing it. I assure you, these people are not interns. They’re usually editors, authors, and community managers, and if they don’t know of a project you can help on right now, they can pass your information on to someone who does.

Finally, if you don’t go to conferences and don’t know any active authors, try Twitter. Every major publishing company has a dozen contact emails you can try, but I’ve found the people manning the Twitter accounts to be the most responsive. Most will follow you back so you can have a private conversation.

Just… don’t do what I did and complain about the quality of tech books. It worked for me, but you should probably start off with politeness rather than being a grouchy cuss.

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