Want to write a technical book to share your knowledge with the Mac community? Armin Briegel has done just this. He’s authored two books on macOS which he self-published on iBooks. We caught up with him just before Christmas 2017 to ask him about his experience and to share tips with aspiring authors.
You can meet Armin in person at The Mac Administrator and Developer Conference UK (MacAD.UK) which runs from 20th-21st February 2018 at the VUE entertainment complex in London’s Leicester Square.
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How did you first get into writing books?
All of this started when my wife, who is a wonderful smart person, got an offer as a professor at Leiden University. Before that, we lived in Los Angeles, and I was the system administrator at large university there. And, when my wife got the offer we said: “Yeah, this is great, we’re going to move back to Europe”.
I had to train my replacement at the university and while I was working with him and showing him what I was doing with Jamf and Autopackage and all these things Mac Admins use, he was like: “So where are the books about all these things?”
I said: “Well, there’s a handful. There’s the Managing macOS books from Eric Dreier and Kevin White, that are really excellent, but they only get you so far. And then there’s really not many.”
So, after we moved here, and moving the whole family here, I decided to take some time off before starting work again here in the Netherlands. And, I had to do something to stay in touch with the MacAD community, I can’t just stop working, so I decided to write a book.
At first, I had this huge outline about everything MacAD related, but I quickly realised it was never going to be finished. So, I chose the low hanging fruit, something that comes up all the time, that people really need background on and is very poorly documented. So, the first book was about packaging.
After about six months working on this book alone, I decided to publish it on iBooks: because it’s easy; I don’t have to go through a publisher, I just have to register with Apple and put in some tax information. I get 70% of the proceeds. You could argue that Apple is taking a very large share, but compared to other publishing deals, that’s actually still pretty good.
I also chose to use iBooks because the Apple iBooks author application really allows me to do things that aren’t necessarily impossible on other platforms, but very hard. With iBooks author Application, I can actually take something like a Keynote presentation, a slideshow, and just drop it in and users can take that full screen in iBooks and just tap through it.
If anyone else is out there wanting to write books in the way that you have, can you give them any tips on how to start? Writing a book in a pretty daunting prospect for most people.
I’m guessing you started with quite a big plan? Did you need skills from other people to do the desktop publishing or did you do everything yourself?
I have really done everything myself and I guess that with the tool like iBooks author that’s possible. There are other tools that you can use to build ebooks. The disadvantage of the iBooks author application is that it will only run on the iBook platform – iPad, iPhone or the Mac. I decided given the topic, that’s not a bad restriction, but yeah, that’s a trade-off.
So, you’re only on iBooks. Have you thought about taking the content out and distributing it wider?
Yes, I definitely have and I have got requests. The main limitation given the subject matter, being limited to Mac, isn’t that bad, but I am also limited to the countries in which iBooks is available and that right now excludes China and India and most of Asia. I’ve had requests to publish in China. Amazon is present in China, so I’ve been looking at converting the books into EUB3 and putting them on Amazon, but I would basically have to redesign them and re-layout them completely to do that.
Can you tell me a little more about the content of each of your books?
So, for the first one, the title kind of explains itself: it’s about building installer packages. It’s one of those things administrators like to avoid when they can, and they shouldn’t do it if they don’t have to, but we do still have to do it all the time. It’s a fundamental skill.
The first part is you have to look at third party packages and inspect them to see how they work, to be able to predict how they might fail. And then, of course, when you run them in different contexts, they will fail – at least some of them. So, you have to learn how to take them apart. That is part of the book and then the other larger part of the book is, now you have to take them apart, you have to rebuild them and put them back together again. Apple’s documentation on that is practically non-existent. This is one of those things that has pretty much been distributed through the Mac Admin community by osmosis: through chats and online forums and mailing lists and a few very good sessions at conferences. But, I thought, somebody needs to write this down.
Your second book is PropertyLists, Preferences and Profiles?
Yeah, that wasn’t planned at all! After the packaging book, I decided that the sequel to that would obviously be about automated packaging and auto-packages, this wonderful open-source solution that is out there.
As I started writing that, Auto Package uses property lists for basically everything, and I had a small side note that explained how property lists worked. It got bigger and bigger and bigger and turned into its own chapter and then I finally realised it was going to be something else. Property lists everything that’s preferences in macOS, at least macOS native applications, store them as property lists. So, that’s something that’s pretty important for us.
And then since 10.7 Lion, configuration profiles are basically just property lists, but a very specialised form of them. And, with mobile device management, being the centre of everything management that Apple is setting up, I believe they going to very important.
This book kind of grew out of that small side note, but it got its own life. I basically feel that’s how most self-publishing is going to work. You might not necessarily get what you planned, but you’ll get something interesting.
So, your message is “start writing and see where it takes you”?
Exactly. That’s what happened to me. I certainly have not ended up where I wanted to be. As you might have noticed, there is no Auto Package book published by me yet, because it took me into other places including the property lists book. It’s still there. I haven’t given up. It’s just on the shelf for the time being.
…. interview continues about MacAD.UK.