Brett's opinion on writing a DFIR book

Brett's opinion on writing a DFIR book

Let me disclaim a bit.  I don’t know everything about writing or publishing.  All I know is what I have done.  With that, I have been asked about writing books (computer/digital forensics topics) over the past few years.  Let me give my experience to anyone considering writing a forensic book.

To start, I have written three books so far, meaning that I am writing more.  Two of the three published books have had co-authors.

I’ll go through some of the questions I have been asked already.  First off, I have been flattered and humbled each time someone asks for my opinion on writing books, and each time I have answered questions about the process, I have realized that I could have done things differently or better.  Not everyone asked the exact same questions, but they are very similar.

What made you decide to publish a book?

I considered any person who wrote a book to be an ultimate expert in their field and did not feel I was at any level of credibility to write.  But, I asked someone I respected in the field who had written several books already and he said, “DO IT!”.    I’ll leave out the name of who convinced me to go for it, but suffice to say that I took his advice seriously. 

Unfortunately, all I asked was, “Should I write a book?” and didn’t ask anything about the process.  That was Mistake #1.

How did you come up with a topic to write about?

This was easy.  I thought of a book topic that I wanted to read about; a book that I would buy right then if it were on Amazon.  Of course, if the topic was already written and in print, I would not have written a book on the same thing as I just would have bought it. 

I thought about the topic of my first book (Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard) when I was a narcotics detective, years before I got into digital forensics.  The reason came about due to drug cases where I had a ton of cases where providing drug possession was difficult due to each incident (multiple persons in a car and a bag of cocaine under one seat, third party owner of a car, etc…).  Getting into forensics later in my police career, I came across the same issues in proving who was behind the keyboard in child exploitation cases and so forth.  So, that topic was in the making for about a decade.

My second book (X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide) was written out of personal necessity. I wanted a book on how to use the forensic tool I use everyday.  I have never appreciated the X-Ways Forensics manual.  I find it hard to read, difficult to find the information I need, and would prefer something tell me exactly how to use X-Ways Forensics.  I had written a few things about X-Ways and posted online but figured a book on X-Ways Forensics would be best.  The manual does what it is intended to do: give information 'about' X-Ways Forensics, but not tell 'how' to use X-Ways Forensics.

My latest book, Hiding Behind the Keyboard, was written mainly as a follow up to my first book in order to add some updated information including some related mobile forensics information.  Both Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard and Hiding Behind the Keyboard complement each other and I wrote both to be long lasting with concepts that can be used with evolving technology.

Which publisher should I go with?

For me, I choose Syngress.  I have a lot of Syngress books and always check for latest releases from Syngress. There are a few other publishers that print digital forensics topics, but I just like the Syngress titles and formats.  I did not consider other publishers but should have (Mistake #2) as it makes better sense to know what other publishers offer instead of just one.

I suggest go with whichever publisher publishes books that you like and would like to write in the same manner.  What I mean by this is, some publishers have strict guidelines on how you write and what your write.  If you go with a publisher that wants your book to be a college textbook, be prepared to forego a lot of your creativity.  You may have to write at a 10th grade reading level, segregate the book into sections that can fit into a college course year or semester, plus other requirements that will make your book into a textbook.

For me, Syngress is different.  I have found that the author has so much leeway in writing that the book can be written to fit practitioners’ needs.  I enjoy forensic books that get right to the point with the author giving ‘war stories’ of how the techniques worked in real life.  I also like that Syngress books seem to speak directly to you, examiner to examiner, and not as if you are a student following a syllabus.

So, the answer is go with what fits you, and if they won’t take you, go with someone else.

Did you think about self-publishing?

I get this one a lot.  I did think about it and still do.  In fact, I will be self-publishing a book just to see how well it works.  Since I haven’t done it yet, I can’t recommend it.  What I can say about self-publishing is that you own the work.  That is a major point.  With a publisher, you don’t own the work; the publisher owns it.  That means if you want to write a 2nd edition, you can’t unless the publisher approves it.  That might be a major issue if you are writing about your own software or something you ‘own’ or ‘discovered’ on your own.

Publishing through a reputable company gives you many benefits that can outweigh ‘owning your work’.  For example, Syngress has distribution channels set up already.  Their name is heavy.  They handle everything.  Cover design, editing, payments, sales, reprints, marketing, and author support is all covered with a publisher.  That does not mean there isn’t a cost.  The author gets a piece of the pie after everyone else is paid.  That is the price to pay and if you are working cases full time, then it most likely will be a price well paid.  If you want the least amount of hassles, find a publisher.  There are always speed bumps in a book publishing process, but when you are self-publishing, those speed bumps can turn into brick walls if you don't know what you are doing.

Should I write the book first and then find a publisher?

Oh my, don’t do that.  You can if you want.  Several people that asked me had already written most of their book or finished it.  In my opinion, I think it best to have the outline and propose the outline to a publisher.  Most publishers have a form that you can fill in the blanks and submit for a book.  If they like it, you are good to go.  If not, you can try again with a different outline to fit what they believe would be a good book.  Take a look at Syngress as an example of writing and submitting a book proposal.

One thing to think about if you are planning to write first is that you might be too late.  As one example, I had considered writing about a topic, thought about it for a few weeks, put together an outline, thought about it for a few more weeks, and by the time I decided to propose the topic, I found that someone had just said they were going to write the exact same book. I took too long (Mistake #3).  I tossed my outline and learned that it is better to propose a topic as soon as you think about because if you don’t, someone else will.  If you write a book before even letting the world know about it, you risk someone else getting a contract to write the same book when they didn’t do anything other than submit a proposal.   In theory, since your book is complete, you could publish well before the other book comes out, but that is not something I would want to do.

Why did you have a co-author on some books and not another?

Well…on the first book, I had asked a few people to co-author the book with me and was turned down.  Being my first book, those rejections hit kinda hard.  I didn’t ask anyone else for fear of more rejections, so I wrote the book myself and in the end, glad that I did.  I recommend that if you are going to write several books, write at least one by yourself.  It is well worth the experience.

On the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner’s Guide, I took the chance to ask someone to be a co-author because I did not feel that I could cover the software well enough.  I had been using X-Ways Forensics since its first version (over 10 years!) but still felt I may miss something.  On a whim, I asked Eric Zimmerman and he accepted to co-write the book.  Mind you, I never met Eric, and I asked him with an email that we communicating on a separate topic.  Basically, out of the blue, I asked and he accepted.  Much easier than my first book….and of anyone in forensics to help write a book on X-Ways Forensics, Eric is the man.  I lucked out on that one.  As a side note, X-Ways Forensics has gotten a LOT MORE traction as a forensic tool due to the book, which was what I wanted.  The more people that use X-Ways Forensics, the more R&D that goes into it, and the better tool I get in the end J

For the third book, when I talked about writing it, I had several people ask to be a co-author, including some of who turned me down on my first book.  But, I had my mind set on a mobile forensics expert, who happened to be local to me.  John Bair was my first pick and I had to drive down to his office and practically con/vince him to do it, for which I am grateful he accepted.  John is one of those cops who are busy because they work and barely have time for writing a book.  I sincerely appreciated him taking time to help with the book and hopefully set him on a path of writing books in the future.

So, write one by yourself and write others with a co-author.  It just depends if you have enough expertise in a topic to write an entire book yourself, or if you need help to meet deadlines. As far as how to ask someone…just ask.  Send an email.  Call.  Mail a letter. Anything.  Just ask.  Don’t be surprised at what you get when you ask.  Those who turned me down with my first book…I know them personally, some for almost 20 years, but they turned me down.  With Eric and John, I never met either but both agreed.  You just can’t tell who will say yes and who will say no.  I recommend ONLY asking someone you really want to be a co-author.  If you asked someone the B-team because you think someone the A-team will say no, you will get what you get for a co-author. I say, go straight to the A-team.  The worst that can happen is that they say no.

How long does the process take?

I gauge the time from the date of the signed contract to the date of printing.  Anything before that day doesn’t really count.  Thinking about writing and talking about it doesn’t do much until you sign your name to get it down.

Remember that I am only talking about Syngress and my experiences, but generally expect that your book won’t be on a shelf (or Amazon) for about a year.   Most likely, you will be sending in a chapter a month until done.  Then it takes a month or so to edit it (by the publisher to fix grammar and spelling), and then maybe two or three months to print it. 

If you write faster, the book gets printed faster. If you write on time, the book is going to take time to finish.  With a co-author, you can cut the time in half.  Seriously.  You can cut the time in half.  There were several times that I thought Eric Zimmerman didn’t need sleep.  Eric is a machine.  He writes at the speed of light and I think his first drafts were practically final drafts.  John was on spot too.  When you have authors like that, your book is going to be available fast/er.

But no matter what you do, when you publish through a company, there is extra time needed than if you did it yourself.  I am certain that if Eric and I self-published, the book would have hit the stores within 5 months.  If you realize that putting a PDF on the Internet does not compare to publishing a book, you will have patience for the process.

Would you do it again?

Yep.  Doing it again already.

Do you have any suggestions on getting started?

Yep.  Go to a publisher’s website, download the book proposal form, and fill it out right now.  Then share it with trusted peers to get their opinion.  Find a co-author if you need. Then submit your proposal.  Start now because I promise you, someone is thinking about that very same topic right now.

Who pays everyone?

If you self-publish, you do.  You pay everyone.  You pay the co-author, editor, cover designer, printer, etc…

If you go through a publisher, you will have no out-of-pocket expenses, other than what you spend for your book materials (may need to buy and test software, etc…).  Everything else is taken care of by the publisher.  Part of being paid a small piece of the pie is that the finances are not your responsibility. 

How much money can I expect to make?

This is a difficult question, because Harry Potter made JK Rawlings into a billionaire and there are more books that anyone can guess that didn’t make enough to buy a cup of coffee.  The answer, like anything in forensics, is that it depends.  If you write a popular book, it will sell.  For example, the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner’s Guide sold out before the first printing was even started. It went into a second print before the book was even available.  It just all depends.  I will say that if you intend to retire off a digital forensics book, you better write something like “Harry Potter and the Cyber Criminal.”

To get a little closer to an answer, I would say that if you really are thinking about making money with this kind of book, you can make some.  At least enough for a nice vacation every year or maybe buy a new car with one of the checks.  

Any tips on the process?

Plenty. 

Co-authors: You can cut down the process if you have a co-author in a few ways. First off, share the writing and write at the same time.  For example, if you are due one chapter a month, rather than each co-author write their chapter every other month, both can write a chapter every month.  That will cut the process time in half.

Have your co-author review your chapter, and review your co-author’s chapter before submitting them each month. That cuts the tech editor’s time down to almost nothing.  It also cuts the final editing down as well.

Tracking changes: Use a file sharing program to keep track of the chapters.  DO NOT email drafts between authors and your publisher until they are FINAL.  When you email a draft to your co-author, and then you receive a draft from your co-author, then another, then one gets crossed in an email, you will all be confused to which draft is the current draft.  Some changes may even be missed.  Use something like SpiderOak or Dropbox.   Edit the files there so that all changes are tracked.  Which brings up tracked changed. Use MS Word and turn on tracked changes.  If you have never used tracked changes before, research it and you will see that it is the only way to go to keep track of changes. 

Timeliness: Get your chapters done early.  A month may seem like a long time, but I promise you that you will have one or more days that get too close to the deadline.  Procrastination is not an author’s friend.  If you are a procrastinator, don’t self-publish because it won’t happen.

Contributors, helpers, co-authors: There are a lot of people you can call upon to help with your book, and you need some of these regardless.  A co-author is optional, but like I mentioned, can be beneficial.  If you are thinking of a co-author, go straight to the A-team.  Don’t be shy.  Be prepared for a rejection, but such is life.

A tech-editor is a necessity in this field to make sure that what you think is correct is.  You don’t want to profess a forensic method to work when you are wrong.  Have your work peer-reviewed by a tech-editor.  The good thing is that you can usually pick your tech-editor.  As with going for the A-team with a co-author, the same theory applies to your tech editor.  Look at books you read, courses you attended, experts you see listed online, and pick who you want to review your work.  Ask and cross your fingers.  Then keep asking until someone says yes.  And if no one says yes, ask your publisher to find one, which they usually can if needed.

Contributors work the same way.  If there is just a single topic in a single chapter that you need help with and want a contributor, just find one and ask.  That’s all there is to it.  Add their name to the book as a contributor, the publisher takes care of the contract and payment. 

Errors: You will do your best to not make grammatical errors.  Your tech-editor will try to catch grammar errors (even though they focus on the accuracy of information more than grammar), your co-author will try to catch your errors, and the final editor (from the publishers, who I assume have PhDs in English…) will try to find any remaining errors.  BUT, there will still be a grammar, spelling, or sentence error of some sort that happens.  I have a book on my shelf that has the author’s name MISPELLED on the back cover.  These happen.  It is expected. Just do your best to minimize them.

Opinions: Before and during the process, ask opinions from those you respect, about what you are writing and intend to write.  If you hear a lot of, ‘that’s not something I would want to read or buy”, take it to heart.  You are writing for people to read it, otherwise, stick to a diary.   This doesn’t mean to forego your ideas and creativity, but be sure to write something that people want to learn about too.

Complimentary books: You will most likely get a set number of books from your publisher as complimentary copies to do with as you wish.   I suggest that instead of sending a book to mom, a book to your brother, and some to your friends who nothing to do with forensics, send them to someone who will write a review.  Your mom is going to love your book, but most likely, she isn’t going to understand what you wrote unless she does forensics.  Sure, keep one for your shelf, but give away the others to those who would have bought it.

Here comes the strange part about the comp books.  I’ve given all of my comp books away and politely asked for public reviews (on Amazon or their blogs).  Of the 99% I sent (I kept one of each book…), less than half wrote a review anywhere. I could have given the other half to family and friends and gotten a better response. Oh well.  Apparently, this seems to be the case across the board as I’ve asked and heard the same thing from other writers.  As a kind suggestion, if you ever get a comp copy of a book, write a review on Amazon.  It will be appreciated greatly.

One more thing on the comp copies.  After the comp copies are gone (maybe there were 10 or 20), they are gone.  The author does not have a never-ending supply of ‘free’ books.  If you get a book from an author that is not a com copy, that means the author bought it, usually at full price.  With bulk orders, there is a discount, but the discount is usually not better than what can be found on Amazon.  A friend of mine (in forensics) was over to visit one day and saw one of my books on my shelf.  I asked if he wanted to look at it and he thought I said, “do you want to have a free copy of my only copy left of the book I wrote?”.  And he took it…..so when a book cost $59.95, that is the price the author pays too….for the book that s/he wrote…therefore…reviews are a nice way to say thanks for book.

Practice first: I wrote a few PDFs that were put online.   Some call these “white papers”, but in reality, when we write these, they are essays that may or may not be peer reviewed.    However, they hold weight in (1) experience in writing that publishers will look at, (2) as in informal surveys in how readers respond to your writing and ideas, and (3) testing the waters of putting yourself out there.

The scariest thing is putting yourself out in the public eye.  Most of us in this field are hyper-paranoid of everything.  Few of us jump into the water without putting our toes in first.  Those who do are not any braver than you.  They just say to themselves, “screw it, I’m doing it”.   Our paranoia comes from the risks of being doxed online because we put our names online (take a look at Brian Kreb’s experiences and you’ll see what I mean).  Others are afraid of having their written words used against them in court on a case by an opposing expert or opposing counsel.   And some are just too shy or embarrassed.

My opinion on public exposure is that when you publish something, you are reputable.  For example, if you publish a book through a noted publisher, such as Syngress or Cengage, your book has been peer reviewed to the max.  It has been professionally published, reviewed, printed, marketed, and will be used as citations around the world. If you don’t want your words used in a students graduate thesis, or as fodder in a court case as a citation, or cited in other books, then don’t write.   But if you want your name to be in the same sentence as ‘expert’ or ‘reputable’ or ‘published’, then write.   Sign your name and jump into the water.  It will be either warm or cold, but jump in.

If you are curious if any of your past works (white papers/PDFs) online have been cited by others, check out https://scholar.google.com/.   You may find that your works are already being touted by others as cited works.

For the readers out there, this is for you.

Dude, when you review books, be kind.  If you didn’t really the book, there isn’t a need to slam the author.  Simply say that you didn’t enjoy the book because of a, b, and c.  I’ve seen reviews of some books (thankfully not my own!) that were down right cruel.  Let’s be nice people.  No one writing a digital forensics book will be retiring off that book and really took a risk of jumping into the public eye.

These are just my opinions.  I would suggest checking out some older posts from Harlan Carvey’s blog (https://windowsir.blogspot.com/2014/05/book-writing-to-self-publish-or-not.html) on publishing.  He has written some good advice on publishing, and like I mentioned, everyone is going to have different experiences.

Lastly, if you have read this entire blog post, that talks about writing a book on some topic in digital forensics, that means you have thought about doing it.   And reading this post to the end means you even have a topic or two that you believe would make a good book.  That means I am speaking directly to you at this point and suggesting that you DO IT!

 

 

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Wednesday, 23 August 2017