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There are two issues here: a particular dispute between O'Reilly Media and one of our authors, and the relative advantages of using a publisher versus going it alone. I'm only going to address the former here, but if you read between the lines, you can see the signs of an author who imagines the upside of self-publishing, but is not prepared to accept the costs on the downside.

I'm the last person to suggest to any author that self-publishing is not a good idea, since I started out as a self-published author who then took on other authors, and grew a real publishing company. But in the course of that odyssey, I learned why publishing is not as easy as it looks, even today when the options for self-publishing have proliferated.

Let me respond to the particulars of this case.

As reasonable people know, there are two sides to every story. Far from being the story of a heartless publisher running roughshod over an innocent author, the O'Reilly Media side is a story of a particularly demanding author, for whom we've bent over backwards.

In response to a bad printing job, which as Steven Few notes, did produce a substandard printing of the book, we not only took the bad copies out of distribution and reprinted it to Steven's exacting specifications, which included a specific, very expensive paper, we foolishly agreed to let him inspect each print run. (As he notes, we didn't always follow through on this agreement, but he continued to buy the reprinted copies, which came from the same printer, from the same files, on exactly the same paper, without complaint.) When the Kindle edition (which we had every right to produce) turned out to be substandard, we took it out of print.

When he asked us to revert the rights, it is true that our publisher did assert, as we believe, that we had the rights to produce the second edition. But when Steven was clear that he did not want to produce the new edition with us, we didn't fight his wish to revert the rights, and agreed to his desire to cancel the contract.

At that point, Steven made clear that he expected us to continue publishing the first edition until such time as he no longer needed it. Given that this is an expensive four-color book for we have been printing approximately twelve months of inventory, we declined to go back to press when we ran out of stock three months short of his planned new edition.

This is fairly standard publishing practice - and it doesn't come from heartless disregard for authors, but rather, from thoughtful regard for customers. Most customers would not be too pleased to buy a book only to discover that there is a new edition available. They would rather hear in advance about a new edition, and wait for it, than buy an outdated version.

Steven's need for books for his seminars is a special case, but one that he could have anticipated and communicated to us in a cooperative way.

We have offered to provide to him all the source files for his book, so that if he chooses, he can arrange to print his own copies. After all, since he plans to self-publish the second edition, there is nothing to prevent him from self-publishing additional copies of the first edition if he requires them. We even offered to help arrange the printing.

What we were not willing to do is to incur the enormous cost of an extremely short run printing of an expensive book, when the need for that short run is driven by the author's own decisions and schedule, and not by ours. We even offered to set him up with a print-on-demand vendor who could produce copies on short turnaround at what we believe is probably acceptable quality, but he is not interested in that option.

When I first heard about this problem, Stephen was threatening litigation unless we printed books for him, despite the fact that he'd already terminated the contract. Let's be clear, he threatened to sue us for not continuing to perform on a contract that he himself asked to be canceled. (The contract did not require us to continue publishing the book in any case.)

When our publisher asked for a phone call to discuss options, he declined to talk with her, insisting that he'd only communicate about his issues in writing. And given that each of his messages seemed to have as a precondition the admission of guilt for various "offenses", that made communication rather difficult.

For what it's worth, when Steven published his blog post, I replied in the comments. He has declined to publish my reply. (I had also thought I had replied when he first contacted me by email twelve days ago, but I discovered the unsent message in my outbox.)

Here's the comment that I wrote for Stephen's blog, but which he did not publish:


While I was not directly involved in your discussions with the editorial team at O'Reilly, I have looked into your allegations, and would like an opportunity to respond.

A couple of salient facts that your readers of this post might want to know:

1. It is our interpretation of your contract that we had the right to produce a second edition, but we also agreed that you had the right to terminate the contract. So when you said you wanted the rights back so you could self-publish the second edition yourself, we accepted that. That is hardly a soulless machine that gives no regard to the interests of authors. Not only that, when we reverted the rights, we agreed to provide you with all the design files so that you could print additional copies of the first edition yourself.

2. Because of your exacting design requirements, the book is a four-color book printed in Italy, with a 6-8 week reprint lead time, and a cost that is highly dependent on the number of copies printed. We have only just run out of stock; effectively, you wanted us to print enough stock for only three months of sales. This would drive up the unit cost dramatically. By the time I even heard about the issue, you were asking for a reprint that has a two month lead time with only three months to go before you were planning to publish the second edition. (You had originally told us that you were going to publish the second edition in June; in your account above, I see that has now slipped to July.)

This is one of the real problems with the old-fashioned printing methods that are the only ones that seem to provide the quality you insist on. You have to buy large print runs, which don't always line up neatly with real-world demand, requiring large investments in inventory. We've moved to print-on-demand for many of our books (even for four-color books such as yours), but that leads to precisely the kind of quality tradeoff that you insist you don't want. Print-on-demand allows for continuous availability as well as for sudden spikes in demand.

But in any case, it is normal publishing practice to let a first edition lapse in the months before availability of a new edition. If you're a consumer, the last thing you want to see is a new, improved edition of a book a few days or weeks after you just paid for what is now the out-of-date edition.

In short, there is no "spite" in the decision not to reprint the book.

I'm sorry you and your students got caught in a squeeze here. Given that we have reverted the rights to you, you can most certainly consider reprinting the first edition yourself, perhaps using print-on demand and accepting some reduction in quality to meet the gap in availability.

I wish you well with your self-publishing endeavor. I started out as a self-published author myself, and built up my company from there. It's more challenging than many authors imagine, but it's most certainly doable. But it does put you in touch with the messy realities (and economics) of manufacturing, inventory management, and distribution that make this kind of difficult situation come up from time to time.

If you want to see if print-on-demand could satisfy your requirements to produce copies of the first edition until the second is ready, I'm sure we could connect you with some appropriate vendors.

There's a third issue here, Tim: a perceived downward trend in the quality of the offerings of O'Reilly Media. My first O'Reilly book taught me sed/awk. Now you print magazines with "How to knit a robot" on the front cover.

I'm all for throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, but you seem spread awfully thin.

O'Reilly hired a pal to speak at RailsConf based on a popular Web 2.0 site he built. Unfortunately he didn't build it. Also the site was written in C#.

Well, there are a lot of people who love Make: magazine. I've seen other comments that it's the best part of O'Reilly, which we lost when we spun it out in December :-) So tastes may differ.

I don't know about your Railsconf issue. Please send more details.

hi tim, it's not about taste, the "a perceived downward trend in the quality" is real. i own my career o'reilly. i have a cherished sortiment of 25 or more o'reilly books, some used and read so often that they more look like an original gutenberg bible than a computer book from the nineties/2000s. sadly i couldn't ad a new book to this collection for years.

for a very long time i believed that there was something like the O'Reilly (animal books) standard, that whenever one of your books is read front to cover you a) know more about the topic at hand than 99.9% the rest of the world and b) a deeper understanding of the topic.

while a) might still be true from time to time, b) is not true anymore -because the books are quite bad. and with bad i mean poorly edited (i.e.: the art of SEO, first edition and a lot more), completely un-structured (couchDB first edition), a scam (the one with the cow on the cover, it was the only book i ever did send back to amazon, just found it, it was the Data Source Handbook, 46 pages, 24 EUR, unbelievable poor "content") or just ... not a good book.

whereby i one stood in the computer book section, studied each oreilly book and decided what to learn this month, i now look into the other direction.

whereby i once recommended every dev-rookie every one of your book, i now point them to pragprog.

i believe you are a bussy man, but well, if you would from time to time pick up one of your books, read it front to cover and then ask yourself if this is really a book worth of having your name in front of it, this would already (probably) help a lot.

Thanks for the sobering feedback. I'll take your advice,starting with the books you mention.

You have another account here: https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=timoreilly

>Here's the comment that I wrote for Stephen's blog, but which he did not publish:

From what I can see, he did publish it (yesterday), and responded to it as well. I don't see an easy way to link to it, so search for "By Tim O’Reilly. March 12th, 2013 at 1:22 pm" or just scroll down.

This morning (7AM EDT) that post was not present.

My impression is Stephen refused to make O'Reilly's comment visible until he had a chance to insert his claims into its content. Seems odd that he'd edit the comment to include his responses when he wasn't doing so for other replies, and it really makes it difficult to follow O'Reilly's take on the events.

Further, one of the 9 comments which follow it, excluding Stephen's, would have made reference to it had it been visible since that time, right?

Gotcha. I guess that time was the submission time, not the posting time.

Both sides sound reasonable from their point of view. I wonder if, perhaps, there was a communication issue, and neither side expressed their position well to eachother until now?

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