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The Case for Buying Technical Books (jayfields.com)
77 points by jaycfields on Aug 25, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

> When it's all said and done, it can take well over an hour of effort per page.

Emphasis on "well"! I think I'm at closer to 5x that and I don't consider myself to have gone above and beyond. But, when you think about the total amount of time all readers may spend reading it, what's a few hours per page?

> why would they take on a poorly paying second job?

This article seems to have the flawed premise that financial incentives are the only incentives, or at least the only ones worth mentioning.

I've put a surprisingly large chunk of my life into the book I'm writing and I've yet to make a dime. That may change soon once the print and ebook versions are done, but I don't expect to financially recoup the time I put into it.

But, I don't need to, either. Like many technical people, I'm paying my bills OK. Extra cash never hurt, sure, but one thing I can't easily buy is gratitude or appreciation. Writing a book and putting it online for free has given me that in spades. That's the incentive that gave me enough motivation to actually finish writing it. When I had a contract and an advance coming, the cash wasn't enough to get me off my ass. Feeling like my writing made a connection and helped people did.

If you want great technical people to write more, instead of buying more books, why not just tell them you love their work and would love to learn more from them?

Thanks for your book by the way! I loved it. (and it also made me recognize your username, proving your appreciation/reputation argument) http://gameprogrammingpatterns.com/


Did you just start to write stuff or did you learn about writing?

We've all been learning about writing since kindergarten. All of those book reports and short stories are good practice for the fundamentals of grammar, imagery, etc.

I did blog for a couple of years before I started on the book. But, honestly, the most helpful thing was spending several years on reddit commenting very heavily. I wrote thousands of comments, and those are like writing bootcamp.

But there's definitely no dividing line between being able to "write" enough to write a book versus being able to write a comment here on HN. It's all just prose. The trick is just putting the time into writing and revising a lot of it.

Well, there's a line. Given landlords/banks still refuse to convert moral rewards to cash, it can become prohibitively expensive to write a book. At 5 hours per page for 400 pages, you've traded your book for a year's worth of wages. If you can afford that, great; if not, you can't write a book.

> If you can afford that, great; if not, you can't write a book.

Sure, there's a reason I scoped this to technical people. Most of us are able to pay our bills and don't have to work much more than 40 hours a week.

Given that, we all have free time. Much of that is filled with friends and family, but many have room left for a hobby or two. Writing a book can fill that slot. I wrote this book while working full time and raising a family. It takes longer, of course, but since I'm not in it for the money, I'm not rushed either.

There's something unhealthy about an industry's educational materials requiring essentially large financial donations. If it has to be a work of passion, I just find it... unhealthy. afaik most industries don't require what's essentially volunteer work to build training material.

Most industry's training materials are written by academics. Those academics who take the time to write textbooks probably do it because they want to use a good textbook that teaches what they want taught, the way they want it taught. In most cases there isn't really any other very good reason to write the book. Writing textbooks takes time away from something your tenure committee cares about, articles. And most textbooks sink into obscurity, pretty much without trace. It's lucrative if you get a blockbuster but that's not something to be terribly confident about.

Training materials for less academically demanding occupations are correspondingly less demanding to write. Step by step instructions aren't that hard. Instructional videos are expensive to make but YouTube has shown that people are even willing to do those for (next to) nothing. People really enjoy sharing their expertise on things they're passionate about.

It also makes things difficult for those of us who are trying to make a living out of education/training.

I get that people do it for passion, I enjoy sharing knowledge too, and in an ideal world where I didn't have to earn money, I'd be doing it along with everyone else as part of a great virtuous cycle.

However, the current situation is mostly at odds with making a career out of education. I really can't invest as much time as I'd like into educational work because I have a family to support, and I barely break even on the hours invested.

It means that trying any new interesting approaches is out of the question, and advanced topics with a smaller audience are unlikely to see the light of day, which is a pity.

But I guess as long as there is a supply of people willing to do this kind of work on top of a regular job, the situation will only become more entrenched.

> However, the current situation is mostly at odds with making a career out of education.

Yes, this is the part that really bothers me. I'm fine with people doing creative work like writing and music without much financial reward.

The shitty part is that they still have to spend so much of their precious time doing other stuff to get the financial reward needed to pay their bills.

It's not a tragedy in my mind that writing doesn't pay, it's that we require something that does pay.

Yep, I totally get this. Working on a book right now, and I'm about 98% certain I'll never recoup the costs or make anything more than minimum wage if I calc it out but if it helps people I'm good with that. Been running a blog for years on this premise and my bills are paid just fine. Why not?

Buying a book is the way you "say" to the author you like his work...

Not the "only" way to say though. Email, Twitter, FB likes, recommending to others, are a few amongst many other ways to say.

What is the subject matter?

Game programming and software architecture!

The full text is here: http://gameprogrammingpatterns.com/

Around 2005 it became fairly easy to download, for free, practically any book. It might be coincidence that 10 of 13 of these Must-Read books were written prior to 2005.

Yes, it might be coincidence. Or it might be that the set of books written prior to 2005 spans 30 years (since the first Lambda paper), while from 2005 to today there's only been 9 years.

Even taking the date of the last paper as its publishing date (1980), if we assume that each year has the same probability of having a book on the list, we should expect only 9/34 ~= 26% of the Must-Read books to be published after 2005.

And as it happens, 3/13 is ~23%, well within a reasonable margin of error.

While the pre/post duration is of interest, there's also generally been a tremendous increase in the volume of technical publishing. xkcd has a plot of scientific publishing over time: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/58.full


There's the question of whether or not publishing is increasing within fields or that there's more publishing in new areas, but it seems to me that there should be an accelerating trend in publishing. Your assumption that each year is equally likely to be represented strikes be as questionable.

And there's obviously been an increase in technical publishing of software matters: before we just had books, now he have books, plus blog posts, plus online white papers, plus videos, etc.

I don't see how an increase in the publishing of scholarly papers implies an expected increase in books, specifically.

Books and academic publishing are related, if not identical, activities. I'd expect there'd be some correlation. And the data for academic publishing happened to be handy.

I suppose its probably possible to extract data from other sources -- ibiblio, perhaps -- for books, but that would involve work.

There's also the matter that the xkcd infographic shows long-term trends. It's entirely possible that there've been changes in recent years. Though that would also be pretty remarkable.

The huge increase in online access to content and information has a bigger effect though. I was purchasing a large number of books through the mid 2000s, far fewer since. The fact that numerous physical bookstores I could head to and shelf-browse have closed doesn't much help matters (I hate buying anything online, books included, especially via Amazon).

My cofounders and I developed Softcover [1] to support the business model used by the Ruby on Rails Tutorial [2], which combines "tech cred" with a profitable product business. I plan to reveal more detailed numbers soon, but I can say that the Rails Tutorial has made an order of magnitude more money than the "solid success" benchmark mentioned in the OP, despite (or perhaps because of) making the book available for free online. (I include revenues from screencasts, which are a lot of work to produce, but are much less work than initially writing the book.) Thus, with a platform like Softcover, authors don't have to choose between making money and building their brand.

[1]: http://www.softcover.io/

[2]: http://www.railstutorial.org/, but watch http://news.railstutorial.org/ for an announcement of 3rd edition draft chapters, which I plan to start releasing shortly

Thanks for the pointer, encouraging to see success in online distribution models with content bundles and a free tier. A few questions, if you don't mind:

1) How critical were screencasts in convincing customers to purchase the ebook versions?

2) How dependent is this business model on books which are attached to fast-moving software?

3) Did you make any effort (like Scribd) to prevent scraping of content from the online viewer?

4) Have you had to request DMCA takedowns of ebooks or screencasts?

5) Do you plan to provide guidance or best practices on screencast production?

Thanks for your questions. Answers appear below.

1) How critical were screencasts in convincing customers to purchase the ebook versions?

The big money is in product bundles, but the ebooks sold well (~$100/day) even before the screencasts launched. And that was back in 2010, when the Rails Tutorial was just getting started.

2) How dependent is this business model on books which are attached to fast-moving software?

It cuts both ways, but I suspect it's generally better if the software isn't fast-moving. Products covering fast-moving software require updates that lead to new sales cycles, but products covering slower-changing software have much longer shelf-lives. As one data point, I've actually designed the 3rd edition of the Rails Tutorial to be more future-proof than before, in the hopes that I won't have to update it as often. (Even then, full updates have only been required ever 1.5 years, with minor supplements in between.) And some future products I have planned will be designed to be even more evergreen.

3) Did you make any effort (like Scribd) to prevent scraping of content from the online viewer?

Not at all. The online version is plain HTML. You can even "save as PDF", but the real ebooks are so much nicer that hardly anyone bothers. In general, authors are way too paranoid about people stealing their content. You can give away huge amounts of information as long as the product you're charging for delivers real value.

4) Have you had to request DMCA takedowns of ebooks or screencasts?


5) Do you plan to provide guidance or best practices on screencast production?

Yes, if there's demand. I take it there might be. :-)

Appreciate the insights.

> Yes, if there's demand. I take it there might be. :-)

Customers of softcover.io may be more comfortable spending $150 on additional bundles if there was a well-defined baseline for screencast quality. The pitch to potential authors and customers is to emulate the sales/quality success of the Rails tutorial, so it's in the interest of all parties (platform, customers, authors) to see that baseline met or exceeded.

Edit: will the "powered by softcover" banner/footer be required for authors publishing on their own domain? If so, it would help all authors if the link was directed to a list of domains "powered by softcover", rather than a pitch for softcover itself.

Customers of softcover.io

The idea is that Softcover's customers are the authors, much like WordPress's customers are bloggers. Purchasers of an author's products should notice the Softcover name only incidentally. We want to help authors build their own brands.

will the "powered by softcover" banner/footer be required for authors publishing on their own domain?

No, authors can optionally remove the footer.

> We want to help authors build their own brands.

Don't underestimate the assistance that your brand can give to the brands of your authors. While toolsets for e-publishing may not act as editorial gateways, they still exercise a form of affinity/aesthetic filtering that can provide a discovery signal to book buyers.

Even a quick browse of the leanpub site (cited elsewhere in this thread) showed a clear difference from softcover viewing aesthetics. Over time, you may discover a correlation between "authors who liked the softcover toolchain" and "readers who buy from more than one softcover author". That would last until word got out, then you would have a flood of new authors who were attracted primarily by revenue opportunity, not toolchain/distribution aesthetics.

BTW, it's quite informative whether someone chooses to publish on WordPress, Blogspot, Tumblr, statically-generated html, or Facebook.

I can't speak for softcover or mhartl, but I made the jump to self publishing via leanpub for http://wewut . I haven't sold enough copies to make an impressive amount of money, but I've sold enough that I don't feel like writing the book was a complete waste of time.

1) I've found that supplementing material makes a massive difference in sales. However, when you see a larger percentage of the revenue, you definitely feel more inclined to create supplementing material

2) wewut isn't tied to fast moving software at all. I wouldn't consider that a necessity, though it does help ensure future editions

3) For some reason, self published materials seem to pop up less on piracy sites. Google a professionally published book and it's easy to find a free copy. The same hasn't been true for the leanpub books I've searched for.

4) Is it even worth the effort these days?

5) There's a bunch of stuff out there on this topic already - a quick search should get you plenty of pointers. Screencasts have been around awhile. Don't skimp on audio equipment has always been the #1 advice I've seen.

The interesting (tragic?) part of this is that other parts of the book writing process do pay ok.

I was a technical editor for Understanding and Deploying LDAP, 2nd Edition, and Addison Wesley paid me $5000 for my work. There were two technical editors, I presume the other tech editor received the same remuneration.

I very carefully tracked my effort - it took about six months, and and I was able to take a friday off every other week from work thanks to an enlightened boss who saw that it would be useful for his LDAP administrator to enhance his skills in such a manner.

So, 6 months x twice a month x 8 hours - about 100 hours of work, or $50/hour.

Of course, I was also drawing a Salary at the time, and the real reason I was doing this, was out of passion. I was determined to make sure not a single issue got by me. I labbed out every example. Tested out every command. Verified every URL. Flagged everything that wasn't 100% clear to me.

But - I realize that as a technical editor, I was probably putting in < 5% of the effort that the two authors were putting into this, even if it was a second edition (which presumably meant less effort than the seminal first edition).

At the end of the day - every technical boot author I know either did it out of desire to create something create, or to build out their reputation.

I've never met one who actually thought they could make any type of living doing it.

I wrote a technical book this year (well the project took almost a year and was released this year) and it did indeed help build my brand a bit (although there are other obvious concrete steps I should take like improving my portfolio and writing a technical blog). The author is right that it's a colossal effort. I went with a traditional publisher, and they expect high standards. They will provide you with several editors, reviewers, etc, but ultimately you need to spend the hundreds or thousands of hours sitting down and typing the 300+ pages.

I don't recommend bad writers write technical books. I also don't recommend people who don't read regularly write technical books. Ultimately writing a good technical book requires a lot of the same things as writing any other kind of book: dedication, perseverance, writing skills, and attention to detail (and let's not forget extensive domain knowledge). It's not doable by most people given their time constraints, IMHO.

The author's assumptions about compensation are off though. You're lucky if you sell 2000 copies in most technical markets, and your royalty rate is above 12%. Forget that if you have a coauthor. Your main compensation is indeed the brand building unfortunately (plus a small advance).

We offer our authors a choice of royalties -- from 12 to 15 percent. Most choose the 12 percent option but many still take 15 percent.

Several of our technical titles have sold well over 20,000 copies but we've also had the rare title sell in the 2-3,000 copy range. That is definitely rare and only on very niche topics.

Writing a technical book is a lot of work on both ends, especially when a publisher provides real editorial and marketing support. Unfortunately, most no longer do, which is unfortunate for all involved and a good argument for considering self-publishing. After all, if publishers aren't offering added services, why not self-publish?

We read and edit every word before a book goes to copyedit. I've personally spent well over 300 hours editing individual titles. If you were to hire someone to do that work the minimum cost would be $15,000.

I'd love to see more people writing technical books -- good technical books -- for love of the subject and out of a desire to share knowledge. Sure, a good book will build your brand, but make it great, first.

The world always needs more good books. Our watchwords are "fewer, better books." Aim to be great.

My publisher also provided most of the above (extensive copyediting, developmental editing, and technical review). Given how niche the market is, I'm quite happy with sales so far. As far as marketing goes, it's hard for me to tell as an author how extensive the support has been.

I guess you're selling so many copies of each book (and based on your watchwords) by being quite selective about what titles you publish?

For the record, I do think my book is great but writing a book is not black and white - it's such a big endeavor that there is generally more than one motivation. I also didn't want to self call.

The author's assumptions about compensation are off though. You're lucky if you sell 2000 copies in most technical markets, and your royalty rate is above 12%.

The author was making the point that the good-case scenario for book sales results in a not-very-impressive royalty. And that implies the average-case will result in a really-not-impressive royalty as you've personally seen.

So we do need to buy more tech books if we would like to have authors compensated fairly... which will hopefully attract more talent and effort towards creating more good tech books.

I guess my point though is that there's basically no way you're making much money - so the compensation really is the brand building.


$45K is good money as far as I'm concerned.

That's definitely the exception, not the rule, which is the point of all of this!

Self-publishing is the way to go. I built my own platform to sell my book Mastering Modern Payments[1] but if I were starting from scratch I would strongly consider something like Softcover.

Since launch it's made approximately $35k. Not quite the solid success that the OP talks about, but then again I invested far less time than the OP suggests.

[1]: https://www.petekeen.net/mastering-modern-payments

That's really great. An extra $35k is always a good thing. I published my second book (http://wewut.com) on http://leanpub.com, and I've been really happy with the results.

I used to buy a lot of technical books, but the last few books on topics like programming or web development that I bought are still sitting on my shelf mostly unread, and I'm not sure I've bought any new ones for several years now.

There is a simple reason for that, which has nothing to do with the economics of writing books or even the editorial quality: with the pace of the industry today, the material in a technical book about any specific development tool or technique or language may well be obsolete before it even hits the shelves.

If there were more technical books with general accumulated wisdom, insightful analysis, and advice that will stand the test of time, I'd be interested. If they had good production quality and editorial standards, I'd be even more interested (because frankly, hardly any of the last few computing books I bought did, even those from supposedly respectable publishers).

But take a look at the new releases lists on Amazon, and certainly at the bestsellers lists or what you find in a bricks 'n' mortar bookshop, and almost everything published in the past few years has either a version number or a "for dummies/beginners" tag in the title. Chances are that I can get material at least as good, often much better, and almost always more up-to-date, just by identifying a few experts on-line and browsing their blog/articles/project docs. Printed books are obsolete as a mechanism for conveying information on these subjects.

In short, there are a few classics in computing fields that still sell well, but how many books destined to become classics have been published in these fields in the past decade? And for anything that isn't, why would anyone buy the limited, ephemeral book when the Internet exists?

In general, I agree with you. But one counter-example would be my experience with Hive in Spring 2013. Our team of four had to ramp up on a very aggressive deadline without knowing anything about Hive. One of my colleagues picked up the O'Reilly book on Hive, and it was by far the most extensive, comprehensive, and convenient reference. The online resources I found were either outdated, incomplete, or would take much more time to find the answer I was looking for.

Another example would be several months later, when I got a job at a company with a lot of Hadoop work, not having much experience with writing MapReduce code. I had two weeks between jobs, so I picked up 4 books on Hadoop. It's less than a day's salary, and allowed me to feel like I could hit the ground running at the new job (and I did). Those books are all outdated now, but I still feel like I got my money's worth from them.

Well... the fundamental flaw in the business model is going via a traditional publisher. The new model, which has been validated by a number of people, is to:

1. publish online and capture 70%+ of the revenue; and

2. offer different bundles so people can pay according to the value they receive.

The second point is the most important, and where traditional publishers fail. $79 for a technical book might feel like a lot to an individual but $299 for a 10 person licence is so cheap to a company that it's not worth thinking about.

FWIW, I'm writing a book on Scala and I'm not embarrassed to say I have an ulterior motive for it. It takes up far too much time to do otherwise. I believe it's going to be a fairly good book -- better than anything else on the market -- and that's because I'm taking ideas from great books such as HtDP and SICP (with acknowledgement, of course).

I've met several managers who have flat out stated that they believe a technical person with a lot of books on their desk isn't very technical or skilled. They'd rather have employees who actually knew stuff and didn't have to look it up in books - or at least knew how to google the answers.

These (non-technical) managers have said that having a lot of books doesn't make you look smart, it actually has the opposite effect.

They actively discouraged staff from at least publicly turning to books to learn stuff.

I'm not saying I agree or disagree with this point of view - I'm just pointing out that it is a point of view that is out there and seems to be fairly common among non-technical managers.

Those people are brain damaged and should probably be banned from society altogether. Next time you see one of those managers, please kick them in their reproductive parts to ensure they don't endanger the future for our children as well.

Books seem like an old-fashioned way to teach programming. Wouldn't it make sense to create more interactive content so readers/users can try out the code as they go along? I think this is definitely true for beginners learning programming, but shouldn't it also apply to many cases of more advanced programming knowledge?

My plug: My site http://www.learneroo.com has educational modules primarily for beginners learning programming, but I'm thinking of expanding it to more advanced topics. Anyone interested in publishing their content on it?

Wouldn't it make sense to create more interactive content so readers/users can try out the code as they go along?

One upside to the days of paper-only was that I was forced to hand-enter a lot of code to see it in action. It made me pay more attention to the code than if I had just cut-n-pasted or loaded up a file.

Often the code would fail the first time I tried to run it. Then I needed to figure out where the error was. It was quite instructional.

RFDL (run-fail-debug-loop) is a very useful approach to learning.

To learn something well you need to practice it and can't just copy and paste. I think that copying-and-pasting by typing isn't that much better though. It would be better to solve challenges and the like so that you really need to think.

My question is maybe professional programmers aren't as interested in doing 'assigned' challenges and would rather apply what they learn to their own projects. Though I still think there's still a large market for more interactive professional training.

Definitely not the case for me. I started programming with BASIC on my C64and that was just endless copying from books. I assure you I learnt nothing from it - not something to be proud of (I was just starting out), but it goes to show that you can mindlessly copy stuff from a textbook without really reading as you can with copying and pasting.

> If you're, like I am, tired of having to choose between books written decades ago and books written by those with at least a slightly ulterior motive

I find that most of my favorite books were written decades ago. New stuff is too boring to be worth books half the time.

That said, I buy books regularly and completely agree with the net advice. Support authors and make it a valuable career to work hard, build good knowledge, and share it.

Wikipedia can only get you so far.

Why the hate for consultants who write books? If they dont provide value in the material then sure, that sucks, but if it is worthwhile information why should I care if they use it to help get consulting clients? Shouldnt I be happy that consulting allows people with valuable things to say to publish it for a price I can afford?

No hate for consultants from me. The opposite, actually: http://blog.jayfields.com/2012/05/single-best-thing-for-my-c...

Consultants should write books, but I believe we'd all benefit if non-consultants wrote books as well.

The problem with technical books is that most of the new releases are almost expired by the time they reach my desk, mostly because the stuff changes and evolves so quickly. It's amazing how rapidly our trade gets updated and upgraded with new concepts, tools and good practices...

I don't write books, but I have a hobby converting some books I like to html and making them available. There's no way that they pay for the time it takes to make them, but it pleases me anyway.

I've written three books for a traditional publisher (Osborne / McGrawHill ) back at the turn of the century. They were on Adobe (then Macromedia) ColdFusion: http://www.instantcoldfusion.com .

At the time, they were estimating 20K units as the break even point. Most books sold 5K units, give or take. I still get royalty statements with returns, despite having no sales in years. No chance I'll ever make up the advance and start receiving royalties.

However, having books with your name on it makes it very easy to convince people who have no way to judge your skills that you know what you are doing. I believe it helped launch my consulting career. I start my 15th year in business in about a month.

After the books; I moved onto writing shorter-length articles and podcasting. In my years of podcasting ( http://www.theflexshow.com ), I made the same amount of money as I did publishing those three books for Osborne. ( Thanks to a six month sponsorship from Adobe ).

I kept track of my time on my second and third book. I averaged 20 hours per chapter, which is probably slightly less than 1 hour per page.

When Adobe Flex took off [and publishers started calling]; they were estimating 5K units as a roaring success for a book. So, things changed in that decade. However, I was smarter at that point and asked about marketing / sales questions. I would think someone wanting to publish a book could tell me what the size of the market was and what their expected penetration was. But, all I got was a lot of blank stares, with the occasional "O'Rielly had book that did well". I passed on writing any books on Flex.

When Flex/Flash took a nose dive; I shut down my podcast and turned focus back to writing. The results are a self-published training course on AngularJS for Flex Developers ( https://www.lifeafterflex.com ). It uses the "Authority" model of publishing, with the lowest tier being pay what you want; and the highest tier including 6 hours of screencasts on AngularJS.

The series has seen more staying power than I expected [Pay what you want sales trickle in a few each month; although no one has purchased the higher tiers since launch]. I do expect to make up my cash expenditure on the project (Copy editing + Web site design); but I'll never make up for my time. Total sales have been in the $2K range.

But, I had a client hire me to do a conversion of an app from Flex to AngularJS; so that doesn't hurt the 'cash flow'.

I think the release would have been more successful it it came a year and a half earlier. I also think I may have built it for a market that is too narrow.

Right now; I'm working on extending that series to include a book about building the backend with NodeJS instead of ColdFusion. It should be out by the end of next month.

Hopefully some of this is interesting.

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