Life’s interesting, and as they say, “Things always change.” While there’s a great debate about the future of books and their usefulness in certain formats, there’s also a discussion about whether they should be free, cheap or pricey? This debate is especially interesting in the arena of technology because the life-cycle of books becomes ever shorter as software release cycles narrow.
For example, you can purchase the new Introducing Microsoft SQL Server 2012 printed and bound book (shown in the illustration at the left) at Amazon.com, or you can download it for free from here as a PDF, EPUB, or Mobi file. While I only glanced through it, it looks like a well written and complete book. It’s also free electronically, which begs the questions how the authors and publishers recovered the cost of producing the work.
Is this the future of technical books? After all, technical books exist to smooth the uptake of new software and to humanize the information that is often too verbose (trying to be exhaustive of software uses) or too short (trying to be accessible in the smallest amount of time). It seems there will always be books for these reasons about technology. I would characterize three problems with technology books, and they’re readability, content, and affordability.
- Readability is an interesting trick with a technology book because of how we seems to measure it. Unlike a novel, The Da Vinci Code, technology books seem to be measured on different criteria. The criteria seem to be how well the books expose features, instruct audiences, and provide complete or comprehensive reference; and sometimes, seemingly rarer, they’re read cover-to-cover with an expectation of thematic story telling along with the features, instructions, or reference materials.
- Content should be accurate, concise, and accessible. This is always a challenge as the length of books get larger because the time allotted to the write, shrinks during editing and review cycles. Often the author doesn’t get to review the index or final proof galleys and typos invariable creep in to any book. Typos in code are annoying but incomplete code fragments drive reader’s nuts. Content should include complete programs or modules that enable the reader to test concepts explained in the text.
- Affordability is the largest hurdle because access to information drives success for technicians working with cutting edge technology. Paraphrasing what Alvin Toffler wrote in Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century, knowledge or access to knowledge is power, more precisely power that captures wealth.
If vendors, like Microsoft, underwrite books by paying the author and publisher upfront, they remove the risk and vouchsafe financial return associated with producing the book. The likelihood is that the freely distributed copies may no longer yield revenue to the author or publisher, which means the author’s and publisher’s compensation is upfront and limited to a contracted amount. This would operate like the current advance amount, which is only exceeded when the book sells well. This type of arrangement guarantees books at or near production plus supply chain and inventory costs.
If the incentive to write, produce, and maintain (correct problems with) the book are reasonable and the book provides readability, accurate content, and affordability, this may be the future of technical publishing. It certainly begins to lower the barrier to entry cost of their technology. What do you think?