Amazon.com Widgets The Programming Book Business

The Programming Book Business

By Nick at August 12, 2011 12:29
Filed Under: TechBiz, General

More content from my old Embarcadero Blog.  I think this is even more true than it was when I wrote it a few years ago, especially with the rise of the Kindle and Tablets.  Those new devices are changing publishing, but I still think that what I wrote here is germane.


I’ve blogged about this before — the programming book industry continues to fascinate me. Jeff Atwood comments this week on it, talking about how "The Internet has rendered programming books obsolete."  Lately, there has been a resurgence of Delphi books, lead by Marco Cantu and others, but these guys are not using traditional book publishing channels.  Instead, they are taking advantage of the  budding "on demand publishing" industry, most notably on lulu.com.   I know that I first do a Google search if I have a programming issue, and if I want to learn to do something new, I tend look first to the Internet rather than for a book.  But that doesn’t mean that books aren’t valuable — they are.

I still buy programming books, but I find that I don’t buy the books that "teach you to program <insert language name> in <insert ever shrinking period of time>." Instead, like Jeff Atwood, I tend to buy books about the practice of software development — my latest is Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering by Robert L. Glass.  This is a cool book. Easy to read, and full of terrific nuggets of wisdom.  Probably my all time favorite is The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas.  Atwood makes a great, great point when he says, "If you feel compelled to clean house on your bookshelf every five years, trust me on this, you’re buying the wrong programming books."   I think he’s dead on about that.  (I’m happy to note that the two books I mentioned above are in his list of top five programming books. ;-) I need to get Peopleware and Don't Make Me Think .)

I have been involved with the publishing of a few books done in the "old-school" way, and I dare say it is really, really inefficient.  Really inefficient.  Really, really inefficient.  There were editors and more editors and them some other editors.  And they don’t know one thing about programming.  (I remember a book in the early days of Delphi where an editor decided that the word "Pascal" should be replaced with "Delphi" everywhere.  Or maybe it was the other way around.  In any event, it wasn’t pretty.)  You have to submit your work to them in a special MS Word template, and then they comment (generally very ignorantly), and then you do a huge back and forth with them.  Then of course, once the book fiiiinally gets past that treacherous gauntlet, they print up boxes and boxes and boxes of them, ship them all around the country, put them on shelves, sell a few, and eventually box the remainders up again and send them back to the publisher.  They pay the author a very small royalty relative to the book price. This whole thing simply does not make sense to me.

Marco Cantu was here last week — and he graciously gave me a signed copy of his new "Essential Pascal".  This book was printed on demand by Lulu, and is a nicely made and bound as any book I have.  Marco has been very pleased with the way his Lulu publishing as gone.  Julian Bucknall has said the same thing about his The Tomes of Delphi: Algorithms and Data Structures.  There is a nice collection of Delphi books on Lulu, including a number of them from Dr. Bob as well. (Ray Konopka, call your agent!)

On demand publishing is clearly the future.   It’s a classic case of cutting out the middle man.  A guy like Marco makes a lot more money per book sale, so he doesn’t have to sell as many books to make it worth his while.  This enables authors to publish books of smaller and tighter scopes — that is, books that the traditional publishing industry wouldn’t touch in a million years.  This is good for authors — they make money where they wouldn’t have been able to previously.

It is also good for customers — they get books that they want that would never have been published under the previous model.  Prices are lower, too, because with the overhead gone, authors can charge less and still make more.  It’s simply a vastly superior business model.  And the cool thing is that anyone can publish almost any book at all, and sell it to anyone.  You could, quite literally, take that paper you wrote for a conference a while back, work it up a bit, and be selling online in a week.  I don’t know why I haven’t done it.

Why haven’t you?  :-)

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