Jan 042006
 

We finally experienced new growth in the tech book market in 2005, driven in large part by emerging markets (Ruby, Ajax, Digital Lifestyles), strong series (Dummies, Head First, and Missing Manual) and the consolidation and focus of a few publishing programs (Sybex seems to have settled in very well as a strong Wiley imprint).

And many thanks go to Apple for continuing to push new products out the door (now hopefully Steve Jobs will get over iCon).

I think that 2006 will shape up to be even better. After a year where we saw few big software releases (outside of open source betas at least), we’re going to see a year driven again by Microsoft updates of Office and, hopefully, Vista too, not to mention a probable Adobe CS release later this year.

This should mean we’ll see a bigger title count, so it’s a great time to hit up your editors for wish lists. That’s what I’m doing.

It’s also a good time to review what’s working in the market — books that people can use to improve their lives, lifestyle, or bank account.

Security remains interesting and I’m curious to see what will happen with the Vista release.

Vista will be big and publishers are still keen to hear new ideas for Vista titles.

I was slow to understand the draw for web services titles, but if you look at the bestseller list you can see that select Google and eBay titles are still selling very well. The problem is that every market we attack becomes crowded at some point, so you need to look for unique entry points into any bestselling category.

Tech publishers also continue to expand their programs — look at what O’Reilly has done with titles like Mind Hacks, or how the tech “for Dummies” folks are starting to publish non-Dummies branded books (see Before and After for instance).

I think this is great news for everyone and helps to breathe new life and initiative into these programs. Tech publishers have a great infrastructure to build upon, so I expect to continue to see them taking advantage of their editorial and marketing resources to push the envelope outside of their core imprints and roots.

Tech publishers are acting more like trade publishers in other ways too these days, they’re focused more and more on finding authors with the right platform, which can create a challenge for those authors who consider themselves generalists. I suggest that if you’re going to focus on more than a few technologies or topics, try to keep your focus very tight and keep in mind that each category you tackle may require its own marketing angle and maybe its own author web-site and/or blog.

Here’s what’s on my wish list for the tech market this year:

Let’s get better at selling books to new bookstore buyers: for online commerce and eBay titles, let’s work to get those books onto the business shelves; for digital photography techniques titles, let’s get more titles on the photography and art shelves; for digital music titles, let’s get on the music shelves and make sure we’re represented in the right book clubs. Some of these categories themselves are mature markets.

Cross-shelving is a chore and doesn’t really work, but with the right books we might find more dedicated category shelving and with enough books and publishers knocking on the door we might stretch these categories some. Let’s face it, the computer book section is often a mish-mash and sometimes just a plain mess.

Let’s get better at marketing our books to the general consumer; we need more reviews in the Sunday papers, more reviews in lifestyle magazines, and some sense of how to exploit serial rights like most trade publishers do. When there’s tech news, let’s make sure our experts and our authors are the ones being interviewed.

Dec 152005
 

I haven’t posted much lately. I must be superstitious after my Halloween post. To date the Kings are below .500, my pre-ordered 360 hasn’t arrived, and Oblivion was delayed an entire quarter the day after my post. Talk about blogging some bad luck! Must have been the Halloween tagline…

I don’t typically link to sites requiring registration, but as this is local news I thought I’d point to a Sacramento Bee article about Prima Games guidebook publishing program. According to the article, Prima (a division of Random House since 2001) sold 220,000 copies of the Halo 2 book on the first day (!) of release. That’s amazing.

We were deeply involved in the nascent game book industry at Waterside Productions, and our clients helped to establish Prima’s list some 15 years ago, but once game companies realized the amount of money available, and as outside forces such as the Screen Actor’s Guild demanded more control over the use of likenesses in games and ancillary material, each book became an expensive licensing proposition, and only Prima and Brady (and Sybex, to a lesser, though now growing, extent) stayed in the game.

Author revenues declined, as revenue flowed instead to exclusive licenses, and for authors most game titles became work-for-hire or limited royalty gigs.

Still, 220,000 copies in one day, that’s amazing. A few highlights in case you don’t click through: the article says Prima is #1 in the market with 5-7.5 million copies sold each year: they published 107 titles last year; and publisher Debra Kempker takes some credit for pushing the guide books into the game store channel, which, she says, doubled sales.

What’s interesting to me is that the game book companies have done a decent job of sustaining their businesses even though many cheats and walkthroughs are available online and in user forums. Being shelved at the point of sale and aggressive co-marketing programs have a lot to do with that and is something that many reference publishers could emulate.

Jun 202005
 

Author Michael Thomsett posted a comment in a previous entry about cross accounting, he says–

I would recommend every author cross out the infamous “cross collateralization clause” – a mouthful, but important stuff. This is usually some reference like, “Author agrees to that any amounts due on this or any other agreements may be withheld from earnings…” This means that if you write two books and one doesn’t earn out its advance, the publisher can apply earnings from the second book to the first.

This is good advice and it’s probably one of the best tools in an agent’s arsenal, something that authors might not learn on their own until they see lots of royalty statements. I thought I’d offer a little more perspective on co-accounting (a.k.a. cross accounting or cross collateralization) because it comes up in a variety of scenarios.

What is co-accounting?

Just what Michael said. You might have two books with $10,000 advances, but if one does great and the other poorly, you still won’t see any money until the entire $20,000 advance earns out. The “tell” is when you see the words, “under this or any other agreement” in your contract.

Co-accounting is a tool publishers use to reduce their risk, and we all want to reduce risk so it’s not really a surprise that it’s in your contract. You should be able to remove or modify this clause, but some publishers will balk at this with a new or unproven author. If you decide you can live with it on your first book, you should certainly address the issue before you sign a second book with that publisher. You might also ask that co-accounting be limited to future editions of that book only.

Co-accounting of advances

Co-accounting of advances is usually a bad deal. There are rare circumstances where it might work okay: for instance, an author and agent may agree to cross accounting on a series contract because they are sharing the risk on a full list of titles, but this is usually balanced by a strong royalty and large advance.

Co-accounting and returns

Even if you strike the co-accounting of advances, your publisher will want to keep the right to take “overpayments” from future earnings. You can make sure that “advances are not considered overpayments,” but it’s unlikely that your publisher will say the same of returns. In general I think this is fair. Returns hover at 20% for computer books, and most authors don’t expect to be paid for books that were subsequently returned.

Co-accounting and subsequent editions

If you’re dealing with books that are revised and re-released every few years — something that invariably triggers returns — you’ll find that your publisher may want to reserve the right to co-account your first edition against your second edition advance, and so on. Again, this protects a publisher from the cost of returns on the first edition.

What about reserves, don’t they cover returns?

Sure, over time they should. But something funny can happen when you have both co-accounting of editions and a certain reserve clause. Ideally, a publisher would deduct the returns from your reserve, but some will try to deduct the returns from books with positive sales, and keep the reserve pool flush for a period of time. This invariably delays your money. 20% of your sales are held in escrow, as it were, and your returns are debited against your other books. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get paid, but it forestalls that payday.

Publishers without reserves

A few publishers don’t hold a specified reserve unless they see a wave of imminent returns, but they do typically co-account advances and royalties against future editions to protect themselves from the returns on the first edition.

Success is your best weapon

In the best scenario, your books are doing so well that your returns are more than offset by multiple streams of income across multiple books that are not co-accounted. If you’re successful as an author, you can convince your publishers to limit co-accounting and also to release reserves when they climb too high. Cross accounting clauses hurt the mid-list authors of oft revised books most of all, since some of these books are only eaking out their advances before they need to be revised and updated. It’s worth asking whether they’re really worth the effort.

At the very least, make sure you understand what your contract says, and ask your editor as many questions as you can about the royalty accounting and payment system up front, especially before signing that contract for book two if you didn’t already manage it with book one. Otherwise you may not learn what your contract really says until you see the royalty statement in your hands.

Standard “I don’t know everything disclaimer”

Your mileage may vary. This post is most germane to computer books, textbooks, and reference titles. Every publisher’s system has its own wrinkle, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few points here. Please feel free to post your comments, questions, or pointers to other resources that may cover this topic as well.

Jun 022005
 

The Wiley/Sybex deal closed yesterday.

I’m definitely feeling sad about this and I want to wish the best to any Sybex employees who have been let go. Good luck to all, and best wishes to Rodnay — he was such a force in this industry for a very long time. It’s my understanding that Wiley will keep the Sybex name in use as an imprint, and I hope they do so for a long time. The remaining Sybex employees will work out of the Jossey Bass building in San Francisco. Good luck to all that are staying as well, I hope you do well in your new roles.

There’s probably no way Sybex could stay in business as a large independent with such a reduced market share and hopefully this was the best result for all in terms of the overall number of jobs lost.

May 112005
 

Here’s the press release.

This gives Wiley a new foot-hold in the certification market, as well as more higher-end networking and graphics titles. I’ll be curious to see how they integrate this list. A good number of authors already wrote for both companies, and will benefit the most from more marketing muscle.

I’d expect Wiley to convert the Sybex royalty system to the Wiley schedule over time, but I wouldn’t expect much in the way of hiccups with this.

May 102005
 

The tech book market has been brutal the last few years, so maybe it’s inevitable that we’re seeing another big acquisition.

Word has it John Wiley & Sons is purchasing Sybex, and I gather the sale will close at the end of the month. This is probably good news for Sybex authors who will probably get more marketing support and better access to the retail sales channel, but I’m sure it will result in some layoffs at Sybex and it will be sad to see another independent publisher (not to mention computer book pioneer, Rodnay Zaks) leave the scene.

Wiley has proven to be very smart at buying companies when the time and the price are right. Let’s see what happens next. I just talked to one Sybex author who said “consolidation is a good step toward getting this industry back on track.” I think a healthy dose of innovation and continued great work by smaller publishers is another critical element.

Apr 252005
 

There’s a fascinating post at O’Reilly’s Radar, Book Sales as a Technology Trend Indicator that sums up trends in the computer book market.

O’Reilly is doing cool things with internal mapping and trend analysis — no surprise given their technical chops — and they’ve created a detailed “Treemap” of the trends, based on Bookscan data, over the last two years.

A few highlights: we may have finally hit bottom as an industry and sales seem to be growing in 2005; database literacy is increasingly important; C# is gaining on Java but programming titles in general are down: and increased sales of Quickbooks titles may indicate more small business activity.

Photoshop Elements, iPods, and related digital lifestyle titles are the big gainers. And Mac OS, Photoshop and Dreamweaver have slowed some, probably in anticipation of the new releases.

Soft titles ala The Cult of Mac are a growing category, which I think is indicative of the overall computer book market becoming more and more like the traditional trade market. Not only do we have big publisher and author brands, we have a sense of culture now, and readers are interested in the history, personalities, and context of our industry.

O’Reilly also notes that they’re one of the few large publishers to have any significant growth in the last few years (I’d probably add Peachpit to that list). O’Reilly has really expanded their scope. They’ve done a great job of breaking into the Mac market, and now the graphics market, two areas that were anything but synonymous with ORA five or six years ago.

Apr 202005
 

I missed noting Tim’s blog when I listed some of the computer book bloggers out there. He has a recent blog entry on self-publishing. It has some great O’Reilly history in it (my favorite is the image of the bucket brigade), and valuable info for potential self-publishers.

Mar 162005
 

Harold Davis has an excellent post about Microsoft dropping standard support for VB6, and the impact of web languages on the adoption of .Net on his Googleplex Blog. He writes:

“To a very great extent, instead of trying to deal with the move from VB6 to VB.Net (or C#.Net), the mom and pop developer decided to put their applications on the Web, using languages such as Javascript, Perl, and (most widely and appropriately) PHP. It’s unwise to underestimate the intelligence of any computer programmer, even the mom and pop developer, and given the choice of the horrendous and dubiously appropriate upgrade, these people probably made a very smart move. The Web is the closest thing we have to a universal platform.”

There’s a very natural sort of ecology here where the increasingly complex challenge of trying to control a platform is balanced against the almost organic evolution of software made possible by open source technologies and the legions of programmers who contribute to them. I see many authors trying to bridge this gap, either moving to open source titles, or working on books that are platform independent.

Standard weblog disclosure, Harold has long been a client of mine. His Googleplex Blog supports his forthcoming book, Building Research Tools with Google for Dummies .

Mar 032005
 

There’s a spirited conversation on Wiley publisher Joe Wikert’s blog about whether computer book authors benefit from using an agent. David Rogelberg and Claudette Moore have chimed in, and so have I. Here’s my post, though it’s probably worth visiting the link and reading what the other agents have to say:

I posted something about this in a response to a question about agency commissions this morning and I’ll repeat it here, though admittedly it duplicates much of what Claudette and David say —

“A better question might be “where does an agent earn his 15%?” In the tech book world this is a fair question as we’re in a relatively small industry and there are plenty of author listservs, lots of contract info that’s readily available, and easy access to acquisition editors.

“I earn my money in prospecting for titles the author might not have found on his or her own, managing schedules and publisher expectations to ensure that my author has very little down time between projects, working out conflicts in the editorial and production process, helping to find a co-author or contributor when we’re in a jam, and packaging new ideas for publishers. On this basis on some projects I’m probably overpaid and on others I am most certainly underpaid.”

Joe, your post is great for igniting passions but I’d like to add to this discussion the fact that I, as an agent, and probably the others who have posted here, have often come up with authors to help un-agented authors bailing on their own un-agented Wiley projects. I’ve worked with every group at Wiley from the trade group, computer group and business group, so you might imagine I would also take some offense. That said, the agents have stated their case quite well.

The bigger question (as far I’m concerned) is do my authors need Wiley? Can we get a better deal, or find more ownership, or more timely advance payments elsewhere? And ultimately, in some emerging markets, do they need an agent or publisher at all? And what can I do to help them deal with this changing landscape?

I have about 5 books in development with various Wiley groups as I speak so I won’t pretend that I’ve made this decision. But you’ve been with several companies Joe, and you know that as publishers become bigger and more hide-bound they often become arrogant, less creative, and tighter-fisted. In that case it’s good to work with someone keeping an eye out for greener pastures. That’s what an agent does, and some authors might manage it quite well on their own, ala Mr. Mike Miller, and others definitely benefit from the advice, and counsel of an agent.

On the trade side of things there’s no doubt that an agent is almost an essential accessory to help cut through the signal to noise ratio, but even that’s changing as editors become more wired.