Feb 142005

Dave Taylor, grizzled computer book vet that he is, has some advice for anyone who might want to write a technical book.

First off, don’t do it for the money. As Dave says, you have to love what you do, and you definitely need to write for more than money. Hey — fame, respect, future books, better jobs, all these count as decent reasons too.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t treat prospective deals like a pro, or that you don’t expect to make it big on one of your books eventually, but with your first book you’ll learn that on an hourly basis the advance for writing a computer book pretty much sucks, and if your motivation isn’t higher — such as truly helping people to understand the topic at hand, or building your own career — it’s just not worth it.

That said, there are ways to make yourself more fortunate: keep in mind that I’m stealing most of these ideas directly from Dave but they bear repeating…

1) Write books that are useful. Dave’s Wicked Cool Shell Scripts is a hit for good reason, and it has a distinct market and great publisher behind it.

2) Syndicate, market and extend your brand. Dave does a lot more than books: he writes articles, speaks, syndicates, blogs, and participates in user groups. His web presence supports and expands the market for his books, and his books likewise support what he does on the web.

3) Fight Google with Google. Google, MSDN and countless other web sites are challenging the entire reference category. A few blame MSDN for disappointing .NET book sales, and I think it’s easy to blame Google and improved online help for the downturn in lower end reference — who needs a book anymore to figure out how to format a letter in Word???

Instead of being victimized by Google, Dave works within the framework of Google, selling ad space while simultaneously working to get his various pages ranked as highly as possible. Plus, he found that free advice goes a long way toward finding new readers, and he works at finding cost effective ways to do this.

For more of Dave’s wisdom and advice, check out AskDaveTaylor .

Jan 262005

I was commiserating with an author today about how his publisher has published numerous books that overlap his core series title, and which ultimately cannabalize his sales in the process. This is a real problem with successful series. His publisher wants to increase the number of books sold overall and typically has very little concern with overlapping some established books as long as overall revenues increase.

Often this process leads to what we used to call the “frankenbook,” an edited conglomeration built from other books, with maybe some new original content thrown in, and with the authors paid a derivative royalty which is almost always much smaller, proportionally, to what the author earns from his own, standalone, title. The old Macmillan Computer Publishing was famous for this and even used the name on a few books. But other computer publishers have also tried this on occasion. For the most part, there is little protection for the author in this situation: with rare exceptions the publisher holds the right to use material in derivative works, and the publisher almost never agrees not to compete with an author, although every author is compelled to sign a non-compete agreement.

Some of this competition is inevitable with companies that grow fast and develop multiple lines, or buy competitors and merge lists, but when I see publishers start to push frankenbooks I feel as though they’ve hit their creative peak and don’t know what to do next.

Jan 132005

From the Always On Network — Writer and entrepreneur Bernard Moon has some interesting thoughts about future developments in tech use based on his experiences in Korea

Money quote for future micropublishers:

“A recent survey by Peppercoin and Ipsos-Insight revealed that from October 2003 to September 2004, the number of Americans who bought something online for $2 or less grew from 4 million to 14 millionfigures that indicate Americans are growing more comfortable with micropayments. Expect this slice of the U.S. online market to explode well beyond iTunes.”

Jan 122005

I’ve always loved the energy of Macworld — maybe not so much in the days of Gil Amelio when everything semed so grim — but now especially it’s a great show with exciting product launches and a crowd that eats it up. As Michael Roney of Wiley noted, “You wouldn’t think that so much excitement represents only 2% of the market,” and he’s right. It’s a fanatical 2%.

The tech book publishers have to be thankful. I don’t have the statistics but I’m sure that Mac users buy more books than PC users, and they’re not buying the books necessarily because they’re having trouble, they buy them to do more with what they’ve got. And Apple keeps the process moving by continuing to introduce user friendly and fun products, along with the obligatory OS update every year or so. I can’t ever imagine that MS for instance will really control the home entertainment market, but Apple will take what it can and keep its devoted users happy and eager for more.

O’Reilly — with No Starch and its other partners, Peachpit, Wiley and Sybex all had booths this year. There may have been other publishers, but I missed them. Peachpit had their typical big store on the floor, and O’Reilly had a somewhat smaller selling space but a larger presentation area for ORA authors. Both Wiley and Sybex had smaller spaces, mostly for one on ones with authors and a display of books. What’s impressive over the last five years is that ORA has become such a quality Mac publisher, and Tim has done this very well, with the huge assistance of David Pogue.

I come home looking for more Mac authors, so if you know anyone who’s looking for an agent in this space, feel free to send them my way.

Jan 062005

I’ll be at MacWorld, Tuesday, January 11. Please send me an email if you plan to be at the show and would like to meet.

Nov 102004

Here’s a telling quote from Pearson’s Nov. 10 trading update:

“Our technology publishing business continues to face weak conditions in the IT industry but is gaining share and benefiting from its lower cost base.”

I’m sure part of the lower cost base is lower advances and royalties based on so much author competition for book projects. And also the result of dropping staff. Let’s hope this begins to turn around someday soon.

Happily, they report modest growth in the higher education market, as well as online training.

Oct 262004

Computer books are transcending their user manual roots. I see many more lifestyle niches in the computer market, from digital photography to digital video, digital scrapbooking to LAN party guides.

Books that try to be everything to everyone, ala the old Using titles from Que, are finding a smaller market as readers look for more specific, or exciting, reads. My favorite trend, partly because it makes for cool books, are titles aimed at techno-hobbyists or just plain old geeks — titles like PC Toys, Linux Toys, and the forthcoming Geek House from Wiley, or Hacking the X-Box from No Starch.

Along those lines I want to rep more one-off tech titles. Right now I’m looking for an author team for The Tech of Burning Man. I think it’s a cool idea. There’s plenty of hardware on the playa, and almost 35,000 people attended the festival this year. Let’s see if i can interest a publisher. I figure it might be fun to follow some books from proposal to contract, and what better place to do that than a blog.

Oct 252004

I went to Border’s Books in Davis the other day and scoped the shelves.

The computer book section continues to lose space, and the section was poorly managed, with books all helter skelter and shelved out of category. I was there to look at recent Photoshop books and what I saw confirms my sense of unease. The Photoshop and Digital Photography categories have been one of the few bright spots over the last two years, and there are many well established heavy-weight authors represented: Deke McClelland, Scott Kelby and Co., Martin Evening, Katrin Eismann, and others. I’m impressed with the quality of the books.

But I remember back to the booms (and subsequent over-publishing) in Java, web design, and then Linux and certification books, and wonder how long we can sustain this current boomlet, and for myself and my clients I wonder what’s next.

The mass market segment has always featured plenty of me-too publishing, and though every publisher I talk to asks for a unique take on the product, at some point we’re going to reach over-kill. I don’t think we’re there quite yet but that’s my worry.

In the meantime I’m still looking for new Photoshop authors.

And I can’t wait to see Katrin Eismann’s new Photoshop Masking and Compositing book (Peachpit) on the shelves any day now.