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Quality publishing

2002-01-25 18:48:25+00 by Dan Lyke 13 comments

[1000 pages only $19.99] Yesterday Phil and I dropped into Cody's Books at lunch, and ran across this gem. From Sybex "Quality Computer Books & Software", it's XML Complete[Wiki], "1000 pages only $19.99". Well, I guess that's "a quality". This has actually been a common refrain from authors I know, and I think it's the reason that Wrox dropped me as a reviewer: Publishers want shovel-ware. Are there really so few of us out here who think that the value of a good author is that they can pare down the subject to the critical bits, and who value our time highly enough that a 100 page book is worth much more than a 1000 page book?

[ related topics: Books ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:46+00 by: starbreeze

That's part of the problem with the IT industry it seems lately. Any kid can pick up a book and learn enough buzzwords to talk through an interview, and get one of those "Teach yourself Java in 6 weeks" books, and get a nicely paying position with absolutely no background. My working my ass off to put myself through 4.5 years of school to earn my Bachelors of Science in CIS means nothing to people who want 2+ years of experience and don't care about computer background. Meanwhile those fellows who read those books 2 years ago have now gotten the experience. I could rant for a while on this, but I'll keep it short :)

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:46+00 by: petronius

I willingly confess (there's that Catholic thing again) that in a past life I was a paper MCSE, charming as hell before a class but very little real experience. Now, about 6 months out of it and developing instructional materials for Point of Sale programs for large service company I shudder to think how bad I must have been. And I know I was not the only one in the IT training field. While being a good instructor does call for different skills than just knowing the topic (I have seen brilliant Sysadmins who couldn't explain how to tie your shoes)some basic knowlege is necessary to do a good job.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:47+00 by: mkelley

As one of the people who studied html and worked in an IS department instead of finishing college, let me say this. I got enough real world experience that my lack of a college degree didn't matter. I have a good portfolio and work experience that a lot of companies would prefer.

I remember hiring two contractors (CIS major and a MCSE)to help admin a NT network and they didn't have a clue. They weren't exposed to a large vital network and the funky things that can happen. I learned Novell, Unix, NT, hardware, term servers, etc in an environment that was "Learn it Now"...you had to think quick and try things.

I worked for a network admin that wasn't a CIS Major, but a psychology major, but he had 20+ experience with DG and HP and he taught me to throw away the books and just get it fixed.

I could have ranted a bit more...

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:47+00 by: Dan Lyke

My experience has been that sometimes you can tell if someone can think from the skills they present, but if they can think they can learn the skills. And finding people who can think is largely uncorrelated with buzzword compliance or formal education. At best, education acts as a filter function.

The problem I've seen in the past few years, especially with the .com boom, is that quite a few managers seem to have forgotten this, and with the crunch in the job market we saw an awful lot of hiring of incompetence based on education or buzzword compliance. This seems to be a problem solving itself.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:47+00 by: Mike Gunderloy

The Sybex "Complete" books are an interesting (and apparently rather profitable) experiment in re-use. They're not aimed at the computer geek market at all; believe it or not, they are primarily marketed through places like Sams and Wal-Mart, where the typical 1000-pages-for-$60 books won't sell at all. But a 1000-page-for-$20 book will sell.

How does Sybex keep this series so cheap? The answer is that no one writes them. Those books are composed of chapters reprinted from Sybex's other books and arranged into some semblance of order by one of the editors over there. The authors don't get additional royalties, just a one-time per-page fee for the reprint. How do I know all this? Because I've got chapters in some of them. I might even have a chapter in XML COMPLETE; I don't remember.

Hey, it's part of a living. But I doubt anyone who reads Flutterby is the target audience for this particular series.

Sybex does publish some other series that aren't shovelware, though 400 pages is probably about the minimum for a computer book that will sell enough copies to be worth writing. That's not the publisher's choice, but a reflection of what sells.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:48+00 by: Dan Lyke

I've been looking at culling my bookshelves, and was trying to find some books for Alec to get started programming, and the ones I want to keep are books like Programs and Data Structures in C[Wiki] by Lendeert Ammeraal, or Vehicles[Wiki] by Valentino Braitenberg, similar sub 200 page books which cover their primary idea thoroughly, don't get bogged down in the extraneous crap, and don't try to be all things to all people. And my books currently open and used are the tiny O'Reilly quick references.

When I bought your guide to the Windows installer I figured it was the closest I could get to having the one or two chapters that would have the conceptual information I was looking for, but because of the heft it never got opened, and I ended up figuring it out by trial and error.

I know publishers ask for what sells, but I can't believe that there isn't a market for well-trimmed books.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:48+00 by: Dori

400 pages is probably about the minimum for a computer book that will sell enough copies to be worth writing.

A couple of data points: the 3rd edition of our JavaScript book (1) was approximately 300 pages, and (2) sold well enough that it bought my Miata and financed our move to the wine country.

It is true, though, that much of it has to do with shelf space. Bigger books are what get noticed on the shelf. Those little things get buried, unfortunately, because those are the ones that I like to write myself.

It wouldn't surprise me if we some day see little books like Dan wants in big packaging, similar to the way software CD's are sold at retail. The problem there is, of course, that you won't be able to leaf through the pages anymore.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:48+00 by: Mike Gunderloy

Yup, there are exceptions to every rule. New Riders and Apress have both experimented with smaller books, and O'Reilly is the big success story in that arena. Sybex seems to have a lot of trouble with smaller titles. Perhaps I should shop around for another publisher.

At 390 pages, that Windows Installer book was about as small as I could make it and cover the territory, though -- without constant references to "look this up in the SDK", which I would have been happy with. But that sort of thing tends to make editors upset. Didn't sell for shit anyhow.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:48+00 by: meuon

Just chiming in.. O'Reilly has done well with concise well written books. Learning Perl, Programming Perl and the Perl Cookbook are augmented nicely by the 'pocket references'.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:49+00 by: Dori

But that's exactly it, meuon. Those are *augmentations*, not original books. If I went to any publisher and said that I wanted to, say, write a 100 page book on CSS, I'd be laughed at. After taking all the production costs into account, it just couldn't be sold to justify it against the competition.

Your average book buyer will buy a 300 page book over a 100 page book, if they both cost $20.

Another factor in this is the new edition racket. Take a look at your average tech shelf at a bookstore, and it'll be filled with "New and improved 4th edition!" books. It's an easy way for authors to make money with having to write an entirely new book, but it has to be justified by adding more material to a book that may not really need all that new stuff. Authors like it,'cause they get more money for some of the same old stuff. Publishers like it, 'cause they think it has a built-in market. Book buyers, as I understand it, like it, because they hope that the new edition includes stuff that the previous was lacking.

Just my two cents.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:50+00 by: DaveP

As much more of a consumer than producer of books, I started thinking about this back when Dan pointed to the article on The Thin Book Movement.

My take was:

I just looked at the technical books that have been languishing in my "to-read" pile. They're all massive tomes. The thinner ones get read quickly. Perhaps some subjects require the heft of a phone-book, but not as many as publishers seem to think.

But I've never considered myself anything like your average book buyer and am pretty sure for two books priced the same, with equivalent content, I'll pick the smaller of the two.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:50+00 by: Mike Gunderloy

I passed that "Thin is in" stuff on to some folks in the business. Their response, based on sales figures, boiled down to "no it isn't".

I suspect O'Reilly has pretty close to 100% of the market for people who prefer thin technical books.

#Comment made: 2002-02-21 05:34:50+00 by: Dori

I suspect O'Reilly has pretty close to 100% of the market for people who prefer thin technical books.

Interesting suspicion, depending on your definition of "technical." I would have said Peachpit had close to 100%, myself.