As someone who has made a decent secondary income for the last twelve years writing technical books, a recent post in the SD Times caught my eye: “Are tech books dead?” it asks. The author comes to the conclusion that no, they’re not, although the rise of blogs and other online material certainly plays a role for learners more than it has in the past. I agree with this conclusion, which itself isn’t interesting, but that this is the conclusion still in 2011—almost 2012—is interesting to me (and it supports my desire to keep on writing books).
I started writing technical books in 1999; I wrote the second PHP-related book that came on the market (for Prima-Tech which became part of Course Technology which became part of Cenage, if you’re interested), and from that point on I was solicited to write some more, eventually writing only for Pearson and putting out an edition or two of something or another each year.
I never thought I’d still be doing this a decade later. As a developer myself, I knew how I learned new things in the ever-changing tech landscape, and it isn’t from technical books. I thought “who on earth would pick up a chunky ol’ book and sit it next to their computer while working on something?” … my choice of “thickbook.com” as my domain name was meant to be funny, like “here are Thick Books From Which You Shall Learn Things” (tongue firmly in cheek). The joke’s on me, because that income has increased or remained steady each year; there’s been no noticeable drop-off in either the number of sales of my books, the purchase of rights for translation, or the amount I’ve earned in royalties.
I believe the success of my books is directly attributed to the decision I made years ago with the first book, and have stuck with despite the temptation to “do something cooler”: pick an audience, know the audience, speak to the audience and don’t try to do any more than that. The audience I picked was the newbie—because let’s face it, the n00b doesn’t get a lot of love. As the SD Times post points out, and publisher metrics would likely bear out, books rather than blogs/other online content is where the newbies go to learn things because a beginner won’t know how to evaluate/filter material found online and/or because “Bloggers make certain assumptions about their readers, and those assumptions typically leave beginners behind.” This is a generalization, but a common outcome for beginners who Google a keyword, find a blog or some sample code, and implement the sample code eventually come to find it wasn’t the solution they really wanted or was correct, because they only knew enough to copy and paste rather than to understand and build upon. This is not to say that blogs and other online materials are not valuable. In fact, they’re enormously valuable and are precisely how I obtain breadth and depth on subjects once I know what I’m talking about.
Here’s where I will take a moment to play Captain Obvious and note that this is exactly why academic courses in all subjects actually have vetted course materials—a book, coursepack, or otherwise—so that the learner has a solid foundation to learn and build upon, no matter if it’s a composition class or a chemistry class.
In the SD Times post, some folks interviewed saw “virtually no value in books devoted to new technologies, where implementations are changing weekly.” I agree with this statement, with the caveat that eventually there is a point—even with HTML5 (the example given)—when a book becomes useful even if the technology is still changing. My thought, and what has been my publisher’s thought, is that once an author can adequately (and confidently) express a solid conceptual foundation, go for it. If you can’t, then don’t. Pearson’s been a good partner in this effort; some may see it as a bit conservative (“why don’t you have an HTML5 book out there yet?!?!?”) while others get it (“ah, I see that you have waited until more examples of good and creative HTML5 have gone mainstream”).
One last note from the SD Times article—the author points out that the “line between [books and blogs] is blurring as publishers and authors make book chapters available on the Web, soliciting and incorporating feedback before the formal publication date.” Pearson and O’Reilly (the other publisher I respect a great deal, and for whom I would consider it an honor to write anything) are both examples of publishers that have done a lot of work in distributing pre-prints (“Rough Cuts”) as well as going for short but quality texts (such as the “10 Minutes” series) that can be revised and reprinted relatively quickly and easily.
The future is still bright for me, as an author, and I hope also for those beginners who just want a longer, carefully-crafted and considered text they can hold, which just explains how things work—also giving them the tools to evaluate the usefulness of the exponentially increasing amount of professional and expert texts not bound into books (virtual or otherwise) that hit the interwebs each day.