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Kevin Kline

The Publishing Industry Takes Another Hit

There's a lot of talk at the moment that Amazon is forcing self-publishers to use its own publishing centers in order to stay listed with the powerhouse Internet sales site.  For example, this blog post Has Amazon Gone Mad by Rick Jelliffe rather aptly describes the situation.  The Writer's Weekly first broke the story here, but it's now been taken up by major media such as the Wall Street Journal.  Blogger M. David Peterson points out that there are alternatives - simply print enough copies ahead of time and ship them to the Amazon printing centers.

This certainly isn't the death knell of publishing. But it is a telling sign.  When I first started writing books, an author could reasonably expect to sell the first printing of their book, probably about 5000 books.  This was usually enough sales to cover the advance that the publisher paid them and maybe a bit extra to cover a celebratory round of beers with his/her buddies.  If the book was good and the the stars were in proper alignment, the author would be lucky to get addition printings of their book out the door and actually make a little money on the project.  Nowadays, it seems like the first printing of a new title is only around 3000 and fewer books seem to be ascending to the level of "strong seller". 

Of course, there is always a place for titles like Word 2007 for Dummies.  Those sort of everygreen titles will always sell.  But it appears that the more niche your content is, the worse it will do as a book.  The obvious reason for this is the Internet.  Why would someone spend $40 for a book on SQL Server query tuning (as an example, I'm not knocking any specific book), when you could simply subscribe to the RSS feeds at sites like SQLblog, SQLMag, or SQL-Server-Performance and get nearly as much content?  For that matter, the power of a good Google search (and not Windows Live Search, imo) enables you to pull valuable content from all three of these sites in short order.  Not only is your search more taylored to your specific needs, it's also more likely to be up-to-date with the latest versions, service packs, and nuances.

Authors like me are also concerned because the immediate alternative that comes to mind is writing and publishing an e-book.  However, e-books seem to hold even less promise no than in years past.  At least when you buy a book, you have a physical object that you own.  You can take it on a plane and read it during that "turn off all electronic devices" stage of the flight.  You can take it to the bathroom.  You can share it with your team mates at work (hopefully, not right after taking it to the bathroom).  E-books, though, have all the limitations of a book with none of the advantages of the internet. 

I believe that as the hard-print media (book publishers, magazine publishers, newsletters, journals, and newspapers) continue to see shrinking audiences, the key to survival is tapping in to blogging and expert opinion.  For example, the New York Times is doing extremely well with their Freakonomics blog, based upon the eponymous book (and a personal favorite of mine).

Published Friday, April 11, 2008 12:53 PM by KKline
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Evan said:

I think at some point, the community will have to lift itself above the "Learn XX in 24 hours" books.  Those books are pretty easily supplanted by information found freely on the web (as you mentioned).  

What seems to be missing to me are more of the top-end works aimed at upper mid to senior level people.  The guys that have the product memorized, but still have a big gap between what they know and the theory behind it.  I've found in my studies, that every inch I close between my understanding and the theory behind it makes me a much better developer (I make much better decisions, and my gut instincts seem to work better).  It's definitely not for the beginner though.

That being said, I now look at the age of the book as a key indicator for its value.  If the book is less than 3 years old, it's either unproven stuff or only good for the current point release of the product it was written about.

Realizing the high-end books sell far fewer copies at release (due to the jr/mid/sr mix of the market), but that the lifetime of the book is much greater (years instead of months), I've wondered if we would ever start seeing a shift.  It's often hard to find the high-end stuff, even in the blogosphere.

Or at least that's my conspiracy theory.. :-)

April 11, 2008 4:42 PM

Chuck Boyce said:

The internet and the blogosphere in particular are certainly doing a number on the book publishing industry.  .Net Rocks interviewed Don Box last year and they talked about this.  I highly recommend you give it a listen:

The music industry is also being devastated:

(h/t gigaom)

These are definitely times of change.  No idea what's on the other end of the rabbit hole.


April 14, 2008 11:57 AM

Ian Macintosh said:

Take some of these books I bought recently.

Understanding the Linux Kernel (3rd Edition)

You're not going to find a concise, digested and study capable equivalent anywhere on the net.

Automating Unix and Linux Administration

Where on the net will you find focused and structured content like this?

Linux iptables pocket reference

For when you can't get the net, when you're stuck in some awkward spot trying to find a quick solution or quick answer.  Pocket references of any type can be damn handy.

Classic Shell Scripting

Really a different perspective on automation administration, and the same comment applies here.

In summary, I seem to be paying the author to sift, test and organise information on my behalf.  Sure, everything in these books is freely available on the net, but at what cost in time to locate?  Wade through all those Google pages that are written in half English, with half described problems and variously suggested solutions.  It takes a lot of time to wade through those.

So, for the sake of a few bucks, I buy good books that contain ordered, sifted, tested and focused information.

So for me at least, I think the Internet isn't going to kill the publishing industry just yet.

Another book I bought, though it was for my Dad, was "The Devils Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce.  He doesn't get the daily anecdote from the ubiquitous 'fortune' program like I do, so this sort of purchase doesn't seem to be in danger either.  And that is one hell of a funny book.  In small doses :-)



April 14, 2008 12:35 PM

Chuck Boyce said:

Hi Ian,

People will always produce great works regardless of profit incentive.

check out this story for an interesting read:

...however, the INDUSTRY of book publishing is heading into "a world of pain" to quote Walter Sobchak.

You simply can't lose THAT many customers and still be the same thing after the loss.  Yes, people will always write good books for a lot of reasons: pride, resume, altruism, good will.  Very few people will have the same chance they had before the internet to have one of those reasons be a profit incentive.


April 14, 2008 1:06 PM

AaronBertrand said:

Ian, I used to do a lot of support work in the ASP space.  Do you know how many people would spend two weeks building an upload or mail control on their own, including waiting time for us to help them with syntax, rather than shell out $99 on a pre-built control with all (or more than) the functionality they needed, documentation, support, an existing user base, etc.?

People are cheap, and often do not consider their own time (never mind the time of people like me, helping them for free) as having monetary value.

These are the types of customers that used to buy books, but now don't have to.  Do I still buy books?  Absolutely, for the reasons that you mention (and others).  But are you and I enough to keep all technical publishers alive?  Doubtful.

April 16, 2008 1:33 PM

steve dassin said:

Evan says:

>I've found in my studies, that every inch I close between my >understanding and the theory behind it makes me a much better >developer

Have you considered that whatever is behind a lot of stuff you do is

pretty thin! :)

Aarons insight:

>Do you know how many people would spend two weeks building an upload >or mail control on their own, including waiting time for us to help >them with syntax, rather than shell out $99 on a pre-built control >with all (or more than) the functionality they needed, documentation, >support, an existing user base, etc.? People are cheap...

True, but they're encouraged to do so! :( :)

April 16, 2008 7:54 PM

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About KKline

Kevin Kline is a well-known database industry expert, author, and speaker. Kevin is a long-time Microsoft MVP and was one of the founders of PASS,

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