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Constantly Updated Online Books

February 1999

Date: Thu, 04 Feb 1999 18:54:15 -0800
From: "Tim O'Reilly" <tim@oreilly.com>
Organization: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
To: Computer Book Publishing
Subject: Constantly updated books

Bruce Epstein wrote:

Matt Wagner wrote:

I think this _is_ an opportunity. We're going to attempt this with the on-demand publishing service at toExcel. We can turn around text to ms. very quickly compared to traditional publishers, and since we're printing one copy at a time we can modify the files and turn around an updated book rapidly as well, without hemorrhaging on the inventory costs.
The limiting factor does not appear to be print time. It appears to be motivation (financial or otherwise) and time for the author to make the revision. Busy people can't be revising their books every 60 days, and the money just isn't usually sufficient to allow them to spend full time on incremental updates.

When you think of Bruce Epstein, you may first think of his sense of humor, but if you pay attention, you notice simply his sense--good sense, that is.

Bruce is absolutely right on about this. This has been the gating factor in any attempts we've made to keep books up to date online, for instance. Only an extremely successful book (and often, even not then) will command enough of a writer's continuous attention to justify continuous update. In addition to author time, there's production time--quality checking, paginating, indexing, proofreading, all of which consume not only time but resources. (Of course, some publishers seem to skimp on these things in any case...)

After time to get it written and produced, edition skew in "the channel" is probably the next biggest issue. Unless you're committed to selling only through Just In Time (JIT) outlets like Amazon, you will end up with significant numbers of copies in various versions out there in the market. And if you don't have that, you probably aren't selling enough copies to make the update worthwhile in the first place!

I do agree that there's a really sweet "holy grail" kind of solution we'd all like to find, where we could keep our books up to date in some kind of JIT fashion, but I don't think quick printing changes the equation all that much.

There are going to be some interesting solutions, but they'll probably be online, and will require some changes in the norms of what people expect from a printed book--e.g. consistent page-fitting and layout, and associated apparatus such as tocs and indices. Eventually, we may get some tools such that something that is maintained on a purely content basis will also be able to be automatically rendered on paper in a really nice form, but we aren't there yet.

And to go back to Bruce's original point, even if we had all that technology down just pat, what are the economic incentives to an author to make each book a full time job?

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