The Economics of Writing on Computer Topics

November 2003

The questions here are from Michael Groh and originally appeared on the Studio B Discussion List.

Q: Would Tim (and other publishers and agents--I'm hoping for high-level, not "in the trenches" experiences) respond to the following questions?

How important is timliness, i.e., being "first on the shelf" on new versions of existing software products (like Word and Access)? Is it ever okay to be late to market if your book truly represents some advantage over books that were there first? Do the chain buyers give books that are late to market a chance if they have more to offer than existing books?

A: Well, I'll start out by saying that for me, "timliness" is everything. I only publish books that are timly. :-)

But I fear that you were just setting me up for that pratfall, and so I'd better answer the question about timeliness as well, although I'm afraid I'm going to do so with a few "in the trenches" stories.

All other things being equal, being first or at least early to market helps, especially for consumer topics. It certainly seems clear to me that the market "decides" on its favorite books within about six months of a product release, and after that, it is much harder to be in the running.

Of course, it's better to be second or third or even tenth with a great book than first with a lousy one. But if the first book in a market is also a fabulous one, it will tend to own the market. Mac OS X: The Missing Manual is a great example. It was one of the very first books on the market, and also the best, so it took and held the top spot so convincingly that it made it much harder for any other similar book to find a foothold.

Ditto what we did in the Perl market. We owned the market so convincingly before any other publishers came around that most of them just didn't bother, and the few books that were introduced later just didn't find that much traction.

But rather than just telling you stories that put us in a good light, let me also tell you one that shows how the right book can unseat a leader. We published the first comprehensive user guide to the Internet in 1992: The Whole Internet User's Guide & Catalog. It sold over 1,000,000 copies and was named one of the most significant books of the twentieth century by the New York Public Library. (Among other accomplishments, our chapter on the WWW, done when there were only 200 web sites, inspired the Mosaic project, which became Netscape, which. . . .) But after a 3-4 year run at the top of the charts, the book was convincingly defeated by The Internet for Dummies.

Why? As the Internet matured and became more of a consumer phenomenon, our original book was seen as "too geeky" by the growing audience. In some ways, Dummies had followed what Ries and Trout call the second immutable law of marketing: "If you can't be first, create a new category in which you can be first." We had done the first Internet book, but they did the first beginner's Internet book (barring some early entrants that were contemporaneous with The Whole Internet and too simple for the early, more technical market.)

In short, timing is about more than being first to market on a technology. It's about being first to market *for a market*.

(Aside: The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is a great book for anyone wanting some high-level advice on this kind of topic.)

The other key factor in our losing the Internet book market to Dummies was that we didn't update the book often enough. We felt (correctly) that the basic information wasn't changing very fast, and at that point in our evolution, we were much more attuned to long-running technical markets where books would last for years. So The Internet for Dummies was in its fifth edition when we were working on our second. We kept looking at IfD and saying, "but they hardly changed it." But appearances are everything in consumer markets. The content didn't change that much, but the copyright date did, and that was an important weapon.

We definitely learned a strong lesson from that failure. Of course, we went on to publish lots of other, more specialized Internet books on subjects like HTML, JavaScript, Apache, sendmail, and DNS and Bind. Overall, we're still the dominant technical Internet book publisher, and some titles remain bestsellers to this day. But we did lose the consumer Internet market even though we were first by not *remaining* timely.

Even though I learned the importance of timely updates here, I still sometimes run counter to that lesson, as when, for a lark, I decided to publish Windows 95 in a Nutshell on the day that Windows 98 was released, as a way of making a statement about the push to upgrade when lots of people would still be using the older software for years to come. I irritated a lot of other publishers by having about half of the Publisher's Weekly roundup of new Windows 98 books spent instead on my PR stunt, and we sold about 20,000 copies of the book. But in retrospect, we would have done a lot better if we had gone right for Windows 98. (Windows 98 in a Nutshell, released a year later, sold about 30,000 copies, but I imagine that if we'd released it right at the front of the wave, it would have done more copies than both the Win 95 and Win 98 editions combined.) That being said, in the long run it may not have mattered that much since we've continued to update the book, getting the XP edition out in a fairly timely way (third time's the charm), and all three editions have sold nearly 100,000 copies and counting.

So perhaps one rule to derive from this story is, "If you can't be first, be persistent." That's how IDG brought down The Whole Internet, and how we made a modest success of Windows (95|98|XP) in a Nutshell. (It helped that the latter book was very distinct from everything else on the market, a compact almanac of useful reference information.) Of course, it's easier for a publisher to be persistent than an author, who is at the mercy of his or her publisher's willingness to do a new edition.

One more story. I mentioned Head First Java as a recent success, despite the decline in the Java market. And of course the book is in no way first. But it does hew to Ries and Trout's second law above--it created a new category in which it could be first. So if you have something distinctive to offer, there's often room even if you're late to the market.

So when you're considering "first," don't just think "first book on the topic." Think "first tutorial," "first complete reference," "first advanced book," "first book on specialized subtopic foo," and so on. But don't kid yourself that your book is really original if it's just some variation on one of these.

A last point: your choice of publisher helps. The clearest lesson from Bookscan (to refer to the data that started this thread) is that the market is consolidating. Fully 80 percent of the market shown by Bookscan (about 65-70 percent of U.S. domestic retail sales, including online accounts) is owned by Pearson, Wiley, O'Reilly, and Microsoft Press, in that order. If you add Osborne and Sybex, you get to 90 percent. (Pearson is a conglomerate owning many individual imprints--AW, PH, Peachpit, Sams, New Riders, Brady, Cisco Press, Adobe Press, Macromedia Press, etc.--so the market looks more diverse than it actually is.) Having been a small publisher who worked my way up over many years, I won't say it can't be done. But I think it's a lot harder than it was in the '80s and '90s. In short, being part of an established series at an established publishing house is, unfortunately, very important.

But don't let that stop you! To repeat Bernard Shaw's (unfortunately now hackneyed) phrase, "all progress depends on the unreasonable man" (or woman). Just be aware of the challenges, and don't take them lightly.

Q: What are the chances of success for "niche" books (Looking Good in Print, for example) that are not tied to a particular software product? Is it worthwhile to pursue topics that apply to groups of readers who are related by the work they do, rather than by the products they use?

A: Chances of success are excellent if you can target the right group. There are many examples of great successes by this strategy. As marketing experts say (I forget who, alas, or I'd give a reference), "a market is a group of people who reference each other when making buying decisions." (That might be from Crossing the Chasm.) So if you can find a target market of this kind, you'll likely have a long-lasting book where timeliness (at least with regard to product release cycles, though not first-to-market) can be very important. Books on web design and usability are a great example of this kind of market. But there are many others. Harald Johnson's Mastering Digital Printing is a recent example that I've seen on Amazon bestseller lists.

Of course, for this type of book, it helps if you are well known to the target audience. It's not absolutely essential, but if J. Random Author had written the first significant book on web usability, rather than Jakob Nielsen, I'm not sure it would have had the same success. Author name recognition is a major tool for most prospective purchasers, so a key lesson for authors is to build your reputation not just through books but through other means available to you, such as building a useful web site on your subject, participating in online forums, writing for magazines, etc.

Q: How often do gimmicks (sorry, by this I mean the Head First type of book, or the original DOS For Dummies title) really succeed?

A: They don't succeed if they are gimmicks. They can succeed hugely if they tap into a real need in the marketplace, and capture that need with a memorable image or other branding aid. A brand is a promise. And if people are looking for what you promise, then it's great to have something memorable for them to recognize it by. Dummies was based on a profound insight into a marketplace problem.

Q: Is it difficult to sell such a book idea to publishers? I recall hearing from Dan Gooking that he had a hell of a time selling publishers on the Dummies concept, but look where it went!

A: Since the success of Dummies, it's all too easy to sell publishers on cockamamie gimmick concepts. But few of them work. See what I said above about finding something distinctive and valuable. If you do that, it's not a gimmick.