this weekFit to Print

December 10, 2004

Take Control Ebooks

Electronic publishing that works

One day I mentioned to someone that I write computer books, and the response was, “What are those?” Attempting to clarify, I said that I write books about computer software. “You mean like instruction manuals?” Well, no, not really; the books I write tell you things you’d never read in an instruction manual. I was a bit flummoxed when put on the spot to explain why someone would write books about computing—after all, bookstores are filled with thousands of them. But the person questioning me probably did not use computers very much, and probably assumed, reasonably enough, that the manuals included with hardware and software would be adequate to explain how the products work. If only that were true. These days, it’s rare to find a substantial printed manual packaged with a computer product, and even the electronic manuals are often skimpy and poorly written; they seem to tell you everything except what you need to know. For consumers, this is a terrible situation; for authors and publishers, it’s a tremendous opportunity.

And so, like many other authors, I’ve written books that help users to make sense of their computers and accomplish useful tasks. But because of the time required to edit, lay out, print, bind, and distribute paper books, the products my books cover are often outdated by the time a book even hits the shelves, and at best, technical books such as these have a very short shelf life. This situation is bad for readers, because they have spent a lot of money for a heavy, bulky chunk of paper that is no longer entirely accurate. It’s bad for authors, because we’ve spent months of our lives working on a huge project that paid relatively little up front, and our chances for earning royalties beyond the initial advance are slim if the books are on sale for just a few months. And it’s bad for publishers, who put up enormous sums of money to get books into print, and then sometimes end up with thousands of unsold, obsolete copies sitting in a warehouse.

One way of addressing these problems is to distribute technical books as electronic files rather than on paper; these are called ebooks. But most of the ebooks published so far have one or more significant problems. Self-published ebooks often suffer from a lack of editorial guidance and limited distribution. Ebooks based on existing printed books are typically too long to appeal to many readers. And publishers, who are rightly concerned about piracy—especially for ebooks that cost as much as their printed counterparts—tend to employ annoying and cumbersome copy-protection techniques. For all that, the final product, more often than not, is difficult to read on-screen, designed as it was for a much different medium.

Taking Control of Publishing
In mid-2003, I was asked to participate in an experiment in electronic publishing. Adam Engst, author of more than 20 computer books and publisher of TidBITS, assembled a group of well-known Mac authors to write a series of electronic books. The goal was to publish ebooks that provide outstanding value for readers, authors, and the publisher alike, while avoiding all the problems we’ve seen with both print and electronic books in the past. The Take Control series initially covers technology-related topics (with a special emphasis on the Mac), but in the future, it will likely expand to include topics completely unrelated to computing—cooking, Italian opera, bike repair, travel planning, you name it. Here are the main features of our experiment:

  • Ebooks are tightly focused on just one topic. They’re longer than a feature-length magazine article (think: 50+ pages), but generally much shorter than even a short paper book.
  • The emphasis of each title is on showing readers how to take control of some aspect of their computers—how to accomplish things that are not obvious (rather than simply “touring the interface,” Adam’s expression for what most computer books do).
  • Each title is reviewed for technical accuracy by all the other authors in the program. (Most computer books have just one technical reviewer.) They are also professionally edited and proofread by at least two different editors.
  • The ebooks are distributed in PDF format, carefully designed for maximum readability on screen (and compressed for short download times). They take full advantage of PDF features such as bookmarks and clickable internal and external links. The ebooks are also printable on both letter-sized and A4 paper. And the files are not copy-protected (out of respect for the reader).
  • When possible, these ebooks are published in a very timely manner—immediately following the release of the products they discuss—and are updated regularly. Updates are free.
  • Take Control ebooks are inexpensive, with some selling for as little as US$5. The idea is that they’ll cost much less than a computer book, or a little more than a magazine—but either way, you’re getting just the content you really need, with very little risk.
  • The publisher and the author split the proceeds 50/50 (after transaction fees). This means that, on average, an author will receive about twice as much money in royalties for a $5 ebook as he or she would earn for a $30 paper book. And the author gets paid monthly, rather than having to wait for quarterly or semi-annual checks as would be the case for paper books.
  • The Take Control authors actively participate in online discussions about the process and each other’s titles. We help, critique, and encourage each other, and have lots of fun in the process.

The results of this experiment over the first few years have been astonishing. My title Take Control of Upgrading to Panther, which happened to be the first one released (in October, 2003), went through five revisions and sold over 6,800 copies in four languages. In its first two weeks, that ebook sold more copies than my first printed book, The Nisus Way, did in its entire lifetime. One of my more recent ebooks, Take Control of Mac OS X Backups, sold more than 1,000 copies in its first four days. While some ebooks sell better than others, all the participating authors seem to be pleased with the overall results. We’re also happy about the speed with which we can bring an ebook to market. I typically spend two to four weeks writing an ebook (not counting editing and so on), versus the three to five months it takes me to write a 500-page paper book. Because we spend less time writing and earn much more per copy, the ratio of reward to effort is many times greater than with a printed book. As someone who has written about computers for over a decade, I find these facts mightily refreshing.

Beyond time and money, another reward is feedback from readers. Almost every day I get a few email messages from people who have purchased my ebooks and have questions or comments, and I appreciate this human interaction, which is unusual between author and reader. I answer readers’ questions as best I can, and when someone points out an especially important issue, I can quickly incorporate that into the ebook’s next electronic update. This means that both current and future purchasers can be assured of having the most accurate and up-to-date information possible.

Ebooks Come Full Circle
In a strange but wonderful twist, TidBITS Electronic Publishing has an agreement with Peachpit Press to publish compilations of some of the ebooks as conventional, printed books. Anyone who buys a printed book also gets free updates of the constituent ebooks in PDF form. That way, those who prefer paper can get the best of both worlds.

If current trends continue, there could be some interesting shifts in the habits of both readers and authors of technical books in the coming months and years. Speaking as an author, I find the process of writing Take Control ebooks vastly more enjoyable—not to mention more profitable—than that of writing paper books. Speaking as a reader, I’d much rather pay $5 for an up-to-date ebook that tells me just what I want to know than $30 for a paper book that’s outdated and contains a lot of material I don’t need. And the publisher also benefits by avoiding the costs and time delays of printing, warehousing, and distribution. Will we take control of publishing? Don’t bet against it. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Take Control Ebooks…

It’s not often that an Interesting Thing of the Day is so blatantly self-serving as this one is; I trust readers will forgive the aberration.

This article was featured in the About Freelance Writing Blog Carnival—July 13, 2006.

The Take Control Web site has information about all the titles in the series. You can also read about the series in Net Publishing Made Profitable by Leander Kahney in Wired News.

So far I’ve written nine of the ebooks in this series:

cover art

Peachpit has also published some of the Take Control ebooks in conventional printed form: Take Control of Tiger (a compilation of four Take Control ebooks about Mac OS X 10.4), Take Control of Panther, Volume 1 (a compilation of the first four Take Control ebooks), Take Control of Apple Mail (comprising my two ebooks on Apple Mail in a single volume), and Take Control of Your Airport Network by Glenn Fleishman.

Looking for The Nisus Way? Look here.