My musings about .NET and what not

Orphans at the Bookstore

What do the companies who publish technical books – and the authors who write them – really owe their readers?

It’s rare to find an instance in which you pay good money for software, and are subsequently unable to find any kind of support whatsoever.

We’re not talking about freeware or open-source here (you can’t rightfully demand much handholding if you’re not paying for the product). No, we’re talking commercial software from well-established companies. If you’ve laid your money down, you rightfully expect the company to provide a modicum of support. If they don’t provide access to real live humans via telephone (fewer and fewer companies do these days), at least there’s an email address or support forum, often supplemented by a FAQ, knowledgebase, or wiki of some kind. Most of the time, that’s more than you need to get a question answered.

Software companies have to support the products they sell. Developers are expected to support the software they write.

So, why don’t technical publishers and authors feel obligated to support their own books?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent a pretty decent chunk of change on tech books, so you know what I’m talking about. Of course, there’s always the pretty sales page with a synopsis, table of contents, a place to download errata or sample code – and oh yes, that big shiny “Buy Now” button. But far too often, publishers provide no medium with which to provide meaningful feedback, to interact with the author(s), or to even ask a simple question pertaining to the book’s content.

It is unfathomable to me that, in an industry that relies so heavily on repeat business, publishers and authors have such little grasp on the concept of providing “service after the sale.”

To be fair, some publishers do take the extra step. Both Manning and Wrox, for example, publish online forums for the titles they sell. This goes a long way toward letting readers help other readers; sometimes, even mini-communities are formed. Unfortunately, neither company compels the authors themselves to participate or contribute. Other publishers seem to rely on the authors to “support” the book themselves – by supplying a link to an author’s blog, for example. Sometimes these authors oblige, though the level of enthusiasm, dedication, and responsiveness varies greatly. Sometimes, they don’t bother at all.

I suspect the reason publishers don’t obligate the authors to answer questions about their own books is a financial one. During my years as a contributing editor at Recording Magazine, authors were paid by the article. An email address was printed at the end of every piece, and most articles solicited a number of follow up questions from readers. Though the publisher forwarded these questions to the author, it was made abundantly clear that they were in no way obligated to answer them, because the company would not pay them extra to do so.

The stuff I’ve written for Wrox has solicited a fair number of questions, many of which come through the contact page of my blog. Wrox doesn’t pay me to answer them – but I do anyway, out of sheer pride and a sense of obligation to my readers. However, it’s painfully clear that many authors feel no such obligation. Once the advance is spent, the final draft is turned in, and the royalty checks start coming, they seem all too willing to put the project behind them. They just don’t feel as though the owe their readers anything.

What Can You Do? What Should You Do?

Given the current economic climate, asking publishers to shell out more dough probably won’t get us very far. But, depending on where you stand in the technical book food chain, you can play an active role.

If you’re a reader:

  • Reward publishers who provide opportunities to interact with authors and other readers, by making this part of your purchasing decision.
  • Favor authors who actively participate in publisher-provided forums.
  • Favor authors who supply supplemental or ancillary book material on their personal blogs.
  • Support authors who encourage feedback and are responsive to reader questions.

If you’re a publisher:

  • Provide an forum for readers to interact with editors, authors, and other readers.
  • Ask authors in advance if they intend to voluntarily support the book post-publication, and how they plan to do that. Make authors put this in writing as part of the book proposal.
  • Encourage authors to treat their work as a living, breathing project, and give them the means to help them do so.

If you’re an author:

  • Writing a book is like having a baby. Remember that the “construction phase” – difficult though it may be – is only the beginning.
  • Understand that technical books undergo a “life cycle” after they are published, and that the first few months after it hits the streets are the most critical. Actively engaging and interacting with readers early in this life cycle will pay off once the market for your book matures.
  • Seek out the places your book is being discussed – on the publisher’s website, on Amazon, on Twitter, and in the personal blogs of your readers. Remember, readers won’t always come directly to you with their thoughts, comments, and questions, but they will have them.
  • If you’ve published a sample application with your book, consider hosting your code in a online repository such as CodePlex. Encourage readers to submit bug reports and suggestions for improvements, and solicit their help in maintaining the codebase.
  • Keep the book alive on your own blog! If you’ve identified a pain-point readers are having, a particular section that bears further explanation, or an assertion that’s being challenged, put up a post about it. Justify the decisions you’ve made and the conclusions you’ve drawn, and be open-minded to reader comments expressing other points of view.
  • Think of your own bottom line! If you aren’t proud enough of your work to support it for any other reason, do it because it will help sell more books.

You wouldn’t think of buying a car, a refrigerator, or a piece of software without the promise of some kind of support if you need it, would you? Yet for some reason, we do this all the time when buying technical books, seemingly without hesitation.

Think about that the next time you’re about to carry your new-found tome to the cash register, or click that big shiny Buy Now button. Otherwise, the book you’re purchasing may barely be worth the paper it’s printed on.

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