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Computer Books: Reading Between the Lines

The phrase "we want to publish your blog" has crept into the list of phrases you never expected to hear, just after "we want to option the movie rights to your blog." A friend of mine has been making a good living self-publishing books online, while other friends who used to earn a steady income writing computer books have had to find some way to keep food on the table. Things are changing in the world of computer book publishing, that's for sure.

Is the market for computer books in a slump? Dying? Already dead and it just hasn't noticed yet? It depends on whom you talk to.

Right up front this has to be acknowledged: If you want to know what the trends are in computer book publishing, you check with Tim O'Reilly. Nobody is more tapped into the research on what's moving and who's moving it than Tim. In his quarterly report on the state of the computer book market, Tim draws upon Bookscan's weekly tallies of book sales, folds in various other statistical ingredients, then cooks the result into a palatable dish for public consumption. Or actually Mike Hendrickson does that, since Tim turned the report over to him this year. But you know Tim's looking over his shoulder, studying the numbers and the colorful charts, perching in the leaf nodes of those treemaps like a statistical Julia Butterfly Hill.

Which is kind of strange because if you believe the legend, Tim already knows what's hot before it's hot. It's that O'Reilly radar. I'm not making this up; you can read about it in back issues of Wired. But Tim is such a professional that even though he knows the answers instinctively, he still does the research. It's from the O'Reilly analyses that you'll learn things like:

Web Design and Development as a book category is surprisingly down.

There are a remarkable four Ubuntu titles in O'Reilly's top 10 ten opsys books.

Microsoft Press is highly efficient, selling twice as many units per title as Pearson or Wiley.

It's Dead, Jim

But what if you still have questions after you study every O'Reilly report and climbed every O'Reilly Treemap? Rude questions like:

Is computer book publishing finished?

Do we really need 40 books on the same subject?

Are computer books even necessary?

And why do so many computer books suck?

If these are the kind of questions that come to your mind when you think about computer book publishing, where do you go for answers?

I don't know where you go, but I went to Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt of The Pragmatic Bookshelf. Thomas and Hunt see a dramatic shift in the center of power in publishing over the past five years.

"The power has moved relentlessly away from the publishers of information into the hands of the consumers of information," Thomas says. "And that's exactly how it should be—information will become free. We see more and more of the world's information moving online. It is being created and maintained by communities of (mostly) volunteers, and being read for free by anyone who knows how to follow a hyperlink. From blogs, online essays, and entire electronic books to vast resources such as Wikipedia, the world has changed forever. At the same time, communities have formed to vet this information, winnowing the wheat from the chaff. From simple mailing lists, to tumbleblogs, to sites such as anachaia and reddit, an interested reader is never short of recommendations."

So, where does this leave the publisher?

"Frankly," Thomas says, "I think that publishing in its current form is dead."

That's a remarkable statement from a computer book publisher.

"Most publishers view themselves as a conduit for information," Thomas says. "They see their capital value as their list of current and past titles, authors as a resource to be mined in the creation of these assets, and their readers as simple consumers. [They] live in an industry where the power comes traditionally from the ability to choose topics for books, and to distribute these paper books to consumers. So we have publishers who see themselves as a machine for converting authors' thoughts into paper books, a channel that is an incredibly inefficient distribution system, and booksellers who dislike taking risks. And all of that worked in a world where publishers and distributors were an effective oligopoly."

But the Internet has changed all that. In this new world, Thomas says, "authors are free to create information for themselves—a billion potential readers are just a few clicks away, and they no longer need publishers and distributors to get what they write into the hands of readers. Services such as Lulu even allow these new authors to have their work printed as paper books. Publishing has become an individual, not a corporate, act."

But can computer book publishing really be dead? Wouldn't we have noticed?

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