The State of the Technical Publishing Market

I was just doing a bit of random web surfing when I came across two interesting articles on the state of the tech publishing market.

"The Eventual Death of Developer Magazines" by Eric Sink looks at how developer magazines are becoming increasingly redundant now that we get all our technical information from the internet. According to Eric,

"Two days ago I stopped in at my local Borders bookstore and noticed that not one of these magazines ["Software Development", "Visual Studio Magazine"] was available for sale. They carry hundreds of periodicals. They have an entire shelf of magazines for scrapbookers. They have niche titles like Biblical Archaeology Review. But I couldn't find a single pub which was focused at software developers. What's up with that?

The unavoidable truth is that these magazines have largely ceased to be relevant. More and more, software developers get their information on the Web, not from a magazine. As just one example, compare the quality of the technical content in any developer magazine against Raymond Chen's blog. It's not even close, and Chen's blog is pure content, as opposed to "tidbits of content squeezed in between the ads".

It's certainly the case that I don't buy any developer magazines any more, with the vast majority of my technical updates coming from sites such as OTN, technical blogs and "free" magazines such as the OTDUG journal, SELECT, Oracle Scene or Oracle Magazine. Of course Eric mostly works in the Microsoft eco-system which has a different sort of developer profile than the Oracle eco-system (probably a lot more newbies, a lot more people looking to implement the latest new thing from Redmond) but certainly he's right about this sort of publishing increasingly becoming irrelevant. I don't know how it works in the States, but over here we still get magazines such as Computing, Computer Weekly and IT Week but increasingly they're devoid of recruitment ads, down to a fraction of their late 1990's size, and pretty much "old news" when they finally get through to you.

On a similar subject David Heinemeier Hannson thinks that the technical publishing market is now redundant and moreover gives book authors a poor deal:

"I've been talking to a lot of friends and acquaintances who are writing tech books for a wide variety of old-school publishers and I can't believe the deals they're taking.

It seems that the industry standard is something akin to 10% of the profits (which easily take 4-5-6 months to arrive), being forced to write in Word, and finally a production cycle that's at least a good 3 months from final book to delivery. That's horrible!

And what do you get in return? Usually not all that much. There's rarely a big marketing push to be had and you're expected to do lots of the editing yourself. So you get some editing, a cover/layout, and the distribution done for you. Is that worth 90% of the profits and the torture of writing a book in Word and then bouncing versioned documents back and forth?

The standard sugar coating of this setup is that you should not expect to make money writing a tech book. That it's not about the money, but the fame and authority and satisfaction of seeing your name in print. While all of those things certainly do have value, why on earth would you want to accept the premise that writing a book is not going to be worth it for the money?!

Of course it's not going to be for the money when you only land 1/10th of the crumbs that trickle back to the publishers from Amazon and independent retailers. Especially in tech land where its very rare to make it up on volume (your book is not going to be in every airport around the world).

No, we have to change the game such that each copy becomes much more profitable. Just accept the fact that you're not going to sell 100,000 copies and optimize for the scenario that you might sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies. It is entirely possible to make money at those levels, but not if you have a traditional cost structure."

David's argument is that if the technical publishers adopted more agile approaches to publishing, and reduced their overheads, they could afford to offer book authors a better deal than they currently get. Moreover, if they don't start offering good deals, then it's entirely possible for authors to "self-publish" in the form of downloadable PDFs, and make money on the typical 5,000 - 10,000 copies a moderately successful book sells.

Tim O'Reilly came back though with an interesting reply on why the deals are as the are, and why self-publishing is only going to be viable for a small percentage of authors:

"At bottom, I believe that you're reasoning from insufficient data, David, and generalizing from experiences that are not necessarily reproducible by other authors. While established publishers are often sclerotic and slow, they aren't all stupid or venal. As businesses get larger, they have to manage their economics by the averages, not by the successes. If we could all pick winners every time, we'd all be rich and living in Lake Wobegon ...

.. First off, to clarify, royalties for most tech books are typically 10-15% of net sales, not of "profits." That's a big confusion. Most book publishers have profit margins in the 5-15% range, and so 10-15% royalties paid to authors are actually equal to a 50/50 split of profits ...

... How about sales volumes? David's got some false assumptions there too. Very few computer books sell 100,000 copies. Most traditional computer book publishers are in fact already optimized to be profitable on books that sell from 5-10,000 copies. That's the size of the market for most books when the publisher is able to call on all the traditional avenues of distribution. And even then, the odds aren't that good. We get a report from Neilsen Bookscan on the Top 10,000 computer books sold each week, and we load that data each week into a MySQL data mart. We have nearly 20,000 unique books in the database -- computer books published over the last four years. And of those 20,000, only about 300 are currently selling at rates that will give total sales of at least 10,000 copies a year. Granted, some of these books will sell for many years, but others will need to be revised annually. In short, most computer books published sell far fewer than 5-10,000 copies, and publishers are playing the averages. For every 100,000 copy bestseller, there is the 1000 copy failure, with profitability usually found in the 5-10,000 copy range ...

... And if you just say, "well screw the retailers, I'll just sell direct," you may only be able to sell direct -- not just because they might hold it against you, but because you'll have skimmed the cream off sales, and thus the modeling that retailers do of sell through when a book is first introduced may lead them to purchase far fewer copies than they ought to, thus reducing total sales for the book ...

... Perhaps, as David says, the alternative is to bypass the entire system, and just go to self-publishing. He uses as an example the success of 37signals' recently published PDF-only book, Getting Real, which he describes as a niche book.

Sorry, David. That isn't a niche seller. That's a bestseller. And why not? 37signals is one of the most celebrated small companies on the net, one whose development practices are widely admired and emulated. You guys are famous! Of course you can sell lots of copies of a book that promises to tell people the secrets of your success.

But this doesn't mean that every author can expect the same results, any more than the next blogger can expect to get the same traffic as BoingBoing or Engadget. Doing everything right is necessary, but not sufficient for success. Some newcomers hit it just right and go to the top of the heap, but most live out their life somewhere in the tail..."

Make sure you read the rest of it as I've only paraphrased the article and comments.

Certainly I've had one or two offers through from publishers to do a book on Oracle business intelligence, but I have to agree that the figures just don't add up, not unless you're someone like Tom Kyte, Jonathan Lewis or Steven Feuernstein (or Kevin Loney, as this posting by Don Burleson notes). A typical first book on a subject that's been done before is only likely to sell 5000, say 10,000 tops and with a royalty rate of between 10% and 12.5% of net price (remember, retailers such as Amazon only pay 50% or less for their wholesale price from the publisher, meaning that net price is likely to be $20 or less) you're looking at a royalty of between $1 and $2 per book. Now if you're Tom and you sell tens of thousands of copies (and rightly so, I might add) then it all works out, but if you're writing the book in conjunction with another author, and you sell 5,000 copies - quite a probably outcome - you'll be lucky to make $2,500 for what is probably a year's work, and that's before you take off your initial advance and publishing expenses such producing the book index.

Now in the old days, when the only route to getting your work published was to write a book, this still made a lot of sense, but these days, when you can self-publish on the Web, or publish your book as a PDF and sell it online, it's not such a compelling deal - and you could make the same amount of money, and probably reach a similar sort of audience, from getting your work published on OTN. In the old days, books meant respectability and acknowledgment by peers, but if you look at people such as Howard Rogers, Doug Burns, David Aldridge, Tim Hall (I know he's written some books but you know what I mean) and Peter Scott, these are people who've not written a book but clearly have contributed something back to the community and have the respect of their peers. Also, from a consultancy perspective, I need to have a medium amount of knowledge about a wide range of subjects, and it just doesn't make sense to devote up to twelve months on a single subject such as Oracle Warehouse Builder.

Having said all that though, I can see the attraction in putting something together, something substantial and lasting, about a subject you've got a lot of knowledge of. What I can't see the point of though is rushing out a book on a new technology, just to be "first to market" and to try and make some money. The money just doesn't add up and there are far more effective ways these days to build a reputation from writing.