Why Writing IT Books is Getting… Tough.

I have four books out right now that I consider “current.” Of them, three titles, Learn Windows PowerShell in a Month of Lunches, Learn PowerShell Toolmaking in a Month of Lunches, and Learn SQL Server Administration in a Month of Lunches, are what I consider “evergreen” titles.

That is, they cover introductory material that isn’t going to change much as their respective technologies evolve. They are, largely, beginner books, and beginner books almost by definition don’t change all that much. A tweak here and there, sure, but nothing massive.

PowerShell in Depth presents more of a problem. It’s meant to be a fairly comprehensive reference, and as such, it has to be updated each time there’s a new version of PowerShell. Which creates two problems.

Problem one, the process of updating takes several months. Literally, in the time we were updating the title for PowerShell v4, a preview of v5 came out. I mean, jeez. Publishers are not geared for this kind of release cycle. The sheer logistics of maintaining inventory and whatnot are going to make it hard to keep the book updated going forward.

There’s also a financial concern. I get 1/3rd of the PowerShell In Depth royalties, and I’ll be frank – it’s earned about a mortgage payment. One. That’s mainly because authors don’t get much from books, and further because on that title the three of us are splitting our fraction between us. If a book lists for $50, it sells to Amazon for $22.50 (which is why the publisher runs 50% off promos so often – that’s still more income than you get from Amazon). We basically get around $2 per title to split between us, or about 66 cents each. You gotta sell a lot of copies to make a mortgage payment.

Making that little, combined with the rather massive and intrusive effort of revising the book every freaking year, is making us wonder how we’ll keep up – or even if we should. Certainly, the book retains value if it doesn’t cover every latest feature. But this is a problem for all technology books as the pace of releases increases.

Not sure what we’re going to do. There’s some value in having published a book, in terms of side-work that comes along like training, but we could get that value (I think) by self-publishing an easier-to-keep-updated ebook. That ebook wouldn’t be of the same exact quality, because we likely wouldn’t rely on a dev editor, a tech editor, a copy editor, and a series of review passes – parts of the process that make revising a print book take six months! On the other hand, errors could be corrected more easily. We could possibly self-pub that through something like Amazon. If we charged $10, we’d be making several times more revenue than a traditional royalty model nets us. True, we’d possibly have less exposure and therefore fewer sales… but that’s hard to say. Anyway, PowerShell In Depth will remain with Manning for always, because they’ve been excellent to us and are a great publisher to work with – they’re just caught up in a new kind of release cycle that doesn’t work well with traditional book publishing.

But it’s hard to say what we’ll do next. It’s tempting to just do books for free, but I’m the only one who can write fast enough (e.g., it doesn’t occupy all my time, so I can still do paying work), to make that happen. It’ll be interesting to see what happens… and I’d love to hear what you think.

9 thoughts on “Why Writing IT Books is Getting… Tough.

  1. John Remillard

    I have purchased quite a few of your books as well as Jeff Hicks. I find the value in your books as well as the information you do give for free very very helpful in learning PowerShell specifically. How about a balance where people know that they might get a book with a few grammar or spelling mistakes in exchange for a faster release. IE remove the middle man. Go through Manning so like myself and I am sure other people we can purchase the paper book get it at a fair price. Remove all the checkers( sorry guys and gals not trying to put you out of a job. but “The Times They are a Changing”). I really like the MEAP program but do agree that by the time it is started and the book is in my hand can be quite a few months. Like you said the technology may have changed and not so relevant. I would be better suited to learn the material and muddle through a few mistakes than get old material that might have a new way of doing it. Something that comes to mind right now DSC… Huge new topic but how to and modules as well as vendors supporting it are changing very fast.

    Just my 3 cents ( Typed more than I thought)

    1. Don Jones

      So, unfortunately, that would require publishers to make a raft of changes they don’t seem inclined to make. I’ve had this discussion with more than one, and they’re just not seeing it as an option. That’s a huge reason I did “The DSC Book” as a free ebook – so I could develop it as I had time, and keep it updated more easily. It’d be nice to earn a couple of bucks per person from folks who find it useful, but “donate” buttons have had zero impact on that, so ah well.

      1. John Remillard

        how about a Snapfish kind of idea. If you coordinate the creation of the ebooks for 1 price and if you want it printed a second price and during the checkout process the book printer is notified to print the completed e-book and where to send it. you get your money for the e-book and if the person (like me) wants a printed version they pay a little more and get it delivered to them.

        Hey not sure if this is already in place but if not sounds like a nice startup to work with authors who have e-books to get them printed.

        now this is 2 cents worth.


  2. jxhyao

    In the same logic, I would say it is hard and hard for me to convince myself to buy a book because the new technology can be out within a few months. Think this way: PowerShell 3 is out and it may take authors a few months to finish a book about PS 3 and I will need another one or two months to “get warm up” to that book (Nobody just buy books blindly, I at least will try to verify whether the book is suitable to me and/or comparing it with a similar book), and then by the time I get the book, in another two or three months PowerShell 4 is out. 🙂

    So I think the best way is just to write the most “loveable” part of the new technology (this will quicken the writing process) and simply ignore many introduction (such as the history, how to install, very basic, like how to use get-help, how to update help etc, which can be easily find from MS MSDN/Technet websites), and sell it on Apple Store/Android Store/Windows Store, and mark the price as 1.99 or 2.99, it will be a win-win for everyone.

  3. hitchysg

    Its not just a problem for the authors, the guys buying and reading books have difficulty too. There are more books out about the same subjects than ever before so more choice, new books mean new expense and there is often not a chance to fully read, digest and get value from them before they are outdated. I bought some books on Office365, with the release cycles they have the books will always be out of date. I wonder if technical book writing can be sustained by anything other than at-least-almost-full-time-authors in future. I think all training materials are going to have to keep pace with Technology and become digital with shorter release cycles, risking lower quality but being easy to update and push out as you say. It will also make interviews interesting, how do you evaluate the expertise of a person on a particular technology with constantly moving goalposts?

    1. Don Jones

      Brilliant observations. And yeah… Something is gonna give. I wonder if the faster “agile” release cycles won’t bite back.

  4. itasapassion

    Your Learn PowerShell in a month of Lunches is awesome! If you ask a reasonable price for your equally valuable self-published ebooks, I’ll certainly buy them!

  5. Michael Sainz

    I knew that authors weren’t getting much from books, but I didn’t realize how bad it was. That’s not a whole lot at all…even if you weren’t splitting it three ways

    Have you thought about accepting Bitcoin for your e-books? Might be something to look into for getting some sort of return on the investment of time. It’d be real easy too, just post an address when they download the book.

    Regardless, thanks for writing the books.

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