The Decline (and Fall?) of Computer Books

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

If you’re a publisher or author of a computer book — you have my sympathy. Times are tough. And they’re only likely to get tougher going forward.

The larger arc of the story is a familiar one. Computer-related books are located inside the same Internet blast radius that has so far devastated the music industry, print journalism, DVD sales, and book retailers (witness Borders bankruptcy filing last week).

Still, the details regarding computer books are worth a closer look.

The industry survives. But it’s struggling against forces largely beyond its control. The assault on the computer book industry comes from three directions:

1. Vanishing target audience

Before the rise of the Internet, if you wanted to learn more about your computer (let’s say a Mac), you had three main choices: Join a users group, subscribe to a magazine or buy a book. For a time, all three alternatives thrived. By comparison, all three are suffering today. The book market has been especially hurt by an erosion of its target audience.

Computers (we’ll focus on Macs here for obvious reasons) have become easier to use than ever. As for iPhones and iPads, most of what you need to know can literally be mastered by a three-year-old. If you do need more hand-holding, Apple’s retail stores offer a wealth of introductory help. The result is that many beginning users, who might have purchased a Mac book years ago, find it unnecessary today. More and more, today’s audience would not purchase an introductory-level computer book for the same reasons they don’t expect to have to purchase a 300+ page volume on HD televisions.

What about the other end of the spectrum? The advanced user. I’m not talking about developers and network administrators here. I’m talking about one step down — the people we used to refer to as “power users” — the guys who leads SIGs at Mac Users Groups, rather than attending them. Surely they retain the motivation to sit down with a good in-depth Mac book. Right? Nope. Not so much. For them, the knowledge base gets updated far too rapidly to depend on the relatively glacial pace of change in book publishing.

In between, there remain a cadre of “intermediate level” users that might still benefit from a book and be sufficiently motivated to buy one. But, as in politics, I believe these centrists are diminishing as the market bifurcates to the two extremes.

The end result? Bad news for Mac (and iOS device) books.

2. The pace of change

I’ve already hinted at this problem. As I see it, you cannot write — and revise — a Mac or iOS book sufficiently fast enough or often enough to keep pace with the rate of change.

Some of you may be aware that (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), I wrote a book titled Sad Macs, Bombs, and Other Disasters. The first edition was over 600 pages, which was a “big book” at the time, although not record-breaking in size. What you probably don’t know is that the interval from the day I signed my book contract to the day the book appeared on store shelves was….almost 18 months. My writing pace, together with the wealth and depth of material I was covering, turned out to require it. Yes, this was considered a long interval even back in those days. But my point is that such an interval was at least possible. It was tolerated — because a book with this long a delay could still be a success. Sad Macs progressed through four editions. By its third edition, Sad Macs had become a number #1 best-seller.

Such tolerance is a thing of the past. In the current environment, Sad Macs would be doomed to fail.

For one thing, major changes to hardware and software occur much more rapidly now. The span of one recent 18 month period, for example, covered the end of the life-cycle for the iPhone 3G, the entire life cycle of the iPhone 3GS, and the release of the iPhone 4. At the same time, the iOS went from iOS 2.x to 4.x. An iPhone book would ideally need to be written, and updated at least twice, during this interval in order to stay current.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Users begin anticipating a new model or OS version for months before its release, as news about the product begins to emerge. For example, Mac OS X Lion has already been announced, even though it probably won’t see the light of day until September. A new iOS version comes out about every year. The next version is typically announced several months before it goes on sale, so as to allow developers to revise their apps in time for the release. The result is that a book about iOS is considered obsolete within 9 months of the iOS version’s release. After this, people start holding off on a purchase, waiting for the next edition of the book. This means that, if a new iOS book doesn’t come out until 4 months after the iOS is first available, the shelf life of the book is only about 4-5 months!

Here’s where the other shoe drops. One way to lengthen the shelf life of a computer book is to get it out sooner. In other words, rather than taking four months after a new iOS version is released to publish a book about the iOS, have the book come out within four weeks. This has an added benefit: It’s a well-known axiom that the first book(s) out of the gate sell the most copies, even if they later turn out to be far from the best books on the subject.

As a result, the pressure to get a book out “fast” is more intense than ever. The dilemma is: How can you possibly begin and complete a book within a few weeks of a product’s release? The answer is: You can’t. What authors do is write the majority of the book before the product goes on sale. They accomplish this sleight-of-hand via rumors, beta versions of software, existing similar hardware, and educated guesses. When the product is at last released, the book draft is quickly revised to (hopefully) resolve any errors due to discrepancies between the theoretical and actual product. And then it’s off to the publisher.

In my opinion, such books can never be of the highest quality. Numerous errors inevitably slip through. Plus, important details that can only be learned from actually working with the product for a period of time are completely ignored. For more advanced topics, such as my own troubleshooting forté, it would be impossible to do a decent book in this manner. This is another reason why such books have largely vanished from the marketplace.

3. The Internet

Given the rapid rate of change just described, it’s almost impossible for print computer books to keep up. Potential readers know this. That’s why they are turning instead to online resources.

While it may take a bit more effort to ferret out information via a Google search than grabbing a book off your shelf, the Web information is usually free and almost certainly more current than a book. For example, when iOS 4.2.1 was released, details about its new features were online within 24 hours. Solid, in-depth material was posted within a week.

Reading a half-dozen scattered websites loses the unified vision and voice of a good book. But this is not enough to allow books to compete effectively with the Web.

The future

What can book authors and publishers do to meet these challenges? I believe the future of the computer book industry, if it has one at all, depends on ebooks. These digital books don’t entirely level the playing field with the web, but they may make it close enough. Most especially, without the delays and costs required for print, a publisher can bring an ebook to market significantly faster and cheaper than a print book. Updating an ebook, especially if the changes are relatively minor, is much much quicker to do than with a print book.

With ebooks, there is the potential for another advantage not possible with print books. If the publisher can maintain some sort of “registration” of purchases (as software publishers do), they can offer minor updates to a book for free and major upgrades at a substantial discount compared to a new purchase. Again, as with software, this can encourage purchasers to become “subscribers” to a book, making it much more likely that existing owners continue to buy new editions. In the end, I believe this can generate greater and more steady revenue than the traditional print models.

For the author, this model will likely mean a smaller (or no) advance. But it may offer a greater royalty percentage. Plus, an author doesn’t have to worry about getting charged for unsold copies of their book. In the end, for a successful book, the author can make out quite well. This is already the model used by Tonya and Adam Engst’s Take Control books.

I don’t expect print computer books to disappear altogether. However, I predict that, within the next couple of years, the vast majority of Mac and iOS-device book sales will be ebooks. Most such books will be available only as an ebook. The “golden age” of print computer books is behind us. Computer books, print or ebook, will never again be the dominant force they once were. For better or worse, they are another casualty of our digital age.

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I’d like Mac ebooks to have an iPad edition, and iPad ebooks to have a Mac edition. Then one can see both the ebook and the app (or OS) at the same time, like you would with a printed book, and be less likely to miss a key bit of info—that’s on the next page. Of course you’d have to have both a Mac and an iPad in this (proposed) model.

Lee Dronick

Ted, I am still buying computer books. Last week it was MicroSoft Office 2011 for the Mac, The Missing Manual, a month or so before that it was the Aperture 3 Apple Pro Training. I usually buy one of the Missing Manual books when I get a new OS or major software. Part of that may be inertia, I am used to having a reference book on the desktop. In the future, after I get an iPad, these may be ebooks.


Another innovator in computer books is the Pragmatic Programmers, . They provide books as DRM-free PDFs and eBook files, and free updates when the books are revised. I’ve also bought screencasts and paper books there.

They also started a series of shorter-than-a-normal-book “Pragmatic Guides,” which are handy references without excessive hand holding or drawn out explanations.


Well, my own experience is the only comparison I have.  So here it is:

I only buy books to learn major new things, like a new programming language.  I assume that software is sufficiently WYSIWYG and that OS upgrades are small enough steps.  I’ve never used reference books to learn applications.  (I used the Netscape Communicator manual to learn HTML, skipping the other chapters.)

The internet is my primary reference, even when I have a physical book on my desk.  Back in the days of Java 1.2 I had the “Java in a Nutshell” reference as well as a big book on Swing.  After reading / skimming through them once, I began using online forms of those books and references because it’s faster, even with the book sitting on my desk.

I used to take “Mac Addict” (now Mac Life) magazine, but 11 years ago I realized I could get more news more up-to-date on the internet, so I stopped.  (Their web site wasn’t that great then, I have no idea how it is now.)

I wouldn’t mind a good newspaper, but I only have time to read world news once a week or so, and I only read the articles I’m interested in.  So I wouldn’t want to pay for an every-day subscription.  (I read MacObserver most days, since it has good coverage with a reasonable filter on rumors and I can read just the summary paragraph for the boring-sounding articles.)

I’m waiting to see what the iPad 2 looks like, and then I might switch to ebooks.  My latest book was Hillegas’s Cocoa programming book.  I was considering what eReader to get, but the only one that reportedly has good PDF reading on a large enough screen is the Kindle DX, which is too expensive compared to the iPad for what it does vs what the iPad does.  I like what Pragmatic Bookshelf is doing though.

Tom Negrino

Though I do have a dog in this fight (I still make a pretty decent living writing computer books), I’d point out that the definition of “computer books” being used here is too restrictive, perhaps to ease Ted’s argument; Ted really means “books about hardware or operating systems.” Or (he’s my friend, and he knows I’m pulling his leg a bit) “Books like the ones Ted used to write.”

As an author who wants to actually keep making enough money to feed my family, I generally don’t write those books, primarily because of their short shelf life. My books are about applications such as Dreamweaver, a deep program that is difficult to learn and master. Or JavaScript, a programing language that is ditto. Application and programming books continue to sell, happily.

Ross Edwards

Full disclosure: I am an author and publisher of both print and digital books.

The book format itself is going to go away for these sorts of applications.  There is so much overhead and labor involved in writing a book, rewriting, editing it to publication quality, and so on, and it is all frontloaded before publication.  With an ebook, at least you can update the source file when you have to make changes—but that causes logistical hell with your existing buyers. (Do their download links expire after a time?  What if your update comes six months later… or two years later?)

It’s much, much more functional to maintain online documentation.  It can be ad-supported if necessary.  It is not the ideal cash-flow model, but it allows the information to be updated as-needed, it is automatically accessible on any web device, and there is no transactional overhead on the reader side.  Anyone on your staff can make the changes, and it’s trivial to reorganize subsections and not impossible to reorganize the entire tham ding if circumstances warrant.

A book has to include content that does not change—or, at least, that only changes gradually or at intervals that make it logical to publish annual or periodical revised editions.  Computing manuals and primers are not that.  The BlueBook of Legal Citation is in its, what, 21st edition after decades?  Book.  “Programming in Cocoa,” though: Not book.  At least, not any more.


I used to have a number of computer books, including Ted’s Sad Macs, etc. I used to subscribe to MacAddict, MacWorld, and MacWeek.

Then along came the Internet. Now I don’t have any of them any more. I don’t subscribe to anything any more. I don’t need them.

I really don’t see needing a paper book again. I don’t need or have time for a 600 page tome that covers everything. I have a problem, like hints and tricks for running vi, I need a single 2 to 4 page synopses, of how it works, the commands I need, the biggest pitfalls. I can scan it and get back to work. Right now I am learning how to use iMovie11. I push forward, run into a question, find the page (singular) that answers it, and keep going. I don’t need an iMovie for Dummies book.

I find that all inclusive tomes are a bit of an anachronism.


I think the funniest book display I’ve seen in a long time was at the local Borders last Fall:  An even dozen books about the iPad, one of whose selling points is the ease of reading ebooks!  Oh the irony.


borders didn’t fail because of the advance of new technology—most hardcore readers i know still prefer a paperback over a kindle.

borders failed because they wasted too much time & money on non-book related items. take a walk through your local borders (while its still open)—notice how much dumb crap they have up at the registers. junky purses, crappy toys, and other tacky stuff take up a ridiculous amount of floor space—and don’t even get me started on paperchase, the “premium” gift wrap company that they acquired back in the late ‘90s. at my local borders, the paperchase section takes up roughly 20% of the floorspace!

don’t even get me started on their lavish buildings.. the borders in here in town is closing after just 3.5 years.. but if you look at the building it had to have cost sevvvveral million. it’s a beautiful building, but much too expensive for the local market to support. they could have gone with something half the price and maybe had a better chance of sticking around.

also, artificially marking everything up to support their borders rewards coupon program didn’t help. even after their coupons, most books were still cheaper elsewhere.

if i hear one more sob story about how progressing technology killed borders, i might just kill myself.

Lee Dronick

borders failed because they wasted too much time & money on non-book related items. take a walk through your local borders (while its still open)?notice how much dumb crap they have up at the registers. junky purses, crappy toys, and other tacky stuff take up a ridiculous amount of floor space

I don’t frequent Borders because there is a Barnes & Noble within a short walk of my house. A month ago they put in some racks of iPod and iPhone accessories at very competitive prices. It will probably now be my go to place when I need some new earbuds or whatever. It is certainly a more pleasant shopping atmosphere than the Best Buy across the street.

Lee Dronick

One more post before wrap myself in the arms of Morpheos. See this story about Barnes & Noble planning a makeover.


it seems like the discussion has broadened to include all books, not just computer books. On that front

My wife is a voracious reader. She loves murder mysteries. She’ll go through two or three a week, more when she’s on vacation. She hasn’t bought a new book in something like five years. Far better to get them used at garage sales and such. Why spend $5-$10 or more per paperback when she can get them for $1-$2 each.

I don’t tend to read as much except when I’m on vacation. Then I used to get a big expensive palaeontology text, such as Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods that would take a couple of weeks work through. However on our last trip I downloaded a couple hundred pages of journal articles and printed them out. On the trip I, read and recycled them. This reduced the cost of the material significantly.

Recently I discovered Project Gutenberg where you can download out of copyright books. I’ve picked up the complete works of Poe and Verne and will be reading them when I get the time.

If we are at all typical then, it’s a bad time to be in the dead tree book publishing business no matter the subject.

Ted Landau

I?d point out that the definition of ?computer books? being used here is too restrictive, perhaps to ease Ted?s argument; Ted really means ?books about hardware or operating systems.? Or ?Books like the ones Ted used to write.?

Hi Tom!

In my article, I did say “The advanced user. I?m not talking about developers and network administrators here.” My reason for this exception was recognition that these type of users still buy and benefit from print books. I would include people who use Dreamweaver or JavaScript professionally as in the developer category.

So perhaps we are not really in disagreement on this point.

Beyond that, I did mean to include all categories of computer books, not just ones like I used to write. smile

In any case, I suspect that even with developer-targeted books, the predicted shift to ebooks will still occur. It’s already begun.


Tangent: for those who do buy processed pulp products of whatever genre, please check out locally-owned independent bookstores, not just B&N or other megastores. Just sayin’.

Lee Dronick

Tangent: for those who do buy processed pulp products of whatever genre, please check out locally-owned independent bookstores, not just B&N or other megastores. Just sayin?.

They are getting few and far between here Chuck. We have some and I visit them when I can, but they are across town. We have monthly Shakespeare readings at the Upstart Crow bookstore, good coffee there too.



Well argued. I was going to add the point that both Tom Negrino and webjprgm make above regarding books on programming and applications vs operating systems, etc.

I was not aware of the Engst’s model (my respect for their work has just gone up another notch), but I was making a similar argument in an unrelated business forum not long ago (to academicians working in the NGO sector, of all places) as being the model to shift towards and away from print media. The opportunity for people to subscribe to a book, particularly these large medical and science tomes that are out of date before being printed is a perfect space for this model. Updates can be offered or pushed, as per subscriber preference, and major revisions provided at a fraction of the cost. The advantages to science and medicine for more up to date text references are major. Today, one has to go to the primary literature via PubMed or another search engine for current data and then do the synthesis oneself, a time consuming and potentially dangerous venture, at least if one does not that particularly literature well.

Sadly, I cannot relate to payment advances (or monetary payment period) for the books that I help to write (science and medicine texts). My payment currently remains the eternal gratitude of the editors (usually friends and colleagues in a pinch to find knowledgeable authors) and the honour of seeing my name in print - until the next edition.

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