The Decline (and Fall?) of Computer Books

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.