Date: July 2001
From: Rob Schneider
To: Frankly Speaking
Subject: Book Size and Paper Quality


I love the content in the new version of Programming Python. It's a definitive work.

I just wish:

  1. The book weren't quite so thick. Maybe you need two books in a matched set?

  2. The paper were of sufficient quality to permit highlighting with standard pens, e.g. Stabilo Boss, without the ink soaking through to the other side.


Dear Rob,

Thanks for the compliment. I'm glad you like the second edition of Programming Python. You made two points above. Beware that this response might get to be the size of Programming Python.

Those of us in O'Reilly Editorial were, well, shocked when we saw the size of the book. I was not the editor of this edition (Laura Lewin is), but I had a similar experience when I edited the first edition. I contracted with Mark Lutz for a 400-page book on Python; what he delivered was twice that size. He later admitted to me that he was afraid O'Reilly would publish only one Python book, so he decided to put everything he could think of into the first book.

As you know, we've published a lot of Python books since the first edition of Programming Python, so Mark had no excuse for the surprising size of the second edition. Still, when we got over our shock, we were so pleased with the wealth of excellent content that we forgave him. It's an embarrassment of Python riches. The existence of Learning Python freed Mark from including much introductory and tutorial material, and when he started to look at more advanced topics, he found much of interest and much to write about: GUIs, databases, embedding and extending, and so forth.

Your suggestion that we split up the book into two volumes is a good one. In fact, our Japanese office did their translation of the first edition in two volumes to reduce the time-to-market and make that edition less unwieldy. Laura and Mark thought about taking some of the material out of the second edition and publishing it as "Advanced Python Programming." But I put the kibosh on that idea: I wanted to get the material into the hands of the reader as soon as possible after the release of Python 2.0. I also worry about "advanced" as a topic qualifier. You can probably figure out the essential first parts of a language for a "Learning" book; but when someone programs on an advanced level, (s)he is probably working in a specific area in great depth: Web services programming, for example, or database programming. Most programmers aren't advanced across the board (Fredrik Lundh and Tim Peters notwithstanding).

We may indeed prune Programming Python in the third edition, taking some of the advanced material out and publishing it in one or more targeted advanced books. But any such change will have to wait until Mark revises the Python Pocket Reference and works with David Ascher to revise Learning Python. And when he writes the third edition, we're going to watch him like a hawk.

Your second question concerns the quality of the paper we used in this book.

I don't think quality is the issue here. It's high-quality paper, acid-free, and 85% recycled. The difficulty is that the book is over 1,200 pages long, and to put it in one volume, we had to use thinner, lighter paper. Here's the algorithm we currently use: If a book is under 500 pages, we use 50# high-bulking paper. For books between 500 and 1,000 pages, we use 45# paper. And for definitive tomes over 1,000 pages, like Programming Python, we have to use 40# paper.

A related issue is the binding. Because of some technological advances at our main printer and because of the lighter paper, we are now able to use a lay-flat binding on books as large as 1,000 pages. You'll note that Programming Python, tipping the scale at over 1,200 pages, cannot use a lay-flat binding. This is the one physical characteristic of our books that we hear about regularly. Readers seem to love the lay-flat binding, and we endeavor, when we can, to keep our books under 1,000 pages for that reason.

So, for you to be able to mark up your copy with a highlighter, Mark and Laura will have to cut out some material for the third edition. In the meantime, I recommend that you give up highlighting your books, using a ballpoint pen or a pencil to make marginal comments instead. In her book More Learning in Less Time (Way to Books, March 1999), Dr. Norma B. Kahn, my esteemed former professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Education, discourages the use of highlighting or underlining as a memory aid. She believes that you learn more by gleaning the important message in the text and restating it in your own words. Also, although Professor Kahn doesn't make this point, ballpoint and pencil won't bleed through, even at 40#.

There is an advantage to you in our using the lighter paper: You can actually pick up the book and carry it, say, across the room. We try to make our books as convenient for the reader as possible, and for big books, that means light and compact. Many publishers make their books look more substantial (and more visible on the retail bookshelf) by putting fewer words on a page and using high-bulking paper. O'Reilly doesn't do that. We use a higher-bulking paper for the books under 500 pages so they at least show up on the shelves; but for books above 500 pages, we use lighter paper to make the books slimmer and easier to carry.

I've offered this challenge before: Take two books off the shelf, one from O'Reilly and another from one of our competitors, with about the same spine width, say, an inch and a half. See how many pages each has. I will bet serious money that the O'Reilly book has more pages in the same size book. And if you really want to get serious, count the number of words on a page. I think you'll find that you get much more information on a page, and more pages to an inch of spine width, in an O'Reilly book than in one from our competitors. So a big book from us, though it might be about the same price as a big book from another publisher, delivers more information for the price. Their high-bulking practices soak up more than highlighter ink.

Thanks again for your suggestions,

Frank Willison
O'Reilly & Associates

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