A Computer Book Author's Manifesto

by Kathy Sierra

Editor's Note: Kathy Sierra, a co-creator of O'Reilly's Head First series, recently posted this letter to the StudioB mailing list. We enjoyed it so much that we asked Kathy for permission to share it with the world at large.

"Java book sales during the bubble were 10x what they are today."

"Computer book sales dropped another 15 percent just between 2003 and 2004."

"Most computer book authors cannot support themselves by doing only books."

"Computer book authors are dropping out of books altogether. . . ."

"The good days of tech books are gone, and they probably aren't coming back."

I came late to this party. My first book is not even two years old. I missed the bubble, the good days, the time when sub-1,000 Amazon rankings meant *real money*. But just when I feel so lucky to have been invited (or maybe I crashed it, but whatever, I'm here), so many are gathering their things and heading home. Party's over. My computer book author friends are cynical, skeptical, burned out. So I have to ask, ". . . and everyone is okay with this??"

To my computer book author friends I ask, "You're giving up without a fight?"

Because I'm not. I just got here, and I have no intention of sitting back on my (teeny tiny) royalties, passively watching the continuing drop but doing virtually nothing to try to stop it. Am I clueless and naive enough to think that there *is* something that can be done? Hell yes. Do I know what that something is? Hell no. (And I'm definitely not stupid enough to think that I somehow know something that all the other, way more experienced folks don't. In fact, I'm hoping the seasoned pros will be more vocal here on what we can and should be doing.)

That's not the point. The point is not giving up. And I wonder why more authors, editors, publishers, agents, reviewers, etc. aren't banding together and asking, "What can we do?" I will not accept this as inevitable. I don't care about the "market forces" or any other indicators that point toward a still grimmer future for computer book sales. Because I don't think there's anyone who can say that we've done everything that can be done. Simply trying to steal one another's market share is not a long-term, healthy solution, yet that's pretty much where we're at right now.

Let's say, for example, that the simple answers do tell the whole story--that the majority of computer book sales are in lock step with tech jobs and the progress of technology, and that if there isn't much happening out there, there isn't a need to buy computer books. That sounds reasonable and logical. The conventional wisdom says, "If they aren't forced to learn something new for their jobs, they won't learn it (and thus won't buy a book about it)." I'll buy that.


The part I don't agree with is the assumption that most people don't want to learn something new (at least in the computer world) unless they must, or unless the technology or software itself is new (including new versions of existing products). And while the research does seem to suggest that this has been the trend in tech book sales in the past, does this really reflect some intrinsic property of tech topics?

If we continue to see tech books as supporting jobs and work, perhaps the drop is inevitable. But since most of us are geeks, and (although debatable in my case) reasonably intelligent and curious, what if we shifted slightly toward emphasizing the inherent joy and passion in some of these topics. In other words, what if we moved away from, "You have to learn this, so here's a book that does it to death" and more towards, "You don't have to learn this, but come on, you know you want to."

What if we thought more like the entertainment industry instead of the serious IT industry? After all, people don't play computer games or watch movies because they must. They don't play golf, or poker, or snowboard because they must. They don't play chess for work. They don't download a dozen songs from iTunes because they must. They do it for pleasure, and in some cases, a pleasure that borders on addiction.

What if we stopped thinking about it from purely a serious work perspective and started thinking about how we could seduce people into wanting to learn new computer topics? And by "new," I don't mean new technologies, but simply "new to that reader." If computer books are less tied to work and more tied to play/hobby, or even better, to passion, could we breathe more life into this market? If there isn't a big demand for computer books right now, could we--the authors, editors, publishers--do something to stimulate that demand rather than sitting back and waiting for demand to return? Could we ourselves do something to help drive people back to our little corner of Barnes and Noble?

Yes, I know that there are a ton of computer books that already take this approach. And I also see that many of these books are selling. Everyone talks about how the Macintosh computer has such a tiny market share as an operating system, yet it occupies a much larger market share in terms of computer book sales. Look at the sales of books related to iLife; there are probably only two people on the planet whose career/job depends on knowing GarageBand, but people are starting to buy those books. How many people must know iPhoto? Jeez, people are buying books on the iPod, a device that's virtually brainless to operate.

So I'm not suggesting anything new, but I am suggesting that as a whole, maybe a shift in the direction of people's passion vs. employment could help. Because if we ask the question, "If people don't have to buy a book for work, what can we do to cause them to buy a book for some other reason?" the answer might be, "Get them excited about learning something they don't already know, even if that something is not a new technology, but simply new to them."

And for that, we have to find ways to not suck the life and joy and pleasure out of the topics, ways to make those topics both compelling and accessible. We have to make learning those things seem more like fun hobbies, and less like work or school. And that might mean trying to find the inherent fun in topics that haven't traditionally been seen that way. But that also means that we have to do some of the work of positioning those topics as cooler than people might have previously thought. In other words, we have to take responsibility for convincing people that the topics are interesting and cool. Sure, it's easy to have people see an iPod or GarageBand as a hobby, and Apple's doing all the positioning for us. But what about computer programming? Security? Networking? Spreadsheets? Could we make some of the geekier and more traditionally work-oriented topics at least appear more like hobbies? Could we single-handedly reposition some of these technologies ourselves--to make people want to learn them? If people don't perceive the need, can we help create the need?

I have no idea.

(I could spend the rest of my life and probably not come up with anything I personally think is cool about PowerPoint, yet I just visited a museum installation at the Eastman house in Rochester, New York, and sure enough, there was David Byrne's PowerPoint thing.)

I'm just suggesting that this make-these-things-cool-and-compelling is one idea out of an endless number of things that we could be trying to do instead of accepting the continuing decline. It might be a really lame idea that won't work for a thousand different reasons, that you've all already thought about and researched. I don't care about that. If I worried that my ideas were lame and useless, I'd never do anything at all, since most of my ideas *are* lame and useless, and as so many computer book authors love to tell me, "been there, done that." And I say, "And your point?" I'd rather fail, look stupid, and have to change my name than sit by and not try.

OK, so let's say that the idea I just mentioned will not work at all, and it's already been tried in every possible way. Some of you must have other ideas that would work to drive more computer book sales. Have we explored every possible distribution option? Have we revisited the look/feel/implementation of computer books? Have we really asked readers/customers/learners/users what they want? Because it seems like technical books today don't look very different from the way they looked 90 years ago, while almost everything else in the world has changed dramatically. Is the "joystick nation" ready for something different? Maybe it's not even books at all that they want. Maybe they want to "learn differently," even if they can't articulate how that should happen. Lynda Weinman sure seems to be selling a lot of video training, for example, and I've got a lot of email from people who wish they could learn Java on their iPods, although a spoken version of one my books would never work. . . .

People ask me why I care about this so much. Why not move on? After all, I'm a way better programmer than writer, and right now, my programming skills are more in demand than my book writing skills. I make a tiny fraction today as a book author of what I made as a full-time software developer, and I have pretty much zero talent for computer book writing.

I have no trouble answering that question, because I never forget the business that I am in. I am not in the computer book authoring business. I'm certainly not "a writer." I am in the business of changing people's lives. That some of my friends don't recognize this about themselves is sad and perplexing to me. Every computer book author I know has gotten thank-you letters and emails from readers whose lives they've touched. There is a butterfly effect here and surely you feel this yourself. You helped one guy learn a topic that saved a key customer from deserting his company, and that saved his job. Which means his kids got to stay in the same school instead of transferring when he had to move the family to a less-expensive neighborhood or city, etc. It just goes on and on. I like to fantasize that even if all I did was save one guy a day over what it would have taken him to figure out something without my book, that one day might be the key to something magical.

Perhaps what really inspired me to write this is that a few weeks ago, the co-manager of our technical book review team died suddenly during what he (and everyone) thought was a fairly routine, low-risk surgery. Philippe Maquet, a Java guru from Belgium, was a healthy, energetic, fun-loving guy in his early 40s, and he devoted nearly all of his waking hours to helping people learn and implement new technologies. He worked by day as a Java consultant with the Loop Factory, and by night and weekend as a forum moderator and technical reviewer of our books. He did not write books and was not interested in writing them. Yet he felt that simply being a reviewer was a powerful contribution to improving people's lives. He reminded us all the time that the reason he did this (and he donated 100% of the fees he was paid to a non-profit) was because improving the technical quality of a book was improving the lives of the readers. He believed that helping to make something more clear, and reducing errata, was a very noble cause. His friends and family probably thought he was crazy for thinking that, but when he died, his employer wrote to tell us that working on these books was one of the things he was most proud of in his life.

In our last book, we surprised him with an acknowledgement that said, "All three of the authors love him so much we want to marry him. . . ." He got the book three days before he died, and said that he could not find the words to describe how much it meant to him. The day he died, but before any us knew he was in any danger, a personal thank-you from Tim O'Reilly was sent to him. And although he died before it arrived, his family said that it would have been one of the highlights of his life. Not because it was from Tim O'Reilly, but because of how important he felt it was to be part of something that made people's lives a little better.

This is probably the cheesiest StudioB post ever made, but I hope I can hang on to that feeling of Philippe's and use it to keep remembering that what I do does make a difference. And I only hope that all of my computer book author friends can remember how much of a difference they have made in other people's lives. In fact, many of you on this list have made a difference in my life over the years, although I never bothered to write to tell you. That doesn't mean we should all try to eek out a living as full-time computer book authors, but rather that we keep trying to find creative ways to at least stay in the game.

So, maybe I'll have to learn to be happy living on Rice-A-Roni and cheap coffee, but that one reader email is worth a whole lot of fancy dinners and double lattes. You will have to drag me away from this kicking and screaming. If readers are abandoning tech books, I'm not just going to sit by and complain. Maybe it means redefining the word "book," or redefining the word "tech," or even redefining the word "reader." And maybe there's nothing I really can do, but two years from now, I want to look back absolutely certain that I did not take it lying down.

Kathy Sierra has been a master Java trainer for Sun Microsystems, teaching Sun's instructors how to teach the latest Java technologies. She is also the founder of one of the largest java community websites in the world, javaranch.com.

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