40 Million Users Who Don't Buy Books

by David Brickner

According to the OpenOffice.org website and material I've read in various articles there are approximately 40 million users of StarOffice and OpenOffice.org. That's a pretty big user base, roughly the same number as the estimated number of Macintosh or Linux users in the world. Yet, for some reason, books written about OpenOffice.org do not sell. Macintosh and Linux books sell very well.

There are a number of titles out for OpenOffice.org. From the information I can gather, which you must understand is limited because there is no accurate way in the book industry to know the total sales through to a customer of any book, is that the best selling OpenOffice.org book has sold about 8,000 copies in the past 18 months. That is "decent" but nothing to write home about. The next closest book has only sold about 2,000 copies. That means it isn't selling well enough to have a second edition.

O'Reilly decided to publish a book on OpenOffice.org specifically geared towards the component most people use, the word processor Writer. This book, OpenOffice.org Writer: The Free Alternative to Microsoft Office by Jean Hollis-Weber is a reprint of a self-published title formerly called Taming OpenOffice.org. It is geared specifically towards intermediate and advanced word processor users like students and other academics and technical and professional writers. Despite excellent reviews on Amazon this book has not done well.

But back to the discussion of OpenOffice.org and the 40 million people who supposedly use this software, but strangely enough don't buy books on it. I've come up with a number of reasons for this, and I'm sure the readers of this weblog could come up with more.

1) Maybe there aren't 40 million users of OOo and StarOffice. There might have been 40 million downloads or licenses distributed, but there are not that number of full time users. For instance, I installed OOo 1.1 on all the computers I used to administrate so the users would be able to open OOo files should they receive them, but not a single one of those 30 computer users run OOo full time. In fact, I doubt any of them run it at all. I'm sure there are lots of other "downloaded" copies of OOo that suffer the same fate.

2) I believe one group of people who adopt OOo are very experienced computer users. They are making a conscious decision to use OOo because it saves them money, avoids proprietary formats, because its geeky cool, or because they have identified abilities in the software that they like or need and can't get from other Office suites. These people are usually savvy enough that they may feel they don't need help to use a simple Office suite, so they just wing.

3) Another group of people are those who may have OOo foisted upon them by their IS department or "bosses". Maybe these people work for a school, non-profit, or small business and they have been given OOo instead of MS Office in order to save the organization money. These people only need the most rudimentary of functions and OOo in its basic form is similar enough to Word and Excel that they have little trouble grasping it. And since these people never purchased MS Office books to learn with, they don't bother with OOo books either.

4) People for whom English is a second language may not buy an English printing of OpenOffice.org Writer no matter how much they need it. And, of course, people who don't speak or read English at all won't buy the book. With the growing adoption of Free and Open Source software (FOSS) internationally and in poorer nations this is going to become increasingly common. A growing populace of OOo users in such places really need documentation, but traditional publishers like O'Reilly won't find it profitable to publish an OOo book in Portuguese when they can't even profitably publish it in English. These users needs may get taken care of by publishers native to that country or by community written documentation.

5) Some people like to think that those who use FOSS programs are either pirates, cheap, or both. I don't think this is universally true, but I do think that businesses, organizations, and governments who adopt open source solutions like OOo are interested in saving money. So, are these users too cheap, or just too poor to be able to purchase documentation. When you deploy OOo to a group of 1,000 users in your government for free exactly what documentation are you supposed to give them without spending $40 U.S. on a bible book? I would imagine most groups want something smaller and cheaper or are satisfied with the electronic documentation. This point also ties in with point 4 because many governments that are starting to use OOo are not English speaking nations.

6) I've noticed that a lot of technical books languish as middling sellers until they get some sort of exposure to a dedicated community, then they rocket to the forefront of book sales, particularly at online sites like Amazon. Exposure like this is sometimes a flash in a pan, and the book quickly moves back to obscurity afterwards, but other times the book continues to sell well once people became aware of its existence. Books reviewed favorably on Slashdot exemplify this trend. For instance, the recently released Knoppix Hacks was reviewed on Slashdot and in a matter of hours it was a top 100 seller on Amazon and briefly hit #1 in the Computer category. Whether it continues to sell well is still undecided, but its 15 seconds of Slashdot fame may be just the exposure it needed to become a top star instead of an also ran. Is it merely lack of exposure preventing a good OpenOffice.org book from starting down the path to best sellerdom? If so, exactly where does it need this exposure?

What all of this highlights for me is how little we sometimes know who our audience really is. I mean, just a couple of years ago who would have thought that a prime group of users of Mac OS X were really Unix nuts? When you walk around an open source conference like O'Reilly's OSCon over 50% of the users have a Macintosh laptop, and probably less than 1% of them are running Linux on it. That's one indicator that some Unix users were moving to OS X as a desktop OS, another was when O'Reilly took a chance and published Mac OS X for Unix Geeks and was rewarded with robust sales. And now that O'Reilly does know that many hackers with Unix backgrounds have adopted the OS X desktop, we were able to publish more titles useful to that group.

So, who is the group of users for OpenOffice.org? Because there aren't yet any books that sell well to this group of 40 million it remains somewhat a mystery as to what these users want and need. A basic introductory title? A hacks book? A switching from MS Office book? And unfortunately, with sales of existing OOo books so poor most publishers aren't willing and can't afford to experiment in this field to find out exactly who this audience is or even if there is one.

If you're an OOo user and are willing to buy books to learn OOo better, what type of information are you looking for?


2004-11-18 23:42:27
Other Docs
Maybe they are reading other sources?


2004-11-19 01:15:05
How big is the MS Office book market?
I've been an MS Office user for almost a decade and I've never even considered buying a book on it. However I use Unix, and program in Perl and own books on both subjects.

I just wonder how big the office book market is, compared to other book markets. Sure, MS Office books do sell, but that's hardly surprising because it has hundreds of millions of users. If even a tiny fraction of them buy books, the sales will still be ok. In comparrison the number of people that program in Perl is tiny, yet Perl books sell well.

If you can estimate the number of MS office users in the world, and MS Office book sales, you can compare that ratio to the ratio for OOo. Perhaps it's just that you're just not comparing apples with apples.

Simon Hibbs

2004-11-19 06:45:19
How big is the MS Office book market?
This is a good point.

From the information I have there were about 110 MS Office books published last year with total unit sales of 280,000. The top five books, which got the lion's share of sales sold about 20,000 copies each.

That means OOo books should either sell 1/8th of 20,000 or just 2,500 each, or it may mean that instead of five books selling well, then just one or two should sell well, and probably somewhat less than 20k. Looking at it in this light, it might be considered a moderate success that at least one OOo book sold 8k in 18 months.

In another book market, I know of a book that sold 15k units from a userbase of less than 100,000 people. So yes, it appears that the type of market needs to be taken into consideration.

The MS Windows book market had about 300 books in 2003. Total unit sales were about 1.5 million, and the top five books averaged over 40,000 copies. The number of Windows users is not much larger than MS Office users, because many people get the Office suite with the computer, use it at work, or have a "pirated" copy at home. So, OS books do sell better than Office suite books.

So, it seems that books on Office suites, though they can sell well, just don't sell AS WELL relative to their market size as other types of books.

2004-11-19 07:46:18
Another reason they don't sell
A large amount of books are bought by people who are attending a class on a subject. There really aren't a lot of classes being conducted on these programs (I know of none). If it became a course at, say, your local community college, that would drive book sales.
2004-11-19 11:34:46
Just from experience
I have worked at Universities for a number of years and know quite a few students that use Open Office on their Windows computers. Many have gone that route to save money. The $40 computer tech book price is probably a turn-off... better to wait until the book slip off the shelves and into the discount bins.

I also know of schools and libraries that are using more FOSS solutions. I think tech books are WAY to expensive for most teachers and schools to handle. They just muddle through... happy to have the free software at least.

I bet, based on the Knoppix Hacks book that you mentioned and the Switching to Linux book by Gagne that included a running OS to work with, that a short topic oriented book on parts of OOo (Writer, Calc, etc) that also included easy to install copies of each based on their OS. The keys are cheap and simple. Teachers (students) are likely to by a $10 to $15 dollar book with a CD that they can use to follow along, install the software, and use it.

Having a family of Teachers... they like cheap things. Given that school budgets are so close, they often have to buy their own materials. Giving them a break will catch on.

2004-11-19 16:38:36
Getting the most from their investment
At the number of corporations I have experience with they pay for training, books or reimbursements for books after putting out the money for MS Office. It's a decent financial investment to license the Office suites for folks at the company. They try to make the most of that investment.
I've also noticed that many of the folks who pirate MS Office buy the books to get the most out of what they perceive as something of value.
People who appreciate what OpenOffice can do - do not need the books. Folks who could benefit from the books don't perceive the value in OpenOffice...
2004-11-21 01:53:43
I bought one for the wife!
In an effort to encourage a great writer who is a stay at home mom I made the purchase . . . now if we can just get some passive residual income so that I can spend more time with the kids, she'll be able to write more!

I flipped through it and it seems to be a decent book. I think those of us who are using open office are using it because of the price point (and platform support). Relative to that, the book might be considered expensive.

2004-11-21 19:32:36
OO a waste of time
Once I got my new iBook with Panther (had OS9 before) and got access to a fast connection, i quickly downloaded Open Office. I was looking forward to using it. Unfortunately, it was very slow and the interface hard to read.

I'm newly excited about the Open Software movement, which I'm just learning about (lessig.org is a great place to start), but for me, OpenOffice just wasn't ready for primetime.

Hopefully, others will do what I did and get turned on by FoxFire to EFF.org, lessig.org and wikipedia (which, like Foxfire, is a

  • good
  • advertisement for the Open Software movement). And go from there to volunteer on OO-- it needs it. So I don't need a book on it. Not yet.
    2004-11-23 11:31:54
    Not ready for prime time
    I believe a major contributor to low sales of books is low usage of OO, primarily caused by the X-based UI. Once downloaded, it does not appeal for long term use.

    I am a MacOS X user, who interoperates with Windows and Linux users. I have a copy of MS Office on my machine, and it works adequately. Not great, but it allows me to do my work and correspond with my Windows colleagues without much grief and snarling.

    For me to want to buy a book on OO, I would have to want to use it regularly. This would require it to do at least one thing noticeably better than MS Office on my machine, and to be pleasant enough to use that I am willing to fire it up, despite the XWindows startup and resource overhead. OO has many compelling features, but they are not going to sell me until its impact is small, and it is a pleasure to use on MacOS X.

    I eagerly download OO releases to see if they are able to replace Office in my workflow, and as yet, they are not as crisp, polished, or as effective as MS Office. This makes me really sad.

    The reliance on X windows is the primary reason, I do believe. Sure, X allows Sun to get OO on the platform with minimal effort, but there is a world of difference between "looks good for an X app" and "looks good for a Mac app." Having a real Cocoa or Carbon front end would dramatically improve the Mac user experience, and would probably get more people to use OO in preference to MS Office.

    The MacBU at MS has done a wonderful job of moving office to the platform, but it is still MS office, and thus quite bloated, with a lot of misfeatures. (Excel's copy/paste behavior is a prime example.) Thus, even though the MS MacBU is doing a great job of creating a Mac app, they are saddled with what Office does. No matter how good a job they do at making a Mac app, they are making a Mac version of Office, with all the good and bad points that entails.

    OO has the option to rethink some of those bad decisions, and make a better Office suite based on years of knowledge and user observation. Providing something like Access, but that scales, is pretty keen. Providing a suite with some consistency, and with open code, is also something to attract users.

    Mac users like their apps to feel well constructed and solid, and looking like an X app does not cut it when you are competing in the mainstream. You can do it if there are no other choices, or if the app is one where the UI is a secondary issue, but for a primary app, it is not so great.


    2004-11-28 07:40:56
    Book I'd buy...
    I think I'd be interested in an 'OpenOffice.org Annoyances' title.
    Jim Redman
    2006-04-17 22:17:43
    I'll leave the industry generalizations to others. As a user, here's my experience:
    I'm experimenting with both OOo on X11 (on OSX Panther), partly because I'm checking out GIMP and other X apps too, and NeoOffice, the Java-based effort that doesn't need X. I might be a customer for such a book or books, especially if it covers all such versions (disgustingly enough, OO for Windows is more developed). I get the impression OO has lots of potential but making that work for me hasn't gone smoothly. Example - Pasting stuff in that looks like the Web page it came from usually works in Word, doesn't in OO; NeoOffice is somewhere in between. OSX's TextEdit can outdo it there.
    I found a book on StarOffice at the library to my pleasant surprise. My biggest obstacle to buying an OO/Neo book is I'd never heard of one until just now, surfing for something else concerning Apple. I'll check it out. I like OO/Neo, I WANT it to work, tell me how simply and I'll buy the book... if I know it exists.

    Jim Redman

    Charles Williams
    2006-04-22 11:33:02
    I'm a OOo user and I would pay to buy a book that covers the Base program in OOo. Regarding the other functions, I have been using word processors and spreadsheet long enough to be able to get the information I need to figure how to use them. Rarely do I need to use the advanced functions.