Open Source Books

by Kevin Bedell

Prentice Hall announced today its intention to release a series of books under the Open Content License. This means that the books can be freely copied and redistributed (with some minimal restrictions).

Another author posed a question to Studio B's list asking, "How does this benefit the

To help you understand my background,
I recently authored a title on Jakarta Struts for SAMS. One of my primary competitors (and an excellent book) was the title from O'Reilly.

The title from O'Reilly had every chapter published in PDF on The Server Side prior to publication - so the content of the book was available to anyone who wanted it. I still have somewhere (I think) all the PDF files for it.

Even though it was freely available, it had two big advantages over my book (in addition to being from O'Reilly, which helped it as well).

  • O'Reilly began selling copies of the book on preorder as soon as the sample chapters began appearing. They were selling in the 2-3000 range on Amazon or higher for two months before the book even hit the shelves.
  • The 'buzz' factor on the book was excellent. A large number of people had electronic copies of the book. Everyone in the Struts development community was sharing the files and talking about it. The title had wide 'name recognition' throughout the develoment community long before it was even available.

My book has done reasonably well (peaked at 169 on Amazon a week or so ago and still has a 5-star rating), but the O'Reilly title still well outsells it. My book didn't pick up sales until it was out for a week or two and word of mouth began to pick up. Even though my book and the O'Reilly title actually became available for purchase within weeks of each other, the O'Reilly title had been selling as well as mine is now for two months before they were released.

So what does this have to do with 'open sourcing' the books by Prentice Hall? Well, a lot.

  1. The electronic files for these books will be widely distributed and many developers will know about them. Many will still want hard copies - it's more convenient than electronic.
  2. If the books have content available prior to final publication, the sales 'lifetime' of the books can be extended by some number of months - this is especially critical with technologies that are emerging and don't have many titles available.
  3. People that use Open Source technologies will show a preference for books and publishers that 'give' to the open source community.

A great example of a book that succeeded using this model is "Thinking in Java" (by Bruce Eckel) which was (and is) available electronicaly all through its development. It is now in its third edition and still a top seller. (Not coincidentally, I'm assuming, Thinking in Java was also published by Prentice Hall.)

Here's Bruce Eckel's reasoning for making book content 'free' on the Internet.


2003-01-16 18:10:59
Re: Open Source Books
It still leaves an unanswered concept, though. If you had also released your book to OPL, which book would have done better? Is it the name of the publisher? The quality of the content? The first one to release?

It seems to me that only one book on the subject would sell...all others would see very poor sales. Or, is there some way, some "hook", some creative marketing aspect that would make them all do well?

2003-01-16 18:58:02
Re: Open Source Books
Good quesions. I really don't know.

As to which would do better, I imagine it would related to things like:

- Quality of the material
- The 'relationship' between the author and the readers
- The 'name' of the publisher and author
- The sites that the books were developed on (that is, might be better than 'Joe's Cool Java')

I the end it would probably really come down to the factors that make any book succcessful.

2003-01-18 12:56:19
its and it's ...
come on guys, can't you proofread your own stuff ?
2003-01-18 13:42:43
its and it's ...

Working without an editor is like working without a net...

2003-01-28 18:08:29
Great article.
Excellent thought!!!

This article is a real eye-opener, reg open source