RTFM Education – Virtualization, VMware, Citrix

Jul 11 2012   8:12AM GMT

Part Three: The Future of Technical Publishing

Michelle Laverick Michelle Laverick Profile: Michelle Laverick

In part one of the series I talked about what its like to be an author, and in part two I talked about what is like to work with a publisher – in this final part I want to talk about what I think the future is for publishing generally.

The Printed Book is Technology

With the rise and rise of digital ebooks there has been some hasty attempts to suggest that the era of the physical paperbook is over. I’m somewhat skeptical about this assertion in the same way that I think its hasty to announce the Post-PC era. It’s funny how we don’t don’t see printed books as “technology” because its isn’t bright and shinny with lots of buttons and an on/off switch.


But if you think about it the printed book is a technology that has been around for hundreds of years ever since Guttenberg made mass-production of books possible. Guttenberg‘s invention (movable type) made stopped books being writing by Clerical Scribes for those with the money (generally the aristocracy) – and made the printed word accessible to even people on modest incomes. Guttenberg‘s invention drove mass-literacy and you could say we wouldn’t live in our democratic societies without his work. If you think about the technology my generation grew up with most of it now resides behind glass cabinets in Science Museums. For me the printed book is up there with the wheel and the combustion engine. Pronounce is demise with extreme caution. This year whilst on holiday in the Canary Islands I read two paper backs – Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” and Maya Angelou’s “I know why the caged bird sings“. In the case of the Maya Angelou book I picked ir up for £1 in Oxfam, and it had been printed in 1979. It’s hard to think of any technology used created in 2012 that is still useable in 2043, when I will be 73 years old.

My point here is that printed book has many virtues. It hasn’t changed substantively in decades and has an extremely long shelf-life. There will never be a Betamax book which is rendered useless because no-one supports that format – or doesn’t understand how the turn the page. Printed books are relatively inexpensive items such that I would considered leaving the books to the hotels library (my girlfriend left her books with them…) but I would not dream of leaving my iPAD or my girlfriends Kindle behind in our hotel room when we left. Plus if someone comes round my house and wants to borrow a copy of “Fight Club” I can hand it over to them. Whether I will ever see it again is another matter – in fact my brother lent me the copy some 6 years ago, and I’ve only gotten round to reading this year!  My point here is the cost of the printed book (especially 2nd hand) has plummeted to the point that they become almost disposable (unless they are precious 1st Editions of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”). It’s also perhaps worth mentioning that some schools and colleges bulk buy copies of learned tomes – and lend them students throughout the academic year. That can be extremely efficient way of passing on information – when the physical book might pass through the hands of many students before the thing is so battered and degraded that it has to be replaced. It’s hard to see that happening with digital media – where ever copy of the ebook is licensed to the user with a device, which is not transferable to another. In short, it hard to see the concept of a lending library working under the current T&C’s imposed by the vendors… As you can tell with a BA and MA in English and American literature I love my books.


and this is big a but. I think printed books for technical and textbook purposes are dead in the water. Here’s why. I think the way people read technical/textbooks its totally different from the way I read “Fight Club”. I read “Flight Club” cover-to-cover. I’d be very surprised to see if anyone read any of my books from page one to the end [If you have then I congratulate you – but I think you are in the minority]. The reality is people dip in to areas where they think they need to learn, and skip parts with which they are familiar. They may come back to topic 6 months later – because their project is ready to adopt a certain technology. They may have learned everything there is to know about DRS, but that was 12 months ago and they need a refresh. Technical readers look for answer to specific problem will not  use a “Table of Contents” or an “Index” – they are more likely to adopt the search features of their chosen ebook reader instead. Now, before I move on I would add a caveat. There are some books that continue to work in the print media and have had a very long shelf life such Bjarne Stroustroup’s Programming C++, and Knuth’s “Art of Computer Programming”. But I think it would be fair to say that these are exception, rather than rule. There’s no reason why digital publishing should make print-ready publishing DOA next week, but I personally think there will be a steady decline over a number of years – as we have seen the sales of tapes, records, and CDs.

How digital publishing will change the industry:

There will be a lot of debate about this move – as folks like Amazon and Apple fall over themselves to sign-up big name authors – bypassing the publishing houses altogether. It will be the end of an era. For the moments Amazon is choosing to partner with the publishers – but who knows how long that unsteady and somewhat prickly relations might survive. Apples stance is to partner on somethings when it suits them, and not when it doesn’t. Their iAuthor program has a long way to go.  Very proprietary and no author control over distribution or pricing.

We might be tempted to feel sorry for the publishers. But personally I don’t have huge amount of sympathy for them. For decades they allowed the likes Amazon (the retailer) to dominate the market place such that they can command gouging discounts to publishers (the manufacturer). As an author and part-time entrepreneur I always felt the publishers didn’t do enough to protect their position or react quickly enough to the rise of online book sales – and again to the rise of ebook readers. That allowed some – and Amazon in particular to create dysfunctional and dominant position in the industry. At the opposite end of the scale we have seen in the last decade the rise of self-publishing (to the degree that many conventional publishers have plans to create their own self-publishing portals). So I see a very divided world developing. The top authors get direct deals with the likes of Amazon, and the rest of the authors will rely on self-publishing, and self-promotion – in the hope they will be picked up by an Amazon. As you can see the publishers are being squeezed in both directions – from the power of Amazon and by the adoption of self-publishing by authors who see it as way of circumventing the rules of the past. At the moment the big publishing houses like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are competing, and are not feeling too squeezed by new pardigim. The are innovating and reacting the new atmosphere of competition, and its by no means a forgone conclusion that Amazon and Apple with have all cakes and eat them.

For me the ability to write in a native ebook format offers a chance not to have to comprise on the look and feel of the final product. Despite the efforts of the publishers – there’s still a palpable gap between what the author intended and the final printed page. That’s because the printing process necessitates certain compromises that aren’t present in ebooks. No doubt there will be different compromises with ebooks, but they might be more palatable the ones currently on offer.

Nothing new under the sun – The Music Recording Industry:

In many respect the changes that are about to happen mirror exactly the changes that took place in the music recording industry more than 15 years ago. The rise and rise of the MP3 and MP3 player has lead to a collapse in conventional CD-ROM sales. That hasn’t meant the end of music. In the same way the decline of conventional print-media doesn’t mean the concept of the “book” or “reading” or “writing” is in decline. When you read a book on ebook reader, your still reading a book after all. And I’m personally convinced that the decline of the printed-book need not necessitate a decline in overall literacy. What it does mean is now, more than ever – an author must work to “build their brand”, and have ready audience who recognises that brand as symbolizing quality.

In the music industry there’s been so much rapid change – that most recording music artists now make more money touring than selling their recorded work. I believe the same revolution is coming to areas of publishing such that we may well see the end of some long established publishing houses – in the same way we have seen the decline of many famous recording companies in recent years. I can see how the process of writing book will be a lot like making music now. Authors will be like artists – who produce, self-publish and self-promote their work. Think of a “MySpace” but for budding authors. The hope will be once they have a significant following or “go viral” then they will picked up by major distributor. That author will have complete copyright control, and will not be selling their rights out to a record company. You see the music recording industry has unenviable reputation for being the biggest bunch of cut-throat merchants when it comes to recording contracts with artists. That’s why so many modern artist – setup their own publishing, recording company as soon as they have the finances to do so. Similarly, the likes of Amazon should expect authors not to roll-over to have their tummies tickled. I’ve level criticism at the distributors (Amazon) and the manufactures (the publishers), but its also up to us as authors to strike out and show that as the “creator-owners” of our own works – the retailers and publishers would have nothing to sell – if we chose not to deal with them.

Books designed for ebook readers from day one:

In my vision I would like to see digital publishing model that supported both online and offline use. Such a situation already exists to supply content to institutes of Higher Education. I don’t see why this model couldn’t be applied to the world of commercial text book publishing.  You shouldn’t don’t need to be connected to the web to read the content, but it is constantly updated and revised for as long as you a subscribe – or you would be allowed to buy the ebook for one-off fee without updates. A bit like the SnS model that has taken off in recent years for software sales. I’d like to see ebooks really take advantage of all the multimedia capabilities such as audio, video and animation. Right now, what happens is book is design for paper first, and then ported to digital formats afterwards. What I would like to see is move to authoring directly in a digital format from the get-go. For me its like the difference between doing a P2V of existing server, or starting with a brand new clean virtual machine. The trouble is at the moment is two fold – firstly ebook versions of text book have yet to reach the tipping point of being the defacto format that folks choose. Additionally, the current generation of ebook readers simply don’t have the capacity to take the volume of data created in the ebook format that I’m imagining. The only viable way to store them current is an online model only. That might not be convient for those people who are on a long-haul flight, or in datacenter that prohibits the use of devices connected directly to the Internet. Finally, of course there is proliferation of different formats and readers – that creates an additional layer of expenses and costs to be absorbed into the purchase price – and still make a profit.

I don’t see ebooks as the end of books. It’s just taking what used be printed on paper and placing that on-screen after all. When you read an ebook, its not as if you have become an illiterate slob as most of the arty-farty literati would have you believe. For me I see at as an extension of something I’ve done for while – can be the self-author, self-publisher, self-promoter and self-distributor of my content. It also offers some tantalizing improvements on the printed page.

For example people always complain about typos or technical errors – the ability to make those corrections immediately, and have them updated on every subscribing device is very attractive to someone like me who strives to be as technical accurate as possible (but also struggles to create typo-free content, as this blogpost undoubtably testifies too!]. It also offers the opportunity to have what I call “just in time publishing” where content can be delivered on much narrower time constraints. So I could have a beta copy of the book out on the day of the GA, with second update once I’ve tested my content against the GA version of the product – I’d be make on-going edits and updates during the life time of the technology.

The rise of the iPAD and the Kindle Fire means we can now offer full-colour on screen grabs and diagrams. At the moment colour printing is normally cost prohibitive in print-media. You might be surprised to know by how much. I looked into it once. A colour version of my SRM 1.0 book would have jumped in product costs from $14 to $114. Admittedly, this price jump reflects the costs preloaded into self-publishing websites. Conventional publishers have such economies of scale – that make color printing much more cost-affective.

So for me we have yet to see a real ebook as it should be – with embedded author narration (a feature you normally would have to pay separately for) and on-screen demos by the author. In short I think the time has come adopt a “ebook first policy” much in the same way as we adopted a “virtualization first policy” to creation of new servers.

In part one I wrote about how significant writing during the beta program has become. I think there’s an important outcome here that comes from writing during a beta program. It’s a big one. It’s likely that because of print-media publishing deadlines that the 1st edition of any technical book is likely to be NOT tested or verified against a GA. For this reason readers should expect that not all the screen grabs or even the step-by-step instructions covered will not “map” directly to the product version they are using. This is not unusual. Its common in technical literature for a book to be written on 5.0 of a product only for a 5.1 version of the product to be released within 12 months. As we all know – even a 5.1 version a product is meant to be a “maintenance release” differences can and do creep in.

For this reason I think its inevitable that technical books will have to be continually updated within the lifetime of the product release. This represents a major change to the way authors currently write and work on books. At the moment most authors will take somewhere between 6-12 months to write a book. Once they submit their first draft to the publisher, the “windows of opportunity” to make changes, improvements and enhancements gets narrower and narrower until the point is reached where the author is only allowed to make typographical corrections. At that point the author puts down his pen (to use an analog metaphor) until such time as the ISV releases a major update…

I think this model is way past due (to use a library reference or rent referrence). Instead I think we will have to move to a model where writing is continuous process. The author is continually making improvements and changes within the life time of the book. Increasingly, the readers will expect to be notified of these changes, and receive automatic updates to their ebook devices. In some respect the “book” comes to mirror the lifecycle of software. When customers buy a software product, they expect software bug fixes and patches – in some case changes in product functionality in order that their purchase remains fit-for-purpose. Customers of technical books will soon (if they don’t already) have the same expectation. As for me I would welcome such a change. It would mean if spotted an error, bug, typo or area for improvement – I could load up the ebook authoring software and make correction. This would be track-changed – and then approved by my proof-reader. This sounds like a rosy view of the future that lacks challenges. There has been attempts in the past at “Evergreen” publishing, where authors have promised to maintain and update content – sadly those authors rarely stay as committed as they should do. So for this model to work, authors such as myself would need “incentivizing” in manner that is very different from the way it is done now.

Of course this change is not without downsides. Often the end of one book project means the author is free to start another. I find it funny to talk of continuously writing – because I feel like haven’t stopped writing since 2003! There’s a generally a 6 weeks period between me ending one book and starting another. Usually the ending process has me saying “that’s it – that’s the last book I’m writing”… 6 weeks later my girlfriend spots me opening a file called “Chapter 2:”, and I have to make some sheepish back-peddling excuse that I’m writing another book.

Bumps in the Road:

With that said I do foresee potential bumps in the road. As ever there will be a battle for dominant ebook formats, and the owns of distribution channels (Amazon and iTunes) are likely to want to lock the content producers into writing the content in format that can only be distributed through them, on their devices (Kindle and iPAD). So whilst I think its time for authors like myself to start creating ebooks natively in ebook authoring software – and to abandon Word and conversion tools – we need authoring tools that will allow us to freely export the content in the formats that supported across many device types. That’s why I’m attracted to Project Gutenburg that aims to promote ebooks free of royalties and free of vendor lock in to propriety formats.

It will also make life difficult for schools and colleges – where once they could by 30 copies of a printed book – and use it year in and year out – the ebook licensing model assume the book is bought by every student who owns their own ebook reader. A situation which clearly doesn’t exist (because of the cost ebook readers) and would need fine tuning to make the costs reasonable. It seems obivious to me that we shouldn’t limit ebook content to the ebook devices themselves – folks should be able to read their ebooks on any device they like – and that includes devices as PCs, laptops and notebooks. Only by recognising all the device options can available can “The Book” continued to be consumed by as many people as possible. It’s part of the BOYD ethos I guess…

At the moment profit margins on technical books are low – and their shelf-life is also low. This makes them a relatively poor investment for publishers when compared to other content they could choose to publish. I don’t expect this to change overnight, but ideally if the cost of production can be lowered significantly – this might result in better margins for all concerned.

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