Like lawyers, computer scientists need up-to-date publications in a field that changes constantly, and in my case, sometimes frivolously. In effect, I need looseleafs, except I really don’t need them on paper in three-ring binders.
When I’m trying to put together an argument for a particular “design pattern” (think verdict), I want to refer to a classic reference I can pick up and read, where I use it enough that I remember where things are, and where I can cite it and have it recognized it by my peers. I want something like Gold’s Practitioners Criminal Code, but for my industry. And I want it up to date.
Because changes can come at any time, not just at annual-reprint time, I want “Gold’s Practitioners’ Design Patterns” kept up to date. I don’t need the paper copy updated every month, but I really want an electronic copy with the newest definitive decisions in place, and marked specially wherever they’re newer than what I have in my paper copy.
I also want to search the electronic copy, for things where I’m not sure what part of the book they’ll end up in. I often prefer books that are also available on-line for full-text search, as I want to see what’s there that matches my particular need. If I find it in the index as a secondary term, so much the better: now I know what the author considered it part of.
For discussions with my learned colleagues (think trials), I also want to print out brief excepts to pass around.
Returning to changes, if there has been a significant change in the thing I’m looking into, I want to know the author’s analysis of what the change means, so I can adapt to the new requirements. And I definitely want that in the printout, as my colleagues may not have see those changes.
My publisher wants something similar…
They want their customers to have all those things, so long as they don’t interfere with their desire to be rich, and to be able pay me enough to write more and thus make them richer.
My own experience was in writing the first edition of “Using Samba”, a book about the computer program “samba”. My book had to be definitive, it had to be accurate, it had to come from a respected publisher and it had to change whenever the program changed. The publisher, O’Reilly, also needed it to sell well, not be bootlegged and have something special that would make it stand out from the two leading books about samba.
They did the latter by shipping an on-line copy of the books with every copy of the program. Anyone who got the program, got our book. They could search it, they could refer to it on line, they could even print out useful excerpts on their office printers, like the section on “connecting from Windows” that almost everyone wanted to refer to. The one thing that the recipient couldn’t do was print the whole book.
In part that was because we reserved the right to print it commercially, but in reality it was the fact that if you tried to print it on letter-paper the book was four inches thick, impossible to staple and too big to carry around unless you were Andre the Giant.
Net result? The book went from third to first in the marketplace, and was one of O’Reilly’s best sellers that year. Even the most unreconstructed computer nerd buys books, you see, for anything larger than a few pages. The book’s in its third edition. Maybe fourth by now.
And there’s the rub.
The first edition was printed in 1999. The second came along in 2003, and the third in 2007. The major change in samba came at different times. It almost should have been a loose-leaf, but then it would have had to have been printed on letter-weight paper and stored in a three-ring binder. All the customers smaller than Andre the Giant would have ignored it, because the computer world lacks the tradition of loose-leaf publishing.
We really should have known about looseleafs. We did know about e-books in 1999, but we didn’t realize there was a way to use them with printed books to make something worth more that either.
Returning to the world of legal publishing, classics like Gold’s are very much like Using Samba. They need professional paper and printing, if they’re to be used by anyone smaller than a professional wrestler. They also need to be available in a new printing each year. Not everyone needs to buy a new copy each year, but when I want to buy one, I want to buy this year’s copy, not 2007’s.
On-line, I want the full text up to date, and automatic downloads of updated e-books if I’ve bought that service too.
I will pay for the on-line access and the updates, if they’re issued when the underlying program or the law changes. After a few updates in the areas I’m most interested in, I’ll buy a new printed edition, new, shiny and up to date.
In books that aren’t as physically difficult to print as Gold’s, I’ll even buy print-on-demand publications. If I wanted to really, deeply understand copyright law, for example, I’d order the Halsbury’s, to be printed overnight and expressed to me in the morning. I’d know it was up to date the day it was printed, and wouldn’t change often.
If it did change, because of a new and massive “Mickey Mouse Preservation Act”, I’d put in an order for the new one, to be delivered as soon as it was available. I would expect a small discount, as my earlier purchase had contributed to the main editorial work, but I couldn’t expect a huge cut, as printing on paper and shipping it express costs real money.
As an author and as a customer, I want the kind of topical publications that the legal community created with loose-leafs. I just want them in a combination of up-to-the minute e-books and professionally printed real books, so I can take advantage of the good qualities of both.
As a legal publisher, I want to offer that combination. I especially want to offer what my industry does better than technical or academic publishing, the immediacy of ongoing, real-time updates. I just don’t want the physical format of the updates to send my customers screaming out of the building.