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Early-access books: a double-edged sword

Many technical publishers offer some kind of “early access” to unfinished versions of books. Manning has MEAP, for example, and there’s even LeanPub which is centered on this idea. I’m not a fan of buying these, in most circumstances. Why not?

  • Many authors never finish their books. A prominent example: Nathan Marz’s book on Big Data was supposed to be published in 2012; the date has been pushed back to March 2014 now. At least a few of my friends have told me their feelings about paying for this book and “never” getting it. I’m not blaming Marz, and I don’t want this to be about authors. I’m just saying many books are never finished (and as an author, I know why!), and readers get irritated about this.
  • When the book is unfinished, it’s often of much less value. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • When the book is finished, you have to re-read it, which is a lot of wasted work, and figuring out what’s changed from versions you’ve already read is a big exercise too. To some extent, editions create a similar problem1. I think that successive editions of books are less likely to be bought and really read, unless there’s a clear signal that both the subject and the book have changed greatly. Unfortunately, most technical books are outdated before they’re even in print. Editions are a necessary evil to keep up with the changes in industry and practice.

I know that O’Reilly has tried to figure out how to address this, too, and I sent an email to my editor along the lines of this blog post.

I know this is a very one-sided opinion. I had a lengthy email exchange with LeanPub, for example. I know they, and a lot of others including likely readers of this blog, see things very differently than I do.

Still, I don’t think anyone has a great solution to the combination of problems created by static books written about a changing world. But early-access to unfinished books has always seemed to me like compounding the problems, not resolving them.

1 Rant: The classic counter-example for editions is math and calculus textbooks, which can charitably be described as a boondoggle. Calculus hasn’t changed much for generations, either in theory or practice. Yet new editions of two leading textbooks are churned out every couple of years. They offer slightly prettier graphics or newer instructions for a newer edition of the TI-something calculator – cosmetic differences. But mostly, they offer new homework sets, so students can’t buy and use the older editions, nor can they resell them for more than a small fraction of the purchase price. Oh, and because the homework is always changing, bugs in the homework problems are ever-present. It’s a complete ripoff. Fortunately, technical writers generally behave better than this. OK, rant over.

Posted on Thu, Dec 26, 2013. Approximately 500 Words.

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