A tech book reader's lament
In college I worked the closing shift at a large chain office supply store. I'd spend my "lunch" breaks at the bookstore next door in a wingback chair poring over a stack of computer programming books and smelling the overpriced coffee — neither of which I could afford.
I'm not sure if there ever was a Golden Age for the printed technical book, but the late 90s were pretty good for newbies like me. There were books for Dummies, books for Idiots, books to Teach Yourself Anything in 21 Days, even By Example if you like. There were rather thick books that purported to be the Bible for a given subject, and of course, an array of colorful books with rare animals on the covers.
Wrox published my favorite series though. Usually containing Beginning or Professional in an easy to spot yellow title on a red background below a grid of black and white author head shots those books were thick, often more than a thousand pages.
On the rare occasion I had fifty bucks to lay down for a book, it was usually a Wrox title because they tended to have something other titles didn't: shelf life.
The incredibly short shelf life of technical books
When I stepped into the corporate world some years later, it seemed the Computers & Technology section at the bookstore had spilled over into the corporate cube farm. Every coworker had a mini library of their own, and we often lent titles to one another.
There was also the special collection of antiquities, known as the manager's office. While usually the largest collection, it also was full of books on languages and tools that people just didn't use anymore. Looking back, some of those titles may have been two or three years old, max.
It's that small shelf life and cost of print production that sent most technical content into digital formats or online.
I can't help but think about what we've lost as a result.
The form factor tradeoffs between print and digital formats are not peculiar to technical writing.
Note taking. I write in books. I underline and make notes. Highlighting and annotation features are available for digital formats, and I use those when available. But there's something about reading a book with a Ticonderoga #2 in hand that engages my brain, helping me to interact with the text better.
Always on access. You never have to charge a book. There are no system updates and no networks to configure.
Distraction free reading. Books do not send push notifications and their covers do not resemble this morning's Daily Prophet.
Fixed dimensions. The first few (virtual) pages of most eBooks remind me of the disclaimer that runs when a feature film comes to television: This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen. Often what works in print layout — pull quotes, sidebars, and facing page code annotations — don't translate to a viewport.
Books are not free from errata, but they do benefit from an editorial process and multiple rounds of review that most forms of online technical writing do not have.
Table of contents. The books I have written began with an iterative process with an acquisition editor to nail down a chapter outline that best frames the subject for the target audience. That back-and-forth exposed gaps and assumptions in my thinking that were worked out before the writing started.
Clarity and approachability. Editors who specialize in technical books pose questions and help authors pierce the veil of jargon to bring subjects to larger audiences.
Technical review. Technical reviewers help ensure the content of a book is accurate. They compile and run code samples and call out errors in technical writing.
Language, grammar, and spelling. Beyond the technical review, books benefit from having more eyes on the text. More rounds of proofreading catch language, grammar, and spelling errors, resulting in better writing.
Before I invest time or treasure consuming a book, I want to know:
- How deep does this book go? Does this book add substantial value beyond a documentation web site?
- What's the re-read value? Am I likely to pick this book up again?
You can't judge a book by its sample chapter. "Look Inside" is a clunky substitute for a flip of the thumbs and a scan of the eyes. I can now quickly search by language, author, publisher, publication date, etc. online, but I miss scanning the shelf where you could see a book's size (a reasonable proxy for its breadth or depth) at a glance.
Sharing and giving
Perhaps the thing I miss most from the age of the printed technical book, is the sharing. Sharing eBooks is clunky and often unavailable at all.
I still swap books with friends (though fewer and fewer are technical titles these days), and I like seeing what they've highlighted, underlined, and written in the margin. Almost as interesting is what they didn't highlight. Both sets make for better discussion.
I also give books away. The shorter the shelf life, the less it makes sense to keep a book I'm not going to re-read on the shelf. I'd rather give it to someone who would could use it rather than seeing its value depreciate on the shelf.
An unlikely return to print
I don't know if the technology landscape is moving faster today or if the books we were reading twenty years ago lagged the market and we just didn't realize it.
As a technical author these days, it sometimes feels like a race to get your book in the hands of readers while the contents are still relevant. Some publishers make chapters available in digital format as they become available well before the print edition is complete.
Perhaps we could see a back-to-vinyl style movement in our industry, but I fear it's that pace of change that will continue to shrink the market for printed tech books for the foreseeable future. That's why I'm amazed when I see a pure technology title achieve a second print edition. It points to something incredibly rare — a stable technology with staying power.