Books aren’t dying either, OK?

Looks like it’s that time again! I’ve found another article that’s annoyingly devoid of green, leafy facts but full of sweet, specious seasoning. Reasoning. I mean reasoning.

How’s this one start off?

[Charles Petzold:] People are probably reading and writing more than ever, but a lot of this reading and writing is online. Consequently, book reading has suffered.

Ohhh, boy.

Oh no! Nobody buys books!

So, the first premise is that writing tech books is a losing proposition because nobody reads. But what does “nobody reads” mean in this case, as a supportive argument? It means that nobody buys. Reading doesn’t put money in the pockets of authors, but sales do.

So, book sales are down. The internet is killing publishing, just like it’s killing music and moviemaking. But wait, what’s that you say? Music and movies are selling well? Well… what about books?

Oops. The Association of American Publishers reports compound growth rate of 2.5% since 2002? And the economy’s been in the shitter practically that whole time, right? We had the crash in 2000 and, of course, the “it’s not a depression” slow-down that’s been brewing for the past 2 – 2.5 years.

US census data even shows year over year improvements in specific months, even in 2008 (up til June – no further data, but I suspect it’s gone down some since then for very obvious reasons).

Content wants to be free! I want to get paid!

[Petzold:] It doesn’t take a genius to make a lot of [money] — oh, actually that’s the problem. The writer needs to eat but the content must be free.

But, but… content wants to be free. Pathetic fallacy aside—everybody knows that, right? Micro-payments have never worked. Blogging for dollars is a losing proposition. And why would anybody buy a book when they can spend hours searching a bunch of shitty blogs to try and put together the same information?

Let’s turn to Canadians for their insight here, because they’re so nice as to actually discuss it:

While factors such as the availability of free information on the Internet may have affected Canadians’ willingness to pay for content, evidence from the Survey of Household Spending suggests book publishers may be faring better than other corners of the publishing industry.

In contrast to steady declines in household spending on newspapers, magazines and periodicals, average household spending on books rose from $86 in 1998 to $111 in 2005. In 2006, it had eased to $108.

Could that possibly be because many books provide a lot more value than any web site could? I wonder.

What formats don’t provide more value, though?

[Petzold:] At a library fundraiser in Sullivan County over the weekend I saw a complete immaculate recent edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica marked down from $45 to $40 to $30 as the day went on.

Well, yes. There is that. You can’t search a real book and how recent was it, anyway?

OK, what else?

[Petzold:] Programming books — particularly tutorials (such as I write) and “tips” books (such as Jeff’s first book) — have also been hard hit. So much information is available online that books seem superfluous.

It’s true, a lot of them *do* seem superfluous. I wonder if that’s because they’re not good enough that they actually provide a measurable benefit over reading online?

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but since Mr Petzold is being all colloquial, I think I will be, too. I’ve read a lot of programming books. I’ve tried to learn programming of various types from several, back before I could program very well in anything at all. I found every last one to be too boring, dry, ridiculously narrow-sighted, and not providing the grand overview and synthesis that a book can provide but a free web tutorial does not. They typically feature numerous holes, conceptual leaps without warning, mistakes, bugs, and omissions that make the Internet, and the helpful people on it, a necessary companion to start with… and if the companion is free, why not just bypass the thing causing you the pain to begin with?

The only tech books that I’ve personally perused that defy this distinction are the Head First books and a couple of CSS books (specifically the one with the beach scene, whose name I can never recall, even though I own it. Beach beach beach!). The Missing Manual books, while not programming books at all, are also very good.

People don’t read any more!

But that doesn’t matter, because people don’t remember how to read.

[Petzold:] Many people are out of practice in reading books.

I love doom and gloom as much as the next guy, but it’s just simply not true:

An Associated Press/Ipsos poll, released on Tuesday, revealed that 27 percent of the approximately 1,000 U.S. adults polled had not read a book in the past year.

I admit that 27% of people not reading a book seems pretty bad at first, but if you consider meeting 1,000 people on the street in random towns and villages across the US and figuring how many are “the reading sort,” it doesn’t seem that bad to me. The US’s alleged literacy rate is 99%, but don’t believe that without some big qualifiers. The US Dept of Education claims that 43% of the population is low literacy, with an additional 44% having only “intermediate” reading skills. Compared to these statistics, that book-reading rate doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Especially since the “book lovers” sure do love books:

However, the study showed that more than half of those who did read a book in the past year had read more than six books, and over a quarter had read more than 15.

It changes based on age, too. The real slackerly readers were over 50; 79% of adults 40 to 49 and 74% of adults 18 to 29 read a book.

People can’t read any more!

[Petzold:] Reading requires Patience and Fortitude, not coincidently the names of the two lions who sit outside the New York Public Library. Many people are out of practice in reading books…

Is that really so?

I couldn’t find a single research paper that suggests that reading attention span for paper books is diminished by Internet usage or on-screen reading, and believe me, I tried. I have subscriptions to the Association for Computing Machinery’s online research paper archive, which dates back to the 70s and in some cases beyond, and Highbeam, both typically very reliable for any topic that even thinks about being Internet- or computer-related.

There are lots of editorials and several pop psych books that bemoan our loss of attention span, but none of them have supportive research specifically pointing at Internet vs paper books, and the Internet is listed as a general scapegoat along with TV, video games, and other media.

[Petzold:] Declining books sales have led some publishers into thinking that the way to revive books is to make them more like an online experience.

I couldn’t find any evidence to support this claim, or to do deny it. I suspect that it’s not actually happening, because if it’s not enough of a phenomenon to be studied it must not be much of a phenomenon. Research scientists are hungry and not very demanding people.

On the other hand, the industry of publishing new books in English in general is growing.

Thoughtful tech writing is DOOMED!

[Petzold:] Programming books — particularly tutorials (such as I write) and “tips” books (such as Jeff’s first book) — have also been hard hit. So much information is available online that books seem superfluous. To many developers these days, if it doesn’t show up in a Google search, it doesn’t exist.

So there’s all that positive growth in just about every other book sector. And then there’s the tech sector, which, it’s true, shows lagging sales.

Maybe the bad sales have got something to do with the shape of the technology book sector overall, not just sinful Internet people not reading books, as Petzold seems to imply.

It’s book-length, but you don’t call it a book?

On the other hand, it could also be related to book positioning, existing user base / platform, interest in a topic, quality, and so on…

When Agile Web Development with Rails was released it sold 6 thousand books in its first run. Six months later, its sales are over 25 thousand. Rails publishing is busy, with even more titles upcoming, such as the Rails Recipes cookbook, which is scheduled to be available in beta sometime this February.

PS – that doesn’t include PDFs. That’s the paper edition only. I have it on good authority that the PDF version far outsold the paper version. We’re talking in the 6 figures sales numbers (and I mean copies, not dollars!), all told. And no surprise: the topic was white hot, the book was trail-blazing, and you could go to a big box store and only find one or two paper copies in stock, but the PDF version was cheaper, immediate, searchable, and not crippled by DRM. It was also a huge seller on Amazon.

That’s not an entirely isolated success story, either. Looks like lots and lots of people are digging ebooks, not just PDFs and PDF-like special formats, but also ebooks as distributed for Sony and Kindle ebook readers.

On a title-by-title basis, of the 130,000 titles available on Kindle and in physical form, Kindle sales now make up over 12% of sales for those titles…. At a technology trade conference in May, CEO Jeff Bezos said that Kindle sales accounted for 6% of book titles sold for the Kindle and in print. So Amazon appears to be selling more e-books.

On top of all that enthusiasm, there’s more. If you’ve ever hung out on internet marketing forums, you’ll find a lot of people making tidy monthly incomes selling their own specialty topic PDF- or HTML-based ebooks all by their lonesome—sales that will never, ever be counted by these industry figures.

The unmentionable Q word

But despite stealth ebooks, lack of positioning, badly chosen topics, and all that jazz, I think the number one reason tech books sell can be shelved under: Quality, lack thereof.

I’ve tech edited 10 industry books and struggled to write my own book, three times. (No, I do not learn.)

It’s true that the rewards don’t equal the effort. Why? Because the books don’t sell, goes the industry line. But if you pay crap for something, you get what you pay for. In all cases, I had a (some would say foolish) dedication to quality that led to my downfall, because I am sick and tired of awful tech books. This was manageable when I was merely editing, even though I seriously reduced my hourly rate in pursuit.

But for writing, it’s just unmanageable, because publishers want books fast, dirty and cheap. In two of the aforementioned cases, the publisher actually aggravated the situation by not paying me, hiring useless tech editors (again: crap pay), and threatening that the book could neither slip nor be canceled over 400 pages in (while still not paying the promised advance). In that latter case, I would have continued the death trudge for the next 150 pages, if they’d only given me another month. And the book would have been great. (In the former, the book was canceled at 85% completion because the publisher was acquired. The third failure was just my own damn fault, what can I say?)

In light of all this, it’s not surprising that the pay for Head First books is higher—and they sell more than others series’—and you get trained how to write them during a 2-week course. These things all go together.

Quality sells. It’s that simple. But the tech industry insists on, all in all, putting out warmed-over crap. No matter how well-intentioned an author might be at the beginning, by the end of the process he will be a beaten-down wreck who has produced a second-rate product just in order to stay sane. Writing a book does shatter one’s illusions, it’s true.

His Personal Experience

[Petzold:] For the first time in 22 years I’ve been doing some consulting to supplement my ever-dwindling royalty income.

Of course this is an unfortunate thing for Mr Petzold, but not a good reason to indict the Internet, his readers, and humanity n general for its feckless lack of attention.

Since he’s been able to live off royalties in the past, what we’re talking about here is change. But the documented, cited changes in book buying habits just don’t support a personal difference as large as being able to live off royalties vs not.

I personally suspected that this change might have more to do with the kinds of books Petzold writes, and how old they are, and I think my suspicion has a good basis. In reverse chronological order, these are books written by Charles Petzold as found on Amazon (not all of which are available to purchase):

  • The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine (2008)
  • 3D Programming for Windows (2007)
  • Applications = Code + Markup (2006)
  • Programming Microsoft Windows Forms (2005)
  • Programming Microsoft Windows (2003)
  • Programming in the Key of C# (2003)
  • Programming Microsoft Windows with Visual Basic .NET (reference) (2002)
  • Code: The Hidden Language of Software (2000) — which I owned; it’s far too dense and scattershot to enjoy

These books not even proximate to the neighborhood of the growth categories that O’Reilly has pegged over time.

Look at O’Reilly’s current top sellers, for example: The majority are consumer apps, with a few programming tomes aimed at beginners thrown in. A full 3 of the top 5 are OS X / Apple-specific, with the remaining two being a Photoshop book and a book on making great presentations. There’s not a single programming book until slot #9. If it were a top 10 list, that’d be it! But since the list goes on, there are 6 more programming books out (total: 7) of 25 top slots — and 3 of them are Head First titles. (If you count HTML/CSS, then the programming titles start at #8, there are 7 more beyond that (total: 8), and 4 are Head First titles.)

Left brain books – and books for experienced programmers – are out. Them’s the facts.

Is it the industry—and the reading public—that’s failing Charles Petzold, or is it his choice of topic, format, sales model and delivery method?


I think I’ve neatly eviscerated this aggravatingly fact-free essay. So, in conclusion, what Charles Petzold has claimed about book selling and reading habits: simply not true. The thrust of his argument doesn’t hold water. If he is concerned with the sales of an individual book, either his or someone else’s, he should try to focus on ensuring it is marketable before bemoaning the state of humanity in general and the industry in specific.

My advice to Mr Petzold would be: If you want to keep living off your writing, more power to you. Perhaps you should look at a different venue than monolithic print books, something that will be a win-win situation for your reader and you.


  1. Erica Naone says:

    Thanks for the great post. I’m often confused by the claim that reading is dying out. It’s true that magazines and newspapers are struggling to redefine themselves, but that has more to do with the need to change with the times, I think. And, as you said, when I think about the percentage of people who buy books now compared with the percentage of people who probably bought them back before there was a mass market and readily-available free education, I’d say we’re doing pretty well. I sometimes wonder if the problem is that the idea of books as product have created certain too-high expectations about how that product is supposed to move on the marketplace. Personally, I probably read about 52 books a year. I wish I could read more, but I am totally saturated — I can’t handle more than I’ve already got. I bet a lot of readers are that way. There’s no way to upsell to us, or get us to throw out our old versions and buy new ones. We’re just consuming as much of the product as we possibly can, and so we’re not really a source of constant, year-over-year growth.

  2. Eric Budd says:

    Great post; it’s good to hear from someone who’s been through the trenches of tech publishing.

    wrt the book you were writing, have you considered finishing it up and making it available on or If you still have the rights to the work, that might be a good way to produce a quality book on your terms.

  3. Don’t give up! We all want & need a book from you. Try with pragprog they have such a good reputation for author experience as reported by for example.

  4. Jose says:

    I praise for paper back! Screen reading hurt my eyes!!

  5. Sue Thomas says:

    Amy, re ‘writers want to get paid’ – in the UK we’ve done some interesting research on how new media writers earn a living now, and will do in the future. It comes with a great cartoon too! Download the Digital Livings report here Best Sue

  6. Liza Daly says:

    If the bottom has fallen out of the market for "Teach Yourself Whatever in 15 Minutes," or "The Great Big Book of Printed APIs," fantastic. There’s still huge value in thoughtful, quality and timeless technology books. It may well be that the tech publishing industry will contract, and as a reader, author and tech editor, I’m okay with that.

    Tech editing doesn’t pay well, in terms of hourly rate, but getting paid to dive into a subject I might know only at the intermediate level seems like a good bargain to me. The fact that many tech book publishers <i>don’t pay tech editors at all</i> is astonishing. There’s literally no way I could be motivated enough to do quality work — usually 20-30 hours or more — for just a free copy and an acknowledgment. That’s got to contribute to lowering standards.

  7. Amy says:

    Liza, so right you are about thoughtful tech books. Too long the publishing industry has managed to squeak by not on exemplary quality, but by the fact that they had a delivery mechanism — something nobody else had.

    If somebody can take a topic people are interested in and really teach them, with synthesis, and context, and all that good stuff, that’s worth publishing. And you so rarely find that online.

    You’re right about the tech editing pay. I worked for McGraw-Hill and Que and Sams, and they paid (but not much). I was astonished to find that O’Reilly wasn’t going to pay for tech editors for my book.

  8. Amy says:

    @Eric – That’s some great advice. It took me those 3 failed books to come to that conclusion myself. You clearly are smarter than me 😉

    Actually I am working on a short, focused ebook on JavaScript performance with Thomas Fuchs. It’s an oh-so-much better experience.

    @Jean-Philippe, I’m touched! Really, that’s so sweet of you to say. What topics are you interested in? Rails? Design? JavaScript? Something else? You’re a first time commentor, aren’t you? Please introduce yourself 😀

    The "middle" book failure was with Prag Prog, by their way – and not their fault in any way. They treated me fabulously. I’m just not cut out for 400-page behemoths. I’m a delicate flower 😉

  9. One problem is that while the publishing industry is doing fine, the reasons for that are that it is focussing on a much narrower type of book. If you’re not on the metaphorical or actual front table at Borders you won’t sell many. Also while publishers compete against one another and aggregate their sales figures (cost per book is essentially the same no matter who wrote it) they are competing with maybe four other significant companies. Authors on the other hand are competing with thousands of other authors; there are essentially two sets of market conditions operating at the same time and the market for writers is worse than the market for publishers. It’s always been that way, but the market has a very long tail now and a much sharper distinction between the favoured ones and the tail-enders.

    Personally I think niches are good. As a writer you can become well-known in a niche and that niche can now have 100,000 or more members. The interesting thing though is that given decent quality writing and production values niches favour small publishers and self-publishers.

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