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10 posts from September 2005

This Aging Business

I spent the better part of this past week attending a series of meetings in Redmond, WA. The sessions were great and the weather was beautiful, but what really caught my eye was the average age of the attendees and speakers. Keep in mind this was a mix of authors and members of various publishing houses, primarily editorial and marketing types. Other than the occasional Microsoft employee, I don’t think anyone in the room was less than 30 years old. In fact, I’d estimate the average age at about 35, maybe closer to 40.

What’s wrong with that? For starters, I think it’s both an accurate snapshot of the aging population of authors and publishers, and I would bet that it also mirrors the ever-increasing average age of our customer base. OK, it’s only one conference and maybe it’s not a good representation of the overall business. Or is it?

As I think back about the last several tech conferences I’ve attended over the past few years (e.g., TechEd, LinuxWorld, etc.), the theme is very similar. Although there are plenty of 20-somethings at these shows, they don’t seem to be the ones stopping by the publisher booths. That average age of 35 noted above is pretty consistent with the average age of publisher booth browsers. I tend to visit and hang around all the publisher booths at these events, by the way, so my observations aren’t limited to just one or two.

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but if this trend doesn’t change we’ll simply continue to chase after an older and older (and shrinking) customer base. I see this with my own kids (ages 18, 16 and 11). When it comes to issues on the computer, they don’t look for a book, they turn to Google for the answer.

At its core, this business isn’t so much about making books as it is about providing information. We’ve got to do a better job of providing that information in a manner that’s relevant to the next generation of customers. What’s your opinion?

Bookscan – Week Ending 9/18/05

Here’s a quick look at the top 750 titles in the computer/tech category for the most recent week:

1. Pearson/Penguin            33%
2. Wiley                             29%
3. O’Reilly                          16%
4. Microsoft Press              11%
5. Osborne/McGraw-Hill        5%

Comparing that to the summary from a couple of weeks ago, Pearson is down one point, Wiley is up two points, O’Reilly is down one point while Microsoft Press and Osborne/McGraw Hill are both flat.

Out of the top 10 titles for the week, Wiley had 4, Pearson had 3 while Microsoft Press, O’Reilly and Osborne/McGraw-Hill each had one – in other words, all of the top 5 publishers had at least one title in the top 10.

Author Tip: Conversational Writing

Take a few minutes to read a wonderful authoring tip on Kathy Sierra’s blog. For better or worse, I’ve been in this business long enough to remember when a stiff, formal style was the only way to write a computer book. In fact, a senior executive at a former employer once ridiculed me because I had the nerve to bring what he called “a joke book” into an editorial board for review. This was before …For Dummies, Kathy’s Head First and any other informal series hit the scene. The thinking back then was “if the formal style works for Using Lotus 1-2-3, Special Edition, why change the formula with a conversational style?”

As Kathy correctly states, a pure reference book (such as an A-to-Z syntax reference) is probably better off in the old, formal style…sort of. When I was a programmer many years ago, I appreciated the type of programmer’s reference that offered concise entries. Easy in and easy out. I just want to know the syntax, what each parameter represents, etc. However, there’s plenty of room to be conversational when talking about practical implementations. What shortcuts or workarounds has the author discovered? Those are the gems that make a reference work so valuable. They also lend themselves to a more conversational style.

Some authors think “conversational” means “forced humor.” Nothing makes a book harder to read than a bunch of bad jokes. Fight the temptation. A former colleague once described the conversational style this way: It’s as if the author is telling you a story while the two of you are enjoying a beer. With or without the beer, I think this is a good description of the relaxed, informal style that works best.

iPod, Part II

I had my say about the iPod flea/nano/whatever earlier this week. The Motorola ROKR was Apple’s other interesting recent announcement. In short, the ROKR brings iTunes to a cellphone. I find it interesting not because it’s so revolutionary, but because the phone itself is so ordinary. That doesn’t sound like Apple, does it?

Why wouldn’t the first iTunes phone be as uniquely designed as the Mac, the Newton or the iPod itself? It’s basically a run-of-the-mill phone which happens to offer iTunes service. By the way, that service doesn’t sound all that slick – the songs have to be loaded from a computer, not from the wireless connection itself. Huh?

The phone only holds about 100 songs, so it’s not likely to replace your dedicated MP3 player. Apple was probably a bit concerned about releasing a phone that could hold lots more and has a higher coolness factor. Why? It could kill the golden goose the iPod franchise has become . They wouldn’t want to do that for a measly licensing fee to Motorola or some other manufacturer.

Surely Apple has something a lot more exciting than the ROKR on the drawing board, right? I have zero inside information on this, but my guess is they’ll measure the interest level in an iTunes-enabled phone with the ROKR, then follow that up with a real Apple product down the road. What’s a “real Apple product”? It’s one that is exclusively branded “Apple”, which means they’ll get the revenue, not just a piece of it.

Google Blog Search

Finally. After a lot of complaining and pleas for help on blogs like this one, the real players are arriving on the blog search front. Google’s Blog Search beta was just announced and is almost guaranteed to be more useful than anything else out there. I played around with it a bit tonight and it’s pretty much what you’d expect: simple results in a simple interface. Still, it’s good to see the big guys showing up and providing what will hopefully be a more reliable blog search tool.