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Interview with Safari's Mark Brokering

SafariBooksOnline One of the many benefits of working at O'Reilly is that I get to spend time with several members of the Safari Books Online team.  If you're not familiar with Safari,  it's a digital library service that provides access to more than 8,000 titles from a variety of publishers.  They also recently launched a mobile device feature that lets me access my Safari subscription on my iPhone.

I recently sat down with Safari's Mark Brokering to discuss the business and he provided the following answers to my questions:

JW: Who's the typical Safari customer?  Is there such a thing or does Safari attract a wide variety of customers?

MB: We have a broad range of subscribers, from developers to network administrators to creative professionals, including digital photographers. Currently, the majority of our customers are technology professionals. The topics with the highest usage include programming languages and web development. But we're seeing more and more creative professionals using our library, thanks, in part, to all of the great content we're getting from Peachpit/New Riders, O'Reilly, and lynda.com. We also have a growing library of business titles that now includes nearly 1,400 books and nearly 300 videos.

JW: I'm sure you do a lot of traffic analysis for the service.  What kind of solutions is Safari providing?  Is it mostly a quick, get-in-get-out model where the customer uses the search feature to find their answer, they read a few pages and then get back to their work?

MB: The average Safari session for our subscribers is 12-18 minutes. Typically, people come looking for an answer to a problem, use our search engine to scan every word of over 3 million book pages, find information that's relevant to their issue, read what they need, and get back to work. It's a great tool for work efficiency. And because all of the information has been vetted by recognized publishers, it's much more reliable than a random search through Google results.

JW: Do you find that customers mostly find their solution in one particular book after a search or do they go to multiple sources in the service before they head back out?

MB: There's no doubt that in most cases, subscribers look at more than one source after they do their search. Most searches will bring up multiple results, showing the search terms in their context.  So most people are going to "open" more than on book to read further and see which pages provide the best answers.

JW: What are the most popular topics and areas of interest Safari customers are looking for?

MB: Topics like Java, C#, Cocoa, C++, Spring, PHP & MySQL, are all extremely popular. So is HTML, CSS, and web design. And anything about iPhone development is very hot right now. That said, our subscribers have wide-ranging interests, including Photoshop, digital photography, project management, presentation design, and various business topics. One very popular book that comes to mind is Berrett-Koehler's Eat That Frog!:  21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. The premise is that you'll be more efficient and successful if you force yourself to do the most distasteful things first. That book shot out of the gate and has been one of our top 100 books since it was introduced. And considering our specialized markets, we were also astonished by the popularity of Islam: The Religion and the People, published by Wharton School Publishing. But publisher Tim Moore wasn't surprised. He  reminded me that author Bernard Lewis "is the leading scholar in the world on one of the most important topics facing citizens and business leaders today." Goes to show that you always need to experiment and push the boundaries.

JW: Readers might think that a highly visual design like our Head First series wouldn't be that popular in Safari.  They might assume customers are looking for simple narratives without graphical elements, but I've seen Safari data on our O’Reilly titles and am very impressed with how popular Head First is in the service.  Can you talk about why you believe it's such a success here?

MB: O'Reilly's Head First books offer a completely different approach to learning. People love these highly visual books, which continually dominate the top of Safari's list of most-used titles. They probably do extremely well in Safari for the same that they do well in retail channels—the authors present material in a playful, visual way that makes tough concepts easier to understand. And Head First books make learning enjoyable. 

JW: How popular is Safari's full-book download feature?

MB: In October 2008, we began to offer customers the option of downloading entire books, for a price set by the publishers. We were already offering chapter downloads, so that people could read excerpts offline—on a plane or subway, for example. But that feature was never heavily used, which says something about how Safari is being used as a just-in-time reference tool. But we saw a huge jump in downloads the week we introduced full-book PDFs, and it hasn't let up. We're accumulating data so that we can analyze what kinds of books are being downloaded the most, and why.

JW: Where do you see services like Safari heading in the future?  Are there likely to be new and innovative ways of discovering, accessing and sharing content through a model like Safari?

MB: The world is quickly embracing the use of mobile devices for getting information anywhere, anytime. So, of course, we’re exploring how we can make a 3-million page library useful on handheld devices—especially mobile phones. Our new m.safaribooksonline.com site launched on February 23, 2009. It's our first major step in building mobile-friendly tools for our readers. The site allows individual and corporate subscribers to access their full library of books and offers a reading experience that's optimized for the phone's browser. I expect to see a dramatic shift in the way our users' view Safari Books Online and consume our content. It's a great advancement that we’re all very excited about.


Book Calendar

We are supposed to have two copies of Eat That Frog at our library. I think it looks like something worth reading.

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