Beta books: Release early and often David 19 May 2005

17 comments Latest by Brean Willizy

I’m co-authoring a book on Ruby on Rails with Dave Thomas to be published on the Pragmatic Bookshelf label (with O’Reilly doing some of the distribution). Being a web-guy, the clash with book publishing has been an interesting one. I love the quality of the documentation that it can produce, but I’m less fond of the publishing model. Give readers dying for content nothing for months and months and months. Then drop this super polished tome on them all at once. Why can’t I have the bits and pieces now?

Various companies have already tried out this space, but there’s not nearly as much actions as there should be. So I’ve been pushing Dave Thomas to get on with the concept of beta books. Let’s use the open source model for fun and profit, here. Sell people on a book early and deliver a beta version while we wait for the machinery of publishing to arrive at the paper edition.

This is of course just the first step. The book has already been in writing for months, which means that quality content has been sitting around for months. Not helping people use Rails better, not earning early money for the publisher. Just sitting there getting old.

While this is an obvious good fit for technical books, would it work for other genres too? I for one would like to subscribe to a book being written and get updates through RSS. Those last 20% publishers fret over so dearly, are they worth it? How much do I really care about pixel-perfect layoutting? Could I live with less editing in the first release? I certainly think I could. Just like Rails is attracting loads of people even as it hasn’t reached 1.0 yet, I think others would too.

There’s lots of good content out there that I’d rather get today in beta form than 6 months from now in the final version. How about you?

(A slightly different take on this was posted to Loud Thinking)

17 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Casey Gollan 19 May 05

I’d love to pay for a book and get an RSS feed of it with revisions and updates. It’s a shame that we won’t get all of those books this way. Good luck on releasing the Rails book in “beta”.

Dave V 19 May 05

Hope this works! I want to read more NOW :)

Dan Boland 19 May 05

…I�m less fond of the publishing model. Give readers dying for content nothing for months and months and months. Then drop this super polished tome on them all at once. Why can�t I have the bits and pieces now?

Because then it wouldn’t be a book.

Scott T. 19 May 05

A related topic, I always thought it’d be nice to get access to a web-published, updated version of a book I’ve purchased along with the purchase price. This is easiest to accomplish if you just publish your book for free on the web to begin with (which is happening more frequently) … Paper is bad for information retrieval. It’s great for thinking and focused reading.

Hans D 19 May 05

Incremental release is also done by…

Brad 19 May 05

There’s got to be a better way (and maybe this is it) for tech books, particularly those about software. I bought the first edition of David Pogue’s Missing Manual for OSX, and then bought the editions for Jaguar and Panther when those came out, and I’ll probably will get the Tiger one too. These books run more than 700 pages each. It would be lovely for me, as a customer, to be able to download just the updated pages or print out only the sections I want to read, but it’s lovely for O’Reilly, as a publisher, to come out with a whole new edition every year or so and have suckers like me shell out the money for it.

Anonymous Coward 19 May 05

Sometimes the kool-aid really does make you want to puke

John Kopanas 19 May 05

I am willing to pay to have access to the beta version of the book since in this case it would probably be by far the best documentation on rails. People like me are in desperate need of a good book on Rails.

Bill Brown 20 May 05

Dive into Python.

Dave Woodward 20 May 05

Agile Publishing. The paper-based equivalent to Agile Development. But why use paper. Because I can take it to a beach without worrying about the LCD frying in the sun, or lay in bed without having to sit upright to read it (or make my wrists hurt from tapping arrow keys).
I would love a Dive into Python model for a Rails book. Why not use a modified version of Hieraki or use SVN or something to write a collaborative version controlled book? It would be always evolving and you could download a “nightly build” of it in PDF whenever you want.

James Sherrett 20 May 05

I can see how releasing early versions of a technical book or manual, in pieces of different sizes so long as they make sense as standalone pieces, makes really good sense. Technical books often get read in bits anyway. If I’m looking for a way to address a specific problem (in this case, a specific way of doing something with Ruby), then I’ll look to that section for direction. The book’s designed for this type of usage, in sections (chapters) and subsections, with a table of contents and an index, perhaps footnotes or endnotes. The text is meant to be unpacked (to create meaning) in pieces.

But I don’t know that this approach would work for different genres. I wrote a novel that was published back in November, 2003, so I’ll comment on the release-early, release-often approach in regard to novels.

If I think back to the publishing process, and imagine releasing early versions of the manuscript for people to read, I think the readers of the early version would be underserved by their experience for the following reasons:
1 - Novels often change a huge amount through the editing and rewriting process. Right up until they go to press they may be in flux.

2 - The process of rewriting and editing is not linear. Often times the first chapters and early sections of the first chapters change the most. (This point works with #4 as well.)

3 - Releasing an early version of a portion of the manuscript would changes a reader’s experience of the final manuscript. A reader can never bring the same perspective to the final manuscript (the book) as if they had not read an early draft.

4 - In a novel, the story is holistic. Each chapter works in conjunction with the others. Chapters most-often don’t work as standalone stories.

A more balanced approach to writing fiction in installments is serials, and many great novels have grown from serials. Charles Dickens’ novels are a great example. Many of them appeared as short stories in periodicals of the day before appearing as books. My own novel began as interlinked short stories that matured into a novel.

So publishing a novel in pieces is possible, if the novel is written to be published in installments and each piece is polished before release to fit into the whole story at the end.

bort 23 May 05

uh oh, better not let JF see this. if it’s released publicly, it CAN’T BE BETA! SHOCK! HORROR!

matt 02 Jun 05

“uh oh, better not let JF see this. if it�s released publicly, it CAN�T BE BETA! SHOCK! HORROR!”

OK. I hereby decree that this book shall be known from this time forward as “Release Candidate - Revision 1.” Updated Release Candiates may be available at a later time. (Of course since I have absolutely nothing to do with publishing , the book content, 37signals, or SVN my decree may be ignored.)

On a different note, didn’t Dive Into Python start out as a website? Doesn’t Bruce Eckel publish his Thinking in Java and Thinking in C++ books online? Isn’t there the material in the Public Library of Science?

It seems to me that the biggest thing that the publishers bring to the table are indexers, layout expertise, and a lot of marketing research. I’m sure there are a lot of talented editors as well, and I don’t mean to deride their contributions but feedback from the target audience about “Hey I just tried your directions in chapter 4 and they didn’t work. Here’s how I got the project to work” would only be valuable to the author.

Brean Willizy 20 Nov 05

why not try out who beta publish for free!! No delays, no outlay, prompt response. - It worked for me!
——- Brean.