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Interview: Tim O'Reilly Answers 117

Monday we requested questions for Tim O'Reilly, of O'Reilly & Associates. Tim obviously put a lot of time into coming up with thoughtful answers, which we have published below. We've also invited Tim to join in the discussion here if he can find time, but please don't get upset if he can't. "Busy" is an understatement for this man!

Dominican asks:
How often are books revised? Open to the author?

Tim responds:
In our early days, we revised our books constantly. For example, I did ten editions of Managing UUCP and Usenet between 1986 and 1991--about one every six months. The book grew in something much like an open source software process, where I was constantly incorporating reader feedback, and rolling it into the next printing. We didn't do a big marketing push about it being a new edition, we just had a change log on the copyright page, much like you do with a piece of software, each time you check it in and out of your source code control system.

Now that we're much larger (and many of our authors no longer work directly for us), it's harder to do that, but we still roll in a lot of small changes each time we go back to print.

The reason why it's harder mainly has to do with the inefficiency of retail distribution. When there are thousands of copies sitting in bookstores waiting to be bought, rolling out a "new edition" is a big deal, since you have to take back and recycle all the old ones. So you have to go through a process of letting the inventory "stored in the channel" thin out. This means that, especially for a very successful book, you can't do updates as often as you otherwise might like. We slipstream in fixes to errors and other small changes, but major changes need to be characterized as a "new edition" with all the attendant hoopla.

There is also the issue you advert to in your question, and that is the availability of the author to do the update. Sometimes an author like David Flanagan has a number of bestselling books, and he updates them in round-robin fashion. Sometimes an author loses interest in a topic, or gets a new job and doesn't have time any more, and we have to find someone else. Sometimes the technology is fairly stable, and so we don't need to do a new edition.

Sometimes we know we need a new edition, but we just get distracted, and don't get around to it as quickly as we should! At least we don't do what a lot of other publishers do, which is issue a "new edition" for marketing reasons only, where the content stays pretty much the same, but it's called a new edition just so they can sell it in freshly to bookstores.

t-money asks:
Fatbrain.com has recently announced that it will offer an electronic publishing service, E-matter. What do you think about offering documents for download for a fee? Is this something that O'Reilly might be undertaking in the future?

Tim responds:
Well, we were part of FatBrain's ematter announcement, and we're going to be working with them. But I have to confess that the part of their project I liked the best wasn't the bit about selling short documents in online-only form, it was the idea of coordinating sale of online and print versions.

I know that there's a lot of talk about putting books up online for free, and we're doing some experiments there, but to be honest, I think that it's really in all of our best interests to "monetize" online information as soon as possible. Money, after all, is just a mutually-agreed ratio of exchange for services. When the price is somewhere between zero and a large number, based on negotiation, the uncertainty often means that the product is not available.

In general, I foresee a large period of experimentation, until someone or other figures out the right way to deliver AND pay for the kinds of things that people want to read online. We've seen it take about five years to develop enough confidence in advertising as a revenue model for the web (starting from our first-ever internet advertising on O'Reilly's prototype GNN portal in early 1993). Similarly, I think that the "pay for content" sites--whether eMatter or ibooks.com, or books24x7, or itknowledge.com--will take some time to shake out. Meanwhile, we're playing with a bunch of these people, and doing some experiments of our own as well.

the_tsi asks:
Not to start a free SQL server war here, but I notice there is a (quite good) book on mSql and MySql, but nothing for PostgreSQL. Are there any plans to cover it in the near future?

Tim responds:
We're looking at this but haven't started any projects yet. We've had a huge number of requests for a book on PostgreSQL, and we're taking them very seriously.

Tet asks:
You've said that the Linux Network Administrator's Guide sold significantly less than would normally be expected as a result of the text of the book being freely available on the net. By what sort of margin? How many copies did it sell, and how many would you have expected to sell under normal circumstances? Would you release another book in a similar manner if the author accepts that they'll make less money from it? Did the book actually make a loss, or just not make as much profit as expected?

Tim responds:
Well, it's always hard to say what something *would* have done if circumstances had been otherwise. But on average, the book sold about a thousand copies a month in a period where Running Linux sold 3-4000 and Linux Device Drivers about 1500. Now the book is badly out of date (though a new edition is in the works), but you'd expect that there are more people doing network admin than there are writing device drivers. (And in fact, reader polls have actually put the NAG at the top of the list of "most useful" of our Linux books.)

Frank Willison, our editor in chief, made the following additional comments about the NAG and its free publication:

"We can demonstrate that we lost money because another publisher (SSC) also published the same material when it became available online. Because the books were identical, word for word (a requirement the author put on anyone else publishing the material), every copy sold of the SSC book was a loss of the sale of one copy of our book.

One interesting side note was that SSC published the book for a lower price than we did. Of course, we had the fixed costs: editing, reviewing, production, design. But those fixed costs didn't make the difference: when you took out the retail markup, the difference in price was equal to the author royalty on the book.

The above may be too much info, and isn't directly related to current Open Source practices, but it still chafes my butt."

If I had to quantify the effect, I'd guess that making a book freely available might cut sales by 30%. But note that this is for O'Reilly--we've got books with a great reputation, which makes people seek them out. And we cover "need to know" technologies where people are already looking for the O'Reilly book on the topic. For J. Random Author out there, open sourcing a book might be a terrible idea, or a great one. An author with some unique material that doesn't fall into an obvious "I already know I need this" category can build a real cult following online, and then turn that into printed book sales to a wider audience. We're hoping to do the same thing in publishing Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar (and other essays) this fall. Most of you guys have probably read them online, but there is a larger population who've probably heard the buzz, and will pick them up in the bookstore. On the other hand, an author who puts a lousy book online will only show this to the world, and sales will be 10% of what they'd been if the reader hadn't been able to see the book first.

Perhaps more compelling is the evidence from the Java world, where sales of the Addison-Wesley books based on the Sun documentation (which is mostly available online) are quite dismal, while our unique standalone books (as those from other publishers) do quite well. More importantly, though, programmers in our focus groups for Java report spending far less overall on books than programmers in other areas, because they say that they get most of the info they need online.

All of this is what tells me we need to tread carefully in this area, since I have to look out for the interests of my employees and my authors as well as my customers. In the end, free books online may look like a great deal, but it won't look so good if it ends up disincetivizing authors from doing work that you guys need.

And frankly, we have conversations all the time that go like this: "I'm making $xxx as a consultant. I'd love to write a book, but it's really not worth my while." At O'Reilly, we try to use authors who really know their stuff. So writing a book is either a labor of love, or it's a competitive situation with all the other things that author could be doing with their time. So money is an issue.

maelstrom asks:
(two out of three submitted) What books would you recommend a budding writer should read and study? and Do you read every book you publish?

Tim responds:
Books about writing that I like are Strunk & White (The Elements of Style) and William Zinsser's On Writing Well. But really, read any books that you like. Reading good technical books, and thinking about what works about them for you, is always great. We learn far more by osmosis than by formal instruction. So read, and then write.

Going back to the recurrent questions about free documentation--a great way to learn to write is to do it. Contribute your efforts to one of the many open source software projects as a documentation writer, get criticism from the user community, and learn by doing.

I would say that the ability to organize your thoughts clearly is the most important skill for a technical writer. Putting things in the right order, and not leaving anything out (or rather, not leaving out anything important, but everything unimportant), is far more important than trying to write deathless prose. The best writing is invisible, not showy. My favorite quote about writing (which came from a magazine interview that I read many years ago) was from Edwin Schlossberg: "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think."

As to your second question: alas, I no longer have time to read everything we publish. We have a number of senior editors whose work I trust completely -- I never read their stuff unless I'm trying to use it myself. For new or more junior editors, I generally do a bit of a "sample" of each book somewhere during the development process. If I like it, I say so, and don't feel I have to look at it again. If I don't like it, I may make terrible trouble, as some of my editors and authors can attest.

howardjp asks:
One of the biggest compaints aong critics of the BSD operating systems is the lack of available books. Since O'Reilly is the leader in Open Source documentation, you are well positioned to enter the BSD market. With that in mind, why hasn't O'Reilly published any BSD books in recent memory?

Tim responds:
Every once in a while we make a stupid editorial decision, as, for instance, when we turned down Greg Lehey's proposed BSD book (now published by Walnut Creek CDROM). This was based on the fact that the BSD documentation, which we'd co-published with Usenix, had done really poorly, and the relative sales of our original BSD UNIX in a Nutshell relative to our System V/Solaris one. That was many years ago now, and BSD has emerged from the shadows of the AT&T lawsuit, and become a real force in the open source community. So I definitely think that there are some books that we might want to do there. Proposals are welcome.

That being said, so many of our books cover BSD (just like they cover Linux, even if they don't say Linux on the cover). After all, BSD is one of the great mothers of the open source movement. What is Bind, what is sendmail, what is vi, what is a lot of the TCP/IP utility suite but the gift of BSD...it's so much part of the air we all breathe that it doesn't always stand out as topic that gets the separate name on it.

chromatic asks:
Would you ever consider making previous editions of certain books free for download when supplanted by newer editions?

For example, when Larry Wall finally gets around to writing the 3rd edition of the Camel (probably about the same time as Perl 6), would you consider making the second edition available in electronic format?

I realize this has the possibility of forking documentation, but it's hard to find anyone more qualified than Larry, Randal, and Tom, for example. It would only work for certain books.

Tim responds:
The previous edition of CGI Programming for the WWW is available online now, while we work on a new edition, as is MH & xmh and Open Sources. You can read these at http://www.oreilly.com/openbooks/. We'd like to put more of our out of print books online, but it's a matter of man hours. Our Web team is organizing a new effort around this now, so look for more books to appear on this page.

And in fact, an awful lot of Programming Perl *is* available for free online, as part of the Perl man page or other perl documentation. It's not available in exactly the same form, but it's available. That's one of the big questions for online documentation: does the online version always look like the print version.

But this is a good question, and it's one we have certainly something we can think about. Might be another interesting experiment in understanding the ecology of online publishing.

Crutcher asks:
Not sure how to phrase this, but, well, what is the status of O'Reilley and marketing books to schools and colleges for use as textbooks. Our textbooks suck, and if there textbook versions of ya'lls books it would rock.

Tim responds:
We actually do quite a bit of marketing to schools and colleges, and they are used as textbooks in a number of places. If you know of a professor who ought to be adopting an O'Reilly book, please send mail to our manager of college and library sales, Kerri Bonasch, at kerri@oreilly.com. We also have a Web site to support this effort at http://www.oreilly.com/sales/edu/.

Are there any specific things that you see as obstacles to use of the books as textbooks? What topics would you especially like to see as textbooks?

zilym asks:
Are there any plans to improve the binding on your future books? Many of us use O'Reilly books to death and the binding is the first to go. I know I certainly wouldn't mind pay slightly more for a stronger version of some of the most heavily used titles.

Tim responds:
Hmmm. We use a special high-cost binding, which allows the books to lay flat. It's quite a bit more expensive than the normal perfect binding used by most publishers, and we think it's worth it. I have heard lots of compliments on how great this binding is. I haven't heard complaints about it breaking down--at least not without use that would break down a normal perfect-bound book as well. I don't know of any way to make it more durable.

Maybe hardcover? It would be great to have a slashdot poll on how many people share your problem and would like to see O'Reilly books in hardcover. (One caveat: We tried an experiment once (for our Phigs Programming Manuals--real behemoths) to offer books in both hardcover and softcover, so people could choose. Despite polls that said people would pay more for a more durable hardcover, everyone bought the softcover to save the difference in price.) So, if there is a poll, how much would you pay for a more durable book?

jzawodn asks:
Given some of the recent discussion surrounding the Linux Documentation Project (LDP), I began to wonder about its long-term direction and viability.

I "grew up" with Linux by reading *many* of the HOWTOs and other documents that were part of the LDP. In many ways, I'd have been lost without the LDP. But with the growth of Linux mind-share and increased demand for texts that help newcomers get acquainted with the various aspects of running their own Linux systems, there seems to have been a stagnation in much of the free documentation. I can't help but to wonder if many of the folks who would be working on LDP-type material have opted to write books for publishers instead.

Where do you see free documentation projects like the LDP going? What advice can you offer to the LDP and those who write documents for inclusion in the project? Might we see electronic versions of O'Reilly books (or parts of them) included in free documentation projects?

Tim responds:
I don't think that the slowdown of the LDP is because of authors deserting it to write commercial books. In fact, I think you're going to see a reinvigoration of free documentation efforts, as publishers try to contribute to these projects. I think that the right answer is for those who are writing books to figure out some useful subset of their work that will be distributed online as part of the free documentation, and for there to be some added value only available in books. I think that this has worked pretty well for the core perl documentation, where an update to the camel and an update to the online docs are really seen as part of the same project.

When O'Reilly is directly involved in an Open Source project, this is fairly typical of what we do. For example, O'Reilly was one of the original drivers behind the development of the docbook DTD, which is now used by the LDP. (We started the Davenport Group, which developed Docbook, back in the late 80's.)

We're releasing a book about Docbook, by Norm Walsh and Len Muellner, called DocBook: the Definitive Guide." It will be out in October. Norm and Len's book will be also available for free online through the Oasis web site as the official documentation of the DocBook DTD. This is our contribution to users of DocBook; without our signing and creating this book, good documentation for DocBook wouldn't exist. (This is in addition to our historical support of the creation of DocBook.)

Our goal here, though, is evangelical. We want more people to use docbook (and xml in general), and we think that making the documentation free will help that goal.

CmdrTaco asks (on behalf of a friend):
I understand from a very reliable source that O'Reilly is moving their website from a single Sun and an inside developed webserver to an NT cluster and some barely functioning proprietary software. Their bread and butter has been Unix. They have been taking a more and more vocal position within the OSS community. Why are they switching to NT?

Tim responds:
Well, your very reliable source has only part of the story right, and that's because it's a long and involved story. It started about 18 months ago, when the people on our web team wanted to replace what had become a fairly obsolete setup whose original developers no longer work for the company.

This system--which was about five years old--involves a lot of convoluted perl scripts that take data in a pseudo-sgml format, and generate a bunch of internal documents (marketing reports, sales sheets, copy for catalogs etc) as well as web pages. We wanted to do something more up to date, and didn't have internal resources to devote to a complete rework.

So we went out to a number of web design firms for bids. The winning firm does work on both NT and UNIX, but they showed us all kinds of nifty things that they said they had already developed on NT that we could use. These were tools for surveys, content management, etc. There was also stuff around integration with the spreadsheets and databases and reports used by our financial and customer service people. To recreate these tools on their UNIX side would cost several hundred thousand dollars.

So I said: "We can either walk the talk, or talk the walk. I don't care which, as long as what we do and what we say line up. If you can do it better and cheaper on NT, go ahead and do it, and I'll go out there and tell the world why the NT solution was better."

I was prepared to have to tell a story about interoperability--after all, despite all our efforts to champion open source, we realize that our customers use many, many different technologies, and we try to use them all ourselves as well. We were looking at doing some things on NT--the stuff our vendor said they already had working--while incorporating other elements on UNIX, Mac, Linux, and Pick (yes, we run a Pick system too!). The whole thing was going to be a demonstration of ways that you can choose from and integrate tools from many different platforms.

Instead, I have to tell the story that is so familiar to Slashdot readers, of promises of easy-to-use tools that, unfortunately, don't work as advertised. As your source suggests, the NT parts of the system haven't been delivered on time or on budget, and what we've seen doesn't appear to work, and we're considering scrapping that project and going back to the safe choice. To put a new spin on an old saw: No one ever got fired for using open source.

I say that tongue-in-cheek of course, because unlike a lot of open source partisans, I don't think that all good things come from the open source community. We like to bash Microsoft with the idea that "no matter how big you are, all the smart people don't work for you" but it's just as true that they don't all work for the open source community either. There are great ideas coming from companies like Sun and Microsoft, and (most of) the people who work there are just like us. They care about doing a good job. They want to solve interesting problems and make the world a better place. And sometimes they do.

I consider it my job to give them a fair shake at convincing me, and if they do, to give you a fair shake at learning what they've done right as well as what they've done wrong. I'll keep you posted.

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Interview: Tim O'Reilly Answers

Comments Filter:
  • Okay, so maybe this is a waste of time, but I haven't really paid much attention to the people at O'Reilly before now, I just knew that they made some pretty darn good books. However, after reading these answers, my respect for them has grown immeasurably! The responses left me with that nice warm feeling that there really are Good People out there. Now, if only that updated NAG would get out so I can buy it!
  • by lar3ry ( 10905 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:05AM (#1690630)
    Strunk and White is ESSENTIAL for anybody writing ANYTHING. His answer to that question, and the obvious thought that went into the other answers, gives me more reason to be impressed by him.

    A further suggestion on my part would be for aspiring authors to find out what THEY like to read, and try to figure out what about the style impresses them.
  • by Psarchasm ( 6377 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:07AM (#1690631) Homepage Journal
    So when is there going to be a contest to win every O'Reilly book ever published?
  • by Stephen ( 20676 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:07AM (#1690632) Homepage
    I just want say thank you to Tim O'Reilly for answering all these questions so thoughtfully and so comprehensively. We all appreciate it.
  • Error code 404
    Access denied, or file does not exist

    Put Hemos through English 101!
    "An armed society is a polite society" -- Robert Heinlein
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Sorry I missed this. Else I would've asked Tim: "Why do you ship known defective

    In this case I refer to Learning Perl/Tk. I purposefully ordered it direct from
    the publisher (O'Reilly) and explicitly specified the latest printing. What did I
    get? Direct from the publisher? After waiting a week for it? You guessed it: the
    first printing. Known to be riddled with errors.

    That was the first time I'd ever ordered anything directly from O'Reilly. It'll also
    be the last.

    (Need I say that my recommendation is to avoid this book?)

  • I was lucky enough to have O'Reilly books as the textbook for two CS classes back in college. I had the "armadillo" book for System Administration, and "Webmaster in a Nutshell" for Internet Administration. It was an extremely pleasant experience in both cases. They were by far the most readable texts I remember using in college (that includes my non-CS classes, too) and were actually FUN to read! Not only were they relevant to the theories we covered in class, but I still use them to this day (in the "real world"!) on a regular basis, which I cannot say about several of my other college CS texts. Highly recommendable!

  • Perhaps it was a one-page book? They have to start somewhere! *grin*

    Anyway, thank you for taking the time to do this, Tim. (And thanks to Roblimo too!)

    QDMerge [rmci.net] 0.21!
  • I've always liked the binding on your books personally. It does annoy me though when I get dog eared books though for some reason. I would suggest having hard bound books for the 400+ page books like Programming Perl, etc. Oh I got an idea. How about with the hardbound book, which would cost 20 bucks more or so, you would get a card that you would send in to you guys where you would register yourself for diffs of the new versions or something. I for one usually don't buy new editions just because I can usually find the new features online for different things. Actually not a diff but the new book on cd or something like that free of cost. Or perhaps discounts on upcoming ones? I don't know, maybe you have something like this already that I don't know about. :)

  • I personally love the O'Reilly 'lay-flat' binding, I never ever had any problem with it, and all of the several tens of books that I own are still very mint looking, despite heavy usage.

    The only books that I would like to see in hardcover, and maybe updated, are the X/Motif programming series ones, and this mainly due to their size and quasi-Bible status.

    Regarding 'low' sales of the NAG book: I do think that most people that use Linux professionally, don't buy administration books based on having Linux on the cover, but rather looking at the contents.

    At one point I was on the market for a good sysadmining book, and I bought the Red Book (Nemeth etc.) rather than the NAG because it was a better -systems administration- book.

    While it didn't cover Linux specifically, a very significant of the information presented was applicable to Linux systems, and having sections on other OSs was a definite plus, since all-Linux environments are still hard to come by (I currently work in one BTW, but it's not that common)

    One more thing, I -really- appreciate that O'Reilly prints on recycled paper, and I'm sure that the trees appreciate this too. Now if only more publishers followed your example...
  • Rob left those out, although they are score 5.

    It could be that they were included in the questions sent to Tim, but they weren't among the questions answered by Tim.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    It's http://www.oreilly.com/openbooks/
  • by BirksNCap ( 53917 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:27AM (#1690641) Homepage
    "Crutcher asks: Not sure how to phrase this, but, well, what is the status of O'Reilley and marketing books to schools and colleges for use as textbooks. Our textbooks suck, and if there textbook versions of ya'lls books it would rock."

    What's interesting is that some places are beginning to use their books. For instance, as a newbie to Perl, I'm taking the HWG.org [hwg.org] class starting on Sept 20, for Beginning Programming with Perl [hwg.org], which uses the ORA Learning Perl book that's so popular with slashdotters. From a cursory glance through some of the other courses, there do appear to be some of ORA's excellent books used as texts. There's hope after all!

  • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:27AM (#1690642) Homepage
    O'Reilly is in an awkward position - it is apparent that there isn't the kind of benefit to publishers for Open Content that there is for technology interests for Open Source. There are a number of big differences between the two - for one thing, there's no 'hood' to look under in content, so the advantages of openess in publishing are almost entirely political/ethical/social.

    That said, I do believe there *is* a way to do business with open content, and that is to run a printing/binding service for open content material with direct distribution. I don't know that ORA is really the one to do that sort of thing, but it could work. The disadvantages of non-exclusivity might be compensated by the lack of need for large inventories; the consumer would get valuable reference work, possibly with high-quality production values, bound to order as most convenient (wire bound, cloth bound, whatever.)

    This would be a good very-small, one-to-three person sort of business, that could even be run without facilities - a web-based order form and a high-end copy shop are all that are needed.

    (I must admit to having violated one of my own cautions - avoid *anyone* who tells you "you could make a lot of money if..." unless they're stinking rich. And even then, be careful.)
  • Link http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/ dosent work.

    Is this the correct link?
  • Tim says:

    ... Despite polls that said people would pay more for a more durable hardcover, everyone bought the softcover to save the difference in price.) So, if there is a poll, how much would you pay for a more durable book? ...

    I've heard that the hardcover and softcover versions of a book cost about the same to produce, and that the purpose of a hardcover edition is to extract extra money from people willing to pay more to read a book earlier (since the hardcover comes out well in advance of the softcover).

    If this is true, how about releasing hardcover and softcover editions of O'Reilly books at around the same time for around the same price? Seems like it should increase sales and customer satisfaction. I'm definitely in need of a hardcover "Programming Perl"...
  • Tim suggests reading technical books to find out what you like about them so you can incorporate it into your own writing. I also suggest you do your best to read bad technical books, or at least note the portions of the books you read that irritate you, and make a note not to do that sort of thing in your own writing. My pet peeve is sloppy writing and editing -- misspelled words, using it's instead of its (or vice versa), badly contructed sentences, and the like that in the past would have been caught by a careful editor, but now go sailing through in the rush to publish. (I also have to say that, although it's not entirely absent, I see a lot less of that in O'Reilly books than I do in those from other publishers. Take your editors out to lunch, Tim!)
  • Take heart Crutcher they are out there. My first introduction to O'Riley books was in my Network Enginerring class. Our books were TCP/IP (Crab) and "Unix Sys Admin Handbook" (Not O'Riley, but very good, covers lots of flavors of unix).

    Just keep digging, and pushing the upper level people in your CS department.
  • In this case I refer to Learning Perl/Tk. I purposefully ordered it direct from
    the publisher (O'Reilly) and explicitly specified the latest printing. What did I
    get? Direct from the publisher? After waiting a week for it? You guessed it: the
    first printing. Known to be riddled with errors.

    That was the first time I'd ever ordered anything directly from O'Reilly. It'll also
    be the last.

    Really? I've had nothing but good experiences with O'Reilly... once I complained on Slashdot about how I bought what I thought was a Palm Pilot programming book, without really looking too hard at it, and it turned out to be a stupid usage book, and the next day I got an email from somebody at O'Reilly saying "Well, if you give me your address, I'll send you our Palm Programming Manual free." So I gave them my address, and sure enough, 3 weeks later it came in the mail (after I had completely forgotten about it :-) I've heard similar stories from other people. So needless to say, whenever I need a computer book, I first look for O'Reilly, and then if they don't have anything I'm looking for, I go for other publishers.

    Actually, I just got back from the UMD Student Union Bookstore after buying O'Reilly's "Learning the vi editor" :-)

    "Software is like sex- the best is for free"
  • by Roblimo ( 357 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:36AM (#1690648) Homepage Journal
    When we promise a busy interview subject that we'll only ask "X" number of questions, some are going to be left out. Another factor is that these interviews are some of the longest stories we run on Slashdot, and can easily get out of hand if we don't put *some* limit on them.

    Now, specifics: two out of the three questions you asked were duplicated in essence, if not in exact wording, by others, and were answered. One, about why computer books cost so much, was a good, but other questions from other people were also good.

    We are getting a huge (and growing) response to these interviews. You simply need to accept the fact that not all questions are going to get passed on, and no matter which ones we (Slashdot editors) select, *someone* is going to feel left out.

    - Robin

    PS - my personal favorite questions don't always get forwarded, either. Such is life.
  • Although I am not clear from the article if they discovered problems with their new NT system during integration or during testing, but I found most it interesint that they decided to go with a system based on "vendor talk".

    A number of vendors try to maximize profit by trying to sale the most expensive solution, not the one that is best for it's customers. Sadly, many customers fall for the bigger is better without asking questions about whether all the additional features have been properly tested and for how long they have been in production.

    It also seems sarcastic that they chosed the OS version of the product from the OS which is known for not been able to fulfill it's promises.

    After having been involved in several major migrations I think an oversimplification of what any migration should have is:

    Evaluation of needs

    Research what product can satisfy those needs

    A parallel production

    A way to go running back to the old system in case the new one doesn't work

    From the interview I gather they "may" (if they actually used it for production) have overlooked at their "true" needs and gone with what the vendor convinced them they needed.

  • by layne ( 15501 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:40AM (#1690650)
    One worthy question that didn't make the cut was very interesting. Would you consider selling a annual subscription to a searchable database of all (or a topic subset of) O'Reilly texts?

    Could third-party support organizations such as Linuxcare serve as resellers? The idea of having Fatbrain, as you might have suggested, offer something like Microsoft's TechNet subscription plan for *nix technologies is appealing to me. In fact, I'll promise my subscription to you if it's less than $500 per year.
  • They missed an 's' off. Here is the correct link:

    http://www.oreilly.com/openbooks/ [oreilly.com]
  • I don't mean to sound rude, but don't you think it's silly of you to ask this? There were lots of folks with questions that scored highly. In the end, it's the /. staff who pick the "winners". Besides, your claim that are "expensive" seemed acidic, which is probably why Rob didn't send 'em.
    "My works are like water. The works of the great masters is like wine, but everybody drinks water."
  • I love hardcover books. However they are more expensive, so I don't want to spend that much money on things I will rarely use

    I normally buy the softcover first (unless I can get a good deal on hardcover - I always watch bargan books), but most publishers stop printing hardcover after doing the soft version.

    I have a couple books at home that I'm on the thrid copy of (Dragonsong by Anne Mccaffery comes to mind, published in 1976 as I recall), I'd pay for a hardcover printing. Some authors I've learned are worth the risk and I buy the hardcover as soon as it comes out, but most are hit and miss.

    O'Rielie is a hit and miss thing. Not that the books are medioker, but that not all are useful that often. Java in a Nutshell (what I was doing java) was indispensiable by my desk and worth hardcover. Portability with imake was useful, but not enough (TO ME!) that it would be worth it.

    Maybe they should take the popular books, and accept pre-orders for hardcover, any that get enough are printed in hardcover. (Note that the bat book is of limited use, but I suspect those who need it would buy hardcover because they need it that often)

  • I've heard that the hardcover and softcover versions of a book cost about the same to produce, and that the purpose of a hardcover edition is to extract extra money from people willing to pay more to read a book earlier (since the hardcover comes out well in advance of the softcover).

    I'd like to see this validated or debunked. My gut feeling is that it's wrong. Hardcover books are almost universally heavier and bulkier than softcover versions with the same content. For equal numbers of copies of each, the hardcover version will end up with higher material costs (okay, the fancy ORA binding might make up for this) in production, and higher shipping costs, due to the higher shipping weight and volume. Factor in the economies of scale that result from differing volumes, and the price spread can swell.

    Of course, issues such as font and page size play into this too, but who wants a hardcover book that requires a magnifying glass to read?

    Need a quickie hardcover? Try cardboard! :)
  • I ordered the O'Reilly Palm Pilot book from Amazon and saved $12.
  • How much would spiral-binding paper-back versions of books cost compared to hard-cover binding? Metal or plastic?

    That's my own preference, for which I would be willing to pay a little extra. It's nice being able to lay a spiral-bound document down flat, or wrap the pages around so it only occupies a page-space on the desk.
  • by Bob-K ( 29692 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:51AM (#1690659)
    >> Despite polls that said people would pay more for a more durable hardcover, everyone bought the softcover to save the difference in price.)

    Ah, see, you have to remember that you're selling to computer geeks. They want to be able to buy the softcover, then upgrade to the hardcover when the softcover wears out.
  • I'd like to second this sentiment.
    There are a couple of things that I would
    like to point out though. First, the URL
    listed for the OpenBooks section of the
    O'Reilly website wasn't working a moment ago
    (it is now, his web team probably couldn't
    type ln -s fast enough).

    Secondly, and more importantly, I don't think
    we should let Tim off easy for going for the
    NT server solution he mentioned. After all,
    if everyone just followed the path of least
    resistance, we'd all be waiting around to be
    spoon fed solutions from Microsoft. Bad Tim,
    bad! Next time, "talk the talk".

    Anyway, thanks again for the insightful answers, Tim!

    "My works are like water. The works of the great masters is like wine, but everybody drinks water."
  • by sottek ( 20901 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @04:58AM (#1690661) Homepage
    You asked what would be needed in textbooks that
    isn't already provided. The main thing I see
    lacking is a structured problem/answer set for
    each topic discussed. Often professors don't have
    the time to make good homework for each chapter so
    they refer to the textbook, textbooks which get
    updated often. A good perl book with programming
    problems designed by Larry would be a great
    learning guide, and since the problems would need
    to change every couple of semesters you would
    automatically have some push to keep the books up
    to date.
    A side effect is that students won't be so quick
    to return books for the measly refund at the end
    of the semester if the textbook they learned from
    is also the defacto open source quide to perl. I
    don't think non-students would mind a few lesson
    pages at the end of each chapter either, we've all
    become used to the read a chapter do the problems
    way of learning (For good or bad).
  • I'm all for technology. But when one is working, I find a good book is easier to flick through than any online documentation...

    And of late, I have been buying quite a few O'Reilly books. Well worth the money - concidering the hours it has saved me.
  • by John Regehr ( 77784 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @05:03AM (#1690663) Homepage
    I'd like to see this validated or debunked.

    I found this:

    Publishing A book which sells for $40 can be produced at a marginal cost of $2. This gap between price and marginal cost has led to a variety of forms of differential pricing. Book clubs, hardcover and paperback editions, and remaindered books are all examples of the ways that the product characteristics and adjusted to support differential pricing.

    here [firstmonday.dk]. That doesn't make it true, but it sounds reasonable.

    "Price discrimination" and "differential pricing" seem to be the keywords.

    I was thinking that O'Reilly could attempt to build (even more) customer loyalty by not trying to use price discrimination.
  • I got several books published by Tim, and some of the bindings are cracked due to the so called more expensive binding being able to lay flat. In fact, Barnes N'Noble wouldn't let me return a brand new book because it had been opened once, and the binding began to crack. This is not even normal usage of the book...... It was still very new. However, I don't think I would buy a hard cover book either. The reason is that the O'Reily books are somewhat portable, and easy to fit many in one book bag. In conclusion I think that The bindings may in fact be more expencive and durable, but they sure do get ugly after a small amount of reading. Maybe this is what zilym was trying to point out?

    I think a good subject for a colledge book might be some sort of unix for entry level college students. With it being a series type of thing so that the professor can have some sort of continuity in the books for next semester. Remember, these texts should be intended to be used after school is over as a reference book, and that the students would be going on to higher levels in their CS degree path.


  • The online, searchable indices (for the Perl books, for instance) are already a great value. I recently suggested adding a full-text search capability (returning only page number references), and Tim seemed to agree that this would be a good thing--hopefully this will happen soon after the server issues are resolved? Tim?

  • Perhaps a better way to do this is to have an online resource (say www.ora.com/student) that provides the practice problems and answers. Too often I've found textbooks where the answers are wrong. Having the problems online makes it easier to fix errors. Also, other people can submit problems, so the author isn't burdened with additional content to create. Having a high quality reference is a good thing. But too many people might think that a new edition of a book contains more than just new problem sets. It's better to keep the reference and the teaching parts separate. Alternative solution: Separate, low cost problem set manual.
  • First Half: As much as I agree with the question about the book bindings, I would find hardcover books unbearable. I read my ORA books in EVERY room in the house( and if you say you don't read in THAT room you're fibbing ;>). I like the lightweight (save my copy of Perl Cookbook and the number of "Definitive References") aspect of the softcovers. I carry upwards to 7 ORA books back and forth from home and the office every night.

    Second Half: Is ORA planning on putting out a series on php at all? There is currently only one decent book on php right now. I am really used to the ORA format and would love to have one on php to reference.

    Thanks for the great books and everything your company has done.

  • Machines for comb-binding are commonplace (and, for some reason, all unreasonably expensive...anybody know why?). I'll bet, though, that for 500 bucks or so you could get a machine that would let you actually spiral-bind. Then all you need is a big papercutter, and you can spiral-bind your own :).
  • by bmetzler ( 12546 ) <bmetzler AT live DOT com> on Friday September 10, 1999 @05:42AM (#1690669) Homepage Journal
    Secondly, and more importantly, I don't think we should let Tim off easy for going for the NT server solution he mentioned. After all, if everyone just followed the path of least resistance, we'd all be waiting around to be spoon fed solutions from Microsoft. Bad Tim, bad! Next time, "talk the talk".

    You mean "walk the talk" :-) Anyways, I think we can forgive him this one time. He tried what he thought was the most feasible solution at the time and he honestly admitted that it failed. Linux didn't provide the solution at the time and that was a failure too. We have to remember that although Linux is a superior solution to NT, it hasn't had the time to mature as NT has had. We need to get solutions on Linux so that in the future people *won't* be forced to use NT. We're not there yet, but every day I see more and more solutions for Linux. Let's keep working on them and soon one day the time well come when no one will be able to say, "The only way to do this was on NT".

  • Sorry if this seems redundant to the moderators, but I wanted to second the suggestion of a subscription service. This is an excellent idea that ought to provide incremental, recurring revenue for O'Reilly's off-line publishing business.

    I wonder if it would do any serious damage to the number of books that O'Reilly sells through distribution? I, for one, often buy two copies of the ORA books I use -- one for my office and one for my main client's site. Once they come out with CD-ROM compendiums of multiple books, I buy one of those and put it in my traveling CD case with my Netscape, Sybase, Perl, Apache, and Linux CD-based software.

    I realize I am an extreme example of a satisfied ORA customer, but my consulting clients are just as satisfied with my work, and I owe as much to the guys at O'Reilly as I do to the Linux and Perl developers.

    Sorry to digress.

    If anyone reads this, would you care to reply with your thoughts on whether you think a subscription service would cannibalize O'Reilly's other businesses?

  • I like the cracking.

    Those cracks in the spines of the O'Reilly books on my shelf show that I use them and didn't just put them there for show, a practice I think some folks are guilty of, especially those who buy the hardbound books that are three times as thick as O'Reilly's (with half the content.)
  • I have never used this program, and I don't know if they still have it because I can't find any reference to that program on their website. But they used to have a "trade in" your older versions for a discount on the new version.

    If you're really interested in that, maybe you can dig into this further.
  • Hmm...need to carefully read article when brain isn't so foggy. Economics == Nap Time.

    However, a quick read of the introduction suggests that differential pricing isn't such a bad thing in some markets:

    The outcome of this investigation is that

    (i) efficient pricing in such environments will typically involve prices that differ across consumers and type of service;

    (ii) producers will want to engage in product and service differentiation in order for this differential pricing to be feasible; and,

    (iii) differential pricing will arise naturally as a result of profit seeking by firms. It follows that differential pricing can generally be expected to contribute to economic efficiency [2].

    Admittedly, I am kinda tired, and could easily overlook something. If production costs are separate from shipping and placement costs, then it's easy to see the hardcover costing more, or at least having slimmer margins. I guess the biggest thing is to look at all the different places that the price difference can come from:
    • Production Cost Differences
    • Shipping Cost Differences
    • Placement Cost Differences
    • Bookstore economics (shelf space, quantity, etc.)
    • Basic Supply vs. Demand
    • Others that I'm likely overlooking
    The only way to really know where the price difference comes from is by tracking the price per unit from tree to consumer.
  • How about this:

    OR&A has lately been publishing "CD Bookshelf" editions, collecting books on a single topic (Perl, UNIX, Network admin) on CD in HTML, together with a hardcopy of the most heavily-used reference in the group (usually the relevant Nutshell book).

    So how about making the CD Bookshelf editions hardbound? We're already paying extra for the value-add of the CD, and the cost of the hard binding would not be that much more of an increase.

  • by tadghin ( 2229 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @06:05AM (#1690675) Homepage
    In general, I agree with you. A lot of publishers put books out in hardcover (or add CDs) purely to justify a much higher price. And that price is disproportionate to the added cost.

    That being said, the manufacturing cost is a relatively small part of the cost for any book, and hardcover does ncrease the cost significantly. Most publishers set the price as some multiple (in traditional publishing, at least in the old days, 6x, in computer book publishing, 15-20x) of the manufacturing cost. So if a paperback costs $2.50 to print and a hardback $3.50, you might expect the difference in price to be at most a few dollars, and then you find out it is $10 or $20 because of the multiplier.

    A couple of provisos: even the most generous of publishers, who just wanted to offer hardcover as a service, would need to at least double the increase in cost, because the typical aggregate discount of 50% or more given to resellers means that the publisher will get only $1 for every $2 increase in price. What's more, the author royalty will be affected by that price increase, even though it has nothing to do with what's between the covers.

    Even further, hardcovers take a lot longer to produce, and require you to inventory a lot more materials than paperback. So there are some hidden costs there as well.

    When you look at all these factors, a price increase of $10 for hardcover over paperback is fairly typical. I'd imagine that you could get by with a $5 spread, but you'd be taking extra risk for benefits that were passed along entirely to the consumer.

  • Oh my god! A school actually teaching Systems and Internet administration? Where do I sign up? What school is this?
  • Well, if you were really looking for a better sysadmin book, you should have gotten the Frisch book...and I'm not just saying that because this is an O'Reilly interview. It's what I tell everyone who asks me.

    The first edition of the Nemeth book was great because it was better than the others that were available at the time. I haven't really looked at my Nemeth book since the first edition of the Frisch book came out. I never bought the second edition (the red one you say you picked up), but I've looked at it in a store.

    I used the second edition of the Frisch book for my Systems Admin class. If I ever had to teach another Systems Admin class (which seems unlikely at this point) I would use it again.

    IMHO, the Nemeth book is written for more cookie-cutter applied practical use and the Frisch book is written for people who actually want to understand how it all works.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Hope this anonymous button works.

    OK, several friends of mine work at O'Reilly, or have worked there, and I have as well for a short time.

    While Tim makes the comment that he's all for SGML and open standards, the fact is that in spite of many protests from people in the company they instead use Framemaker - definitely not an open standard.

    There were also protests about the NT solution for web services.

    And lastly people had to fight tooth and nail to get Linux books published initially. At the time O'Reilly was just beginning to try NT books and there was an attitude against "this Linux thing."

    I've met Tim and he's OK. Like all of us he's a flawed person so I don't want to villify him. But as cute and cuddly as those animals on the covers can be, many of those Linux and Unix books have had to fight hard to get into print. And the systems staff has had to fight hard to keep their Unix servers with little support from Tim. I suppose for me it was disappointing since O'Reilly did and does seem almost like the Holy Grail of the printed Unix world. NT servers and rabid NT people in those hallow halls almost seems like sacrilege.

    I hope Tim does read this - he needs to remember that in a way he runs a temple. And remember Tim, temples generate cash - just ask that crowd in Rome...
  • I should have written 'because it was a better -system administration- book for me'.

    Firstly I generally learn things more quickly through examples, and secondly I didn't buy the book to learn systems administration, but just to polish some rough edges and fill in some blanks that I had.

    Had I been a newbie or a different person, my choice of book could have surely been different
  • While it could be considered off-topic, we have
    been given a 'preview' on who is in the batter's
    circle, since the interviews started not too long

    for example from Alan Cox's answer at the bottom:
    Next week's interview: Tim O'Reilly

    There isn't a 'preview' for next week, nor does it
    say that there won't be one next week.
  • Tim says:

    When you look at all these factors, a price increase of $10 for hardcover over paperback is fairly typical. I'd imagine that you could get by with a $5 spread, but you'd be taking extra risk for benefits that were passed along entirely to the consumer.

    An extra $10 for hardcover certainly seems reasonable when we're talking about a $40 softcover, especially since the online bookstores give a slightly larger discount on the hardcover.

    So how would O'Reilly go about deciding which books (if any) are worth releasing in hardcover? It's not entirely clear to me that you could make a reliable prediction about something like this through a survey. Maybe it would be obvious just by looking at the 5 or 10 best sellers.
  • I would also say that your average book is far too concrete for the computer science classes I have taken. Where I go to school (Ohio State) there are no classes in topics like systems administration and web administration, because you can learn it from a book. They also try not to teach classes in specific things. There are one hour classes in C and Java, but the majority of classes are in theory (language design, parallel computing theory, OS design...) I have yet to find a book from ORA that covers such abstract concepts.

    If you are looking to sell textbooks that tech classes like web programming in Java and systems administration, your books would be excellent, but I don't believe most universities teach these types of classes.

    Note, These beliefs are mine alone. I do not represent OSU. Go Bucks!
  • How about publishing, via subscription, a "Systems Documentation"-style format, like that of the Digital VAXen I recall so fondly? I can find 30' of desk space _somewhere_..


    btw: I'm serious. Nice thing about this is since it's dynamically bound, you can pull out obsolete sections and replace them with updates, or you can insert addenda in the appropriate section..

    Maybe instead of the shelf of docs, have a X-ring binder (like old PC-DOS documentation) per book or subject, where you can similarly update or insert pages (or put in handwritten ones of your own)..

    Of course, the punch-holes would have to be reinforced and the paper may need to be a little heavier-weight, but I think this would rule, particularly for those of us who spend >US$200/yr on ORA books..

    ps: I'm dead serious.
  • I remember reading once that a two hundred years ago, all books were sold in paperback. That way, the new owner could have it custom bound to match the rest of his library. Of course, there were a lot fewer books sold then. And a lot more bookbinders in business.

    So, with all of the paperback computer books being sold, why is there never an online bookbindery around when you need one?
  • My experience with the RepKover binding has been decidedly mixed. My original Programmning Perl book separated from the cover after only three months, though admittedly I used it very often. My Practical C Programming book separated in the same way after a similar length of time. (The pages stay bound, but the cloth attached to the back cover came loose.)

    On the other hand, the new Programming Perl book uses a standard binding, and it has held up for two years under extremely heavy use. The cover is scuffed and folded, and the lamination is peeling at the corners, but the binding is still solid.

    Personally, I'd love to see some of the most frequently used O'Reilly books in hardcover. I know I'd buy Programming Perl in hardcover. I'd also buy Essential System Administration in hardcover. I'm willing to pay about 20% more for hardcover versus softcover-- about $10-15 for most O'Reilly books.)

    Has anyone else had problems with the bindings on heavily used O'Reilly books? Who else is willing to pay for hardcover? What books would you all like to see in hardcover?

  • Yep. It's great to see the CEO of such a big and important company willing to take questions from the community, and to answer them in truly thoughtful and substantive ways--no "no comment" or marketroid doublespeak here. Kudos to O'Reilly!

    Beer recipe: free! #Source
    Cold pints: $2 #Product

  • From what I can gather, the vendor had solutions set up using NT that worked in other settings. Of course, this doesn't make them proven in their setting, but it's understandable that they were willing to give it a try.

    I find it pretty admirable that Tim and the rest of the O`Reilly crew were able to look past politics and attempt to implement what they considered to be the best solution for their needs - whether it was NT, Linux, Sun, whatever. I think it shows a certain maturity to be able to look past a brand name and get to the heart of the matter. (It's also easy to say at this point that it didn't work because it was NT. While it may be the case, and even could be considered a strong possibility, it's also possible that a similar setup on a UNIX could also have failed.)

    Just another reason to be impressed with O`Reilly as a whole....

    "During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I was riding the pogostick."
  • I would love such a beast, and even more, I'd love the ability to 'subscribe' to a particular book. I'm not too terribly interested in the NT series of books for instance, no matter how good they are.

    I currently receive the ora catalogue, but I don't really have time to crosscheck it against my library of 30 or 40 o'reilly titles to check for new versions. Thus I tend to occasionally have some version lag, that I'd LOVE to get rid of.
  • So when is there going to be a contest to win every O'Reilly book ever published?

    It's called "become an author". Part of the contract with ORA when they publish your work is that you get to "Audit" any ORA book, which essentially means you're on the free-book train for quite a while.

    The guy next to me has a library of books... once or twice a week, the UPS package shows up with all the newest and latest. :)

  • One of the questions I have that I didn't see answered is will O'Reilly cover more abstract computing concepts in addition to new technology.

    For example, I am currently struggling with setting up directory services for my division and it is an project that I want to get right the first time. The cost of rollout will be considerable and I want to make sure that when I ask people for the information and to put it into the directory tree, I want it to go right. The current solution we are going with is LDAP, but there are lots of directory services we could go with, but there is a distinct lack of good books out there that cover directory services -- how to plan, how incorporate into existing security, messaging, webservices, etc.

    Are these topics too abstract for ORA to cover? Are they too amorphous? It seems like a good candidate for a "timeless" book because the principles are still the same regardless of technology.

    Anyone care to coment?


    Colin Davis
  • I'd likely buy softcover. By the time a book has worn out, generally there's at least a minor update available, so I'd really rather pay $30 twice than $50 once, just on the offchance that the update is on the one page I need :)
  • It strikes me that documentation will probably never be free in the same way that source code is. You'll probably be able to get basic docs (a la manpages) gratis, but no matter how much RMS says free docs ought to happen, I just don't think they will.

    There's little benefit in releasing docs open source. If I document a program and release the documentation, patches to the docs will enhance them for OTHER readers but not for ME. I already know the program -- that's why I documented it. :-) That's not at all like code -- if I release code and get patches back, my program improves and I probably also learn a thing or three.

    And I definitely lose $$$ by not selling the documentation. Docs are NOT fun to write. It's not like being an artist/programmer. Really good documentation hides the author as much as possible. It's an exercise in negative ego gratification. And to write really good docs, you have to go OVER and OVER and OVER them... very tedious work. To get talented people to do this sort of work, you most often have to pay them. It's not like coding at all -- there's not much of a rush in completing a chapter.

    Altruism does exist, but I don't think it's nearly as powerful as some folks would like to think. Most individuals will behave in a way that they perceive benefits them the most. Some have longer sight than others, of course.... but even the longest view doesn't really reveal THAT MUCH benefit to really good, free documentation *to the writer of the docs*. If someone uses my program, they will tend to want me to maintain and improve it, and chances are pretty good they'll pay me to do it. If someone uses my docs, they're not locked into my way of writing in nearly the same way they are with code. Giving away free code is a bit like Netscape giving away free browsers... it resulted in a great deal of revenue. Giving away free docs is more like, say, a search engine... it can be profitable but doesn't have the loyalty. Switching code bases is painful; switching docs (or search engines) is instant and painless.

    Competing with that is the simple fact that there's a lot of immediate benefit to be gained by selling those same docs instead.

    For these reasons, I simply don't think open docs will ever achieve the same status that open source will. Before very much longer, open source will be the way most development is done. The advantages are enormous. That is not true with docs; the present capitalistic method will likely continue indefinitely.

    Sorry, RMS. People are selfish. :-)

  • By way of personal example, I took an Introductory Programming Class over the summer at the local Tech College, as a means to get my feet wet again. Its been 13+ years since I did any coding, and a lot of brain cells have died since then :0

    Anyways, the class was using C, so I picked up the Cow, and used the end of chapter questions in that book as additional examples for practice. In many cases, the questions were very similar to the ones asked at the end of the chapters, and I was generally impressed by the quality of the book, as well as its readability.

    I'm not sure as to the solution. The lack of solutions to in-book problems may be one.

    On a completely different topic: While I have no problems with the bindings, I've only had the book for about a month, and I'm already experiencing 'roll-back' on the cover, between the plastic film and the cardboard. It isn't that pronounced yet, but once it starts, there's no stopping it. I haven't had this happen to me for quite some time, and it cheese me off to no end, as the cover quickly starts to degrade. 'sides, it just feels kinda freaky.
  • The binding we now use lays flat, just like spiral binding. Try it.

    Incidentally, in our early years, we did use spiral binding, and polls told us that customers overwhelmingly preferred it, because it would lie flat.

    Eventually, though, bookstores persuaded us to use more traditional bindings, and sales jumped more than 10x. So what customers say and what they do don't always match up.

    But we always took this "lay flat" request very seriously, which is why we pay extra for the RepKover binding.

    BTW, someone mentioned that one possible reason that one of the questioners said the bindings broke was that they didn't understand the way repkover looks. Unlike perfect binding, which glues the pages right to the spine, repkover glues the pages to a strip of cloth inside the book, and leaves a space between that and the actual spine.
    Sometimes this makes people think that the spine is broken...but this is actually a feature, the thing that lets the book lie open to a page without the pages flipping over.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Sounds like a shipping error--they happen. Tim probably isn't responsible. Have you called the 800#? I'm sure they'll reship the proper book. 1-800-998-9938. Or email me and I'll ttake care of it--lisam@oreilly.com
  • I'd pay for a hardcover Programming Perl too! Especially the next edition Larry is now working on. Tim...why don't you have your folks set up a webpage linked from perl.oreilly.com, and take advance orders from us Perl lovers for hardcopy on this book?
  • O'Reilly publishes a book called _Learning Perl_ (the llama) by Randal Schwartz and Tom Christiansen, with a foreword by Larry Wall. This book already has questions at the end of each chapter, and the answers and an explanation of those answers at the back of the book.

    I'm going to be using the book to teach a high school class about Perl.
  • Having written quite a few user's guides, I can say that FrameMaker does it's job, although it could be quite better at it.

    I think that, from a business standpoint, you really don't care for being politically correct, but simply using the tools that get the job done.

    The fact that ORA did fall for an NT "solution" however, is somewhat disturbing to me. I guess that everyone just has to make that mistake themselves...

  • It's interesting that no one ever brings up the fact that O'Reilly actually publishes a web server [oreilly.com] that is not open source and only runs on Windows. And from the look of a survey [oreilly.com] they're running right now, they're planning a new version. That's all.
  • See the subject line. Just because it's a proprietary product doesn't mean it uses a proprietary format. Although I doubt at the cost whether many people have used it ...
    Chris Wareham
  • I worked for Yahoo! for a while along with the author of the O'Reilly Regular Expressions book, Jeffrey Friedel. He had just about every O'Reilly book, recieved gratis, thanks to his being one of their authors. So if you want EVERY O'Reilly book, just write one!
    Chris Wareham
  • Having paid my way through much of college driving a Xerox 9200 and 5090 ("DocuTech") at a franchise named for curly hair....

    Most full-service copy shops will have both a mondo electric paper cutter (it will handle several reams of 11x17, your book is no problem) and the equipment and materials to throw on several types of binds -- combs, velo, spiral wire, etc. Cost is a few bucks.

    Though I don't think I'd chop and rebind my books (unless they were falling apart), I have bound some documentation I've printed myself.

  • Hard covers are not meant for anything but theory/text books. I hate having to pay extra for a useless hardcover on a book that should be paperback. I have plenty of 700+ page books that are softcover and survive perfectly well. O'Reilly's cover binding has always served me well (my severely abused Programming Perl, TCP/IP, and Essential System Admin books are excellent testemony of that).
  • by tadghin ( 2229 ) on Friday September 10, 1999 @11:00AM (#1690716) Homepage
    Most of these postings have been thoughtful and interesting. This one seems to carry quite a bit of misinformation. It's the only one I feel I *have* to reply to (rather than wanting to reply to, to give more information.)

    Let me take the points in order:

    SGML vs. Framemaker: O'Reilly was pushing SGML before most of the world ever heard of it. We started the docbook effort in the late 80's, and have worked on it for the past ten years. That being said, we have a business to run, and a lot of the SGML tools just haven't cut it for producing books in a time and cost-effective manner. We found that we were delaying books a month or more to do them first in sgml, and then we had a format that authors couldn't update easily. With Frame, we could get the books out on time, and we could export them into formats that authors could easily update.

    We have continued to push vendors to use SGML, and to develop better tools for SGML (and now xml), and are continually evaluating new ones as they come out. We convert from frame to sgml as needed, but we don't always use sgml as an entry format at this point.

    I believe in using open standards, but even more, I believe in using what works, and in not being religious about that. I believe that over the long run, open is better, by an order of magnitude, but that doesn't mean that you don't need to mix and match. (I would lay odds that not even Red Hat and VA Systems use open source for their accounting systems, for instance.) Valuing openness doesn't mean being doctrinaire.

    As to "despite many protests from people in the company they instead use framemaker", I think that a better description would have been "despite many protests from people in the company, they persisted in trying to do everything in sgml, until finally they compromised, and now use whatever tool is best for the job at hand." The order is completely reversed: we used homegrown sgml tools before we used frame, and we've continued to use and grow them (note the continued work on docbook) so that we can no longer use frame when they surpass it.

    "There were also protests about the NT solution for web services." Damn right there were, and they started with me. But as I noted in my original response, I felt that if the people most closely involved felt they could do better with NT, I owed it to them to let them try. Meanwhile, we've continued to develop PACE (the Perl-based publishing system that we use for Web Review, perl.com, and xml.com) and use that heavily in other parts of the company.

    That's something that people need to understand: how do you get good at doing books that answer real problems if you don't try to solve those problems yourselves? We try everything, and we try to figure out what works, and what doesn't. I wish we did more of that, not less.

    And despite all the NT bashing that goes on in this group, there are advantages as well as disadvantages there. I like people who can understand that. (I was so heartened by seeing Miguel de Icaza, the architect of GNOME, learning everything he could from Dick Hardt (of ActiveState and Win32 Perl fame) about how Microsoft's object models work. You get better by studying everything.

    "People had to fight tooth and nail to get Linux books published initially." What a load of BS! That's not just a misinterpretation, it's downright wrong. We published our first Linux books long before most of the people reading this posting had ever heard of Linux. We didn't do lots of books that said "Linux" on the cover because we already had books that covered the programs but said "UNIX" and we didn't see the need to re-issue them with the only addition being a new marketing spin.

    There is one thing that *is* true, and it's something I still don't understand. Despite all the attention paid to Linux, Linux books haven't sold all that well up to now, at least relative to its market share. (Maybe it's all the good free online documentation.) Computer book retailers like SoftPro in Burlington MA make the same observation. We've emphasized open source technologies like Perl because people seem to buy more books, and that seemed to indicate a greater hunger for information! But this hasn't stopped us from doing any Linux books. (Actually, there's one we missed, due to a miscommunication with the editor, which was Troan's Linux Programming book.)

    "rabid NT people in those hallowed halls seems like sacrilege." Get over it. One of the things I like to look for is passion and intelligence. I'll take a rabid NT hacker who knows his stuff over a second rate Linux hacker any day. The reason Linux is better than NT is because there are more great and rabid Linux people who like to share what they know than there are great and rabid NT people who can do the same. The culture of Linux is a culture of sharing, which makes it a more fun market to publish for, but at the end of the day, I want to help everyone make more out of their life with computers. And I find cool stuff everywhere. Linux, Perl, Web, PalmPilot, BeOS, Mac, you name it.

    As Lao Tzu said:

    "I find good people good, and I find bad people good, if I am good enough."

    Find the good in whatever technology you need to use; cast out the bad, or try to improve it. But don't cast it out without looking at it. That's my guiding principle.
  • Oh come on, ORA makes a living printing and selling books. Can't you figure out that? They make a living selling info.

    The internet will become the playtoy of those who stand to make a profit off of it. Ebooks included.
  • A lot of mine have this problem from the constant pulling down and replacing on my bookshelf. The plastic part of the corners peel up and look tacky, more than anything else. ;-)
  • Those clases may have been in the bussness school of the univercity.
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • I was an MIS major for a year.. took a class on MS Access. The book they gave us had an entire page devoted to how to use a mouse. Showed proper hand position, "index finger over the left mouse button". And then there was the time they said that windows was a "gooey".

    Both clips are of course up outside my door at work.. Gosh what a fun class :-)
  • I still have the first edition of Learning Perl (got it from a friend. Been very useful, as Perl is my first language). Anyway, it's been around a while, and I see no evidence of binding cracking. I use this very heavily, and it has been thrown across rooms, thrown in a backpack that goes everywhere, and been loaned to several friends.

  • Come on, ORA is a business. In order to remain in business they need to sell things and MAKE A PROFIT. This is a quite fundamental concept. They have rent to pay (among other expenses) and each employee needs to get paid to support their families (pay their rent, buy food, etc.) This is reality!

    Maybe you've been watching too much Star Trek, where everything you need can be replicated at a moments notice without apparent cost!

    Information may or may not be a tangible good (depending on your interpretation), but those who
    collect and disseminate this information in a usable format need to be paid, or else they won't, and can't, do it.

    ORA certainly places no restriction on your (or anyone else's) use and/or dissemination of the information contained in their books. They only limit you from merely making a photo-copy of their hard work and selling or giving it away. The information is still free, but you must expend some effort to make it available to others. Or, you could just loan them your copy of the book and they too can benifit from the information stored within. You cannot believe that publishing and distributing a book costs nothing. It costs real money, as does the creation and distribution of all physical objects. It costs real money to have someone available to take an order and package and ship that order to you.

    Now that I've written all this, I really wonder if you are serious.


    Derry Bryson
  • While I might not (okay, probably never) purchase a hard bound copy of a book (unless forced), I might just purchase a leather bound version of a book I deem a classic or otherwise indespensible (sp?) book.
  • Just wanted to say thanks to Tim for the interview. It's always interesting to get glimpse into the thinking of someone running a company that is "doing things right".

    I have always respected ORA and have never purchased a book that I was disappointed with. With other publishers, I usually need to actually see (and feel) the book before I know I want to buy it, but ORA always provides a useful book. This means I can just go to their website (or Amazon's for the discount) and purchase a book on the desired topic without wondering if I am wasting my money.

    Another thing about ORA I appreciate is that the cost of their books has remained reasonable, despite what the rest of industry may be doing.

    Derry Bryson
  • Not to speak for O'Reilly, but this is something I've talked with them about many times over the last few years, including quite recently. I don't think anyone there doubts that it would be a wonderful thing; the problem is that it is a much larger undertaking that it seems at first glance. There aren't good tools for organizing the information in the first place; on the search side, what you're describing requires the search engine to use each page as a retrieval unit, which search engines haven't been designed to do. It clearly *can* be done with current technology, but there's a tremendous amount of manipulation of the data to make it work. I was in product management and evangelism at Verity (the biggest search engine software developer) until last year and now I'm doing an information-retrieval startup where Tim O. is on the board, so I've been living and breathing these kinds of issues. Nick
  • Uhm, I don't know, my original posting must have sounded terribly aggressive. I didn't mean to be aggressive, it was an honest question and I'm satisfied by Robin's answer. My understanding was that *every* question that was scored 5 would be included in the questions asked. Obviously, I was wrong.
    I mean, I didn't post anything like "UH MAN! ROB SUXXX! HE DIDN'T POST MY QUESTIONS! DIE IN HELL ASSHOLE!", so I don't really understand why my post was marked as "Troll". Maybe "redundant", but "Troll"? Well, I hope M2-Moderators take care of this.
  • Sounds like you are thinking that a feature is a bug. The cover glued along the sides of the spine is the famous "lay flat" binding I've been talking about. That's how it works.

    The reason Programming Perl doesn't have it is that the book is too thick. You can only use RepKover up to a given spine width (and I forget the exact dimension.) Fortunately, the thicker books lie open pretty well anyway, except at the very front and very back.

    Regarding the fact that you sometimes get a book that's not the latest printing...that's part of the inefficiency of the book inventory and distribution process. It's very hard to tell who has what printing, and very expensive to recall books every time you fix a few typos. Most publishers don't roll in any changes between major editions. At O'Reilly, we fix errata every time we reprint, which means that there is some version skew, but at least you have a good chance of getting one of the most recent printings.

  • Well, Alex, I don't have any investors to please, since I started the company on a shoestring and built it up over the years by providing a service that people valued enough to pay for. But I do have a business to run, and I can tell you that if we had profit margins any leaner, we wouldn't be able to do some of the books we do. What's more, if our objective was to "maximize" profits, there are a lot of things we could do.

    There's an analogy I like to use, to help anyone who has never run a business to understand the kinds of things you have to take care of: if you're going on a long trip, you need to watch the gas gauge, and you need to make sure that you fill up before you head out across Death Valley. This doesn't mean that you're going on a tour of gas stations (which is the mistake that a lot of businesses make, as they think only of profit, and not of providing a real service), but neither does it mean that you're some kind of capitalist pig for making sure that the car doesn't run out of gas.

  • I "*have* to" comment on Tim O'Reilly's postings and about the O'Reilly & Associates image and PR spin.

    I know some folks who work and have worked at ORA (what they call O'Reilly & Associates,) and I've heard stories and seen email that paint a very different picture of Tim and the company than
    the O'Reilly PR spin. Here's are just a few of the interesting things I've heard. I hope Tim responds to this and sets me straight if he thinks I'm mistaken, and that employees read what he writes and sets him straight if his head is in the sand and/or full of BS.

    What I find most interesting is that (reportedly) a lot of people can't figure out whether Tim doesn't care about many things that go on in his company, or if he's out of touch and not aware.

    I've heard horror stories about employees going home crying because of how they were treated, and others because of stresses in their job. I've heard stories of high level managers who don't know what they're doing, and of false documenting of employee "problems."

    O'Reilly's software division has never turned a profit. Their computer books (and now conferences) are the only divisions of the company that turn a profit. The company is becoming more and more cold and cut-throat, and increasingly profit oriented. Tim talks about "building community" in the Open Source world, especially Perl and Linux communities, but the O'Reilly culture, community, and morale are going to hell.

    Just two or three years ago, Tim was telling employees that "UNIX is dying," so ORA began focusing a lot of energy on its Windows books, and let UNIX books get even more outdated. When a new edition of an old UNIX book was done and it sold much better than expected, Tim began to realize there was more life in UNIX than he thought.

    Several years ago, Tim sold the Global Network Navigator to America Online for $10 million, not having the foresight and business sense to spin it off, get investors, and make it a Yahoo or Excite.

    When Linux started really taking off in the last couple of years, ORA realized they had miscalculated the potential (including profit potential,) of Linux and were missing the boat. Then an effort began to position ORA as the company that's been behind Linux from the beginning (even though other publishers had been publishing new Linux books, and O'Reilly wasn't even updating its old books.)

    Increased energy in Perl, Linux, and the Open Source revolution has coincided with O'Reilly's discovery that there's a lot of money in conferences, and in increased book sales through building an image of being part (or even a leader) of the Open Source community.

    Here's a message from Tim O'Reilly to some of his employees. It was forwarded on to me, and I thought it was so bizarre, funny, and sad, I kept it. Just the first four lines are Tim's, but I think the whole email is important to put Tim's words in the appropriate context:

    TIM> This is pretty offbeat, but there might
    TIM> be some way to leverage the "internet
    TIM> mindshare grab" evidenced here with the
    TIM> upcoming elections.
    >>Subject: News flash: Gore created the Internet
    >>Someone passed the following transcript on to >>me. I've heard of spin, but this
    >>is over the top. Any idea what he's talking >>about?
    >>CNN Transcripts
    >>BLITZER: I want to get to some of those >>substantive domestic and
    >>international questions in a bit, but let's >>just wrap up a bit of the
    >>politics right now.
    >>Why should Democrats, looks at the Democratic >>nomination, the process,
    >>support you instead of Bill Bradley -- a friend >>of yours, a former =
    >>in the Senate -- what do you have to bring to >>this that he doesn't
    >>necessarily bring to this process?=20
    >>GORE: Well, I will -- I'll be offering my >>vision when my campaign begins,
    >>and it'll be comprehensive and sweeping, and I >>hope that it'll be =
    >>enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it >>will be. But it will =
    >>from my dialogue with the American people. I've >>traveled to every part of
    >>this country during the last six years. During >>my service in the United
    >>States Congress, I took the initiative in >>creating the Internet. I took =
    >>initiative in moving forward a whole range of >>initiatives that have proven
    >>to be important to our country's economic >>growth, environmental protection,=
    >>improvements in our educational system....
    > Tim O'Reilly @ O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
    > 101 Morris Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472
    > 707-829-0515 ext 266, Fax 707-829-0104,
    > tim@ora.com
    > http://www.oreilly.com
    > http://software.oreilly.com
    > http://www.songline.com

    I wonder about the possible similarities between Tim O'Reilly and Al Gore.

    Harry Dowd
  • Dover makes my favorite softcover bindings. Their books use sewn signatures and acid-free paper and still cost less than anything else on the shelf. They last forever. Okay, Dover must be a charitable organization supported by a shy philanthropist. But I do wonder why more publishers aren't tempted to make their works equally immortal.
  • It's ok to run Microsoft out of buisiness, but not O'reilly. WHY?

    Anyone who thinks the Open Source movement is going to run Our Favourite Software House out of business this side of Armageddon (oh, whoops, that was last month wasn't it?) is deluded. It has a part to play in software development, and is big enough to look after itself in the unlikely event of demand for Windows, Office and other software disappearing overnight - by which time the company would have sensed the change in fortunes and moved on to something else anyway.

    And for all people may hate the company, this is a Good Thing, for the simple reason of competition. OFSH cannot use any corporate tactics to buy out or crush the Open Source community, because there is nothing tangible to attack. And marketing/PR tactics can only do so much - and isn't going to do _all_ that well in the face of companies who know they've been running servers on free software quite happily for years. So OFSH is forced to compete with an ephemeral, undefeatable rival.

    So, OFSH will bust its guts to make sure that the next Windows release can outperform Linux. The Open Source developers will respond in kind. And so on, ad infinitum. Net result: accelerated growth and innovation. Not only does the Open Source community come out with a better operating system to keep up with what the latest non-free OS has to offer, but OFSH will *shock, horror!* come out with an OS which doesn't suck.

    In the end, everybody wins. We get a better OS, they get a better OS - and ours is still free.

    Linus and Richard Stallman (and ...) don't pay rent or buy food, etc.? Writing software isn't that much different than writing information in terms of workload: You sit in front of the computer and type.

    Linus has a day job, I believe. I can't remember what RMS does. Talks at people, probably. Either way, they're now noted enough not to starve.


    Information is power, and power always comes at a price. And beer's one-eighty a pint around here. ;)


    I write articles and put them on the Internet for free because I believe that they might somehow help somebody, and because writing about a subject helps me understand it better.
    I can't thank the LDP people enough for what they have given the world.

    Good for you! However, I think there are a few points to note here.

    Firstly it is up to the author how to make his work available. Just as when writing code you may licence it under any terms you wish, unless it is a derivation of someone else's work.

    Secondly, I think the work involved in documentation is
    (a) considerably less collaborative in terms of shared volume of input (there aren't all that many books with more than two or three authors);
    (b) considerably less fun.
    Thus, there has to be another incentive, and while altruism is all very well, it's in short supply.

    Thirdly, as a customer I have the right to purchase non-free documentation if I so choose. This does not make the producer of said documentation evil. They are merely a company supplying a product in demand. There is, as you noted, a free alternative. Man pages, HOWTOs, FAQs, page upon page of HTML documentation scattered around a thousand websites - It's your call. Personally, I prefer to part with my forty quid and do it the easy way. =)

    I don't care about the book, but we are arguing about the information.
    You know.. the http and ftp protocol.

    Erm, have you heard of RFCs [ic.ac.uk]?

    The authors can easily put their documents online, and tell the publishers to print and distribute it!

    True, but that's up to the author. They may choose not to, because (as previously stated) the basic information contained in the books is already available. What you're paying for is the author to make it easier for you to understand. Same way as you pay for a training course, in fact, only one Hell of a lot cheaper. :)

    This isn't the post you're looking for. Move along.
  • You're all way wrong, I was attending a *liberal arts college* (!) at the time. See http://www.hiram.edu for more info on Hiram College, in Hiram OH USA if you're interested...
  • I totally agree with one sentiment of this post, and that is that some of us who aren't part of a formal education system would appreciate Q+A sections at the end of chapters in ORA books. I consider myself an independant student and I use ORA books 99% of the time as my "textbooks". In my opinion ORA books are the only books where I feel like I really get a full return on my investment. I have regretted many book purchases, but never one from ORA. In the past I have found myself creating my own little assignments to practice material covered in a given chapter, but it would be nice to have someone who knows what I really need to be practicing to give me some challenges, and I trust ORA authors with that job.
    On another note, I see where people are coming from looking for online versions of the books (searchability would be great). However I feel justified in haveing to pay for and ORA book if that is neccesary to keep the quality of the books where it is. How about an electronic version released with each book? Or how about selling an electronic version for less since the cost of production is lower?

"And remember: Evil will always prevail, because Good is dumb." -- Spaceballs