TL;DR Subscription-based distribution models tend to get more & more popular, but not for books, at least not yet. Many have an ambition of becoming "the Netflix of books" (see recent O'Reilly's announcement), but frankly - I don't like the idea. Specifics of books (especially educational ones), their "consumption model", our expectations towards them - all these details indicate that new, revamped model (to fix regularly declining sales) maybe should be based on something else, e.g. crowdfunding & self-publishing ...

I believe you may have heard the recent news about O'Reilly stopping selling their own books / videos on their site. There has also been another post that sheds some more light on the topic - recommended read if you care about the background & context.

This blog post is not about O'Reilly, their decision or the fact that they are going for a hard bet on their on-line, subscription-based platform (Safari). Personally I don't like their direction, but I understand the (economic) reasoning behind it. I just think it says a lot about where current technical book publishing market is going & these perspectives raise some concerns ...

Netflix or Kickstarter?

I may be oversimplifying it a bit, but basically, I see the market polarising strongly into two, fundamentally different "strategies":

  1. one that strictly follows the other markets' (Pluralsight, Egghead, Netflix) super-successful subscription-based model (Mapt, Safari)
  2. one based on crowdfunding, self-publishing, early feedback & minimised friction while releasing a product (LeanPub, Gumroad)

First one is relying on:

  • large base of content - even at the expense of quality
  • fast time-to-market - first books appear at the head of the hype wave
  • ease of consumption - approachability, content specialization, recipe-like composition
  • reducing operating risk by providing a sustained income from increasingly loyal clients (the more you've read, the more you've paid, the harder it is to leave)

While the second is more about:

  • early validation of interested consumer base
  • reducing the risk per single particular endeavour (book)
  • frequent updates (to keep the product's value high)
  • making the reader pay only for what he really cares (is interested in)

Personally I keep using plenty of services from the 1st category, I've even written about their benefits already, but as we're speaking about books (& in particular - technical books), my preference is definitely on the latter group.

Why so?

Books (especially technical ones) are different to music, video games, TV series or even educational MOOCs - they have (/ require) a different (sometimes variable) pace of consumption, can be much more demanding in terms of pre-requisites, usually you read them to target a particular need for specific knowledge (not to pass the time in somehow enjoyable way).

These specifics do NOT contradict with the idea of subscription-based access, but in all cases I've seen, adjusting tech book businesses to Netflix-style model led to massive quality drop ... I couldn't get rid of an impression that the only thing that mattered was quantity & having a wide (even if shallow ...) tech coverage.

It's not just a prejudice - I regularly receive e-mails & other nags (from "author head-hunters") asking me whether I'm interested in writing a particular book - both topic & title are already in the initial contact. Effects of such methods for "author recruitment" are clearly visible: product quality in both companies that have approached me that way has DRAMATICALLY decreased within last 2-3 years. They produce sheer rubbish that looks like clumsy copying from other people's blogs (w/o full understanding).

Lean, self-publishing model seems (in comparison) much more healthy & quality-oriented:

  1. as author is selling just this one product, (s)he must give good reasons (/ credentials / idea(s)) for consumers to pay for it -> this incentivizes quality (& proper market research ...) over quantity
  2. consumer pays for what (s)he really needs / looks for (or at least thinks so ...) - one will think twice if asked to pay for something that can be easily found on the web for free

The end of books we knew?

Well, maybe it just means that times of tech books are over? What if what people need is short, straightforward answers to practical, specific questions? Fortunately, even if there's definitely some need for such a "stack-overflow-ication" of tech books, there's also still a significant demand for thoughtful, deep dive, professional technical literature that truly benefits from advantages only the form of book can provide:

  • gradual, sequential building up the complex knowledge that requires intellectual effort & in-depth understanding
  • unmatched ease of navigation back & forth with continuous control of learning tempo
  • "searchability", "indexability", annotations :)

I believe that a really good book will stand up for itself - let it be this post's conclusion.

Pic: © Sergey Nivens - Fotolia.com