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A Year in O'Reilly Books (2007)

I was looking the other day at our internal sales reports, and thought I’d offer a few random reflections based on our changing mix of bestsellers. This is anecdotal data, and for O’Reilly books only, not to be confused with my State of the Computer Book Market posts. (Mike Hendrickson and I are working on one of those as well.) Nor is this a complete list of our bestsellers. It’s a list of books that say something to me about the changing mix of needs and interests among our customers.

Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Leopard Edition. Published just before the holidays, this book sold out of its 50,000 copy first printing in a matter of days. It’s topped the Bookscan bestseller lists (which are based on point-of-sale reports from more than 60% of US bookstores) since it appeared. This is not news, as every new edition of this book has managed the same feat. But what really struck me this time was how much distance it put between itself and the top book on Windows (Windows Vista for Dummies.)

Shortly after Vista for Dummies was released, it hit a peak of about 1250 copies a week. By contrast, Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Leopard Edition, hit a peak of almost 4500 copies a week. To be sure, the Leopard peak was right before Christmas, while the Vista initial sales peak was back in March, so there’s some inflation of the Mac OS X numbers by holiday buying. But it still says something about how much the market has changed. In the fourth quarter of 2007, the total size of the market for books on Mac operating systems was about 60% the size of the market for books on Windows! What’s more, Switching to the Mac, Tiger Edition saw its sales increase steadily all year, which is very unusual for a two year old book.

iPhone: The Missing Manual. Ok. Duh. But it’s worth noting that this is the first time a book on a phone has been a top computer book bestseller. The only other handheld computer of any kind to generate bestselling books was the original PalmPilot. I’ve written previously about why the iPhone is not just a breakthrough phone but a breakthrough computing device, to previous phones as Excel was to Lotus 1-2-3. We really are on the edge of a new ambient computing paradigm that will end the personal computer era even more convincingly than the internet itself did.

Essential Actionscript 3.0 and Programming Flex 2. A lot of people have missed just how much Flash is on a roll. Ajax books have slowed down considerably, while books on Macromedia’s Adobe’s web technologies are really moving. (Adobe’s domination of the photo market needs no special callout. Photoshop Elements 5: The Missing Manual and Photoshop Elements 6: The Missing Manual were both among our top sellers for the year, along with Photoshop CS3 One on One.)

Javascript book coverI noted that the AJAX meme seems to be waning, but that doesn’t mean that the underlying technologies of AJAX are suffering. Javascript: The Definitive Guide continues to be one of our all time bestsellers. While a host of languages battle it out on the server side, Javascript (and its cousin Actionscript) dominate client side programming.

For what it’s worth, I continue to be bemused by the failure of the open source community to embrace Javascript as one of its greatest successes. You rarely hear it mentioned in the same breath as other iconic open source projects.

Restful Web Services book cover I remember back when SOAP, UDDI and all the rest of the corporate web services stack was introduced, many people in the open source community saw it as an attempt to recapture the web, making it complex enough to be an enterprise software play. But those complex stacks never caught on. Adam Trachtenberg’s cover quote says it all: “RESTful Web Services … provides a practical roadmap for constructing services that embrace the Web, instead of trying to route around it.”

A recent Evans Data study found that 75% of developers are self-taught or learned on the job. As the industry matures, developers are looking to increase their insight and their skills, not just pick up the latest technology. Beautiful Code, a collection of essays by master programmers about how they solved particularly hard problems, must have hit a nerve. It was our #9 bestselling title for the year, and the number one software engineering title industry-wide according to our analysis of Bookscan figures.

I’ve argued for years that the secret sauce of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, one way or the other. Algorithmic interpretation of aggregated human interaction is one key technique. The various algorithms involved overlap heavily with the field of machine learning, but we preferred to title our book on the subject Programming Collective Intelligence. It was one of our sleeper titles for the year. Brick and mortar stores still don’t know what to do with it because, like many breakthrough titles, it is the start of a new category rather than one more entry into an existing one.

Head First C# cover I was probably most surprised when I saw Programming WCF Services on our list of top performing books for the year. If you’re steeped in open source, you might never have heard of Windows Communications Foundation, Microsoft’s approach to building SOA applications on Windows. And you might not care. But you’d be making a mistake. Don’t count Microsoft out of the Web services game yet! They still have a brilliant, passionate developer community, and as a company have tremendous resources, persistence, and talent. And now that they have real competition, I expect them to reinvent themselves. (For that matter, Head First C# was the top selling programming language title in Bookscan last week, except for Javascript: The Definitive Guide. And C# continues to gain significantly on Java in terms of book sales.)

Steve Talbott’s Devices of the Soul wasn’t one of our bestsellers last year, but I believe it was one of our most important and thought-provoking books. (It was also one of Amazon’s top picks for the year, along with Beautiful Code.) Like its 1995 predecessor, The Future Does Not Compute, it is a contrarian book, which challenges our assumptions about the technological future, and urges us to value what distinguishes us from our machines.

I wrote recently in a different context that “Figuring out the right balance of man and machine is one of the great challenges of our time. We’re increasingly building complex systems that involve both, but in what proportion?” Steve has a unique take on this problem, far from the cutting edge of Web 2.0. He argues that in adapting ourselves to computers, we may be ignoring essential parts of ourselves that don’t fit the computational paradigm.

As a former classicist, I can’t help loving Steve’s opening trope, which tells the story of Odysseus’ deceit of the Cyclops in his cave. He then takes the very term “technology” back to its Greek roots, with a meditation on the double meaning of the terms “techne” and “mechane”:

I’d like you to think for a moment of the various words we use to designate technological products. You will notice that a number of these words have a curious double aspect: they, or their cognate forms, can refer either to external objects we make, or to certain inner activities of the maker. A “device,” for example, can be an objective, invented thing, but it can also be some sort of scheming or contriving of the mind, as when a defendant uses every device he can think of to escape the charges against him. The word “contrivance” shows the same two-sidedness, embracing both mechanical appliances and the carefully devised plans and schemes we concoct in thought. As for “mechanisms” and “machines,” we produce them as visible objects out there in the world even as we conceal our own machinations within ourselves. Likewise, an “artifice” is a manufactured device, or else it is trickery, ingenuity, or inventiveness. “Craft” can refer to manual dexterity in making things and to a ship or aircraft, but a “crafty” person is adept at deceiving others.

This odd association between technology and deceit occurs not only in our own language, but even more so in Homer’s Greek, where it is much harder to separate the inner and outer meanings, and the deceit often reads like an admired virtue. The Greek techne, from which our own word “technology” derives, meant “craft, skill, cunning, art, or device”—all referring without discrimination to what we would call either an objective construction or a subjective capacity or maneuver.

If there’s one book on this list that you read that you would have otherwise have missed, make it this one. Or you can follow Steve’s meditations on man and machine on his netfuture mailing list. But I digress.

What’s notably missing from the bestseller lists: books on programming languages (besides Javascript). The top programming language books in last week’s bookscan report were Learning Python, followed closely by the just-released Head First C#. Books on Java, Perl, PHP, and yes, even Ruby, are well down the list. Books on Linux, MySQL, and security ditto. In the professional computer area, networking, software engineering, and database books that weren’t specific to any particular database product were the overall winners. (More on that when Mike and I get to “The State of the Computer Book Market.”) It seems to me that increasingly, professionals are going online to find many types of content that they used to find in books.

Tell me: what books made you pay attention in 2007? You may not have access to sales figures, but you know what matters to you. What books did you find most useful? (Not just ours, but from any competitor.) For that matter, what online resources did you find useful instead of books? What woke you up, and made you think “wow, it’s a whole new world?”

tags:
  • In terms of resources – the new online University lectures from Top Schools that are being shared.

    Also BigThink,which is a YouTube for erudite intellectuals in the sciences.

    Basically, knowledge seekers have less dependancy on a physical book than in any time in history. One can instantly access updated the info over the Web and print specific contents or compile different sections into Word and make a customized book

    Also the ability to access critiques of any info being read, if one wants to have some measure of the accuracy or analyze different perspectives.

    With books, one was totally at the mercy of the Author and Publisher.

    It will be interesting to see the evolution of ‘books’ in the next few decades. Not only the technology of what will be called a BOOK – but how much instant ‘sharing’ and user customization will be incorporated in the technology.

  • Tim,

    O’Reilly obviously is the leader in providing books on the cutting edge of technology – but the fact remains, there are 200 billion lines of Cobol running many of the applications that we depend on every day. 401K management, pay check processing, banking and tax return processing to name just a few.

    How about a book about Applications Modernization that bridges the gap between the old and the new. Many CIO’s and corporate IT departments are struggling with this issue right now.

    Check your in-box for book queries for more details 🙂

    Vic

    btw – I purchased my copy of HeadFirst C# as soon as it came out.

  • We really are on the edge of a new ambient computing paradigm that will end the personal computer era

    I believe you have that backwards. “Ambient computing” (a rough category, but ok) will change the form factor of PCs, but it will also make PCs much more valuable.

    Pesky speed of light, surveillance garbage, etc. all reinforce, not diminish, proper end nodes.

    -t

    -t

  • ms

    I’m kind of curious about re-releases of Flash Hacks, PDF Hacks and any updated Python Books.

  • I’ve not had to purchase books, because I picked up a Safari subscription. Boy, do I heart Safari.

    However, Safari has its limitations – there are some great books from Apress and even Wiley that don’t make it online to Safari. Maybe some kind of partnerships? I already buy the most expensive Safari subscription available…

    From Wiley: Beginning Lua Programming. From Apress, there’s a MythTV book that was excellent, and a few others on databases that I’ve found useful.

    Here’s hoping to 2008 and Safari having even more online books.

  • Colin —

    We’ve just recently persuaded Wiley to add some of their books, and are hoping to convince them to add more. We’ve reached out to APress, but they are unwilling to participate.

  • I¬¥m impressed how many books you released that are pretty much, have you such a great “army of writers”? some of the books i know but many not – so i think i have now much stuff to read.

  • I purchased RESTful web services and am thinking about using it for a class I teach. The key value in a book is that it takes a theme and develops it extensively. That’s not available on the web. The web is like a toolmaker’s flea market, good for variety and current events, but it does not provide a conceptual guide.

    I can understand why people purchase Python books. That’s a tool that reaches its highest value when approached correctly. Plus, there are some geniuses in that community that are really moving things forward. For instance, Sam Ruby, a co-author on the RESTful web services book, is a mover in the Python community.

  • Tim Connors

    so i read Radar on my Kindle yesterday and found two books i wanted from this list. but when i clicked on the links it didn’t take me to the Kindle Store for a single click buy. In fact i don’t see any of the O’Reilly books on Amazon. Tim O: are the Amazon Kindle economics just not compelling as a mechanism for impulse buys?

  • Tim —

    Since supporting multiple formats adds cost and complexity, and it seemed to us that the only reason Amazon chose to go with a proprietary format was to lock consumers in, we decided to take a principled stand and see if Amazon comes around to support standard formats, or whether the Kindle succeeds enough to become a de-facto standard.

    For what it’s worth, we first made this decision back in the late 80’s, when vendor after vendor was asking us to put our books into their proprietary ebook formats for Unix workstations. Instead, we focused on creating a common format (Docbook SGML, now XML) that everyone could read, and a free browser (Pei Wei’s viola, the first graphical web browser, before even Mosaic.)

    I know Mobi is a superset of ePub. We’d love to see full ePub support, so we can create one format that will work across a lot of devices (and there will be many.)

    We’d rather not see ebooks turn into a winner takes all marketplace. Imagine print book publishing where Barnes & Noble required one size and shape of book, Borders required another, and Amazon asked for yet another. Producing digital copies is easier than physical ones, but still, every format conversion introduces complexity and the possibility of errors. This is not like putting a song on CD or tape or MP3, because the coding that produces the format is an extra layer of metadata. It’s not intrinsic to the first digital copy such that it carries over seamlessly to any other.

  • Antonio Ognio

    When is an Erlang book coming from O’Reilly? That would be interesting..

  • Mark Haliday

    I’ll second the Erlang book request. Yes, I’m aware the Prags have an Erlang book out, but how about a HeadFirst Erlang, or Erlang Cookbook?

    – Mark

  • Alex Tolley

    I’ll 3rd Antonio & Mark on Erlang. I have the Pragmatics book, but what I now need is books that go into more detail about how to use Erlang in a distributed system. More practical examples (Cookbook?).

    I also think there is a need for a book that really shows what the limits are for functional programming and design patterns on how to rework sequential code that most of know into functional ones.

  • Hi, Tim

    I am a developer from India and I really love O’Reilly books. I order most of these from Amazon, which cost me at-least cost more in shipping, 30-40 USD.

    O’Reilly books take longer to be available in India, probably months. Some of the books are never available. I am sure, if you can look at this area, sales might go more and it would help thousands of readers/engineers here.

    As you know, India, no doubt, is hub of lots of software engineers and IT companies… Everyone complains about this…

    I hope, this would get better.

    Thanks

  • Some nice books on that list – I’m making my way through ‘Beautiful Code’ which I’m finding thought provoking and really nice to read on the whole.

    I thought the O’Reilly book “High Performance Web Sites” by Steve Souders was outstanding – it has really helped with my work.

    The approach of the book is excellent – a chapter for each performance tip. There isn’t a word wasted in the book and that helps make it slim. I wish more books were written that way.

    In addition to the 14 tips – just learning more about Steve’s thinking and analysis is really neat.

  • > Tell me: what books made you pay attention in 2007?

    I’m a Flex Developer, and ActionScript 3.0 Design Patterns did it for me in 2007, great book! Right up there along with Head First Design Patterns.

  • Tim Connors

    ok so i sent the request for openness on to amazon. in the meantime, perhaps a hacker out there wants to get creative:
    – amazon for 10 cents lets me receive pdfs on my kindle via a special email address. let’s leverage that low cost distribution with single click sends to the device from the oreilly site.
    – have the oreilly links in the kindle version of radar blog detect if i’m coming from the kindle and redirect to kindle.oreilly.com
    – there let me put in my amazon credentials once, and you autobill me for the oreilly monthly subscription, and set oreilly as a trusted emailer for my kindle.
    – someone else writes a sweet iphone interface version of the the kindle UI.
    – let the directory be open-so other publishers and self-publishers can add epub-compliant content to the directory
    – once 1M people are using this oreilly destination, now publishers and device guys will want to play….and oreilly owns the largest ebook directory, and the largest ebook reading audience built on an open format, The Green amazon. itunes for books. etc.

  • bowerbird

    > supporting multiple formats
    > adds cost and complexity

    not if your underlying master format is supple…

    -bowerbird

  • bowerbird —

    We’ve been doing this at scale for years, and all I can say is to repeat the old usenet sig quote:

    “The difference between theory and practice is always greater in practice than it is in theory.”

    When you have experience converting hundreds or thousands of documents with inconsistent formatting introduced by independent authors (even trying to follow a common spec), and you still find it easy to do, let me know.

    99.9% accurate conversion still means problems that require manual intervention.

  • Zeev B

    “…The top programming language books in last week’s bookscan report were Learning Python, followed closely by the just-released Head First C#. Books on Java, Perl, PHP, and yes, even Ruby, are well down the list….”.
    The Python book popularity coincides the following findings : The TIOBE Programming Community Index Declares Python the Programming Language of 2007″
    at http://developers.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/01/09/1819221

  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > When you have experience converting
    > hundreds or thousands of documents with
    > inconsistent formatting introduced by
    > independent authors (even trying to follow
    > a common spec), and you still find it
    > easy to do, let me know.

    why is it so hard for your independent authors
    — surely the most sophisticated in all of tech,
    aren’t they? — to follow your “common spec”?

    and why have you allowed your spec and your
    workflow to _permit_ “inconsistent formatting”?

    these aren’t rhetorical questions; i wanna know.

    i mean, on the one hand, you’ve told us that
    you built a system to make conversions easy;
    yet, on the other hand, you’ve told us that you
    cannot cheaply do the conversions for kindle.

    so it seems to me your system doesn’t work…

    or — as i put it a bit more delicately before —
    it’s not supple enough. hard to argue with that.

    still, your business advises _other_ publishers
    how they should be proceeding in this regard…

    i don’t mean to be “rude”, but, you know,
    it just appears to me that this is _ironic_…

    i would think that _your_ company, of them all,
    would be able to make your books do backflips,
    and not be hamstrung by a measly conversion.

    however, certainly with my vast “inexperience”,
    perhaps there is something that i’m missing…

    so tell me, tim, what is it? :+)

    -bowerbird

  • “Programming Collective Intelligence” sounds like the author perceived that a fusion of Web 2.0 and algorithmic programming was inevitable. I look forward to reading this book. Thanks for mentioning it in this post…

  • Antonio Ognio

    News on an Erlang book from O’Reilly in the works anyone?

  • Mike Loukides

    Antonio–

    We’re working on it. Stay tuned.