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?”