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A Q&A on O'Reilly’s "Up-to-Date" Publishing Experiment

There’s a common conundrum in the computer book world: software companies often release updates on a monthly or weekly basis, yet many programmers rely on printed references that can take months to write and produce. There are online options, but we also know that many readers still want something printed.

To try and tackle the problem, O’Reilly has launched a new experiment with the just-released Essential Silverlight 2Up-to-Date” edition (Silverlight is a new technology platform from Microsoft). Readers get a book that’s current when they purchase it, but also get access to updates that can be physically inserted into the book.

I recently spoke with four members of the Essential Silverlight 2 project team to get their take on the development of this book as well as their view on the broader “updateable” concept.

Essential Silverlight 2 Up-to-Date editionQ: How is Essential Silverlight 2 different from traditional books?

Laurel R.T. Ruma, co-editor: The book is in a durable plastic binder that has three hole punches with metal pins. The binder can hold 425 pages, so there’s room to grow.

Q: How does the update process work?

Ruma: You buy the book through a bookstore or online and then you register it through O’Reilly. When Microsoft releases a new beta, Christian [Wenz, the author] starts writing. Around 6 to 8 weeks later, a PDF of the update will be posted online and you’ll be notified because you’re registered. You can download the PDF for free and print and trim it yourself, or you can purchase printed and punched copies for an additional cost.

Q: When will the first update be available?

Ruma: Updates will be available online April 21 and in print the first week of May.

Q: What were the challenges in developing this book?

John Osborn, co-editor: There are unique challenges because it’s a retail product — security, display, etc. We needed to work with the binder vendor to create a security seal so people don’t steal pages.

Laurel Ackerman, Director of Marketing, O’Reilly Open Tech Exchange: We needed to consider how it would integrate into a bookshelf. The dimensions of the book [7 inches x 9 inches] are designed for a retail shelf.

Christian Wenz, author: It was quite a challenge to plan the whole book structure. When writing a regular book, you can change the structure until very late in the process. Here, we had to create a flexible structure that would allow us to add content later without having to ship a whole new book with every update.

Ruma: We had to think about things like page numbering, because different pages and sections can be updated. We used a system that goes by section, chapter, and page number [e.g., 1.3.1]. We also had to shift all the templates because of the pins. Really, we wanted to make it so the reader will have to replace as few pages as possible. We want them to replace in a thorough way, but not a wasteful way.

Q: Was the production process different for the Up-to-Date edition?

Ruma: A standard book takes 6 to 9 months to write and 12 weeks to produce. We did this one in a little more than a month.

Christian and John had worked on a Silverlight 1.0 PDF. Christian incorporated his book updates into his 1.0 document within two weeks. Production on the book took another two weeks. And then it went to the printer for two weeks.

The book had to be done for the Microsoft MIX conference in March [2008]. We knew we would have an audience that is extremely interested in the subject matter and would give us unbiased and honest feedback.

[Editor’s note: authoring and production for this title was done using DocBook XML and a customized version of the open source DocBook XSL stylesheets.]

Q: What has the feedback been like?

Osborn: Generally the first reaction was ‘Wow, this is a great idea.” From there it was tons of feedback, most of it really good.

Ackerman: All of the feedback we’ve gotten from programmers is relief and delight. There’s a lot of frustration out there with people waiting for books between releases. They’re thrilled to be getting the content so they can start working.

Q: What type of content is best suited an Up-to-Date book?

Osborn: I see two scenarios: One is like Silverlight, which is a product in beta. Knowing the software release sequence and knowing the end point works well. In the second scenario, I could see something where you pick a core technology, like Visual Basic, and then offer updates. If anything new comes along, we’ll provide it.

Q: Do you think other publishers will move toward updateable books?

Ackerman: I think it’s inevitable that publishers will be going this way. At TOC, the two big topics were on-demand publishing and the value that publishers bring to information. Both of those things are in this book.

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