Books Writing

Book branding: An O’Reilly Adventure

When the bottom fell out of the dot-com a few years back, software consulting and internet companies weren’t the only industries impacted: computer technology book publishers, who enjoyed a huge surge of business at the height of the dot-com era, also suffered, sometimes drastically, when the good times stopped rolling.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear of this computer tech publisher or that one closing down, declaring bankruptcy, or being absorbed into a more mixed-genre publisher. Two I worked with in the past closed their doors within a year of each other: Corolis and Wrox. The Wrox company name was absorbed by Wiley, and much of the intellectual property was absorbed by Apress.

(The publishing companies weren’t the only ones hit–just ask the writers and others who contract with book companies. Being a technology architect, especially for Internet-enabled applications, and a computer book writer, I felt like I was getting it from both sides. I watched my 6-digit income compress until I was lucky if 4 digits survived.)

For the companies that did manage to survive, many had to look at new ways of doing business. Production and distribution costs for a publisher can be a heavy burden, and to support these the companies need to have enough books flowing through the distribution pipeline to make a profit. If existing markets aren’t generating enough flow, time to innovate.

One company that has survived is O’Reilly, and I believe it’s based on decisions that have expanded the company in three directions.

The first is the O’Reilly conferences. I’ve been to one O’Reilly conference as a speaker, and though they are expensive, they’re also first class. First class hotel, first class presentation rooms, innovative use of breakfasts and lunches to foster new connections, and excellent multimedia management within each of the rooms. Additionally, the company has kept it’s ear on what’s hot and focused the conferences accordingly (not to mention getting excellent speakers…ahem).

However, I imagine the company only breaks even on conferences, with costs eating up most, if not all of the profits. What the conferences do bring is a connection between the company and the technology–essential for a computer book company.

With each conference, O’Reilly is ‘marking it’s territory’–building identification as the computer book company. This is risky, because conferences that don’t do well can set a company back a significant amount of money. However, I think the payoff is worth it. Other than the fact that we can’t seem to get O’Reilly to have a conference in St. Louis, it seems to be working.

A second direction the company has taken, from what I can see, is to partner with other book vendors to share costs: distribution, production, and even the online book access at the Safari Bookshelf. Again, this is a move that’s not without risk. After all, more books published on a subject mean more books competing on that subject, and that can impact on book sales. Additionally, less people buying books can mean more books are going through the production pipeline without ending in sales.

Still, I think it’s another good idea, though I have no idea if it’s proving profitable or not. Each company has its own brand of books, and therefore it’s own particular audience, and that’s not going to change based on sharing production costs or publicity or distribution. At least, that’s my take, but I’m not an expert.

But after authoring 15 computer books, I am an expert on the final direction that O’Reilly is taking and that is expanding the book brands the company is carrying. By book brands, I’m talking specifically about series of books with same relative audience, similar styles, and usually with an overall shared look and feel. Think O’Reilly animal books and you’ll know what I mean.

This is an incredibly risky move, but with some enormous potential for revenue. With a new brand, you can reach out for new, untapped audiences, and with a lot of your previous audience now delivering pizza, you need fresh buyers. However, if the brand isn’t marketed just right, or seems confusing to potential buyers, or the audience doesn’t appear, you could have a lot of good writing, a lot of advances paid to writers, and a large investment in production and marketing heading down the drain. Unlike a single book, a brand that fails to succeed can be the proverbial 2 x 4 to face for the publisher.

O’Reilly’s development of new brands is the direction that, being a writer, interests me the most–and not because I’m always on the lookup for a new book opportunity. It does so because I can watch the trends in book brands and get a fairly good idea how book audiences are changing, and then adjust whatever I’m working on accordingly.

Does this sound dishonest? To change my writing to fit the market? You must remember that computer book writers are not writing the great American novel. When I write a book on the Internet or RDF, I am not James Agee or Walker Evans defending my epic novel Let Us Now Praise Famous Men from the depredations of a publishing company geared to fixed production costs.

cprogramming.gifNo matter how well written the book is, and I hope mine are reasonably well written (and my editors find my famous Bb typos, so that’s covered, thankfully), no computer book will stand the test of time; no, not even Kernighan’s and Ritchie’s The C Programming Language book.

We have an obligation to cover the material thoroughly and accurately for our audience, but we are free to redefine that audience as need demands. All these books have a limited shelf life, and after all, we have to eat; we have habits like travel and photography and weblogging to support; we have cats that demand crunchies as treats at noon.

Simon St. Laurent has been sending me copies of several different O’Reilly brands primarily to help me generate some ideas for future books. Among them was a traditional animal book (RELAX NG); the Mac OS Missing Manual for Panther from the Missing Manual series; three books from the Pocket series, including Digital PhotographyGoogle Hacks and eBay Hacks from the Hacks books; the highly innovative Head First series books Head First Java and Head First EJB; and two books from O’Reilly’s new directions into the digital photography interest field: Adobe Photoshop CS,and from what looks like a new brand, O’Reilly Digital Studio the book, Digital Photography: Expert Techniques.

That’s a lot of books, and a lot of brands, especially considering that each really is targeted to a completely different audience. So for the next few days, I’m going to cover each brand in a separate essay, including my impressions of the brand, reviews of the books, and finally the answer to my own question: could I write a book in this particular series?

As a disclaimer, note that I’m going to attempt to write about these books honestly, objectively, even critically, while still keeping in the back of my mind that I want to write for O’Reilly in the future.

And for my next trick, I’ll attempt to pull a Republican out of San Francisco.

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