The eli4d Gazette – Issue 034

Tech Pick

This is somewhat of an ‘anti-pick’.

When it comes to technical book publishers, O’Reilly used to be at the top of my list. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. I wrote a post about O’Reilly’s abandonment of DRM Free technical books and using other alternatives.

Media Pick

While listening to a recent Security Now podcast, I heard Steve Gibson rave about Ryk Brown’s Frontier’s Saga series. I found that it was available via the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library so I started reading book #1…and I was hooked. I’m on book #6, and it continues to be fantastic science fiction series. I highly recommend this series to any fan of space opera type of science fiction. So if you like Star Trek you’re very likely to really (really) like this series.

Drobo Blues

My Drobo 5N saga/sadness continues. I got a replacement, and it still doesn’t work. I’m in another round of back/forth with Drobo support. Even if I get it working, I’m not sure how much faith/trust I can have in their NAS.

Knowing what I know now I would try Synology rather than Drobo. Synology’s SHR technology seems quite comparable to Drobo’s Beyondraid, so Drobo’s previous multi-size hard disk advantage (i.e. being able to use different sized hard disks) seems moot.

Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter

Reflecting on O’reilly’s Departure from DRM Free Technical Books and Finding Alternatives

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so disturbed by Oreilly Media’s closure of their online bookstore. It feels like I’ve lost an old reliable friend.

The long and short of it is that they are no longer selling DRM-free versions of their technical books (i.e. in epub, mobi aka Kindle format, and PDF formats). Instead they have gone down the path of forcing customers to either have a Safari Books Online subscription ($399/year for individuals) or to purchase individual physical/electronic books through Amazon where the electronic version would be the Kindle format (i.e. a DRM mobi file that could be removed by Amazon at any time). Both of these options do away with the ownership of electronic books1.

Note 1: I have nothing against Amazon’s DRM protected Kindle books, and I have purchased many such books with the understanding that my purchases are a sort of perpetual lease that can be revoked at any time. I feel that this sort of arrangement is bad for technical books besides the significant format issues of the Kindle format (discussed below).

It is easy to be outraged by this change, and my peers at Hacker News have done a commendable job in expressing this justifiable outrage. Like my technical peers, I am rarely prone to emotional outbursts instead resorting to the sweet logical song of rationality. And yet, I can’t help but feel that I’ve lost an old friend. Why is that? It truly does not “make sense” to me.

In 2010 I attended a Drupal conference where Tim O’Reilly spoke about “Open Source in the Cloud Era.” I recall Tim speaking of his company’s core mission which included, front and center, DRM free books. And here we are seven years later with an evisceration of this core mission in the name of a “reinvention”. It’s funny how Tim O’Reilly has said nothing of this change beyond a tweet whose responses have been anything but supportive.

Out of all O’Reilly’s books, I will dearly miss the “Head First” series. But such is life, and I hope that this change will bring new publishers into the fray as well as inspire old publishers to avoid O’Reilly’s path.

Three aspects make me fairly certain that I will not be buying O’Reilly books in the future (which includes steering students away from such books for my online and on campus classes):

(a) As a reader of technical books:

As a reader of technical books, I have learned long ago that the Kindle and ePub version are inferior to PDF. While I love my Kindle Voyage for fiction books, the Kindle format is terrible for technical books. It is bad both from a formatting issue, in addition to the issue that Amazon published Kindle technical books are rarely updated as new revisions of a book are published (see Andy Hunt’s comment by searching for ‘AndyHunt’ in the previously mentioned Hacker News thread about this very issue). Check out any great technical book on Amazon, and you’ll see that more often than not the 1-star reviews refer to the Kindle edition. Here’s an example for “Head First JavaScript”:

The content is great, but the ebook formatting is some of the …
By … March 23, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
> Note – this is about the kindle edition. The content is great, but the ebook formatting is some of the worst I’ve seen.
> Terrible, terrible, terrible. The formatting is some of the worst I’ve seen, with parts frequently unreadable and cut off. Want to read the code examples? Good luck, they were scanned in unchanged as images, so you can’t zoom in by changing the font size. Instead you get to squint!
> Seriously, did they just hire an intern to hold the book up to a flat bed scanner?
> The content is great, but the ebook formatting is some of the worst I’ve seen. DO NOT BUY
> Buy the physical version. Save yourself some headache. If you want an appropriately formatted Javascript e-book, Javascript: The Good Parts is very readable.

The only format that stands to the content rigor of technical books is PDF. Sure PDF is far from perfect, but for this sort of book, anything else is pretty awful.

The Safari online option is somewhat questionable in that the mobile and web reading experience is less than ideal (Hacker News has much information about this). If reading on O’Reilly book is a poor experience on the Kindle app and iBooks app, then how much better can O’Reilly’s Android/iPhone reading app be for Safari Online Books?

(b) As a teacher

As a teacher of technical/programming courses, I have always recommended the DRM free versions of any required textbooks including O’Reilly books. I heavily use the PDF version of such books to create my course materials (so lectures can be in sync with the particular text book for the course), and I steer my students from the Kindle version to the PDF version in a DRM free format. An example for this is the “Head First JavaScript” book. This book has various exercises and puzzles that should be solved by hand (i.e. “pencil the answers in the book” type of work). If you’re using the physical book then it isn’t a problem. But what if you want the electronic version of the book? The only easily printable version (i.e. maintains exact format and pagination of the physical book) is the PDF version of this book.

While I will continue with any current courses that utilize O’Reilly books, I cannot do so for any future courses. Without question, I will resort to non-O’Reilly books for any new courses, and I will only books from publishers that provide DRM free epub, mobi, and PDF.

(c) For future authors of technical books:

If you’re a someone who is considering writing a technical book – why would you write for O’Reilly? Outside of the name, what is the possible advantage? (and no – there is no editorial advantage)

Since O’Reilly’s new electronic version of their books comes only from Amazon – why bother? Why not publish directly with Amazon if you want to go that way? Obviously, you’ll distance technical readers that want PDF but that’s a conscious choice that you would be making. Alternatively, you could publish on Amazon and have a DRM free ePub/mobi/PDF versions that you sell on your site.

If you do want to publish PDF versions of your book(s) and DRM free epub/mobi versions on one platform then there are plenty of publishing options:

  • self publishing via Gumroad or Leanpub
  • more traditional publishing via:
    • Pragmmatic Bookshelf: From a publisher perspective, I would say that this publisher is the closest to being of the old O’Reilly quality while providing DRM free electronic books including PDF.
    • No Starch Press: A large and quirky publisher that allows for parallel Creative Commons publication (see books by Al Sweigart for examples of a hybrid approach)
    • Apress: Yet another one with lots of technical books
    • Pearson’s Informit: Another traditional technical publisher with DRM free epub/mobi/pdf options

Of course, some of these publishers may follow O’Reilly’s path so you might consider having a contractual clause that lets you move your book to another publisher if the DRM free options go away.

In conclusion, the “books as a service” is not a surprising business goal. Recurring monthly subscriptions seems to be the current holy grail for many companies. After all, if Adobe, Netflix, and Spotify can do it why can’t anyone else do so? Whether the company is small or large. But like everything in life the true answer is ‘it depends’:

  • Is the subscription service providing a better product for the customer? (For technical books – O’Reilly media is not providing a better product)
  • Can the customer get the product without a subscription? (Customers cannot get O’Reilly books without subscription (and no – the Amazon Kindle version does not count because of the poor formatting and content update experience for technical books))
  • Can the customer find equivalent products from competing vendors? (fortunately, there are plenty of other technical book publishers)

O’Reilly Media Inc. has every right to choose its business model. My hope is that readers, teachers, and authors will vote with their dollars and feet by moving to other publishers. I know that in my case, O’Reilly’s website will be the last place I will look for a new technical book instead of being the first.

Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter