Monday, August 25, 2014

The Case for Buying Technical Books

In the past few months I've seen more than a few articles encouraging programmers to write books. Each article provides at least a bit of good advice, and proceeds to conclude with the same idea:
You should write a book to build your brand.
I find this conclusion accurate and extremely disappointing. If the overwhelming reason to write a book is brand building, then the pool of potential authors is restricted to people who would benefit from brand building (and people who don't value their time).
How Did We Get Here?
The Internet, obviously. Practically everyone knows how to download any movie, song, or book at no cost. Opinions on "illegal downloading" range from opposition to pride. I'm not particularly interested in discussing those opinions; however, I believe it's worth observing the impact of the combination of ability and desire to acquire content without compensating the creator.
“Books aren't written - they're rewritten...” -- Michael Crichton
If you've never written a book, you may not be aware of colossal effort it takes to write a mediocre book. When it's all said and done, it can take well over an hour of effort per page. Great books, such as Java Concurrency in Practice, require an even greater level of attention to detail, and cost even more time to create. Brian Goetz estimates that it took them approximately 2,400 hours to create JCiP. If we also knew their royalty structure and the number of copies sold, we'd be able to calculate the hourly rate for writing a high quality book.
It turns out, one of the recent articles encouraging writing gives you royalty numbers and a hint on how many copies a quality book might sell.
Royalties for print should start at 18% of net revenues to the publisher. (Expect that figure to be around $10-20, so you're only making a few dollars on each sale.)
Selling 10 thousand copies of a print tech book these days is a solid success and should be compensated accordingly. -- Obie Fernandez
Let's assume JCiP was more than a solid success and sold 20K copies (doubling Obie's "solid success" benchmark). Assuming they negotiated royalties well, that would mean making $40,000 - thus the hourly rate for writing JCiP would be under $17 per hour.
Clearly I've made a few assumptions, but I believe all of them are based on sound logic. As long as you work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 50 weeks and write a modern classic, you'll make around $34,000 per year. Anecdotal evidence among my author friends who've yet to write a modern classic is worse: the hourly rate is less than minimum wage.
The royalty structures combined with lessening sales create an environment where writing a book for (royalty) profit isn't a reasonable use of your time. As a result, the majority of today's authors are either consultants or unknown programmers. Established, non-consultant programmers gain little from the brand building aspect of writing a book, and likely make far more than $34,000 a year at their full-time jobs - why would they take on a poorly paying second job?
Around 2005 it became fairly easy to download, for free, practically any book. It might be coincidence that 10 of 13 of these Must-Read books were written prior to 2005. Despite the possibility, I don't believe it's a coincidence. Rather, I believe that at one time it paid to create a best selling technical book, and people with various backgrounds took up the challenge.
Nice Assumption Filled History Lesson, What's Your Point?
My point is fairly simple. If you're, like I am, tired of having to choose between books written decades ago and books written by those with at least a slightly ulterior motive, buy some books. Does your company have a book buying policy? If you aren't spending your entire book budget, why not? It costs you nothing to buy a book and give it to a teammate, and every royalty penny reminds an author that someone cares about all of those hours writing and rewriting.
Even if your company doesn't have a book budget, ask yourself if you'd rather your next book about Java be written by a consultant you've never heard of or Java's language architect. The average technical book costs little compared to life's other expenses, and buying a technical book is investing in your profession twice. You stand to gain knowledge both from today's book purchase and a potential future book written by the same author - a future book that may never be written given the current financial incentives.
If you're a CTO, Director or Manager, why aren't you constantly buying books for the developers you work with? They could probably use your advice on which books will best guide their careers.
Makes Sense, What Should I Buy?
There are several good books now available on leanpub - where the authors are paid significantly higher royalties. If you want to support authors you should always start there. From there I would own at least a copy of Chad's (previously referenced) Must-Read books. I'd also buy Chad's Passionate Programmer. Finally, you can't go wrong working your way through this list: Clojure Bookshelf.

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