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Why We Created the Take Control Crash Course Series

We’re book people by both temperament and profession, so we spend a lot of time observing and thinking about how people interact with tech books and technical information in general. We’ve noticed readers looking for shorter, more focused content and finding it on the Web. We’ve watched social media become a significant conduit for information sharing. And we’ve seen how the questions that remain for our readers are specific and difficult to anticipate. These trends don’t bode well for the traditional tech book, long term, so we set about rethinking aspects of the book, and you can see the results in our recently released Take Control Crash Course books (more about these titles, and a 30 percent discount, at the end).

Our reader-focused goals were to help readers find answers faster, make it easy for people to share what they learned, and open up the books to questions about each chapter. From the publisher perspective, we also wanted to make the books easier for potential readers to discover and to help the books maintain a higher profile after initial release.

To see our work in action, take a look at Tonya’s free “Read Me First: A Take Control Crash Course.” It was our proof-of-concept, and although you probably already know everything in it, we published it in part so you can refer less-experienced users to it the next time you get a question about Finder basics or which version of iOS an iPhone is running.

These books certainly won’t replace our classic Take Control books — some topics lend themselves to the Crash Course treatment and others don’t. That said, the lessons we learn with the Crash Courses will inform future changes in the other books.

Here’s what we did, and why.

Short, Independent Chapters -- It’s harder than ever to focus on learning. You want solutions to your problems as quickly as possible. Reading — or even skimming — an entire book to find a particular piece of information takes time. Our Crash Courses address this by breaking the book into short, independent chapters, so you can jump to the one you want quickly. For instance, Joe Kissell’s “Digital Sharing for Apple Users: A Take Control Crash Course” has 35 separate chapters about different ways to share data between people and devices, none more than a few pages long.

Two-column PDF Layout -- We also wanted to make it easier to extract information from each page of the book. With a nod to Peachpit Press’s Visual QuickStart series, we redesigned the PDF version of each Crash Course with a two-column layout that puts text and associated screenshots side-by-side. It’s faster to scan one of these pages (and understand what’s being explained) than to flip between pages when a screenshot has been separated from its explanatory text. Scholle McFarland’s years of experience working for MacUser and Macworld helped her produce particularly effective pages in “Yosemite: A Take Control Crash Course.”


Although it’s infeasible to do two columns in the EPUB and Mobipocket versions, which reflow to accommodate varied screen sizes, the Nisus Writer Pro macros that Joe wrote for our production process ensure that screenshots follow their references closely and sidebars appear in appropriate spots.

We also took this opportunity to modernize some of the elements of the books. We’re now using Avenir Next for the body font, and we’ve replaced the awkward and repetitive “Figure 4” references with circled numbers that take up much less space while still providing the necessary connection to the associated figure.


Expose Book Content to Web Searches -- We’re like you — we turn to the Web for answers first. But a lot of what’s on the Web is incomplete, unrelated, out of date, or flat-out wrong, whereas we work hard on accuracy and relevance in our books. We have to compete with all the content that’s already out there, but that’s hard if we’re not on the same playing field. So we’ve put the full text of each Crash Course on our Web site for search engines to index and for people to read — follow these links for the free Web versions:

This may seem nuts, but people in the publishing industry also thought we were crazy back in 2003 when we refused to apply DRM to our books. What little copying there is hasn’t harmed our sales over the last 11 years, so with the Crash Courses, we’re going further and making them freely available on the Web. But, why would anyone buy such a book? Two reasons: first, we believe those who want offline access, better formatting, or more help than one chapter can provide will do the right thing and support our efforts, and those who needed only a quick answer wouldn’t have purchased anyway. Second, although the first chapter is easily read, we’ve slowed down navigating within the Web versions of books other than “Read Me First: A Take Control Crash Course,” so trying to read the entire book online would be unsatisfying.

Encourage Sharing -- Sharing practical information on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn is a great way to look smart while helping friends, family, and colleagues. The Crash Courses help you do this with a share box at the end of each chapter that has sharing buttons for each of the main social media services — click a button to compose a tweet, share a link via Facebook or Google+, or post a tip to LinkedIn (email is also an option). Don’t worry about clicking accidentally — nothing is ever posted without your explicit confirmation.


Each share box also contains a helpful “tweet-tip” you can post to Twitter or LinkedIn automatically — think of it as retweeting your favorite expert authors directly from within their books. Facebook and Google+ don’t allow that sort of pre-fill, so you need to copy and paste the tip for those services.


We wrote these tips carefully to ensure that they’re useful, with significant thought put into making them something you’d be comfortable saying on Twitter. (This isn’t easy, particularly within Twitter’s character count.) It would be a complete waste of time if each tip said something vapid like “I just read a great book!”

Whenever you share a chapter in this fashion, the link you’re sharing points to the version on the Web, so anyone who follows it can read the entire chapter for free. Obviously, we’d love it if people who come in from these links buy the book too, but it’s most important to us to help people learn more about their devices.

Take Questions -- We can’t ensure that a book will address your particular problem. But if a chapter of a Take Control Crash Course doesn’t have the detail you’re looking for, you can click the blue Disqus button in the share box and ask your question on that chapter’s Web page. No guarantees, but we’ll try to answer and to make sure the next version of the book includes that information, if appropriate.


Talking Books -- As much as we encourage readers to share information from the Crash Courses, we’re going to be doing so as well, by posting these tips from Take Control’s social media accounts. Follow us to learn bits and pieces from the Crash Courses, and if you see something that’s particularly helpful, a retweet, like, or +1 would be appreciated! We’re also planning to experiment with some social-only sales and promotions, to help encourage people to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.

Increase Discoverability -- In the publishing world, the holy grail is discoverability — how can we make it so potential readers find our books? The greatest obstacles tech books face are obscurity and irrelevance.

Millions of people use Apple’s products, and from what we’ve seen, most would be happier and more productive if they knew more. Our books can provide that assistance, but only if those who need help find us. Our hope is that putting the Take Control Crash Courses on the Web and encouraging social media sharing of their content will spread our authors’ knowledge more widely, to the benefit of all. If that’s a goal you support, anything you can do — tweeting, purchasing, or recommending — to make the Crash Courses a success will help us keep producing them.

Current Crash Courses -- We’ve published four Crash Courses so far, and we’re watching them carefully to see how they’re received. In particular, take a look at Tonya’s book, since it’s free and will give you a feel for what makes up a Take Control Crash Course. The other three are available separately, or you can get them in a bundle for 30 percent off. Once you’ve had a chance to check them out, let us know what you think in the comments!

 

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Comments about Why We Created the Take Control Crash Course Series
(Comments are closed.)

Suman Chakrabarti  2014-11-15 10:21
I'm jealous. Avenir Next is a font I used to use for email, so it's a great choice. But the capper is the circled numbers for the figures. That's brilliant: it's even more clear and easy to match the text reference with the figure caption, especially in two-column layout.

Word has those circled numbers for bullet lists, but can't go above single digits. Do Joe Kissell's Nisus Writer Pro macros do better, or have the same constraint?
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-11-15 14:38
Unicode includes circled numbers up to 50, so that's as high as we can go. (A consequence of this is that we can't sequentially number all the graphics in a book; we have to restart numbering with each chapter.) But this has nothing to do with my macros; it's just using the right font and format for autonumbering in Nisus Writer.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-11-16 12:50
Yeah, we were planning to do the circled numbers all along, and looked at a variety of solutions before realizing happily that Nisus Writer Pro just did them automatically in its list styles. But Unicode just doesn't have enough to do sequential numbers without restarting. We were worried about how some of the wider ones looked anyway.

Interestingly, those characters in Unicode are available in only a bunch of truly odd fonts. We spent a while picking the one we liked best with Avenir Next, which was Kozuka Gothic Pro B.
Suman Chakrabarti  2014-11-17 10:03
Kozuka Gothic Pro B?
Gesundheit!
Glad to see your timely post about the "crash course" series, since I've been thinking about this for my own books and it gives me considerable food for thought.

You can see my initial thoughts on this in my "Blatherskite" blog. Google "Book 2.0: some preliminary thoughts on integrating print, e-books, and the Web" (not sure how to link this) and the previous blog post. Time permitting, I'll think about integrating some of your techniques into my strategy. Feedback welcomed!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-11-22 17:27
One thing to keep in mind (after reading your post) is that what works for an individual author may not work for a publisher, because of needing every author to do ongoing work that wouldn't result in income. In other words, it can be hard to effect major changes because they need to be systematic for a publisher, whereas a single author can make them happen by force of will.
Very good point. I can do this because I'm a single-author self-publisher, and only have to answer to myself; that gives me an enormous amount of freedom that most publishers don't have.

I suspect that a larger publisher could adopt a similar approach with the following modification: schedule the upates at some appropriate interval (e.g., every 6 months or every new software release). This would be equivalent to issuing a new edition of the book rather than the kind of ongoing maintenance that I'm proposing for my own books.