Series: Taking Control
The history of the Take Control ebook series from TidBITS Publishing.
Article 1 of 8 in series
It's been a long time since I've been this excited. This week we're unveiling a completely new publishing project called Take Control, which is a series of electronic books written by leading Macintosh authorsShow full article
It's been a long time since I've been this excited. This week we're unveiling a completely new publishing project called Take Control, which is a series of electronic books written by leading Macintosh authors. With Take Control, we're creating a new publishing model for the 21st century that integrates the best practices of online, magazine, and book publishing to bring you the timeliest, most focused, most cost-effective, and highest quality technical documentation possible.
To make Take Control possible, we combined my years of publishing experience and numerous contacts, Tonya's editing and project management skills, and the expert knowledge and writing abilities of some of the best authors in the Macintosh world. Our initial group of authors includes such familiar names as Jeff Carlson, Glenn Fleishman, Dan Frakes, Joe Kissell, Kirk McElhearn, Matt Neuburg, and Todd Stauffer, along with Tonya and myself.
Let me explain what the Take Control series will do for you.
Why Take Control? At some point or another, we've all felt as though we've lost control of our computers, as though we're at sea in a rough and increasingly complex world. Perhaps the fault lies with a poorly designed interface, bad documentation, a bug in a program, or even low-level disk corruption. But for most of us, identifying the source of the problem isn't nearly as important as getting our work done.
That's where the Take Control ebooks come in. We want to help you regain control in the fastest, most cost-effective way possible. We'll be publishing practical Take Control ebooks on specific topics, starting with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther (if that's not a topic people will want to take control of, I don't know what is!) and expanding our coverage from there.
Our first title will be the essential "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther," written by Joe Kissell to help you start off on the right foot with Mac OS X 10.3. Should you rely on the standard upgrade, or does Archive and Install make more sense for you? What if you're upgrading from Mac OS 9? What if you want to revert back to Jaguar? Joe answers all these questions and many more, providing the kind of expert advice you need before you slide the Panther CDs into your Mac. Next up will be "Take Control of Customizing Panther," written by TidBITS Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg. Matt picks up where Joe leaves off, showing you a selection of the best ways you can customize the Panther experience so your Mac looks and works the way you want, so you're in control of the Mac, rather than the other way around.
We plan to release these titles shortly after Panther's launch on 24-Oct-03; send email to <firstname.lastname@example.org> to sign up for a low-volume announcement mailing list that will alert you to new titles (confirmation is required to keep spam and worms from subscribing). You can also visit the in-progress Take Control Web page to learn more about individual titles.
Size, Cost, and Focus -- Take Control ebooks occupy the sweet spot between magazine articles and books. Magazine articles are generally quite short, starting at about 500 words for reviews and 1,500 words for features. Magazines aren't necessarily cheap, ranging from about $3 per issue for a year's subscription up to $8 for a newsstand copy, and you can never assume that any given issue will contain the information you need. On the other end of the spectrum, you'll seldom find a book under 100 pages due to binding, handling, and perceived value issues. Even the smallest computer books cost $13 to $15. Most books are well over 100 pages, with some tomes pushing 1,000 pages. Many people find such books too long and full of information they don't need, and they dislike paying for, storing, and later disposing of the entire thing just for a few choice bits.
We're aiming right between magazine articles and books. Take Control ebooks will start at about 5,000 words (the size of an average TidBITS issue) and increase in length as necessary to cover the topic at hand. But each Take Control title will focus tightly on a single topic, so you can be sure it contains just what you need to know, written and edited by experts. As I've been saying to authors, a Take Control ebook should tell you something you don't know and can't figure out with a three-word search in Google. As far as cost goes, our introductory pricing is simple and affordable: $5 per ebook. We're confident that every Take Control ebook will provide far more than $5 of value.
We're publishing in PDF format because it currently offers the best features for ebooks. It's easy to read a Take Control ebook on screen, because we've carefully designed the layout to be highly legible, and we've employed all the PDF niceties such as bookmarks, internal links, and live links to Web sites. Also, our PDFs are completely searchable. For those who prefer to read on paper, our design prints well on both inkjet and laser printers. With Adobe Reader for Palm OS software, you can even read a Take Control PDF on a Palm OS handheld. If you have a low opinion of PDF, we encourage you to refine that to having a low opinion of the lousy PDF files that most people generate. And with Panther's new version of Preview, reading PDF files on the Mac should get even better.
We won't be applying any copy prevention technologies to Take Control ebooks. Aside from the fact that we're philosophically opposed to such measures, we strongly believe that if you treat your customers like decent, honest people, they'll reward that trust in kind.
The other advantage of an electronic format is that it will be easy to update an ebook to address minor program updates, newly discovered information, or small mistakes. Small updates will be free to those who purchased the initial version of a Take Control title; you'll just have to download a new copy. Here's how the Take Control model ends up benefiting readers:
- Timely information from top authors
- Just what you need to know, nothing more
- Instant gratification from buying online
- Less expensive than books or newsstand magazines
- Unprotected PDF files are compatible with many platforms
- Looks good on screen and when printed
- Free updates for minor changes
Authors Take Control -- We like to pull back the covers on our projects so you know what's going on behind the scenes. So, here's how the Take Control series works for authors.
Our ideas for the Take Control series stem in large part from years of experience writing for book and magazine publishers. Since the best books and articles I've written have been for publishers with whom I had good working relationships, we designed the Take Control project around authors from the beginning, and our initial group of authors have helped greatly in refining the details.
The main attraction for authors is that Take Control ebooks have an excellent risk/reward ratio. The risk is entirely bundled up in the amount of work necessary to write the ebook, but for a professional author who is expert in a field, a Take Control ebook shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks from start to finish. On the reward side of the equation, we split the profits equally with authors; it's a straight 50:50 split after transaction fees, which we're minimizing with a new back-end approach made possible by our friends at Kagi. So, the advantages for authors work out to:
- Excellent risk/reward ratio
- Quick turnaround time
- No earning limits for a popular title
- Easy updates to modify details
- Fast, collaborative publishing process
- Strong author community
The upshot is that we believe we'll be able to convince even more top authors to write Take Control ebooks, and that will result in even more Take Control goodness for readers. (Interested in writing for the Take Control series? If you have writing experience and are an expert in your field, drop me a note.)
A Few Days of Patience -- We wanted to announce Take Control before Panther shipped so you'd know about Joe's "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther" ebook before next week's issue of TidBITS (which arrives after Panther ships on 24-Oct-03). But that does mean waiting for a few days, so in the meantime, please sign up for the Take Control Announcements list by sending email to <email@example.com> and feel free to ask questions on TidBITS Talk. Now if only we had a few more hours in the days between now and October 24th...
Article 2 of 8 in series
With Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail," you'll notice that we set the price at $10 - as we had done for Glenn Fleishman's "Take Control of Sharing Files in Panther" - instead of the introductory $5 price point we have used for most of our other ebooksShow full article
With Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail," you'll notice that we set the price at $10 - as we had done for Glenn Fleishman's "Take Control of Sharing Files in Panther" - instead of the introductory $5 price point we have used for most of our other ebooks. We had a number of reasons for the change, including:
Size: There's a rule of thumb in the publishing industry of setting price points at roughly 10 cents per page. Since our ebook pages are almost exactly equivalent in content to paper book pages, we felt the higher price was warranted given the 89-page length of "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail."
Effort: At over 24,000 words in its initial release, "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail" was a significant effort on Joe's part to research and write, and on Tonya's part to edit (compare that with a magazine article that might run 1,500 to 3,000 words at most). Although we don't have any materials costs to take into account when pricing our ebooks, we do have to make sure the likely proceeds will offer a fair compensation to the many days our authors and editors spend working on Take Control ebooks and their updates.
Free updates: Our free updates have been tremendously popular, and for good reason: the Macintosh industry changes quickly, and up-to-date information is essential to all of us. But as much as we like being able to publish free updates, they do take effort. We'll never charge for minor updates, but since we anticipate that Joe will put in a lot more work keeping "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail" updated over the lifespan of the book, with that $10, you're essentially buying Joe's expertise over time. To cycle back to the size issue, we also anticipate the book growing toward and past 100 pages in future updates, making the price-to-page ratio even better over time.
Flexibility: By setting the price at $10, we have a lot more room to offer discounts to loyal customers. As an example, consider the $2.50 discount off "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail" when purchased with "Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail" through the end of August. All existing customers of "Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail" are also entitled to a $2.50 discount; if you didn't get the mail we sent out about that, just click your Check for Updates button. We also hope to start working with other companies to resell all our ebooks, and the $5 price point (particularly after transaction fees) doesn't leave much after the reseller takes a cut.
Value: Although we've learned from our PayBITS experiment that value is a tenuous concept, when interpreted as "the amount of your time that reading this book will save," we are comfortable that "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail" would still provide more than $10 of value. If it helps you recover important mail in a damaged mailbox, get an attachment through to a Windows user on the first try, or send mail through a recalcitrant SMTP server when travelling, it will have paid for itself instantly.
As I noted when I first wrote about the Take Control project, we intended $5 as an introductory price, and one that we would reevaluate once we had learned more about the business side of the venture. It's still too early to make any categorical statements about pricing, but $10 seems appropriate for books that are closing in on the 100-page mark and that we anticipate growing even more with free updates.
Note that we've made it trivially easy for anyone concerned with price to save 10 percent on their next order, simply by clicking the Help a Friend button on the cover of the current version of any ebook and recommending that ebook to a friend (who also saves 10 percent). Oddly, even though thousands of people have presumably seen that button, only 11 have taken advantage of the discount. (If there's a problem with the Web pages that handle the referral, let me know, since it was the first programming I ever did in Web Crossing.) Also, all user group members are entitled to 10 percent off any Take Control order; nearly 150 user groups currently receive the discount and free review copies of our ebooks.
We're in this for the long run, and we have a number of new ebooks and other projects in the works that we think you're going to like a lot. But as with all businesses, we have to make sure that we can earn sufficient income to afford to carry out those plans. Thanks for all the support you've given us so far, and we certainly plan to continue producing ebooks worthy of your support.
Article 3 of 8 in series
As you know, we offer free minor updates to our Take Control ebooks to customers; it's a great way for authors to keep their ebooks up to date with new software releases, to respond to feedback from readers, and to fix any mistakes that slipped inShow full article
As you know, we offer free minor updates to our Take Control ebooks to customers; it's a great way for authors to keep their ebooks up to date with new software releases, to respond to feedback from readers, and to fix any mistakes that slipped in. From what we can tell, readers appreciate the service, so it's a great example of how publishing electronically helps everyone.
Helping customers learn about and download the updates has been challenging, however, and in this article I tell you what we've done, what we've learned, and what we're doing now. Even if you're not a Take Control reader, you may find it interesting to read about the pros and cons of different methods of distributing updates to digital products.
On Saturday we released three updates, version 1.1.1 of Glenn Fleishman's "Take Control of Your AirPort Network" (to fix a few typos that slipped into the 152-page ebook and add a $10-off coupon for Sustainable Softworks' IPNetRouterX), version 1.1 of Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Email with Apple Mail," and version 1.1.2 of Joe's "Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail" (to address changes in Mail 1.3.9, add clarifications, provide new screenshots, and more). It took some time, for sure, but the fact that we could do three updates in such a short time is an indication that we've come a long way from our start 10 months ago. In fact, in that time, we've tried four different approaches to providing free updates with varying levels of success; the lessons we've learned may prove instructive to others providing updates as well.
Password-Protected Archives via FTP -- Our first approach seemed sensible enough on the surface; we'd inform customers of an update via email and give them an FTP URL which they could use to download the update. To restrict the URL to customers, we protected the StuffIt archive containing the update with a password, and our email included that password. The approach worked fine in our testing, and it undoubtedly worked for many people, but it fell down in a number of ways:
People use a wide range of programs for downloading via FTP, from solid FTP clients like Fetch and Interarchy to Web browsers to the Finder (generally the worst of the lot). Download problems with FTP URLs occurred much more frequently than we would have liked.
Some programs also had trouble processing the StuffIt archive, not calling StuffIt Expander properly, trying to open the file in another program, or not opening it at all. Most people managed to get past these problems, but the instructions we provided often didn't match reality.
You wouldn't believe the ancient versions of StuffIt Expander people are still running! That wouldn't matter except that password-protected archives don't always expand properly in much older versions. It really is worth keeping StuffIt Expander up to date to avoid confusions like this.
Downloading and printing at work on a PC, which some people like to do, required that people download StuffIt Expander for Windows. (With Panther's built-in support for Zip files, switching to that format in general made sense for both Mac and PC users.)
eSellerate Coupons -- One of the core tenets of Take Control is to do more of what works and less of what doesn't, so we quickly changed gears. Our second approach to providing free updates was to send email to every customer of an ebook giving them a special coupon code that, when used in an eSellerate order, gave them a free copy of the ebook in question. This method worked quite well, due to a few advantages:
The eSellerate order process was familiar, and although people still occasionally have troubles (usually solved by trying again with another browser or turning off download accelerator utilities like Speed Download), the vast majority of orders, and thus free updates, went smoothly. If the free update was the only ebook in the order, eSellerate's system was smart enough to skip asking for credit card information.
Because the update process required placing an actual order, people often used it as an opportunity to purchase other ebooks they hadn't yet bought, making it good for business.
However, there were still some problems that made us unhappy with this method of providing updates.
Making people run through an entire order seemed like more effort than should be necessary, even if they didn't have to enter credit card information.
Doing the work necessary in eSellerate to set up the coupon and make the file available for download took me more time than was reasonable for a very small update. Extracting email addresses from our database added significantly to the necessary effort.
Since every update download was a real order, it added a lot of data to our order database, data that was either essentially uninteresting or potentially confusing. That in turn required more work on my part to pull out these zero dollar orders when preparing royalty statements for our authors.
eSellerate Redownload -- In an attempt to reduce the amount of effort and keep the unnecessary data out of our database, particularly with very small updates, we tried a third approach. eSellerate allows anyone who orders to download the file they've bought up to three times (the email receipt contains a URL that leads to a Web page with various after-order services, including another link leading to a Download Now button). By allowing three downloads, eSellerate makes it possible for people to work through problems they have downloading, but the download URL can't be posted in public. We had a tiny update ready, so we replaced the file appropriately in eSellerate, and then sent email to everyone who had bought that ebook, telling them how to download it. It was a big mistake, for many reasons:
Email continues to become less and less reliable due to spam and spam-fighting efforts, so some percentage of people never received their email receipts at all. Many of those who did receive a receipt threw it away or lost it. The end result was that lots of readers couldn't find the URL that would let them download the update without help from Tonya.
Since many people buy more than one ebook, and since people had email receipts from all the orders that had resulted from previous free updates, a number of people had trouble finding the right receipt, again requiring help from Tonya.
If someone had, for whatever reason already downloaded the file three times (they experienced a dropped phone line or a browser crash, for example), eSellerate wouldn't allow any more downloads until Tonya reset the download counter in eSellerate's order tracking system.
Luckily, it's easy for us to solve customer problems; after a quick check to verify that the person is a customer, Tonya usually sends them a copy of the ebook they're having trouble getting. Readers seem to appreciate this fast solution to the problem at hand, but we'd of course rather avoid the problem altogether. The amount of work this method caused was insanely higher than any other approach, so we clearly needed to rethink the entire process if we were to move away from the free coupon strategy.
Check for Updates Button -- After talking about all sorts of crazy ideas, including an application that could store the differences between two PDF files and use that information to update an original PDF, I realized that I was thinking about the problem all wrong. In many ways, ebooks have a lot in common with software, and if a developer had asked me how to handle updates, I would have said to build update checking into the application, automatically downloading and installing available updates with user assent. Obviously, since we distribute PDF files, not full-fledged applications, there's a limit to what's possible, but enabling the user to check for updates from within the ebook itself was within the limits of possibility.
The trick for us is that we're now running Web Crossing, which, along with its many other benefits, is an entirely programmable system. With some help from Sue Boettcher of Web Crossing, I created what is essentially a CGI (Web Crossing calls it a "macro") that accepts as input data embedded in a URL and returns a Web page that tells the user if an update is available, and if so, provides a protected and obfuscated link to download the update. The advantages are numerous:
A single click on the Check for Updates button loads the Web page, and if an update is available, a second click downloads the update. That's a lot easier than requiring people to run through a full order on eSellerate.
A separate part of the Web page lets readers sign up to receive notification about updates in email along with notifications of new Take Control books in general. That makes sending out update notifications a lot easier (before, it involved extracting addresses from our database and putting that data in the Bcc line in Eudora).
We can post information about both available updates (so people can decide if they want to bother downloading) and upcoming updates (so people can postpone printing if an update is due shortly).
No unnecessary data ends up in our order database.
The system isn't perfect yet, of course. Certain download utilities have trouble with the way I serve download URLs through a CGI, and we discovered that if you use Acrobat Professional 6.0, you must set the Web Capture preferences to open Web links in your Web browser, not in Acrobat. (Otherwise, Web pages are added to your ebook, and the download link won't work.) I'm sure other issues will crop up, but as long as handling new quirks remains less work than any of the other systems we've tried and discarded, it's good for everyone.
Obviously, the particular system I've developed isn't portable outside of Web Crossing, but I hope that anyone who needs to provide updates to users can learn from our experiences to do it in as clean and efficient a way as possible.
Article 4 of 8 in series
We started the Take Control project, about a year ago, with one goal: to publish in a whole new way. The key to our approach was the production of electronic books, which are more timely, more focused, more economical, and more easily updated than print books can beShow full article
We started the Take Control project, about a year ago, with one goal: to publish in a whole new way. The key to our approach was the production of electronic books, which are more timely, more focused, more economical, and more easily updated than print books can be. In this way, we felt, we could avoid the problems that bedevil the traditional publishing industry.
Nevertheless, we're cognizant that, much as ebooks have many advantages over print, a lot of people prefer to read on paper, and many people think only of traditional books when they need technical documentation. Of course, if you have an ebook, you can print it out on your own printer; our ebooks look quite good when you do that. But not everyone has a printer or wishes to consume that much paper and ink, and besides, for most people the presentation and experience of reading a nicely bound book is better. Another good thing about print books is that they already have a large marketing and distribution channel, and it makes business sense for us to try to take advantage of that.
Therefore, to better serve those who prefer traditional print books, we're pleased to announce that our first Take Control collection is now available: Take Control of Panther, Volume 1, published in association with our friends at Peachpit Press. It costs $30 (discounted to $20.39 at Amazon right now) and is a 272-page collection of our first four Take Control ebooks: Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther," Matt Neuburg's "Take Control of Customizing Panther," Kirk McElhearn's "Take Control of Users & Accounts in Panther," and Glenn Fleishman's "Take Control of Sharing Files in Panther." The print book collects the latest versions of these ebooks in a nicely designed, full-color layout. In addition, I've written an introduction, and the book includes a professionally created index.
What's Different -- Even though Take Control of Panther, Volume 1 looks like a normal print book, it benefits from many of the advantages of the Take Control model.
Perhaps most notable is that everyone who buys the print book is entitled to download free copies of each of the ebooks inside. Although it's hard to compete with the resolution of print and the familiarity and accessibility of a physical book, there's no question that our ebooks still offer benefits such as internal links for references (no flipping around trying to find a section), clickable URLs and scripts (no extra typing), and of course, free updates. So we expect that a large percentage of the people who buy the print book will also download the ebooks, thus also gaining a gentle introduction to the brave new world of electronic books. While it's a simple matter - and economical - for us to provide a free copy of the collected ebooks for print book buyers, including minor revisions as they appear, the finances of print publishing sadly don't allow us to offer the print book to existing ebook owners at a larger discount than provided by Amazon.com, other online booksellers, or brick-and-mortar bookstores.
I've released electronic versions of my last few print books, but the experience has been somewhat unsatisfying, since a design that looks great in print generally works poorly when viewed on screen. Unfortunately, the effort of reformatting a print book for online display, particularly one that's as heavily formatted as a Visual QuickStart Guide, is far too great to consider. With Take Control of Panther, Volume 1, we were able to move in the proper direction: electronic to print. We publish all of our ebooks using Microsoft Word, and we're careful to rely on styles at all times. As a result, it was relatively easy to import the Word files into InDesign CS, and future books will be easier yet. The tricky part was creating the InDesign template, since most book templates aren't set up for ease of import, but Jeff Tolbert (whose day job is a freelance designer and illustrator, when he's not writing ebooks about GarageBand) came up with such a template (we did have to buy a tool to augment InDesign - the Smart Styles CS plug-in from WoodWing Software).
A big problem with traditional print books about software is that the software can change soon after, or even before, the book goes to print, thus making the book wrong and out-of-date. And once a traditional print book is published, there's no calling it back. Our approach eliminates this problem. All of our ebooks went through at least one revision before being included in this print collection. Those revisions have enabled us to keep pace with Apple's upgrades to Panther, incorporate user feedback, and eliminate mistakes. For example, Glenn's book "Take Control of Sharing Files in Panther" put considerable effort into explaining soft mounting - which Apple eliminated entirely in Mac OS X 10.3.3! So Glenn updated the ebook, and the print book includes that updated version. And what if, in the future, Apple brings back soft mounting, or makes some other drastic change? No problem: we update the ebook, and every print book customer downloads a free copy. Thus our books are more accurate than traditional print books both before they are published (because they've had a history as ebooks) and after they are published (because they continue to evolve as ebooks)."
We also anticipate increasing the timeliness of print books. To be sure, this book is coming out a long time after Panther was released; but most of the slowdown came in the contract negotiations, with actual book production requiring only a few weeks. And the production itself will speed up as we learn to make our Word files more appropriate for import into InDesign, and as our collaborative editing process improves. Plus, many of our print books, like this one, will probably be by multiple authors, who can all be working at the same time, which should contribute to speed of publication as well.
The print books also contribute to the sustainability of the overall Take Control model in another way. We've negotiated with Peachpit so that authors receive, proportionally, a considerably greater percentage of the book's price than has traditionally been the case. And republishing in print means that the author receives some revenue that wouldn't have been there if the ebook were the only outlet for that content. The result is that our authors, who put significant and ongoing efforts into writing and maintaining their ebooks, are more fully recompensed for those efforts. This encourages the authors to keep their ebooks up to date, and that, in turn, benefits readers.
More to Come! Take Control of Panther, Volume 1 will soon be joined by two additional books (by the beginning of November, since we're just finishing the layout now): Joe Kissell's Take Control of Apple Mail (bringing together his two ebooks about Mail) and Glenn Fleishman's Take Control of Your AirPort Network (which was long enough after its 1.1 revision to stand on its own in print). Both will be a bit shorter and less expensive - 160 pages and $17 are our current estimates - but they'll still be full-color and offer free copies of the ebooks. They'll also sport different cover designs from Take Control of Panther, Volume 1, since we're still working with Peachpit to refine the overall look of the cover.
So take a look, and if you've held off checking out our ebooks because you prefer traditional print books, we hope you like what we've done.
Article 5 of 8 in series
It's been a year since we released our first Take Control ebook, Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther," and I want to commemorate the anniversary in two ways: first by announcing a one-week 50 percent off sale and second by telling you about what we've learned after a year in the brave new world of electronic book publishingShow full article
It's been a year since we released our first Take Control ebook, Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther," and I want to commemorate the anniversary in two ways: first by announcing a one-week 50 percent off sale and second by telling you about what we've learned after a year in the brave new world of electronic book publishing. To take advantage of the sale, just place an order and use coupon code CPN41024TC1 (the second link below enters it automatically for you) to cut your order total - whether it's for one book or all of them - in half. Feel free to share the code with friends, colleagues, and small woodland creatures, but it will be good only until 01-Nov-04.
In creating the Take Control series, we hoped to come up with a new model for writing books about using computers. The previous system, we thought, had too many inefficiencies: readers had to wait too long to get important information, authors had to work too hard for little pay in order to assemble the information into too-long books, and books turned obsolete all too quickly. By putting together what Tonya and I have learned over years of writing, editing, customer support, Web design, and more, plus assembling a great team of writers and editors, we hoped to demonstrate that real people could create real publications for real readers and have it really work, in a way that was fun and cost-effective for everyone. We think we have succeeded so far, though our vision still exceeds our accomplishments. Here, then, is a report on what we've done and a look ahead at what comes next.
Just the Stats, Ma'am -- We had high hopes for Take Control, since all the assumptions we'd made about how we would create and sell the ebooks seemed sound - but the reality has gone way beyond our expectations. Since 24-Oct-03, we've published 12 titles in English, 5 of which have been translated into Japanese, German, or Dutch. For those 17 individual ebooks, we've released 20 free updates that ranged from a fix of a few typos to a 63-page addition. We've sold nearly 24,000 ebooks, with "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther" leading the way at nearly 6,500 copies. And as of this week, we've published three paper collections of our ebooks with Peachpit Press; the full-color "Take Control of Apple Mail" and "Take Control of Your AirPort Network" should now be joining "Take Control of Panther" on bookstore shelves.
Although our books have retained very much the same look and feel from the beginning, thanks to Tonya's efforts in designing a highly readable template in Word, we've made a number of small changes as we become more comfortable with how the electronic medium differs from what we're used to in the physical book world. We've also made numerous infrastructure changes, the most notable of which was working with eSellerate for the sales process. Though perfection is always unattainable, eSellerate has worked out extremely well for us, far better than the immense hassle of maintaining our own merchant account, and I can recommend them for anyone looking to sell goods online (for the record, we were also happy with Kagi, the original Web store we used; the reason for our switch was related to dealing with the custom situation of having our own merchant account). Many of the other changes we've made have taken advantage of Web Crossing's numerous features and complete programmability; I've created a number of systems in Web Crossing that saved us huge amounts of effort when releasing updates, notifying people of new books, providing free ebooks to purchasers of our paper books, and more.
Looking Toward 2005 -- With our first year of hard work on the basics and adrenaline rushes for each book release behind us, it's time to think about where to focus for the coming year. All our sales so far have been through our own site, so we're looking into working with other retailers as a way of introducing more people to our books. The partnership with Peachpit Press to publish print collections was the first major step in that direction, and we're having conversations with a variety of companies about reselling the ebooks. (Needless to say, if you're interested in reselling, contact me.)
One easy way reselling can happen right now is through eSellerate's affiliate program, which enables you to sell not just our ebooks, but many other products from companies that use eSellerate. eSellerate's program is a bit clumsier than others I've used, and there are two important things to remember. First, you must sign up to sell a product on the affiliate Web site; you can't just build a custom URL on your own. Second, it's a good idea to sign up to sell all our ebooks, since you receive the 10 percent affiliate percentage on only those you've added to your account. As with all affiliate programs, success requires carrying a lot of products and matching that with a lot of traffic. If you're interested, sign up below.
Another area in which we hope to focus is the back end aspect of producing ebooks. We've learned a ton about creating good PDFs over the last year, and although none of it is rocket science, I'm less surprised than I used to be at the paucity of well-done PDFs. The fact of the matter is that good PDF creation and manipulation tools are sorely lacking, particularly in Mac OS X (PDF Enhancer from PDF Sages and Apago is a notable exception, as is PDFpen from SmileOnMyMac). Without decent tools, very few people have expended the energy to develop the necessary knowledge of how to create good PDFs, and what knowledge people do have tends to be highly specific and thus not generally applicable. I've read a number of books about PDF, and almost universally, they merely describe what's obvious from the (often annoying) interface in Acrobat Professional. Some level of manual intervention will likely always be necessary, but we're hoping to identify and eliminate many of the tedious aspects of making PDFs.
Along with our PDF efforts, we've been creating processes for how we develop, write, edit, and publish a title. Our next goal is to figure out how to package and train others in those processes so less of the nitty-gritty exists only in our heads and so our authors can move from concept to finished ebook more quickly and easily. Lots of authors have contacted us about wanting to write Take Control titles, but we've been too overwhelmed with our existing authors and projects to take on more. We hope that we can restart discussions with those authors to bring you expert advice on even more diverse topics - it would be nice to double our title count for the next year.
Lastly, aside from some extremely welcome coverage for individual books in various Macintosh news sites and one major article about Take Control in Wired News (later picked up by Slashdot), we've primarily focused on the TidBITS audience (a sensible move, given the interested and highly discerning nature of the average TidBITS reader). But Apple keeps selling about 750,000 Macs every quarter, and I've heard that nearly 50 percent of sales at the Apple Stores are to people new to the Mac, so that tells me there are a lot of users out there we could be helping, if only we could reach them. Figuring out how to market effectively outside our core TidBITS audience is also a major goal for next year, and we're open to ideas beyond the obvious; Take Control is about doing things differently.
Let me close, then, with a round of thanks to all of you who have purchased our ebooks; your support and kind words have helped sustain us through all too many long nights. And from Tonya and myself, special thanks to the authors, editors, and translators who helped make this first year a reality, in particular Joe Kissell, Matt Neuburg, Kirk McElhearn, Glenn Fleishman, Tom Negrino, Jeff Tolbert, and Caroline Rose. If we keep it fun and always remember the goal of helping people regain control of their computers, the world will be a better place for us all.
Article 6 of 8 in series
As of today, the Take Control publishing project that Tonya and I started in 2003 marks its second year. We've come a long way from our first copy of Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther," and since we've been tracking Take Control's progress here in TidBITS all along, I want to share what we've accomplished and give you a sense of where we're goingShow full article
As of today, the Take Control publishing project that Tonya and I started in 2003 marks its second year. We've come a long way from our first copy of Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther," and since we've been tracking Take Control's progress here in TidBITS all along, I want to share what we've accomplished and give you a sense of where we're going. But first, to celebrate the anniversary, we're having a week-long, 50 percent-off sale on every one of our ebooks. Just use coupon code CPN51024TC2 when placing an order to cut your grand total in half (the link below automatically enters the coupon for you; also note that you can have only one coupon per order).
Cold Hard Numbers -- For our second year, we stayed roughly on par with the number of ebooks we published and sold. We released 13 new titles and 19 updates, a few of which were minor, though many others offered significant amounts of new and improved information. That's one more new title than our first year, and one fewer update, though with so many more total titles in our library, the number of necessary updates was quite reduced, largely through better editing and production procedures. We sold nearly 24,000 copies in our first year, and our second year has seen about 31,000 copies sold, which is about a 30 percent increase. For those doing the math, that's a total of about 55,000 copies, and while that's across 25 titles, we're pleased.
No individual ebook this year matched the 6,500 copies we sold of "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther," although "Take Control of Upgrading to Tiger" has broken the 4,500 mark, "Take Control of Customizing Tiger" is nearing 4,300, and "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups" is approaching 3,800. Of our most recent titles, we have seen particularly strong early interest in "Take Control of Your Wi-Fi Security" and the just-released "Take Control of Permissions in Mac OS X."
Although our ebooks see a sales spike at release, like print books, they continue to sell over time, and because they're electronic, we're happy to keep them available as long as people want them; we have plenty of room in our virtual warehouses and can maintain a one-to-one inventory ratio at all times. Interestingly, August 2005 was the first month that a particular ebook (not counting translations) didn't sell any copies: both "Take Control of Sharing Files in Panther" and "Take Control of Users & Accounts in Panther" struck out in August, but rebounded to sell a few copies in September and October.
Honestly, we wanted to publish more books this year, but the massive push to have four books ready at the exact minute Apple released Tiger (tweaked appropriately for different time zones around the world, even) took a huge amount of time and energy in the early part of the year, and recovering from that effort took a while as well. Plus, as anyone who has written a book knows, even shorter titles like ours can take longer than expected if life intervenes, as it is wont to do.
Although our Tiger ebooks certainly sold well, they didn't match up to their equivalent Panther editions for a variety of reasons. Most notably, because of the long delay for Tiger, there was a lot more information available about it right away, both on the Internet and in print, increasing the competition for attention. Also, Panther was a much more significant upgrade from Jaguar than Tiger was from Panther, so it's entirely likely that many people simply didn't feel the need for extra documentation. Since so many people had read the Panther editions, it's entirely possible that they felt sufficiently empowered to tackle Tiger without updated help from our authors. And finally, Tiger lacked the showstopper bugs (like FireWire hard drive erasures and RAM incompatibility) that caused later adopters to approach the Panther upgrade with more trepidation and desire for assistance.
One last nod to numerology. The Take Control team decided to support the hurricane relief effort by donating 10 percent of our proceeds for the month of September to the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund. Thanks to sales of two new titles published that month, the total donation came to $1,865. It may be the merest drop among the hundreds of billions that will eventually be required, but every bit helps, and unlike with taxes, the ability to specify where the funds should be used helps us feel that we're making a difference.
New Tools -- Figuring out which titles will sell is tricky work, and we've guessed both right and wrong (though we're happy with the content in all of our books). We've also heard lots of suggestions, but for topics that are outside our areas of expertise, we've had trouble evaluating how popular an ebook might be. So I've created a Suggestion page where you can vote for titles that have already been proposed and suggest additional topics. The main thing that's unusual about this survey is that we ask that you vote for a hypothetical title only if you would buy it - please do not vote for a title just because you think it would be a good idea. Too many "I think it's a good idea, but I wouldn't buy it myself" votes could result in a huge waste of time for an author and editor. We'll also send you email should we publish a title for which you've voted. There aren't many titles to vote on right now, but I'll add new topics as they come in, so it's worth checking out the page every so often to see what's new. Thanks for helping us publish ebooks on the topics you want to read about!
If your organization is interested in a custom version of an ebook, or in a site license (for instance, to all our Tiger ebooks if you're deploying Tiger across hundreds of desktops), be sure to contact us. We did a pair of manuals in the last year, and we have an ebook in progress that was commissioned by a large Mac-using company that wanted custom documentation written, edited, and produced by professionals.
Fairly early on, we put a Help a Friend button on the cover of each book as a way readers could easily tell their friends and colleagues about an ebook they found helpful. It seemed like a great idea at the time, especially since we sweetened the deal with a 10 percent off coupon for both parties. But it didn't work particularly well - only about 100 orders used the coupon, and we've received way more enthusiastic email messages than that. In trying to figure out why the Help a Friend button hadn't worked better, I asked for opinions on TidBITS Talk and was told that my technique was lousy: I'd set it up via a Web form, and people didn't like using Web forms to send email, nor did they like putting their friends' email addresses into Web forms, and that assumed that they even remembered their friends' email addresses without an email address book.
So I went back to the drawing board and figured out a way for most people (it's browser-dependent) to have the Help a Friend button automatically generate a draft message in the user's email program with the relevant URL and coupon information. For people using older or incompatible browsers, the previous method still works. So, if you find our ebooks useful, we'd appreciate any referrals you can send our way. And, to make it worthwhile for you to click that Help a Friend button this week, the referral coupon is also good for 50 percent off instead of the usual 10 percent off.
Looking Backward and Forward -- When I look back at our goals for 2005, I see mixed success. Our partnership with Peachpit Press hasn't brought as many new readers to the fold as we would have liked, largely due to the difficulty of selling print-based computer books. Other avenues for reselling also haven't made significant impacts - for instance, we listed some of our ebooks on Amazon, but only a handful sold, perhaps because they're difficult to find when browsing, or because they need some favorable reviews in their descriptions. Listing some of our titles with Google Print has been entirely ineffective so far - not a single order has come from someone searching Google Print and finding the answer in one of our ebooks. Only a few affiliates have sold more than a couple of books, probably since most don't have large audiences.
On the bright side, our relationship with our friends at Small Dog Electronics has been fairly successful, and nearly 200 Macintosh user groups have joined our user group program to receive free review copies and discounts. Overall, though, we've learned that we should concentrate most of our efforts on direct sales, which is the most profitable approach anyway. It's possible that direct sales are best for electronic goods in general, and our low prices (which don't leave much margin for resellers) probably don't help either.
Our back end publishing process has also become significantly smoother, as we've learned more about PDF and assembled a toolkit of essential utilities. Tonya and I now rely on Flow, from Near-Time Systems, for the collaborative writing and editing process for all our PR materials (we're also using it more and more for TidBITS articles). BBEdit 8.2, with its tabbed editing, makes updating all the necessary Web pages as smooth as possible. PDF Enhancer from Apago and PDF Sages has become a key tool for compressing and optimizing PDFs, often shrinking them by 90 percent and more from their original size. And SmileOnMyMac's PDFpen Pro, particularly aided by a little AppleScript script written by Greg Scown of SmileOnMyMac, reduces the amount of time it takes me to create a sample of an ebook to a fraction of the time I spent in Acrobat Professional. And in general, I've distilled the overall process of setting up a new ebook in eSellerate to a science - it's not instantaneous, but it's about as fast as I can imagine given all the details in play.
Thanks to the increased ease of publishing, we're hoping to again up our title count next year, and to expand from our core Macintosh focus to more general topics that will still interest existing readers. After all, there's nothing wrong with doing new stuff, but it's also important to stick with what you do well, and to support one's early adopters. All that said, producing high quality content is hard work, and no matter how streamlined or automated our process is, at the end of the day, a smart person has to sit down and transfer his or her knowledge into the structure of an ebook, and a talented editor has to help make that knowledge understandable and enjoyable to read.
And that's where I'd like to close - with a hearty thanks for the ever-growing Take Control team who have created - and shared in - our success: authors Joe Kissell, Glenn Fleishman, Matt Neuburg, Kirk McElhearn, Jeff Tolbert, Tom Negrino, Larry Chen, Steve Sande, and Brian Tanaka, editors Caroline Rose, Jeff Carlson, Don Sellers, and Lea Galanter, and of course my co-publisher Tonya Engst. We have quite a few more authors in various stages of completion, so I'm confident that we'll be presenting all sorts of interesting ebooks in the next year. Thanks for your support!
Article 7 of 8 in series
We've now finished our third year of publishing electronic books in the Take Control series, and to celebrate that fact, we're having a 50 percent-off sale on every one of our ebooks through 13-Nov-06Show full article
We've now finished our third year of publishing electronic books in the Take Control series, and to celebrate that fact, we're having a 50 percent-off sale on every one of our ebooks through 13-Nov-06. Just use this link to visit our catalog and place an order; the discount will appear once you've added one or more ebooks to your cart in eSellerate (it doesn't apply to print books purchased through QOOP or Amazon.com, however). Along with the sale, I wanted to share some of our accomplishments over the last year and give you a sense of where we think we're going in the next year.
The Year in Numbers -- All told, we published 35 ebooks in our third year: 15 new titles, 14 updates, 2 translations, 3 Macworld Superguides, and the ebook version of my "iPhoto 6: Visual QuickStart Guide." That's two more new titles than last year, but five fewer updates. We reduced the number of updates through improved planning and by making it easier for authors to post new information on each ebook's Check for Updates Web page. This update mechanism makes new information available to readers more quickly than producing a new PDF every time something small changes.
The addition of the Macworld Superguides and the ebook version of my "iPhoto 6: Visual QuickStart Guide" brings our catalog to a total of 44 ebooks plus 8 translations. Of course, our earliest ebooks about Mac OS X 10.3 Panther sell only a few copies per month, and the translations also tend to sell only sporadically. We don't have enough titles yet to consider these a particularly long tail, but we're happy that those people who are buying the older ebooks can still find the assistance they need, something that can be difficult in the traditional book world where obsolete books are hard to find.
In terms of sales, we saw another increase, with about 34,000 copies sold, up from 31,000 last year, about a 10 percent increase. Although we had hoped to do better than that, it proved more difficult than expected without the additional sales generated by a major release of Mac OS X, as we had in our first year with Panther and our second year with Tiger. Our fingers are crossed for 2007's release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Overall, we've sold about 89,000 ebooks now, which puts us on target to surpass 100,000 sold sometime next year. I'll write more as we get closer, but we're planning to do something nice for the person who buys our 100,000th ebook.
From the perspective of individual titles, the best-selling ebook for our third year was Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac," with nearly 3,000 copies sold so far. But more interesting is that Joe's "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups," has been our steadiest seller over time, working its way up to more than 6,300 copies sold; that puts it second only to his seminal "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther." It's therefore not surprising that the "Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups" print book was performing well in Amazon.com's sales rankings until they ran out of stock a few days ago.
Making Printing Easier -- Our main accomplishment for the year was establishing our print-on-demand service. A portion of our readers do print their ebooks, and we wanted to provide a cost-effective way for readers to have the ebooks professionally printed, so the result looked like a book, not a pile of printer paper. With print-on-demand services abounding, it would seem easy to find a good service, but the options fell like dominos for many months - some used weird looking paper, many charged too much, and we needed a service whose financial reporting allowed us to determine how much to pay each author. What we really wanted was a system that we could plug in to our existing eSellerate shopping cart, but that proved impossible.
Eventually, we found a company called QOOP that could offer readers print-on-demand books as a secondary option for new ebooks as they came out, via each ebook's Check for Updates button. Readers who buy a new ebook and want to print can now purchase a nice spiral-bound copy. With "Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner," we started offering the option to buy a print book instead, right from our Web site, for those who want only a print version.
Our main challenge now is to standardize and clarify the print options for all the books, as much as is possible. Currently, close scrutiny of our catalog page reveals the format (print-on-demand, traditional book, etc.) in which each title is available, as does a look at the left side of any individual title's page. Another Web page about print-on-demand also summarizes the offerings and shows photos of one of the printed books.
Speaking of print, another big accomplishment was publishing two books with Peachpit Press. Along with Joe's "Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups," which I mentioned earlier, we also published Sharon Zardetto Aker's two ebooks about fonts in the form of "Real World Mac OS X Fonts."
Reflections and Ponderings -- One thing Tonya and I learned this year is that it's difficult and not necessarily desirable to keep pumping out new titles. The problem appears to be the attention to detail we find ourselves insisting on, which can slow down editing and which has made it difficult to delegate production tasks. As a result, publishing a new book or a significant update takes large amounts of time for us, time that we would like to spend on big-picture tasks that would benefit all the ebooks equally. For instance, the promotion we did with Apple to offer .Mac users an excerpt of "Take Control of .Mac" along with a discount required a lot of work and coordination, but proved quite successful across the board. Also, I have a number of ideas that require me to write code for our system, something I've been unable to find sufficient time to finish so far.
Another lesson for the year is that we have a lot to learn when it comes to expanding outside the technical world, and we'll be taking this more slowly in the future. Although Sam Seller's "Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket," might seem non-technical, it's really about how to use the Internet for a particular purpose, and it has performed entirely reasonably. More challenging has been Joe's "Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner," which has required us to learn how to market to a rather different audience, given that it has little intersection with the technical world. (For instance, note that we're donating $1 per copy of that ebook sold in the month of November to the San Francisco Food Bank, where Joe has volunteered, and which has plans to put him and the book on TV as part of an upcoming promotion. Exciting stuff!) Our goal here isn't to become a cookbook publisher, but to expose the Take Control series to a wider audience and to encourage more people to try an ebook.
Unfortunately, the the task of producing good PDFs remains fussy. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - without Apago's PDF Enhancer 3.1 and PDFpenPro 3.0 from SmileOnMyMac, I'd go mad trying to bend Acrobat Professional to my needs. PDF Enhancer works magic in compressing our PDFs to reasonable sizes (often reducing them by 80 to 90 percent), performing a variety of scaling and image manipulations for our print-on-demand versions, and generally fixing problems deep in our PDF files. PDFpenPro is also helpful for re-arranging pages for the print-on-demand versions, deleting pages for samples, and stamping sample and class copies, all things that are much clumsier in Acrobat Professional.
Too many things in Microsoft Word are also fussy - for instance, internal links must be created in Word's Hyperlink dialog, which hasn't been updated since before the mouse scroll wheel appeared and which lacks type-to-select for selecting headings. (Word's built-in internal reference feature has proven too buggy to be relied upon.) Even with automation via iKey, Word's Hyperlink feature is time-consuming, unpredictable, and at times uncooperative. Further, those internal links can be brought to life only through a PDF-generation pass that must take place in the Windows versions of Word and Acrobat. At least we can now run those on Tonya's new MacBook Pro via Parallels Desktop. Here's hoping the next version of Microsoft Word for the Mac provides better tools for generating fully linked and bookmarked PDFs.
Thank You! From our perspective, Take Control has been extremely successful - we are thrilled at how many people own a dozen or more of our ebooks, and we love reading success stories from readers who write in to tell us how an ebook made a difference in their lives. We also truly enjoy experimenting in the world of electronic books.
Our primary thanks for that must go to the many thousands of people who have purchased our ebooks. Although we certainly had high hopes back in October 2003 when we published our first ebook, we had no idea that Take Control would become a central part of our lives, that it would stretch us in so many ways, or that it would introduce us to so many interesting people. Thanks also to our talented crop of authors and editors, without whom none of this would be possible: Joe Kissell, Glenn Fleishman, Matt Neuburg, Kirk McElhearn, Tom Negrino, Jeff Tolbert, Caroline Rose, Larry Chen, Scott Knaster, Steve Sande, Brian Tanaka, Clark Humphrey, Lea Galanter, Andy Affleck, Sharon Zardetto Aker, Sam Sellers, Arnie Keller, Dan Frakes, Michael Cohen, Don Sellers, Jeff Carlson, and Karen Anderson. And from me personally, a special thanks to Tonya, who does way more than many people realize.
Article 8 of 8 in series
It has been five years since we started the Take Control series of electronic books, and we're celebrating with a 50-percent-off sale through 14-Oct-08. We also share Take Control sales numbers and other stats.Show full article
It's almost hard to believe, but we're coming up on the 5th anniversary of the Take Control ebook series. To celebrate, we're offering a 50% discount on all the ebooks in our catalog - just use this link to browse through our titles (check all the tabs!) with the necessary coupon code pre-loaded; the discount appears once you add items to your cart. The sale will continue through Tuesday, 14-Oct-08. (The sale is only for ebooks, though once you buy a Take Control ebook you can get a print copy - discounted by the full cover price - via the Print link on the first page of the PDF.)
We started Take Control back in October of 2003, publishing our first title - Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Upgrading to Panther" - simultaneously with Apple's release of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. By the time Tiger rolled around in April of 2005, we were ready with four ebooks for what's called in the industry a "day and date" release, and we repeated that feat with five ebooks for Leopard in October of 2007.
Over that time we've published 58 Take Control titles, more free updates than I have time to count, and a slew of new editions that we've always offered at a discount to owners of previous editions. Added up, that's nearly 8,000 pages of text! All 58 books, combined with the ebook versions of my iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide and the Macworld Superguides that we resell, have sold over 155,000 copies. That may not be Harry Potter territory, but it's done a bang-up job of helping us and our authors pay the rent and keep the lights on.
But the real story here is the confidence you, our readers, have shown in us. Back in 2003, an electronic book that existed only in PDF format was an oddity at best. While we worked hard to address the criticisms of PDFs in general, and ebooks in particular, you trusted us enough to buy those first titles and to come back for more (some readers have complete collections!). There's little more terrifying than starting a business with a product that almost no one has ever purchased before. The initial success of our first books and your words of support gave us the incentive to publish more titles and devote more time and resources to improving Take Control. That has resulted in some of our most popular titles, like Joe's "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups" and Glenn Fleishman's books on AirPort networking.
Not everything we've tried has worked out so well. We had high hopes for translations, but the difficulty of marketing in multiple languages and markets proved overwhelming. Our furthest foray from the computer industry - Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner" - is an excellent book (and we still rely on it every year!), but has been a commercial failure. And despite constantly beaming powerful mind rays at Cupertino, Apple still hasn't released an iPod that's ideal for reading PDF-based ebooks (the iPhone and iPod touch can be made to, but it's not yet the experience we want).
Nevertheless, stay tuned, because we're always working on new and updated ebooks, and we have a number of other ideas that we're trying to implement, ideas that might change the world of electronic books as much as Take Control did back in 2003.