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Publish (Electronically) and Perish?

The revolution in electronic publishing of books is still happening, though more slowly than many expected. But some of us still try to nudge things along, as I did last year by letting people who pre-ordered my iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide download a PDF version via Amazon. That was a huge success, with thousands of copies sold. The book actually hit #2 on Amazon’s best-seller list briefly. However, a recent event shows that electronic publishing, even when done with the best of intentions, can have huge unintended consequences. More on those in a minute.


Electronic iPhoto VQS — My experience encouraged me to go further with my iPhoto 2 Visual QuickStart Guide, which I’ve now finished writing and which should be out in late April or early May. Although setting things up with Amazon was too much work, I personally gave PDF versions of chapters to anyone who pre-ordered the book. The folks who took me up on the offer have appreciated it, from the feedback I’ve gotten, but the overall numbers were rather disappointing. Only 39 people pre-ordered and asked to see the pre-publication chapters; my estimate was somewhat higher. It’s possible that the TidBITS audience doesn’t feel in need of a book about iPhoto 2, but whatever the reason, it was probably more work than was worthwhile for the effort. Live and learn.


(The offer remains open, and the entire book other than the index is now available for download; just email your receipt to <[email protected]>.)

Real World Electronic Publishing — The positive experience with the first edition of the iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide has convinced me that there is little or no downside to publishing a book in electronic form, even though it can theoretically be copied and shared without payment. The topic came up while Glenn Fleishman and I were working on The Wireless Networking Starter Kit, and in fact, we’re pursuing a method of distributing an electronic version of that book. But the most interesting discussions we had surrounded the fate of Real World GoLive 6, a 922-page tome that Glenn and TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson wrote last year. Although this was essentially the third edition of a book that had done well in previous editions, Real World GoLive 6 suffered badly in the sales department. The implosion of the dot-com economy (every company of which needed a snazzy Web site) hurt the sales of both Web authoring software and books about that software, and it seems as though Macromedia Dreamweaver may be beating out GoLive for what remains of the market. Whatever the reason, Glenn and Jeff’s book was selling terribly.

At some point when Glenn was moaning about the book’s sales to me, I suggested that perhaps they should just give it away as a PDF, since clearly there weren’t any sales that could be lost. If anything, letting people download a copy and see if it had useful information might drive some additional sales, and one way or another, the months of work they put in wouldn’t be sitting unused on a shelf or in a warehouse.

Glenn and Jeff liked the idea, and so Glenn put the effort into producing a PDF version of the book (doing it well is harder than you’d expect). He then uploaded the file to a friend’s server, which is co-located in a rack at Level 3 Communications, a major hosting company. Glenn put a note on the book’s Web site and sent out a few messages to announce the release, including one to MacCentral, which picked up the story.


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That’s when the insanity began. Thousands upon thousands of people started downloading the book, which was a hefty 23 MB file. I was chatting with Glenn that evening, and he was concerned about the performance of the site. In an attempt to help, I ran the PDF through PDF Enhancer, an amazing utility from PDF Sages that shrinks PDF files by significant amounts and makes them draw faster as well. Glenn didn’t want the screenshots to get too blurry, so I gave him back a PDF that was only 20 percent smaller (at 40 percent smaller, the screenshots weren’t as clear). But Glenn was happy that the smaller file could improve performance, and I went to bed thinking all was well.


When I talked to Glenn the next day, though, it was clear that all was not well, and he was in a state of shock. He had forgotten that the co-located server at Level 3 Communications was charged based on the ninth busiest hour in a month, at a rate that may cost as much as $15,000 for that level of usage (over 200 GB downloaded by more than 10,000 people). Unfortunately, Level 3 didn’t have any bandwidth limiters or warnings in place. Since it was inconceivable that anything he’d done on that server before would have resulted in such usage, Glenn had simply blanked on the possibility that it could result in massive charges, and the poor sales of the paper edition meant that the instant popularity of the PDF edition came as a huge surprise. Every decision Glenn had made was reasonable, but the combination of them was financially ruinous.

Needless to say, Glenn removed the file as soon as he realized, but the damage was done, and he’s been trying to figure out how to recover since. Unfortunately, he has no way of contacting the people who already downloaded the book to see if they’d be willing to kick in a few bucks to help pay for the bandwidth. Since he’s most likely to get help from people who benefit, even in a small way, from the electronic version of the book, he has made it available again via the Info-Mac Archive’s network of mirror sites and thanks to the generosity of Bare Bones Software (the links are on the book’s home page, linked below). In the event that people donate more than the final bandwidth bill (Level 3 hasn’t said what it will be yet), Glenn has said he’ll donate the extra to Project Gutenberg, the non-profit grandfather of all Internet electronic book projects.



The moral of the story is that there is a downside to electronic publishing, and even those things you do with the best of intentions can come back to bite you if not approached with the utmost care. Glenn has certainly learned his lesson, and I hope enough people will see fit to reward his generosity in giving away the book for free that the lesson won’t be too painful. If you want to support authors distributing their books for free, I encourage you to take a look at Real World GoLive 6 and consider helping out.

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