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.