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!