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Take Control’s Third Anniversary (and 50% Off Sale!)

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, 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’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.

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