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Celebrating Ten Years of Take Control

Ten years ago, in October 2003, we launched our Take Control series of electronic books with Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Upgrading to Panther” (see “Do You Want to Take Control?,” 20 October 2003). Last week we unveiled the seventh installment of that title, Joe’s “Take Control of Upgrading to Mavericks.”

Across the intervening decade, we’ve both witnessed and helped drive numerous changes throughout the publishing industry. On the occasion of our tenth anniversary, I wanted to share a few reflections, along with some interesting statistics to provide a sense of what we’ve accomplished.

How Far We’ve Come, in Numbers — We released our first title, “Take Control of Upgrading to Panther,” simultaneously with Matt Neuburg’s “Take Control of Customizing Panther,” so we had two books in our catalog out of the gate. Within the first year, we had published 12 titles plus 5 translations, along with 20 free updates. Translations didn’t prove to make business sense, but a decade in, we’ve published 127 titles, a number that includes major editions and title changes (such as the seven “Take Control of Upgrading to…” books). Our free minor updates are harder to track, but I’m guessing we’ve given away at least another 100.

Unsurprisingly, our star author is Joe Kissell, who has turned out an astonishing 42 books over the decade. Among our current authors, he’s followed by Glenn Fleishman with 17, Sharon Zardetto with 11, Kirk McElhearn with 9, Matt Neuburg and Jeff Tolbert with 8 each, Michael Cohen with 6, and Jeff Carlson with 3. Other authors who have graced our catalog include Ted Landau, Steve Sande, Brian Tanaka, Andy Affleck, Karen Anderson, Larry Chen, Scott Knaster, Andy Baird, Arnie Keller, Clark Humphrey, Sam Sellers, and Tom Negrino. And we’d be lost without the editing help of Dan Frakes, Kelly Turner, Geoff Duncan, Caroline Rose, Don Sellers, and Lea Galanter, with a number of authors doing double duty. Of course, even if it’s not
always obvious, Tonya Engst has edited far more books than anyone else and takes a close pass on nearly every title to make sure it fits with the series and meets our high standards. And, we recently brought in Lauri Reinhardt to help us keep up with customer questions, since our desire to reply to everyone promptly was increasingly in conflict with our desire to publish new ebooks quickly.

Much as we love our current authors, a major challenge has been figuring out how to bring more into the fold. We want great technical writers who can not only follow our style sheet and work with our agile publishing techniques, but have the fortitude to produce book-length documents and stay involved with titles over time, potentially for years. And, as much as we’ve tried to scale up to produce more books more quickly, writing, editing, and publishing top-notch Take Control books remains a high-touch process.

Sales have been very good to our small business, with nearly 375,000 titles sold for the decade. While that may not compare to much larger publishers, their title counts dwarf ours. We also sell quite differently, with over 90 percent of our sales this year being direct rather than through resellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBooks Store, and O’Reilly Media. Together, the bookstores account for only 8.5 percent of our sales so far in 2013. (On the plus side, unlike traditional publishers, we weren’t hurt at all by the demise of Borders, which had over 500 bookstores in the United States in 2010, but closed every one of them by September 2011.) Software firms that resell copies of our books about their products are
more important, accounting for nearly 25 percent of this year’s sales.

Our best-selling title of all time is Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Mac OS X Backups,” which, across five editions and a title change to “Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac,” has sold over 21,000 copies. Glenn Fleishman’s “Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network” is in second place, with over 17,000 copies sold over five versions and editions. For a single edition, Kirk McElhearn’s “Take Control of Scrivener 2” holds the top spot, with nearly 13,000 copies sold, many through Scrivener’s developer, Literature
& Latte. And while Joe’s “Take Control of iCloud,” for which we issued four free updates over the course of its first edition, is still closing in on 11,000 copies, its higher cover price makes it the top-grossing single-edition title, at over $110,000. Joe is working on a new second edition right now.

Besides helping our authors earn a living and paying our own salaries, Take Control revenues played an essential role in keeping TidBITS running for years, until we started the TidBITS membership program (see “Support TidBITS by Becoming a TidBITS Member,” 12 December 2011). We’ve also reinvested earnings into projects like our new logo and cover design, and a long-running Web site redesign that we hope to unveil soon.

We’re particularly proud of some of our early innovations, such as a way for readers to check for and download free updates, a feature that has only recently come to Apple’s iBooks Store. And it’s good to see other publishers now producing ebooks that go beyond static text to include internal navigation links and links to external references and multimedia, where appropriate (see “Why Plain Text Books Are Here to Stay,” 14 February 2013). If only our policy of avoiding
DRM was more widespread!

An account-based library that tracks all purchased titles and lets readers download updates and get discounts on new editions was also a major achievement for us — we now have over 48,000 customers in our system (where we intentionally don’t store personal information like credit card numbers or addresses for privacy reasons). And our system, unlike those of Apple and Google, acknowledges that many people have multiple email addresses and lets users merge purchases made with different addresses.

And what readers we have! I can’t begin to tell you how honored we are by the fact that we have over 600 customers who have each purchased 50 or more ebooks from us, over 2,500 who have bought 25 or more ebooks, and nearly 9,000 with 10 or more ebooks. That’s loyalty, and I literally don’t know how to adequately express my gratitude for such support, over such a long time. Thank you.

Formats and Publishing Tools — A key aspect of deciding that we could create an ebook series back in 2003 was the widespread adoption of Adobe’s Portable Document Format — PDF to its friends. PDF had been around since 1993, but despite the free availability of Adobe Reader, it was Apple’s inclusion of Preview with Mac OS X that gave us the confidence to base our ebooks on that format. PDF served us well until the rise of the iPad in 2010 pushed us toward needing to offer ebooks in the EPUB format and the popularity of the Kindle encouraged us to add the Mobipocket format as well.

Nevertheless, perhaps because PDF is entirely readable on the iPad and larger Kindle models, PDF remains our most popular format. Based on downloads of free updates, 60 percent of our readers prefer PDF, with 30 percent picking EPUB and 10 percent Mobipocket. With Apple finally bundling iBooks with OS X 10.9 Mavericks, EPUB adoption is likely to increase, though the paginated PDF, where we have more control over layout and graphic size, will remain our primary format for some time.

Deeply related to the need to produce different formats has been our choice of publishing tools. We started with Microsoft Word, in part because of its change tracking and commenting features, but largely because we could move each file over to Word for Windows (running in a virtual machine) to create a PDF that turned the file’s headings into PDF bookmarks and links into PDF links. Our first EPUB and Mobipocket files were created for us by our distribution partner, O’Reilly, by a conversion house in India, and while we were grateful for the help, we weren’t too happy with the results or the associated delay.

So when Apple gave Pages ’09 the capability to export EPUB in a 2011 update (see “How Take Control Makes EPUBs in Pages,” 30 September 2011), we jumped on it, despite the enormous effort of converting files. Pages could import our ebooks’ Word documents, and they could be made usable with only a few hours of cleanup work. (Perfect conversion is a myth.) Pages could also create a PDF with links, though not bookmarks, a problem we solved with Debenu PDF Aerialist. That gave us PDF and EPUB, and a reasonably powerful word processor with decent change tracking and commenting features. For a while, O’Reilly
continued to create Mobipocket files for us, until our friend Serenity Caldwell at Macworld tipped us off to the non-trivial steps necessary to prepare an EPUB for Mobipocket conversion by Amazon’s Kindle Previewer tool. We continued to improve the layout of our EPUB and Mobipocket versions using a complex BBEdit text factory. At last we had full control over our production process!

At least we did, until Apple released a minor update to Pages 4.3 in December 2012, which broke the program’s EPUB export capability without so much as a release note (“Pages 4.3 vs. BBEdit 10.5: How Apple Doesn’t Respect Its Users,” 26 January 2013). With some difficulty, we managed to downgrade to Pages 4.2 and keep working, but the writing was on the wall. That’s when I discovered Leanpub, a publishing service that takes in Markdown files and images and spits out PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (“Push-button Book Publishing with Leanpub,” 26 April 2013). Leanpub is very cool, and I recommend it
highly for anyone interested in self-publishing.

To create the necessary Markdown files for Leanpub, we switched word processors for a third time, to Nisus Software’s Nisus Writer Pro, which had been our favorite in the days before Mac OS X and which finally returned to that level of power with version 2.0 in 2011 (for details, see “Nisus Writer Pro 2.0: The Review,” 8 June 2011). Nisus Writer Pro 2.0.6 has the necessary change tracking and commenting features, can export a PDF with links and bookmarks, and has a full-fledged macro language that Joe used to create a macro that turns a fully formatted Take Control manuscript into proper Markdown for Leanpub. Nisus Writer Pro isn’t without its
bugs and quirks, but unlike Apple, Nisus Software acknowledged our bug reports instantly and fixed the problems in test releases (imagine!). We’re still refining how we work with Nisus Writer Pro (and requesting tweaks and new features), but it’s great to finally have such text-processing power at our fingertips.

Of course, we rely on a wide variety of other tools, such as Adobe Acrobat Pro for PDF polishing, BLT for link testing, Aerialist for extracting links, PDF Enhancer for cleaning up our PDFs, Google Docs for writing marketing material, BBEdit for reformatting book text for posting on the Web, Automator for file distribution, and more.

That’s where we stand now. But if there’s one thing that we’ve seen, and which you can deduce from the stories and dates above, it’s that constant change is inevitable in the publishing world, and that the rate of change has increased radically in the last few years. We’re not entirely happy about this, since the effort that goes into revising systems and learning new tools takes away from publishing new books, but hopefully each new initiative brings with it new capabilities and additional efficiencies.

In the end, we enjoy producing great books that help you, our readers. As long as that remains true, and people continue to support our work, we’ll keep on publishing.

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