I’m inordinately pleased to announce that as of 24 October 2023, Take Control Books is celebrating its 20th anniversary (for our intro article, read “Do You Want to Take Control?,” 20 October 2003). Tonya and I launched Take Control all those years ago with the able assistance of some of the top authors in the Mac world, and it changed all our lives.
But after nearly 14 years, it was time to do something different, so we sold Take Control to our star author at the time, Joe Kissell (see “Take Control Books Acquired by Joe Kissell,” 1 May 2017). That was a carefully calculated move because all three of us wanted new challenges while continuing to provide readers with the high-quality content they’d come to expect and maintaining the not-insignificant livelihoods that Take Control generated for our authors and editors. Although we always had the utmost confidence in Joe’s abilities to keep Take Control running, the fact that it has now reached its 20th anniversary shows just how good a job he has done.
To celebrate the anniversary, Joe has two special offers:
- Buy like it’s 2003: Through the end of the day (Central Standard Time) on 26 October 2023, Joe has rolled all the prices back to where our first books debuted in 2003: just $5, regardless of what the price is usually. I was always amazed—and honored—when I saw how many Take Control titles some people had purchased, and sales like this make it easy to ensure you always have the technical information you need on your virtual bookshelf. No coupon code is required; just visit the Take Control Books catalog and select what you want.
- Cook a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat: Every so often, we took a chance on a thoroughly unusual title, and no book was further afield than Joe’s Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner. I remember throwing a big party on our deck in August to test all the recipes and instructions while playing Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Although we loved that book, it never sold well, suggesting that our future wasn’t in cookbooks. After many years, Joe has updated the book to fix a few infelicities and bring it into his modern publishing system. To celebrate that fact, you can download the book for free through Thanksgiving Day in the US—23 November 2023. (But get it before then because the instructions start a few days before.) Even if you already know how you like to cook Thanksgiving dinner, it might be a welcome gift for younger friends or relatives intimidated by the enormity of the project.
We’ve also collaborated with our friend Chuck Joiner to record a series of MacVoices podcast episodes about Take Control. The first episode is available now and features Joe, Tonya, and me talking about where Take Control came from and what set it apart from the print books—and the print publishing model—of the day. Later this week, Chuck will be releasing two additional episodes based on a call we’re having with as many of the Take Control authors and editors as we can round up. It should be a rollicking good time, but since it hasn’t happened yet, I have no idea what we’ll end up talking about. Heck, I may hear stories from authors that they never wanted to tell me before!
The Impact of Take Control
There is one discussion I wanted to get down here in TidBITS for posterity: thoughts about the impact that Take Control has had and where it might go in the future. I’ve invited Joe to chat about the topic here.
Adam: We’ve talked a lot about the nitty-gritty of Take Control over the years, Joe, but seldom have we taken a step back to discuss the overall impact of the ebooks. I’d like to say “on the world,” but that feels a little grandiose, so let’s settle for “on our readers.”
As I noted above, I always loved trawling through the TC Orders database I built in Panorama—are you still using that?—to see how many titles our most loyal readers had collected. There were people with 30, 40, 50 books or more. And many of them have written to us over the years to tell us how useful they find the books. (Tonya still fondly remembers the guy who thanked her for her help by sending her a picture of his pony.)
Joe: We still rely heavily on Panorama, though not to track individual orders. And yes, we have customers who have bought well over 100 books from us over the years!
I’ve continued to get messages like the ones you’re describing. I think the key impact our books provide is confidence in navigating an ever-changing world. As you well know, our approach, from the very beginning, has been to put well-researched, expert advice in friendly, plain English. The goal was always to approximate the experience of letting a smart friend walk you through something complex that they happen to know a lot about without making it complicated or tedious.
Adam: Right, and something we never considered back in 2003 was the effect change can have on users’ mental health. Change is hard for many people.
Joe: We do have a certain number of “Snow Leopard Forever!” readers. But even people who keep all their hardware and software updated sometimes get stuck. Apple or another software developer will decide, for seemingly capricious reasons, to change the way something has looked or worked for years, remove a feature, or introduce something that appears never to have been tested by actual humans. Not only does a change like that mess up workflows and frustrate muscle memory, it can also make people feel like they’ve done something wrong. A recurring theme in our books is, “It’s not you, it’s the developer. You’re not stupid. You didn’t do anything wrong. We don’t know why they did this either, but here’s how to cope with it.” Even in situations where we don’t have a solution, we often find that just reassuring readers that they’re not alone and haven’t made some grave mistake is calming and reassuring.
Adam: The tech world can be exasperating when it comes to change. On the one hand, we’re only where we are today because engineers and developers kept thinking they had a better way to do something. I don’t look back fondly on rebuilding the desktop, fiddling with SCSI terminators, or 32K email gateway limitations. On the other hand, particularly when it comes to interface, it often seems as though developers and designers are changing behavior and moving things around purely so they look “modern” or feel new. It’s change for change’s sake, with little or no philosophical or research-based underpinning for why it was made.
That’s problematic not just from a productivity standpoint, but also from that mental health perspective I mentioned. Post-pandemic, we’re in a different space with regard to acknowledging that mental health is something that everyone deals with, and I’d argue that for many people, technical books provide confidence and stability in a way that shorter-form content can’t.
Joe: When we started, we thought of our books as more like long magazine articles, and that format made sense to us and the TidBITS audience. All these years later, what we now call “magazines” are mostly ad-filled Web sites, and people under a certain age (let’s say, 50 or so) are more likely to go to places like Google or YouTube or (gasp) TikTok to look for quick answers to questions rather than reading all the background and detail that a book provides. The book, as a format for conveying information, has largely fallen out of favor for how-to technical content of the sort we specialize in. But it can do things that free, ad-supported sites and videos can’t. It can explore a topic in depth, without any worries about ulterior motives (such as search engine optimization or catering to advertisers or affiliate programs). And it can serve as a perpetual reference, even as network connections flake out, links break, and sites come and go.
Adam: And of course, the beauty of the Take Control ebook model was always that it allows updates as the facts of the outside world change, hopefully providing the best of both the “container of knowledge” and the fluidity of digital delivery. Plus, it drives me up the wall when the “answers” people find are incomplete, out-of-date, or actively wrong. Take Control has always put great stock in both aiming for accuracy to start and verifying during an editing pass.
But if only people our age or older value—and benefit from—technical books, where do we go from here? Is there a way to repackage the content and the business model to lure those who think they just want a quick answer into a space where they’re encouraged to absorb more of the background that helps them move forward on their own?
I realize you may not have an answer or be ready to share if you do, but do you have thoughts about the direction that those of us who document the tech world can go to help users more effectively than is being done now? Maybe tech support as therapy?
Joe: I would like to explore other ways of presenting information, including some free articles on our site and once again dipping our toes into the world of video. (I did the one and only Take Control video course to date, back in 2012, on working with your iPad! Perhaps that sort of thing will resurface in some form.) I have a rather long list of book updates, bug fixes, and feature requests I have to deal with before we can start any big new thing, but I’m making progress on that list.
The one thing I know I don’t want to do is give away free content (whether as articles or videos) while demanding that people look at intrusive third-party ads. That whole model has made everyone’s online experience so much worse, in terms of both user experience and the deeply troubling privacy issues. So, if and when we start repackaging some of our material, we have to find a way to do so that respects our audience, that treats them the way I would like to be treated—even if that means our stuff won’t appear at the top of a search for those wanting a quick fix.
But tech support as therapy. I kind of like that! A whole different way of looking at things. I’m not sure how we’d pull that off, but I’m going to think about it. (My list of “possibly great, or possibly terrible ideas” has included, for quite a few years, an article or site or something pairing technical problems with drinks. I suppose some people might consider that therapeutic.) I can imagine saying, “Restart your Mac. While you’re waiting, close your eyes, take a dozen slow, deep breaths, and repeat your mantra: ‘It’s not my fault.’”
Adam: I have to ponder the mental health implications surrounding hardware and software, too, and I look forward to seeing how Take Control evolves over the next few years. I won’t pretend we will be back here in 20 more years, but there’s plenty of time to experiment with newer and better ways to help Apple users.
Joe: Agreed. I love helping people solve problems and finding ways to make complicated subjects easy to understand. Maybe we won’t still be doing this for another 20 years, but 10 seems plausible. That gives us a lot of time to try new things.