Beta Books! How The Pragmatic Bookshelf Is Rethinking the Author-Reader Relationship

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This morning, I came across this quote in Predictable Revenuea book by Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler:

People, when under pressure or stress, tend to retreat to the safe place of what they know rather than taking the risk of trying new things.

If that doesn’t describe legacy publishing, I don’t know what does. So when I happened upon the website for The Pragmatic Bookshelf, I was pleasantly surprised by how this publisher is rethinking the traditional publishing process and the conversation that doesn’t take place between authors and readers.

Pragmatic BookshelfThe perfect illustration of their innovative approach is what they call their “Beta-Book Program.” The company produces technical materials for programmers, and because they know their readers so well (the founders Andrew Hunt and Dave Thomas are programmers themselves), they trust those readers to offer valuable input during the production of their books. Rather than wait for the Amazon reviews to trickle in after the book is officially “final,” they offer readers a chance to provide feedback while it’s still in development.

Andy Hunt, one of the founders I mentioned above, graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions about beta books. We also discussed the evils of Microsoft Word, the importance of knowing your readers well, and their fantastic submission guidelines (check them out!).

Though the beta-book idea might not be a good fit for a fiction or children’s book publisher, I think it’s a terrific concept for nonfiction models, particularly in the education and travel markets because of how fast that content can change. In the comments section at the end of this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as well.

Wolf: What is a beta book and how did you come up with the idea (and the courage) to test a book on readers before it’s final?

Andrew Hunt

Andy Hunt

Andy: A “beta book” is a book that is still in the process of being written; it’s not yet finished, and not yet set in stone. We find there are two great benefits to releasing technical books this way. First, our readers get access to content much earlier than they would otherwise. For fast-changing technologies, this early access is critical. Second, and perhaps more importantly, readers get to participate in the book. They can suggest areas that need greater coverage, or portions that aren’t needed, and so on. We find it really emphasizes the idea that a book is a conversation between the author and the reader, not a monologue.

We’ve been doing this for nearly ten years now, along with offering ebooks in addition to print. How did we come up with the idea? Well, Dave Thomas and I (Andy Hunt) founded this company, and we are programmers, so we run our publishing company like a well-run software project as much as possible. The idea of doing beta releases came somewhat naturally.

Wolf: As a longtime editor myself, just the word “errata” gives me acid reflux. But you’ve lifted the veil from the errata file and created what seems to be a highly participatory process for your book editing. So has the feedback from readers taken some of the pressure off of your editors to get it exactly right the first time? Are there drawbacks?

Andy: I don’t think it’s relieved the pressure in that sense—our authors and editors still work very hard to get it right the first time. But more importantly, it furthers the idea that we work “with” our readers to everyone’s benefit. In addition, errata may not be something that the author “got wrong,” but something that has changed since the book went to print. That’s very common in this fluid and shifting internet age.

Wolf: Programmers are used to the idea of the beta launch, but do you think publishers of other genres (even fiction) could benefit from adopting a version of the beta e-book?

Andy: Probably not in the same sense; it would be difficult and probably frustrating to read a fiction book and, with one particular beta release, change the main character’s name or a major component of the story arc. On the other hand, it might be an exciting experience as a reader to participate in the shaping and creation of the narrative. Certainly if that had been done in the movies, there never would have been a Jar Jar Binks character in Star Wars.

Wolf: Your submission guidelines stand out as model that other publishers should follow, particularly with how you stress the benefits of working with you and your editors. It very rare to see this. Do you think it’s time publishers take the self-publishing threat seriously and start making a better case for why working with a team is better than going it alone? 

Andy: If publisher’s aren’t “worried” about self-publishing and other changes in the book publishing industry yet, then it’s already too late for them, I fear. There are many changes in this business, and a huge movement toward the democratization of content production. Honestly, anyone with even slight technical skills can easily write and publish a book — fiction or technical—directly through Amazon or other companies. Getting your thoughts out there has never been easier, and that’s true of books, music, movies—all sorts of media. But creating a work that people will actually care about is a different story. For that, you need a talented editor, or producer, or whatever. Without that level of experience to help and guide you, it can be very difficult to stand out over the noise. Not impossible, but very hard.

As I said earlier, this year (2013) marks our tenth year in the publishing business. We’ve seen a lot of technologies come and go; we’ve seen a lot of really great book proposals and some truly horrible ideas. But we know what kind of book our readers want—they want the kind of books that we personally would like to read. We know how to structure and present information in such a way that our readers (and us) will find it useful. And ultimately, that’s our corporate goal: we’re here to help developers in their daily lives. Part of that involves creating books, but we do live training, screencasts, and now audio books as well.

Wolf: Word Documents are still the format of choice for many publishers. But The Pragmatic Bookshelf refuses to accept proposals in this format. For us non-programmers, can you explain why Word docs are evil?

Andy: Oh, where to start. Word is a bloated, buggy, mess of a program. Primarily, it’s unsuited to long-form works; I’ve heard endless horror stories from authors who lost entire manuscripts because the file got too large for Word to handle, and the file became corrupted and unreadable. So they get into the habit making backups, using a naive approach such as: Book1.doc, Book2.doc, and so on. Then there’s all the issues with formatting and style sheets, which despite best intentions, never seem to work out as well as expected.

On the other hand, we use a simple text format for our books, using a lightweight XML markup. It’s simple, and it’s very effective: one standard source produces a PDF for printing, a different PDF for screen use, mobi for Kindle readers, and epub for Apple and Sony products and most everyone else.

We keep the text of the book files in a proper version control system, just like a software project. As a consequence, we know at any given time exactly where an author is in the process, when they last worked, how much work they did, and so on. All their work is safe, even if their laptop gets stolen or run over by a steamroller. And we can add nifty features to our books easily by adding to the markup.

Wolf: I often use this blog to espouse the importance of knowing your readers well and finding authors to match their needs, but many publishing start-ups try to be all things to all readers and refuse to zero in on one or a few genres. As a publisher who obviously knows its audience extremely well, can you offer some advice to future publishers who have a fear of commitment?

Andy: Only that we know our audience very well, we stick with them, and they have stuck with us for ten years and counting.

Thanks, Andy! Looking forward to hearing more ideas from you and your team at The Pragmatic Bookshelf!

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