• Category Archives: books

Drop Books

The vast majority of books I purchase are for my own enjoyment, but not all of them. There are a few books that I buy over and over, and drop on the desks of friends and colleagues. These books, all technical, are books that I think most programmers wi…

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The Case for Buying Technical Books

In the past few months I’ve seen more than a few articles encouraging programmers to write books. Each article provides at least a bit of good advice, and proceeds to conclude with the same idea:
You should write a book to build your brand.
I find this conclusion accurate and extremely disappointing. If the overwhelming reason to write a book is brand building, then the pool of potential authors is restricted to people who would benefit from brand building (and people who don’t value their time).
How Did We Get Here?
The Internet, obviously. Practically everyone knows how to download any movie, song, or book at no cost. Opinions on “illegal downloading” range from opposition to pride. I’m not particularly interested in discussing those opinions; however, I believe it’s worth observing the impact of the combination of ability and desire to acquire content without compensating the creator.
“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten…” — Michael Crichton
If you’ve never written a book, you may not be aware of colossal effort it takes to write a mediocre book. When it’s all said and done, it can take well over an hour of effort per page. Great books, such as Java Concurrency in Practice, require an even greater level of attention to detail, and cost even more time to create. Brian Goetz estimates that it took them approximately 2,400 hours to create JCiP. If we also knew their royalty structure and the number of copies sold, we’d be able to calculate the hourly rate for writing a high quality book.
It turns out, one of the recent articles encouraging writing gives you royalty numbers and a hint on how many copies a quality book might sell.
Royalties for print should start at 18% of net revenues to the publisher. (Expect that figure to be around $10-20, so you’re only making a few dollars on each sale.)
Selling 10 thousand copies of a print tech book these days is a solid success and should be compensated accordingly. — Obie Fernandez
Let’s assume JCiP was more than a solid success and sold 20K copies (doubling Obie’s “solid success” benchmark). Assuming they negotiated royalties well, that would mean making $40,000 – thus the hourly rate for writing JCiP would be under $17 per hour.
Clearly I’ve made a few assumptions, but I believe all of them are based on sound logic. As long as you work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 50 weeks and write a modern classic, you’ll make around $34,000 per year. Anecdotal evidence among my author friends who’ve yet to write a modern classic is worse: the hourly rate is less than minimum wage.
The royalty structures combined with lessening sales create an environment where writing a book for (royalty) profit isn’t a reasonable use of your time. As a result, the majority of today’s authors are either consultants or unknown programmers. Established, non-consultant programmers gain little from the brand building aspect of writing a book, and likely make far more than $34,000 a year at their full-time jobs – why would they take on a poorly paying second job?
Around 2005 it became fairly easy to download, for free, practically any book. It might be coincidence that 10 of 13 of these Must-Read books were written prior to 2005. Despite the possibility, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence. Rather, I believe that at one time it paid to create a best selling technical book, and people with various backgrounds took up the challenge.
Nice Assumption Filled History Lesson, What’s Your Point?
My point is fairly simple. If you’re, like I am, tired of having to choose between books written decades ago and books written by those with at least a slightly ulterior motive, buy some books. Does your company have a book buying policy? If you aren’t spending your entire book budget, why not? It costs you nothing to buy a book and give it to a teammate, and every royalty penny reminds an author that someone cares about all of those hours writing and rewriting.
Even if your company doesn’t have a book budget, ask yourself if you’d rather your next book about Java be written by a consultant you’ve never heard of or Java’s language architect. The average technical book costs little compared to life’s other expenses, and buying a technical book is investing in your profession twice. You stand to gain knowledge both from today’s book purchase and a potential future book written by the same author – a future book that may never be written given the current financial incentives.
If you’re a CTO, Director or Manager, why aren’t you constantly buying books for the developers you work with? They could probably use your advice on which books will best guide their careers.
Makes Sense, What Should I Buy?
There are several good books now available on leanpub - where the authors are paid significantly higher royalties. If you want to support authors you should always start there. From there I would own at least a copy of Chad’s (previously referenced) Must-Read books. I’d also buy Chad’s Passionate Programmer. Finally, you can’t go wrong working your way through this list: Clojure Bookshelf.

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On Ruby 2012-06-11 19:00:00

This is a book that I wish was on my son’s required reading list.  Not that his code is hard to read (for someone in their first programming class), but that there are all kinds of bad habits that wouldn’t need to be broken if he and his classmates spent some time learning what good code looks like before they started to write their own.

The Art of Readable Code from O’Reilly is a quick, easy

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Review – Eloquent Ruby

The system management/administration team that I work on is starting to do more scripting and tool building.  That means bringing a bunch of people up to speed on Ruby.  We’re using a combination of the Pickaxe Book and pair programming/mentoring to help bootstrap people.  So far it’s been working pretty well.
Watching everyone else reading and learning made me want to get in on the action.  

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Reading List Update 9/8/2010

The recent news that GDB now supports D makes The D Programming Language jump up a notch or two on my reading list.
I’ve finished 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, it was a fun read.  I really identified with his trip to the French monastery. It seemed like a great climax to his year, with the perfect denouement as he came home to bake his final

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My Reading List on 8/31/2010

Thanks to Prentice Hall and Addison-Weseley giving me three new books, my reading list has bulked back up.  Here’s what I’m working through at the moment:

The Freebies
UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook (4th Edition) — I’m really excited about this one, I’ve loved the first three editions, and this looks like a really solid revamping of a classic in the Sys Admin field.
The D

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Leveraging Books

As I talk about leveraging community to be more effective at what you do, let’s start out with books. I think this is a good theme to develop because it really shows how the three levels of passive, engaged, and committed involvement provide successively more benefit. Books are also an easy gateway into improving yourself because people are used to reading as a learning method — we did it in

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