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Book Expo 2005
Don Burleson

One noticeable absence at Book Expo 2005 was computer book vendors.  The technical book area is in a slump, and out of the 2,000 vendors, there was hardly anything about technical issues. 

Computer book sales are dropping steadily and B&M stores are cutting-back on their technology areas.  We learned that Rampant TechPress has been very fortunate and that many small publishers are not able to get their computer books into the major stores.  The success of Rampant is largely about our use of top-authors, names that are recognized by working computer professionals.

Click here to see some of the top-selling computer book titles, and you can see the relationship between author name, a popular topic, and being first/only to market..

In this great article, Tim O'Reilly notes that sales of application-related titles (Photoshop) can sell 5 times the number of copies as other technical books:

Growth in the applications category was driven principally by Photoshop and other digital-media applications, while the year-end surge of operating-system books was driven by the release of Mac OS X Panther and holiday buying of low-end Windows books to go with new computers.

Tim O'Reilly also notes that operating system specific books lead with Windows and Mac:

We talked with several of the buyers for the major bookstore chains and learned some amazing things about the current state of technical books:

-         Computer book customers are becoming very price sensitive – The demand for computer books is very elastic and the page-count/price ratio is an important factor.  The days of 500-page books for $69.95 are gone and consumers want inexpensive quality books by authors they know.

-         Author name-recognition is the most important factor – Few computer professionals are willing to risk buying a book from an unknown author.  Rampant will continue to pursue authors with a demonstrable commitment to sharing their knowledge with the industry as evidenced by conference proceedings and magazine articles.

-         Online book sales are impacting brick-and-mortar (B&M) sales – Many of the major buyers said that portals such as Bookpool and Amazon are having a major impact on the B&M’s.  One ever went so far as to say “They sell to a whole different market.  What sells well on Bookpool does not sell in my stores”.  This is especially true for experienced computer professionals.

-         Vendor publicity drives sales, not technical superiority - One buyer noted a huge decline in sales of Oracle database books and wondered aloud why DB2, a database with almost as much market-share as Oracle (add Oracle News link), does not have many books on the shelves.  Ten years ago almost everyone agreed that OS/2 was superior to Windows, yet the market forces went against technical superiority. . . 

-         Don’t follow the Lemmings - In private, the buyers noted that many computer book publishers are like lemmings, ramping-up books sales without any real knowledge of the real-world of the computer book market.  We shared a laugh about all of the naïve publishers who are stocking-up on Oracle data warehouse and Discoverer books, totally oblivious to the historical sales disasters of Oracle data warehouse books.  That kind of mismanagement is what happens when the publishers are driven by people who are not full-time computer professionals.  They blindly follow the hype, the same foolish risks that put Wrox out-of-business in the .net vaporware market.

-         Guru-level books are out - The buyers also believe that inexperienced professionals are the main B&M buyers and they noted that sales of “Dummies” books remain steady and today’s technical readers are seeking “Plain English” treatment of complex technology.  They also want books that provide “an edge” from the top consultants, those with a proven record of success such as our “Oracle Silver Bullets” and the Rampant “Easy Oracle” series.

All Glory is Fleeting

During a Roman Triumph, the victorious army would parade their spoils through the streets of Rome as the crowds cheered in adulation.  At the head of the triumph the general would ride his golden chariot and a slave would stand behind him whispering “all glory is fleeting”.  I’ve noted that this fleeting glory is also true for some of the top authors.

Several years ago Janet became friends with Patricia Cornwell when she was doing research for her book “Isle of Dogs”, where she wrote-in “Trip” one of our Guide Horses in-training.  One day, we drove to the local mall for a training session and Patsy had to deal with a CBS reporter who did not know who she was!  I’ll always remember her telling the reporter:

Patricia Cornwell with Trip, one of the horses she donated to the guide Horse Foundation “I’m Patricia Cornwell, and I’m a bestselling author.  Trust me, you are going to want to get shots of me with the Guide Horse”!

Patsy is a pilot, and she landed her helicopter in our front yard when she comes to visit.

Anyway, I noticed the same public anonymity with Michael Creighton. One highlight of the conference was a book signing by Michael Creighton, and I watched as Creighton sat patiently as hundreds of fans lined-up for his autograph (I could tell that he is a very nice man), yet after the signing-session he faded into the anonymity of the massive crowd on the tradeshow floor.  

Creighton is a literary giant, both as a bestselling author and as a person (he is at least six and a half feet tall).  If success were measured in terms of revenue, his movies (Jurassic Park) and TV shows (ER) Creighton is probably the top author of the 20th century.  I was amazed as I walked behind him on the trade show floor and noted that he did not get swamped by fans.  I remember reading somewhere that John Grisham can also go anywhere without being recognized!

What’s going to be hot in 2006

While the book market is huge, there are more publishers and titles chasing a fixed-sized market and it’s more important than ever to firmly understand your niche and the scope of your market. 

It’s not a revelation that it’s the author who sells the book.  Patsy Cornwell has a extremely loyal following, and there are people who will buy every one of her titles.  We believe that the same is true for trusted computer book authors and devoted fans will buy their works, regardless of who is the publisher.  I often hear comments where people say that they buy every book authored by legendary computer book authors like Mike Ault and Steve Feuerstein.

Just because a market is small does not mean that there is no opportunity.  There are many publishers that cater to super-small markets with high-niche titles “The internals of water treatment management” and they manage to make a profit from sales of less than 300 books.

Everyone knows last year’s bestsellers (The Davinci Code, &c), but the real trick is predicting next years bestseller.  There are millions of dollars at-stake and while the rewards are great, so are the stakes



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