Test It Out: Early Access Book Programs
I've been working with technical books for quite a while now, as a reader, a reviewer and an author. I've also been working with Linux and other free software for a long time. Often, I've wondered how publishers could take advantage of the testing that software receives as it goes through alpha and beta cycles. Recently, several publishers have begun to take advantage of that testing cycle for their books. Here, I take a look at how they're doing. I'm not involved in any of these books, so what follows is completely an outsider's view.
Although several publishers now have early access programs, I'm focusing on three: Pragmatic Programmers, Manning Press and Apress. In each case, I look at the quality of the offering, the benefits and the negatives.
Each publisher seems to have slightly different aims with these early-access programs. I can't be sure exactly what those aims are, but I have some guesses based on the presentation and timing of their books. Because my desires for these programs color my perceptions of the various ones I've participated in, I need to be up front about what I'm looking for. I'm interested in helping make the books better. Doing so is as rewarding as getting your patches applied to some piece of free software that you use. I'm also interested in seeing the books before they're in print, so I can use their information that much sooner. I also enjoy feeling like I'm part of the community around the book.
I picked up a couple of Pragmatic Programmers' Beta Books: Agile Web Development with Rails (AWDwR), which has been out of beta for a while, and Enterprise Integration with Ruby (EIwR). My experience with both books was pretty uniform, although EIwR is still in a long beta cycle and went into beta much earlier in its writing than did AWDwR.
Quality: I am impressed with both the amount of content and the usefulness of it in both of these Beta Books. Occasional typesetting issues are present, as are typos, the occasional grammar problem, bugs and what-not. These issues have been cleared up quickly in new releases, however. Overall, I think these books have been a great investment.
Negatives: Of the books from the three publishers I discuss in this article, these two titles have been the least "ready for prime time" at their initial releases. In the case of EIwR, the book was tremendously incomplete when I received my first copy.
Benefits: The incompleteness of these books isn't entirely a bad thing, however, as it means the community is much more involved in shaping the books. Many errors were found and fixed, making the end results much better. Overall, Pragmatic Programmers seem genuinely interested in bringing the community into the development process of its books.
David Black's Ruby for Rails recently has been drawing some press on the ruby-talk mailing list. I decided early on that I wanted to see what people were talking about, so I jumped into the early access program.
Quality: Ruby for Rails is a great book, and I was happy to get it into my hands as quickly as possible. Other than getting access to the book sooner, however, I'm not sure that the Manning Early Access Program added any value to the book.
Negatives: The biggest negative, to me, has been that the MEAP books seem to be finished products. I haven't felt a need (or even the ability) to report bugs or problems and see them fixed. Also, the books are available only a month or two ahead of the printing date.
Benefits: Given the quality of David Black's writing and the value this book holds, it was worth getting an extra month or two early, despite the lack of reader input required. It's also been nice to see the book made available serially, a chapter or two a week. This has made finding time to read it much easier.
I wanted to look at a third publisher's program, and I noticed that Apress was joining the fray with a couple of its Java books. I'm not much of a Java guy, but we do use it at work, so this seemed like a good opportunity. In addition, Apress has a Ruby on Rails book coming out this summer; hopefully, it will make it into the Beta Book program. I ended up looking at Beginning POJOs.
Quality: I've liked all of the Apress books I've read, and Beginning POJOs has been no exception. Getting good information early is always a win.
Negatives: Two things about this program stood out to me. First, like the Manning title, Beginning POJOs has seemed more like a pre-press copy than a beta. Second, Apress was the only publisher of the three to provide something protected by a DRM scheme; in this case, it's password-protected PDF files. Although neither of these is a big problem, they combined to leave me less than happy about my experience with Apress.
Benefits: Good books with solid information go a long way toward smoothing my ruffled feathers, and the Apress title fits the bill. I'm looking forward to Apress' upcoming Ruby book, and I'm hoping to get my hands on it before it goes to press. If Apress opens up its process and invites feedback, so much the better.
Of the three publishers, the Pragmatic folks have come the closest to my ideal for an early-release program. I've also enjoyed the Manning and Apress programs. All three provide at least the value of getting the book into your hands before it goes to print. I'd love to see Manning and Apress get their books out even sooner though, so that more changes can work their way into the finished product.
The bottom line is, if you're hungry for more information, look into these early-release programs. If your favorite publisher doesn't offer something like them, or if the book you want isn't a part of it, send an e-mail. Publishers won't make a move if they don't know their customers are interested.