No Starch Press Blog

eBook pricing -- what do you think?

Dear Readers,

We've been having some internal discussion about how to price our ebooks.

Let's face it. We're already in the bittorrent library but membership in that not-so-exclusive club isn't really the way to fuel a business.

Most technical book publishers are offering ebooks at anywhere from 60-80 percent of a book's list price. We've toyed with (and we're currently offering) ebooks at 50 percent of a book's list price (or free with purchase from us), which seems fair to me as long as we and our authors are actually getting that 50 percent. The problem, if it is a problem, is that when our ebooks are sold through retailers those retailers take a significant cut off the top because they need to make money too. As a result, we get something closer to 35 or 40 percent of a book's list price, if not less.

It takes time and real work to create the sort of quality, handcrafted books that No Starch Press is known for. Our readers expect a lot from us and we aim to deliver with each publication. It's important to me that No Starch Press continue to succeed.

So my question to you is, what do you think is a fair price for an ebook? Figure that the print cost is perhaps 10 percent of the book's list price and that when we sell books to resellers we get about 50 percent of the book's list price. (That's why 50 percent off list for ebooks purchased directly from us could make sense.)

So I'm turning to you, our readers, to tell me what you think and to offer creative suggestions. We could, for example, price ebooks according to a timed reduction scheme. For example, they might start out at 75 percent of list price and drop in price every six months, as a particular book ages. Or we could stick with 50 percent off for those No Starch Press VIPs. You know, the ones carrying those special gold cards. Or what?

What do you think?

Please share your comments on this post. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for your support.


Wasting Time with Android

A friend loaned me an Android phone the other day. I’ve been using a Blackberry Pearl for years. I like the squished keyboard and I can type pretty quickly on it. I’ve downloaded some useful apps to it too, though mostly I just use Opera for browsing and read the New York Times. It works.

Now, let me just say that I haven’t used an iPhone for any period of time so I can’t compare its OS to that of Android, but Android is pretty fun. This phone (an HTC running Android 1.5) is a device first and a phone second. It’s just as interesting without cell service as it is with service, though of course it’s nice when it works as a phone.

My favorite toys so far are probably the AK-47 and shotgun apps, though we know they’re a complete waste of time. I love accelerometers and I think these simple toys that use the accelerometer in such clever ways are just brilliant. Oh, I know that there are plenty of copycats out there but I don’t care. They’re just plain fun. I can’t wait to give them a try in the TSA line.

The barcode scanners look awesome but I haven’t been able to try one IRL because I don’t have a data connection. I can see how they might come in very handy though.

Touchscreens are pretty awesome but I’m not one to be a first adopter. I don’t need a touchscreen to do what I do with a phone, but they’re fun to play with. Don’t you just want to reach inside the phone and grab that sliding screen? I do. But I don’t like typing on that virtual keyboard. (Yes, the Droid has a real keyboard. I’ll check it out.)

I’ve found the initial experience with Android kind of overwhelming. There’s so much to be done with it, and downloading countless apps can be fun. But at the same time, there are many computer games out there that I won’t play because they just waste my time. Don’t we have better things to do?

Yes, I’m about 75 million people late when it comes to using a phone with a touch screen, or maybe it’s 150 million. But then again I’m just now watching Seinfeld, and only because it passes the time on the exercise bike to nowhere.

Clearly, Android has legs. I don’t need to tell you that. Just imagine what the device world will look like in a couple of years.

Here’s looking forward to our first Android book. Coming to a bookstore near you. Or maybe coming to your little handheld device thingy.

For now, I’ll keep the Blackberry, though my 1985 Volvo is going. It failed the smog test so the State of California will presumably buy it for $1,000. Sniff.

iPad As Toaster

I’ve shared plenty of jokes about the iPad — the netbook without a keyboard. I laughed when Apple announced it because to my mind a $300 netbook is a much better deal, and it has a keyboard. But I’m starting to think that I’m wrong; that people will buy it.

Many, many people still find personal computers mysterious. They have one but it’s full of malware, spyware, or worse, and it’s probably running some version of Windows. Maybe even Windows 98. Who knows. And often enough, these same people can’t even tell you which version of Windows they’re running because to them it’s all the same. Or they tell you that they’re running “Microsoft.” Yes, they’re running the Microsoft Corporation on their personal computer. Anyway.

Their computer sits off in a corner or in the kids’ room. They use it to check their webmail or to pay bills, but they don’t understand it and they only touch it because they have to. Perhaps they have a Facebook account and they like to sit there and stare at that, too. They do some shopping on Amazon or Zappos and they read the news. They check their stocks. They play games. When it breaks or runs slowly they buy a new one.

Really, for many people who own personal computers, their computer is a toaster. Just like their iPhone or other smartphone. Unlike a toaster, their computer can do unlimited things, but like the toaster (or better yet, their countertop oven) they use only a couple of its features because they have neither time nor inclination to dig deeper. Who wants to be an expert on their toaster?

Here comes the iPad. The pretty toaster that you can hold in your hands and that does pretty much everything that your computer does in a cute package. It will let you check your email, play videos, and most importantly, run iPhone apps. All of the scary stuff is hidden behind a cute interface and you just use it. For everyone who already has an iPhone (about 75 million people) this is simply a natural progression.

The iPad will sell because it’s a big, fat iPhone that’s going to make it a lot easier for the toaster set to use their computer. And that’s just about all there is to it.

Okay, “uncle.”

Thoughts on Indictment of Ryan Harris, Hacking the Cable Modem Author

Ryan Harris, author of our Hacking the Cable Modem, has been indicted on charges of Computer Fraud and Wire Fraud. You can read the complete indictment here. These charges carry a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

I’ve known Ryan for several years and I worked closely with him as editor and publisher of his book, Hacking the Cable Modem. Having read the indictment it’s clear to me that Harris is being made an example of by cable companies that won’t implement DOCSIS correctly or who won’t put the effort in to manage their users and their bandwidth. Whether you like Harris or not, this is a travesty. (Now, why Harris wouldn’t simply be sued over this instead of being arrested is anyone’s guess.)

According to the Indictment,

“Cable modem hacking” involves the alteration of the modem’s software for the purposes of accessing an ISP’s network without authorization in order to obtain internet service without an account and without paying for the service.

The first part is correct; the last part is not necessarily the case.

Harris visited our office a few years back to demonstrate his cable modem hacking abilities. He’s quite skilled and I think he rooted a Motorola Surfboard 5100 in about two minutes. I was pretty impressed. He had hacked the modem, altered its firmware, and was able to access its admin page. But guess what? He wasn’t stealing anyone’s service. In fact, the modem was only connected to his computer. It wasn’t even on the Internet. But, but . . . it was hacked!

And that’s exactly the point. Hardware can be hacked just for the fun of it or simply to gain control over a piece of hardware that one owns. In fact, that’s why I originally contacted Ryan to express interest in publishing a book on hacking cable modems. I don’t like black boxes (unless they’re Shuttles), and I like to understand how hardware works. I also don’t like the fact that my cable company pushes out a config file to my modem that blocks the admin page. (I didn’t even know that my cable modem had an admin page until Ryan explained that it was being blocked.)

Here’s the thing: If I own a piece of hardware, I can do whatever I want to it. I can modify it; disassemble it; load DD-WRT on it; overclock it; even repurpose it. Why? Because I own it. And there’s nothing more American than that.

I’m breaking the law if I use that piece of hardware to steal something. I’m not breaking the law if I tell someone how that piece of hardware can be used to steal something any more than I’m breaking the law if I publish a book about how to make bombs or commit suicide. (Not that we do or ever would.)

Our country grants us certain rights. One of those is freedom of speech. Another is freedom of press which is probably why No Starch Press has yet to be indicted, I suppose. (Although I’m guessing I now have an FBI file. Woohoo!) Yeah, we bad.

I take just a bit of credit for this bit of the Indictment:

20. HARRIS and TCNISO also offered for sale a book entitled “Hacking the Cable Modem,” which Harris wrote under his alias “DerEngel”

Harris offered this book for sale and so do we. Unfortunately, due to this recent bit of publicity, Hacking the Cable Modem is currently out-of-stock but we’ve got a quick reprint on the way. (PDF available now if you’d like to buy it.)

And yes, we’ll keep printing and publishing Hacking the Cable Modem as well as any other books about hardware hacking or modding that are interesting, compelling, and worth reading. That’s why we call our line “The finest in geek entertainment.”

Stay tuned.


A Bit About How We Edit

Another snippet from the continuing dialog on Slashdot. Here’s my response to someone’s question about the level of editing at No Starch Press.


I’ve been publishing technical books since 1991. In my experience, and according to reports form the authors we’ve worked with, there doesn’t seem to be a company that consistently edits every title as deeply as we do. Of course I may be wrong and this information is based only on my experience with other publishers and reports from other authors.

The reports that I get from authors are either that their work is left basically unedited (or it’s left to a copyeditor to clean up), or, as was the case with one large publisher that I worked with in the 1990s, a couple of chapters are edited and then the authors are left on their own.

On all of our titles, one of our in-house editors does a developmental edit first. This edit may involve rewriting/reorganizing chapters; extensive queries; reworking paragraphs and sentences; and so on. Or, if the book needs minimal editing, chapters may move on to technical review, once our editor has approved them.

Once chapters are returned by the technical reviewer and cleaned up (by author and editor), they move onto copyedit. Once through copyedit they move onto proofreading. Our authors see every stage of the process.

If you’ve been receiving this level of editing that’s great news. Every publisher in the tech book business should be doing a similar level of editing, as necessary. I wish they all would because the business would be better for it.


Choosing a publisher

Hey, I wrote something on Slashdot today. Time for a blog post.

Here are my (biased I’m sure) thoughts on selecting a publisher as posted to Slashdot.

First of all, remember that a publisher is not a printer. If all you want is to see your book in print or to “get your book out there,” you don’t necessarily need a publisher to do that. You can use any of several print-on-demand printers; buy a run of books from an offset printer; sell your book as a PDF; post it as HTML; or other. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that at all — your choice depends on your goals.

Publishing is, or should be, a service business. A publisher should work with you to develop, craft, and market your book. They should help you to make the writing clear and understandable. They should be your harshest critics (because if they’re not, the reviewers will be). They should involve you in the process and you should get to know their staff. You should feel free to ask them questions and they should provide you with clear and direct answers. Unfortunately, publishers are becoming more like printers everyday. We’re resisting that trend.

If you’re not getting editorial services from a publisher you might think of using a printer instead and trying distribution though Amazon directly or through your website if you’ve got a popular one. After all, if you’re not getting service from a service business, what are you getting?

At No Starch Press, we read and edit everything. That’s what our editors do in addition to bringing in new authors. Throughout our publishing process our emphasis is on producing quality books, not more books. We release a title when we think that we’ve done our part to make that book the best that it can be and if we think that the book isn’t ready we delay it. That’s true of all of our titles whether they’re our Manga Guides or our hacking, sys admin, or programming titles. That doesn’t mean that every book we publish is a winner but we’ve worked hard on every book to make it great.

When contacting publishers, ask the hard questions before signing a publishing agreement. How does your publisher market and sell books? How will they sell your book? Who will work on it? How will the editing process work? How involved will you be as author and how much can you be involved? What if you have concerns about the editorial work? How will you be paid? How does the agreement work?

We’re a pretty editorially-driven publisher. But by the same token, thanks to our distribution relationship with O’Reilly and our agreements with various international partners, we’ve got great reach into the world marketplace. We’ve had books translated into over 20 different languages and we sell our books around the world.

One thing that makes No Starch Press unique though is that we are very picky. We don’t publish a lot of books because our goal is not to have 10% of our list carry the rest; I’d rather see 90% of our list carry the remaining 10%.

Bought a Mac Mini

I bit the bullet and bought a Mac Mini for the office. What a piece of cake to set up. (Not that I didn’t expect it to be easy.) Just about $380 at Microcenter for the 1.83 machine with 1GB RAM and a small hard drive. But who cares.

Take it out of the box, plug in a DVI cable, attach keyboard and mouse (whatever I had sitting around), plug in network cable, and turn it on. The music plays, the screen shows some silly movie (which I’ll call “Ta Da!), and it sets itself up.

Type a couple of keys on the keyboard so that OSX can figure out which driver to load, run a bunch of updates, install iLife ‘09, and you’re pretty much done. And unlike a Windows install, not one error message!

I’m always impressed by the Apple packaging — even down to the rounded edges on the styrofoam and the plastic wrap on each piece of electronics. Someone is thinking through the entire experience and they do a fantastic job.

I know I’m about the 10 millionth person to discover the beauty of the Mac, but I think further praise is due here. I still prefer Ubuntu and that’s what I plan to keep running on my machines, but I just ordered another Mini for home.

Now to tackle the Ram Upgrade. Maybe the hard drive, too.