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Why Are Tech Books So Expensive? 149

Posted by Cliff
from the stuff-to-think-about dept.
Hellboy0101 asks: "Once again, I found myself sifting through my local Barnes and Noble for technical books. I don't do this very often, and apparently just enough time passes for me forget how expensive these books are. I can't help but think it's the fleecing of technology workers and enthusiasts, much like OEMs clearly take advantage of gamers with their unreasonably high prices. There certainly are some glaring and welcome exceptions to this rule. But my question is this: Why do they charge this much for books, and are we actually part of the problem by continuing to pay it?"
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Why Are Tech Books So Expensive?

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  • Sales (Score:5, Insightful)

    by duerra (684053) * on Monday March 27, 2006 @10:30AM (#15002505) Homepage
    I know somebody will probably reply with some "supply & demand" rebuttal, but either way...

    One of my old co-workers wrote a book on C# when it was becoming popular. One of the things that he stressed is that there is no money in writing books - you do it essentially for the love, and if you make a couple extra dollars, that's a bonus. Presumably tech books don't really sell that awful many copies, but it still costs a substantial amount to print off all those pages. I think the price of the books is a reflection of the relatively niche market that these books are looking to serve a need for, especially considering that most geeks can and likely do get a substantial portion of their information from the internet (the variety of info never hurt anybody, either - we've all seen the books that serve up less-than-ideal principles).

    Of course, if you're talking about books you get for college classes, that's a whole different matter. In that case, they rape you just because they can.

    Anyway, that's my $0.02. They need to make *some* money on the book, but they don't really sell enough copies to be able to get the substantial discounts that you'd like to see.
    • Re:Sales (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MythMoth (73648) on Monday March 27, 2006 @11:00AM (#15002737) Homepage
      One of the things that he stressed is that there is no money in writing books - you do it essentially for the love

      I sort of agree. Tech writing takes a phenomenal amount of time, and the pay is absolutely miniscule. I never expect to make money out of writing compared to my normal contract work.

      But - I don't write purely for the "love" (though it is a massive hit when you first hold a bound copy of a real honest-to-god book that you wrote yourself), but rather for the benefits of being a published author.

      It's great for your CV, it gives you something easy to talk about in interviews, it is surprisingly respected by co-workers, and if you've done a half-decent job of it, you will be contacted by people seeking an expert in the field.

      Your friend may well write for the love of it, but I suspect most tech authors, while not mercenaries by any means, are writing for some of the intangible benefits. Which is all to the good - if you're putting your reputation AND your opportunities on the line, you try damn hard to make a good job of it.
      • "It's great for your CV, it gives you something easy to talk about in interviews, it is surprisingly respected by co-workers, and if you've done a half-decent job of it, you will be contacted by people seeking an expert in the field."

        There's that, yes. I've made precious little directly off of writing, but I strongly suspect I got my current (very good) job because of it. And it intimidates the hell out of co-workers.
    • You can either take the traditional answer "The Invisible Hand" (i.e whatever the market will bear).

      You could also take Homer Simpson's answer "Because they're stupid. That's why everyone does everything".

    • Re:Sales (Score:4, Informative)

      by Alex P Keaton in da (882660) on Monday March 27, 2006 @11:50AM (#15003187) Homepage
      There is a limited market, so printing and inventory are expensive (especially with actual stores) and also, the books expire quickly. You can get old tech books cheap. I bought a book on Photoshop CS2, it was $60. The same book on PhotoShop 7 was $12. With tech books you have to sell as much as you can before they expire.
      And keep in mind, things are worth what people are willing to pay. If no one will pay more than $10 for a Ferrari, your Ferrari is worth $10. If someone is willing to pay $100,000.00 for your 88 Civic, your 88 Civic is worth 100K. I don't know of any business that charges less than they could for their product.... (Loss leaders etc are a marketing strategy....)
      • I don't know of any business that charges less than they could for their product....

        ...most big businesses do. They ride the elasticity curve to maximize their overall profit (or sometimes revenue or even penetration). The nature of the curve is such that if you are selling 100,000 units at $20, then you could sell some smaller number (let's say 25,000) at $30.

        You generally only see "all the traffic will bear" pricing when demand really exceeds capacity.

        Apologies in advance if this is overly pedan
    • The fleecing is by the publishers. They have a certain cost model they need to protect.

      Still, it bugs the living shit out of me that to purchase electronic versions of material I already own (over the course of many years), in a sufficiently open format to suit my needs, would cost $30k. Much of this is code books, IEEE reference materials, and other stuff that doesn't even compensate the authors at all.

      I am fine with copyright protection, but there really should be a legal way to convert formats of infor
    • Re:Sales (Score:5, Informative)

      by Eric Giguere (42863) on Monday March 27, 2006 @03:18PM (#15004830) Homepage Journal

      One of the things that he stressed is that there is no money in writing books - you do it essentially for the love, and if you make a couple extra dollars, that's a bonus.

      Absolutely. It's a lot of work for essentially nothing more than whatever advance you can negotiate from the publisher. Typical advances for a computer trade book (non-textbook) are in the $8K-$10K range. That is often the only money the author ever sees. Why? Consider the economics. The normal royalty rate is 10% of the net (wholesale) price of the book. Say the book retails for $50 and the bookseller pays 60% of that to the publisher, i.e. $30. So the author gets $3 for each copy sold. But they won't see any money from the publisher until the advance is earned out, which means the publisher has to sell 3334 copies before the author sees another dime. (This is assuming all sales are in the US, since foreign sales usually have a lower royalty rate.)

      Now you may be thinking that 3334 copies is not a big deal to do, but it actually is for many tech topics, especially for books tied to specific versions of software or so on.

      Plus there are other oddities in publishing that conspire to make the author less money, such as the fact that bookstores can return unsold books back to the publisher for full credit, which means the publisher always keeps some of the money it's earmarked to pay the author "in reserve" in order to account for any returned copies. And the fact that publishers have long accounting cycles, which means it's not unusual to receive payment 6 months to 1 year after a quarter for the books sold in that quarter (assuming you've earned out your advance).

      Please don't be fooled into thinking that authors are raking in the big bucks on these books. Yes, obviously some authors do make a lot of money, but they're the exception. Writing books can be fun, but you don't do it to get rich.

      Eric
      My own self-publishing experiement [uncommonadsense.com] will be out soon
    • Re:Sales (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mellon (7048) *
      You got it. When Ralph and I wrote the DHCP handbook, we probably put two man-months each into the book. The editors spent a week or two on it, and then there was the marketing effort, which costs real money. In the end, the book cost a lot of money to make, and didn't sell that many copies.

      One interesting factoid: the publisher doesn't care whether you go hardcover or paperback - the cost is effectively the same to them. So you can see that the cost isn't in the printing. This is why the ebook is
      • by mellon (7048) *
        BTW, I actually don't know how long the editors spent on the book. It might have been more than a week or two, now that I think about it, because there are so many phases to the editing process. My only reason for stating a smaller number for them than for Ralph and me is that they were a lot better at it than we were, so I'd like to *think* that they took less time.
    • by leifw (98495)
      David Heinemeier Hansson of Ruby on Rails, 37 Signals, Basecamp, etc. fame recently commented [loudthinking.com] on the notion that tech writers should do it for the love of tech. His take on the matter is that the conventional wisdom is wrong and that new school publishers like the Pragmatic Programmers, who split proceeds evenly with writers and deliver content to the market much more quickly are the future.
  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Monday March 27, 2006 @10:32AM (#15002519) Journal
    I believe the problem with tech books is that they are books of ideas. They are pure raw ideas and usually can lead the way to making a lot of money.

    So you gamble and throw away a nominal sum in hopes that it helps you get your job done (which is invaluable to you because it provides the resources for living). Fifty dollars is worth it for a tool that keeps me employed.

    What I don't understand is why there isn't a discount for students. In college, I once ordered a book only to find it was the "overseas" paperback edition. Beware of these, not only are they fake but they will not last to heavy use and have no color/durability.

    What confuses me are the most is that some of my favorite books are the most the expensive. Among them:

    Why? These books are standards and needed by everyone. They should be able to capitalize off the popularity by lowering the price. Surely it doesn't take $120 to make Mitchell's Machine Learning--it's such a tiny book!

    I guess all I can do is blame the presses like John Wiley & Sons or McGraw Hill that seem to be the perpetrators of selling such expensive paper. Perhaps these are the results of botched initial contracts between author and publisher?

    I would wager that, upon the initial deal, a lot of authors agree to anything. One of these conditions might be that the before hand assumption is that the tech book will not sell well. And therefore, they charge a lot to make up for possible losses. If the book sells well, then why lower the price? Just keep it high and rake in the profits while the author gets what his contract says.

    A friend who worked at B&N once told me that tech books are the most abused books. People would "buy" the technology of the month book, then return it days later saying it wasn't what they were looking for. I think the volatility of technology and the fact that it changes almost monthly tends to cause problems for publishers. So they price them high in an effort to preemptively curb their losses.
    • your example- machine learning

      Amazon.com Sales Rank: #76,873 in Books (See Top Sellers in Books)
      Yesterday: #70,264 in Books

      My guess? yesterday they sold ONE... what does that say about how many people buy this book?

    • by metamatic (202216)
      The best example has to be K&R. It's a very slim book, all B&W, hasn't really gone out of date, yet it has always been very expensive.
    • I've never used this service but a book like Mitchell's "Machine Learning" would be $18 in India so the thought has crossed my mind.

      http://www.firstandsecond.com/store/books/info/boo kinfo.asp?txtSearch=946776 [firstandsecond.com]

      Anecdotal evidence from a friend that used to live in India says the bindings are terrible and they fall apart, but that wouldn't really bother me.
    • It's scale. If you print one (like with software) the cost is 100% of the project. If you print (and sell) 100,000 it drops significantly. So where's the margin? The problem is they charge the same amount for the PDF version. I guess it's not to canabalize sales of the paper versions but $50 for a pdf is stupid.
      • The problem is they charge the same amount for the PDF version. I guess it's not to canabalize sales of the paper versions but $50 for a pdf is stupid.

        It's because with low-volume publications like we're talking about, the per-unit cost of printing isn't really the biggest expense. What's expensive are the fixed costs, such as actually researching and writing the book, or marketing it, which have to be spread out over a small number of units. Those apply whether the book is delivered via tree corpses or

        • Obviously. However, if the price were less than the hard copy (by let's say 50%) would the sales of that particular book (in pdf form) increase to raise revenue beyond what it would have been at full price? That would require some research and faith by a book distributor. Consider this, I get probably 90% of my questions related to software development by going to google and various programming websites right now. I have shelves of computer books (most of which are read throughout) but I almost never use th
    • by Goo.cc (687626) on Monday March 27, 2006 @11:17AM (#15002888)
      "A friend who worked at B&N"

      I work part time at a B&N (to fund my computer habit) and it does indeed happen a lot with computer books. My returns are frequently MSCE, C#, and Java books.

      On the flip side, it is nice to help and talk to people who are looking for information on Linux and Mac OS X. Sadly, they are outnumbered 1000 to 1 by the Oprah zombies.
    • by qengho (54305) on Monday March 27, 2006 @11:33AM (#15003025)


      Surely it doesn't take $120 to make Mitchell's Machine Learning--it's such a tiny book!

      Especially now that Print On Demand technology [xlibris.com] enables the publisher to do single-copy hardback press runs, keep the retail price below fifty bucks and still make a profit. The tech publishers are just screwing you.

      • Especially now that Print On Demand technology [xlibris.com] enables the publisher to do single-copy hardback press runs, keep the retail price below fifty bucks and still make a profit. The tech publishers are just screwing you.
        Heheheheh.. Your logic is slightly flawed. Fifty dollars to buy a book on computing from the 1980's from MIT press. As far as I can tell they are a non-profit organization.
    • What confuses me are the most is that some of my favorite books are the most the expensive. Among them:
      * Tom Mitchell's Machine Learning
      * Duda, Hardt & Stork's Pattern Classification
      * Russell & Norvig's AI: A Modern Approach (the book that every AI teacher uses)
      Why? These books are standards and needed by everyone.

      You just answered your own question.

      Don't worry, if it was possible to charge for breathable air, the bourgeois would not hesitate to charge you $1 a breath.

    • I would wager that, upon the initial deal, a lot of authors agree to anything. One of these conditions might be that the before hand assumption is that the tech book will not sell well. And therefore, they charge a lot to make up for possible losses. If the book sells well, then why lower the price? Just keep it high and rake in the profits while the author gets what his contract says.

      Authors don't set book prices, publishers do. I have no control over the pricing of the books I've published so far. The

    • In college, I once ordered a book only to find it was the "overseas" paperback edition. Beware of these, not only are they fake but they will not last to heavy use and have no color/durability.

      I'm not sure what you do with your books, but to me "heavy use" means lugging it around in a bag and reading it once in a while. I used these books for a lot of my classes throughout electrical engineering, a program that made heavier use of its books than I should have liked, and they worked out quite nicely. I bo

    • They are pure raw ideas and usually can lead the way to making a lot of money.

      Oh, I think "pure raw ideas" is being rather kind. Most of them are pure, overcooked, reheated and recycled ideas. How many times have you parused a pile of books on the latest-greatest-whiz-bang language to find them all 80% filled with practically verbatim copies of every other damned book out there? Invariably, every one of them spends a whole friggen chapter clowning on how cute it is that everyone does a "hello world" applic
    • "In college, I once ordered a book only to find it was the "overseas" paperback edition. Beware of these, not only are they fake but they will not last to heavy use and have no color/durability."

      On the other hand, when I was in India, I found a couple of bookshops in Connaught Place (Delhi) that had a stack of local imprints of O'Reilly books sold for the SE Asian market. Locally printed, I agree paper was a bit thinner and print quality was a bit lower (not that much). But the same text, and hey, I'm not w

  • by way2trivial (601132) on Monday March 27, 2006 @10:33AM (#15002534) Homepage Journal
    ROI

    mass market paperbooks like sci fi have larger audiences, and can sit on the shelf for years..
    tech books have small audiences, and a short shelf life.

    Do you want to by a book on windows 95 in 2006? no? but you can still pick up a copy of Asimov robots of dawn...

    • Bingo. I've got no points but mod the parent as insightful.
    • tech books have small audiences, and a short shelf life.

      Yet this shouldn't be the case. Books on advanced data structures, OS Design, compiler theory, CPU architectures, language introductions, 3D Graphics theory, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Machine Design, File System Design, etc, etc, etc, can sit on the shelf for YEARS. There's no inherent reason why computer books are so transient other than the fact that wanna-be programmers want a book on every little, unstable API in existence.

      Why do they want books on these subjects? Because they skip learning the basics, then they try to skip learning how to read documentation and standards. All of which means their heads are filling with marketing mush rather than useful information on how to design computer programs. ("Reading the W3C standards is too hard. Whaa!" Be a man/woman, suck it up, and figure it out! You'll get a lot more out of a few hours with the standards than you'll get out of hundreds of hours with fluffy books.)

      You have to ask yourself, do you have the FREE manuals for the x86 and AMD64 architectures sitting on your bookshelf? (Other architectures count too, but their documentation isn't usually free.) Have you read them? Why not? The information these books contain can help you understand exactly what your processor is doing, even at the 50,000 ft level of Java or Visual Basic.

      So if you find yourself with loads of books on outdated materials, but very few (or none) books on timeless basics, throw away your collection and start looking up the stuff you really need.
      • "Yet this shouldn't be the case."

        And yet it is. But that's the case for just about every book. The vast majority of all books sell pretty much all they're going to sell in the first year, and often in the first quarter. Books which sell consistently, or at least well enough to keep in print for years, no matter what the genre, are very much exceptional. And the books the grandparent was referring to are books which definitely are self-dating. Books which are purely theoretical may last longer, but w
      • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Monday March 27, 2006 @11:16AM (#15002882)
        You are absolutely correct that the books on concepts and fundamentals are still useful after years. So there is no reason why those cannot be produced in hardback and sold for less than they are right now.

        So why not make the books on the latest, unstable API into a 3-ring binder-type? Then, every year, you can purchase the updates to it.

        Yeah, I know. There's nothing to stop someone from just photocopying the original book and the updates. On the other hand, the printing costs would be far less so it would be easier for the printing company to turn a profit.

        80% (statistic I pulled out of my butt) of the material in a PHP4 intro book will be the same as the material in a PHP5 intro book which will be the same as the material in a PHP6 intro book. Yet you will pay the same price for the book each time.

        I also believe that most books in school courses should be packaged this way.
        • So why not make the books on the latest, unstable API into a 3-ring binder-type? Then, every year, you can purchase the updates to it.

          Mostly because it does precious little to reduce most of larger fixed costs other than printing and binding. If any significant changes happen, the whole work essentially needs to be re-edited to make sure it's all consistent, and then the whole thing needs to be reindexed. It's unlikely that most changes to one feature will require widespread changes to the text, but un
          • If publishers would use more digital tools, this wouldn't be a problem. Using tags to identify indexes can allow a computer to precisely compute the page location of modified material. Run it through a layout program configured with the settings for the book, and you can have a professionally done work all ready for POD printing within a few minutes of making the modifications.

            This is exactly the type of stuff that technology was designed to solve. The fact that everyone still writes technical books in Micr
            • I don't think that's what he was getting it. Imagine you have a 2 page section that is numbered pages "2 & 3". After them comes page 4.

              Now, if this is updated and it goes from 2 to 3 pages, then now you have a page "2, 3 and 4". Fine, but the next physical page would need to be page 5 now. The only way to fix that, is to reprint EVERYTHING. No ammount of well-planned document formatting will fix this need (unless, as the gp noted, you start doing things like having a page 3 then 3a or some other su
              • Now, if this is updated and it goes from 2 to 3 pages, then now you have a page "2, 3 and 4". Fine, but the next physical page would need to be page 5 now. The only way to fix that, is to reprint EVERYTHING. No ammount of well-planned document formatting will fix this need (unless, as the gp noted, you start doing things like having a page 3 then 3a or some other such nonsense).

                If we were talking about "patching" paper books, then you'd be correct. But that's not what the ggp said. He was talking about "re-
        • The Internet is a more fundamental change than any 3 ring binder and photocopying scheme. Only $3500? Assuming the book was any good ;), that's a terrible return. I'd like to see a system that pays authors better and harnesses the savings and other advantages of electronic distribution. I wonder what the gross and expenses were on those books, and whether one of the reasons authors get so little is because publishers do Hollywood style accounting of the sort Peter Jackson sued over? Even so, the overhe
          • Used to buy new paperbacks for the heck of it. Blind buys. Then stuck with authors I liked, then narrowed it further to series I liked. No longer. Latest attempt to get good stuff is go through the list of Nebulas and Hugos. Paperback prices have gone up faster than inflation. Seems quality has declined too.

            When you were younger, you hadn't read every variation of hero - quest - captured - triumph.

            As you get older, you start to see the flaws in the writing and how much of it is just the same, re-hashed, m

      • Where do I get them free in hardcopy form? Wikipedia has pointers to PDF versions at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X86_assembly_language [wikipedia.org], but those sure aren't as useful as hardcopy (at least not without a second monitor to read them on).
    • mass market paperbooks like sci fi have larger audiences, and can sit on the shelf for years..
      tech books have small audiences, and a short shelf life.

      I'm with you on the 'short shelf life' of technical books -- but that should be reasons for the bookstores to try for a higher turnover. Who wants to pick up that book on HTML+, when there's a book about XHTML 2.0 (nevermind that the spec is still in draft, and there's little if any browser support).

      But sitting on the shelf you years is the absolutely w

    • Pen-and-paper roleplaying game books are high-priced for much the same reason. Small print runs = no economy of scale. This is why a lot of RPG supplements these days are sold as PDFs, thus pushing the printing and binding costs off on to the consumer.
    • "Do you want to by a book on windows 95 in 2006"?

      Not in 2006
      Not in 1995.

      I will not eat green eggs and ham,
      Sam i am.

      Yes I know how, Dr. Seuss, story ended...
      But this is reality.

      In reality more is charged to give a false sense value. Not so much to the book, but to its subject.

  • They aren't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Monday March 27, 2006 @10:35AM (#15002547)
    If you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance.
  • by maxume (22995)
    I'm sure they have a healthy margin, but a big part of the price is that they have a small market. The fixed costs(paying the author and stuff like that) are distributed across a relatively small number of books, driving the price up.

    Besides, if someone making ~$40,000 a year gains 3 hours of productivity, $40 isn't that much to pay for it.
  • Supply and demand -- despite the fact that you dismiss it in your question, these are really the determining factors.

    If you want to look in more depth, why is the supply limited?

    For starters, how about a limited field of experts who are will and able to write a reference book? Especially since their labor can often be put to use in a more financially rewarding manner?

    Other limits to supply are the high costs of bringing reference texts to market (manufacturing, shipping, cost of unsold inventory, adv
  • by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatman@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Monday March 27, 2006 @10:44AM (#15002617) Homepage Journal
    Tech books started as an extreme niche market, with well-researched books chock full of useful information. Because of the amount of time and resources that it would take to put a book together (compared to the number of sales over its lifetime), books used to be more expensive.

    Somewhere along the way, though, publishers got an idea. If they could fill 300 pages with the literary equivalent of shovelware, they could sell you the book for the same amount of money (since buyers were used to it), but save huge amounts on the research of the title. Thus you ended up with books on VR that did nothing but describe commercial software packages, then in the appendix copy the instructions for a headboom from a far better book. That way they could advertise it as a "build your own VR system!" book, without really doing anything.

    This worked so well that publishers got another idea. They could publish even more of these books, and make MORE money! People would still pay it. So they flooded the shelves with whatever was popular at the moment. Be it the Sound Blaster, PERL, Java, XML, LDAP, whatever. It got to the point where if it could be extended from a magazine article, it went to a book form.

    And that's how we got to today. If someone can write an entire book on XML DTDs consisting of 30 pages of content, plus 250 pages of source code, manual pages, and descriptions of available parser packages, they will. As a result, the signal to noise ratio is pretty low. If the wannabe programmers would stop buying this crud, we might be able to send a message to the publishers that we want real books. Until then, though, you can only try to sift through the mess of garbage for the good stuff. Check out Bruce Perens' books. I can't vouch for all the content, but at least you can preview them online to see if they're worth the purchase.

    Oh, and in case you want to save a tree: Free Online Books [intelligentblogger.com] (That are worth more than the paper they're printed on.)
    • I see this a lot with Tech books. There's tons of books out there which basically containe the Java API, readily available and more up to date on the internet, the .Net framework, which has equilvalent docs included on VS, and available online too, and PHP, most of which is available on PHP.Net for free. Why anybody buys language specific reference manuals is beyond me.
      • by Dan Ost (415913)
        If a book is well organized and clearly written, then I'm perfectly willing to pay $30-$60 for it even if the content is freely available online. Books have indexes. A well-written book with a good index is vastly superior to a Google search anyday.

        Also, if I can hand someone a good book and say "read chapter 4, come back if you still need help", then it's worth the $30-$60 I paid for the book (even better if it's a book that the company reimbursed me for). I don't mind helping people (in fact, I rather enj
        • I don't think you and I are talking about the same kinds of books. I'm talking about API references, that don't really explain how to do things, just what functions are available, and what parameters they take. They are free online, easily searchable, well indexed, and well written. I don't think the book offers anything in this case. PHP.net even has user comments with each function, which shows you interesting ways to use it, or ways to do related things.
    • I don't remember the title, but I once had a copy of a book on doing graphics in MS Windows. The cover had nicely ray-traced spheres and stuff, but the contents got about as far as changing the color on a two dimensional triangle.

      Worse yet, the book was structured with an extended example. The code for this example was maybe 30 pages long the first time through. The second repetition had all the first 30 pages repeated with another 20 pages or so of added material and a few minor modifications. The thi

    • Some publishers also only care about being first on the shelf with a title. (I know this from personal experience.) So they do whatever it takes to get there first, but then move on to the next title. So they never print that many.

      Other publishers print a gazillion, and write off the rest in taxes and selling them cheaply to someone who sells them at deep discounts.

      In both cases, it's an abuse of the concept of producing the right volume to get the price lower.

      And don't forget that rewrites (2nd editions
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I wrote a book on shell scripting in 1993 and a book on PHP in 1999, and I made total between the two books about $3,500. I think about spent almost two man years total on the two books. That's about $0.84 per hour. Despite dozens of requests from Simon & Schuster to write another book on various topics, I'm not going through that hassle again. It just isn't worth it. Even though both books were carried by both Borders and B&N, one was translated into five different languages, and they saw bett
  • by MythMoth (73648) on Monday March 27, 2006 @10:51AM (#15002665) Homepage
    When you buy a technical book, you're paying for quite a lot:

    Proof reading
    Technical review
    Project management
    Artists and graphic design
    Layout for printing
    Printing
    Shipping
    Returns (books are generally sold on a "sale or return" basis)
    Authors
    Unsuccessful publications

    Without all of that you might get a good quality product, in the rare cases where an author has all the necessary skills, but mostly you won't.

    Technical books are a niche product. ANY technical book is a financial gamble, because the target audience is (usually) so small. You might sell 10,000 copies if you're lucky, but you might sell none. Poor processes at any stage will guarantee that you'll sell NONE to any given reader again.

    From my perspective as an author: all the parties concerned spend a huge amount of time putting a book together - each chapter passes in sequence through a couple of dozen stages, each one of which requires hours of one person's time. Specifically, I earn about 10% for an hour spent working on writing of the money I would earn from my clients doing development.

    See Apress.com for their standard contract terms if you want to decide if the fabulous riches of authorship have swayed my opinions. Ho ho.
  • 1) Specialized knowledge
    2) Limited Market
    3) Wealthy consumers


    I immagine Doctors have the same problem with their books.
    • Most of my wife's books are in the $80-$250 range. Fortunately, they're usually donated to the program by drug companies, professional groups, or anonymous funds set up for exactly that purpose. Once she's finished with her residency, she'll be expected to buy them herself, I suppose.

      In comparison, my technical books are a bargain.
    • I don't know about doctors, but I often went out with friends from the vet school when I was at university. Vet books are all at least three times as expensive as computing books.
  • The expectation is that you use the knowledge you gain from using the product/reading the book to go off and make money. Look at the absurd licensing cost of ClearCase, for example -- there is no way that's worth thousands of dollars a seat, but they want a slice of the pie since you're using their software in your development process.
  • If you havn't tried out Safari.Oreilly.com you really should. 10-20 bucks a month gets you online access to all the Oreilly and Microsoft manuals you need (ok not all, but a good number)
    • Another publisher of technical books, Apress, sells its books as ebooks for a discount of at least half the price of the print book off its site. Now we just need a decently sized ebook reader, something with an A4 screen and technical book sales would skyrocket. Not only are the returns and such taken care of, but also the distrobution costs and the problem of toting around hordes of hefty technical books. If enough of us petition companies such as iRex (the makers of the iLiad [irextechnologies.com]) they might make one and in
    • Is the index usable when reading the books online?
      • by MindStalker (22827)
        Yes, you click on a word in the index, and it takes you to the spot in the book it references. About the only problem I have with safari is it doesn't include the CDROMs. Though it does make an effort in almost all its books to link any freely available downloads that would be on the CDROM.
  • Especially if it's something that been around for a while - like Perl. My local library had all of the O'Reilly Perl books there and also quite a few through their membership with Netlibrary.com. The Netlibrary has the books on the more recent tech.

    If your library doesn't have a book that you want, try ordering it. If it's approved it'll take a while before they get it. Of course, this depends on your local library.

    I know, there are times when you have a project that you have to ramp up for and only a wee

    • I wish I had mod points today, this is good advice.

      I get books from my library, I can search for the right books and place holds online, I pick them up when they're ready. I've found obscure books and mainstream books, if there isn't a line you can keep them for months, and when the book is obsolete you simply return it.

      I have trouble throwing things out, especially books. There are very VERY few tech reference books I think I need to own. That ASP.NET app I have to work on doesn't mean I have to own a b

  • by Anne_Nonymous (313852) on Monday March 27, 2006 @10:55AM (#15002708) Homepage Journal
    Information wants to be $54.95 plus sales tax.
  • ...they aren't necessary anymore. I have not bought a tech book in the past 3 or 4 years, aside from cheap reference manuals that I keep at my desk. I used to buy a tech book every week or so, but then I realized I could get most of the information they contained online, for free. I tend to find more detailed, more applicable, more timely information online.
    • Same here, except more like 5-10 years. At the leading edge of technology book pickings tend to be slim anyway, with most of the new knowledge being still somewhat experimental and seat-of-the-pants, and any book you would buy would be obsolete within a few weeks. Most of the useful knowledge resides on Usenet and various web sites and blogs. Usenet is particularly useful as a reference, because even though the signal to noise ratio may be low, the typically vigorous discourse (ahem, to put it politely) tak
  • No money in it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Elvis Parsley (939954) on Monday March 27, 2006 @11:02AM (#15002752)
    I wrote a tech book and chapters of a few others some years back and, by coincidence, worked for a technical publisher in my "day job." These are the factors I see:

    1. Tech books are often large, which means they're more expensive to edit, more expensive to lay out, and more expensive to print and ship.

    2. The pool of potential authors is very small and could be making more money doing something else. The number of people who have the technical skills to write a book, the writing skills to convey technical information, and the willingness to act like a professional in return for tiny material gain is...well, there's not a lot of people like that. The impression I get is that people writing technical books get better deals than in other sectors of publishing, though it comes down to a pittance and a half rather than just a pittance. Still, that does make it a more expensive deal for the publisher.

    3. Even once a manuscript leaves an author's hands, there's additional overhead. There's the additional cost of hiring technical editors to make sure that what the author said is accurate, possibly the cost of licensing arrangements with software publishers, possibly the cost of doing illustrations (which also make the book even longer for its word count, which makes it yet more expensive), and possibly other costs.

    4. The market is small. This may be the single biggest factor. You've got relatively large up-front costs and limited possibilities for sales. Even the most successful book on, say, C# or photomanipulation with Gimp just isn't going to be a runaway best-seller on the order of a Harry Potter or Steven King book.
    • >Even the most successful book on, say, C# or photomanipulation with Gimp just isn't going to be a runaway best-seller on the order of a Harry Potter or Steven King book.

      "Harry Potter and the Virtual Destructor"?
    • Disagree: technical editing not expensive

      I've done some technical editing; the most lucrative of my gigs was for Prentice Hall on a UNIX Internals book, and other than a "thanks" in the book, I got a couple hundred dollars as an "honorarium" - basically, a small token amount. Other books, I've pretty much done for even less, mostly because I've thought that the boks needed written, or needed to be out there.

      For the technical books I've been involved in, the publisher's overhead for technical editing has al
  • employers often pay (Score:2, Informative)

    by a2wflc (705508)
    Almost every company I've worked for (15+ full time and contract) has told me to go buy a book on whatever I'm doing and they'll reimburse me for it, even when it's something simple, or someting so new/complex/specialized that there is no book. If that's typical, I'd guess that publishers are setting price based on what managers are willing to pay, not on what readers are willing to pay.
  • For the same reason that business class flights are expensive. The majority of these are paid for by companies who don't care *that* much about whether a book costs 20 bucks or 80 - and this makes sense, too, since even if it only saves a few man-hours in the end, those few man-hours probably would've cost more than the 80 bucks the company shelled out for the book.

  • Simple (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) on Monday March 27, 2006 @11:18AM (#15002905)
    They don't sell the same volume as a Dan Brown or RK Rowling novel.

    When you consider how many books those author's sell, then ask yourself by those books are so expensive.

    They are also reference manuals, sources of information intended to support your work, which they largely assume your being paid to do. Buying a book on SQL or PHP or C++ programming is expensive because they consider these to be books used by professionals to make money. They don't consider these books to be bought by hobbyists having a passing interest in these technologies. The books predominantly are purchased by paid professionals seeking solutions and answers to products they intend to make a profit off of, or get paid to develop.

    There is also a certain mentality that there are people willing to pay $80 for a C++ reference manual, and I would suggest, there are lots of people that can't think on their own unless their ideas and education can be supported by a large reference library.

    I learn by doing. I learned PHP and MySQL by actually developing a website, throwing myself into the thick of it using only online reference manuals. Granted, it may not be the greatest website on the planet, but I learned how to implement a message board and dynamic content and advertising simply by doing it, not reading about it in a book. These book authors don't make money of competent individuals that can learn and explore new ideas on their own, they make their money off the people that feel it necessary to read about something for weeks before actually touching a computer. I found that usually picking up a book about mySQL or PHP AFTER doing my website, most of the books offer few new insights into using these technologies.

    If you think that these books are too expensive, realize there is a slew of free resources on the web at your finger tips. Largely, these books simply collect that information and consolidate it into a single source. If you have any programming experience, then you shouldn't need to buy a book about any other scripting or programming language, you already know the basic concepts and premises, you just need to understand the syntax, which you can find from countless online resources. If its not based on a programming language, such as learning how to use Windows 2003 server or Apache, etc. Try and learn about these technologies on your own by setting up your own server and using the web as a reference.

    If you still find you can't learn enough on your own, using the web as your guide, then you will at least learn to appreciate that buying a book, even an expensive one, is a better aid for you to learn new technologies. But I think you will find that learning by doing, rather then reading, is both inexpensive and more enjoyable in the long run.

    Finally, if your working for an employer that demands you setup a PHP server and develop a website next week, then get them to pay for the books if you have no experience. These book author's also assume that these books are paid for by employer's to enhance the skills and experience of their employees, and anything sold to businesses is generally more expensive then to individuals.
    • Here's why I like my tech books: speed. When I've got a looming deadline and I need to figure out the syntax for some command, I'd much rather look up the command in one of my books (where I know I'll find it) than search for it on Google (where I may or may not find it and I may have to poke through several sites before I stumble across the answer). Also, books don't take up my valuable screen space. I'd much rather allow my code to fill up my primary monitor with my IDE tools on the secondary monitor t
    • They don't sell the same volume as a Dan Brown or JK Rowling novel.

      Neither do 99.999% of books, and yet most cost the same or less than those two's novels.

      Market forces do factor in, of course, but there demonstrably is price gouging at work too. K&R has been around forever, is quite small, and is one of the best selling tech books of all time, and it costs more today then when it came out. If Rowling's books were priced like tech books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone would now be selling
  • Of course there's the supply and demand argument, but there is also opportunity cost, that area of economics that states we need to be compensated for giving up something. A highly skilled technical person could become a consultant and earn lots of money. Or he could spend his time putting his knowledge in a book. He's going to have to be compensated for it some how.

    And secondly, as a few others have mentioned, tech books go out of date fast, so there's the cost to keep the operation going.

    My father wor

  • ..."Limited audience", high cost of publishing, and "ROI" stuff. For volatile subject matter, it makes some sense. My Windows 2000 MCSE books cost like $60 each, but they're large hardcover books with a useful life of maybe 2 years. Any left over are going to be like two year old calendars. Essentially no value, even on the discount table.

    But "The C programming language", written in 1978, and (according to Amazon) last updated in 1998, is a 274 page paperback. It has, no doubt, sold THOUSANDS (millions
    • But "The C programming language", written in 1978, and (according to Amazon) last updated in 1998, is a 274 page paperback. It has, no doubt, sold THOUSANDS (millions?) of copies over the years, and easily paid off it's production and update costs.

      Probably. Of course, there was no way of knowing that it would have sold that long or that much when it was initially published.

      This is just plain greed on the part of the publisher.

      Or maybe it's just making money where they can. There's this one book w
    • Of course, the publisher could be offsetting their losses on those other books. You know, the ones that sold 1000 copies before they went obsolete, or were part of the latest fad that lasted for 2 years or less, or were only of interest to a small subset of people.

      The question is, would you be willing to pay less if it meant that fewer books on fewer topics get published? What books would you, and the rest of the community be willing to see go away?
  • I know it doesn't give you the instant satisfaction, but this place has good prices.

    http://www.bookpool.com/ [bookpool.com]

    I don't work there.
  • My experience has been that boo at Barnes and Noble are quite a bit more expensivewhen compared to their e-store counterparts. I use Barnes and Noble to scout out what books I want to get, and then go look at Bookpool, Orielly, Amazon, and even *gasp* eBay.

    I don't think I should have to pay the cover price of a book if I can help it.
  • I'm getting just the information I was looking for here. Thanks for that. So a number of causes have been identified. Among those, niche markets, high publishing costs, short shelf lives, and last but not least, an unattractive market for writers due to length of time and effort vs. low rate of return. So, what are some suggestions for fixing this? Publishing online to eliminate paper costs? Perhaps advertisements in the books to help offset some of these costs, or to supplement writer income? What do you
    • I suspect that technical publishing will slowly make the transition to an electronic basis, which will reduce costs and overhead somewhat, though it'll take a while. The business end is still using the best principles the nineteenth century can give us and is only slowly moving into the twentieth. I can see the industry reacting negatively to inserting ads. IIRC, that was tried in paperbacks in the 70s and ultimately didn't work out. I know I'd hate it.

      Ultimately, though, there's a fundamental proble
  • Technical books, by their very nature, will never sell as many copies as, say, Harry Potter novels, or Terry Pratchett's Discworld or Jean M. Auel's caveman porn series.

    The audience for technical books is essentially captive. They often have no choice except to buy that particular book -- perhaps because it is required reading for a course, or perhaps because it is the only authoritative reference on a subject.

    And, yes, to some greater or lesser extent it's because we've shown willing to pay high price
  • Thor Power Tools (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    The main reason technical books are so expensive is due to a Supreme Court ruling in 1979, Thor Power Tools vs the IRS. Basically, the IRS held that the long standing practice of counting inventory as an asset when it sold was a form of tax evasion. They wanted companies to pay tax on all their inventory, every year it was sitting in the warehouse. The IRS prevailed.

    Of course, what happened was companies just switched to year-at-a-time inventories. This has meant that anything highly specialized, whether po

    • The main reason technical books are so expensive is due to a Supreme Court ruling in 1979, Thor Power Tools vs the IRS. Basically, the IRS held that the long standing practice of counting inventory as an asset when it sold was a form of tax evasion. They wanted companies to pay tax on all their inventory, every year it was sitting in the warehouse. The IRS prevailed.

      No. That isn't the reason why. I hapen to buy more esoteric books than just plain old computer books. I buy books on robotics. Strangely e

  • Higher prices promote quality. If tech writing was more rewarding, we'd have more and better people doing it.

    Bookstores are filled with first-to-market buzzword dreck precisely because suckers will buy the first thing they can get their hands on, in the vain hope that it will hold their hand in learning some new technology. An ignorant consumer will buy whatever is cheapest.
  • Which are basically a type of technical book. I understand programming books, because as people have said, they are very niche, and will only be useful for so long (languages get old and out of date). But why am I still spending $140 for a math or science book that is in it's 5th or 6th edition, and has only had a few modifications over the past couple editions (I've compared)? I would assume by now they have well payed for the development costs of the initial writing....
    • You are confusing math and science books with textbooks.

      Textbook prices for all subjects are quite high. The reason is fairly simple: the guy who chooses the book (the professor, the TA, the instructor) isn't the guy who pays for it (the student, the parents, the scholarship administrator). Thus, there is absolutely no pressure to pick a $10 textbook (yes, I've had a college math class with a $10 textbook) over a $150 one, even if they have pretty much the same content. After a while, this leads to a gene
  • by jgennick (59014) on Monday March 27, 2006 @01:14PM (#15003858) Homepage
    I've been involved for publishing for some years now, having written books of my own, edited for O'Reilly, and now I am with Apress. I don't know it all, but I do have some experience with publishing economics. The cost of paper and printing (i.e., the cost of the physical book) is fairly inconsequential in the overall scheme of things. A 500 or so page book like my Oracle SQL*Plus: The Definitive Guide probably costs in the neighborhood of USD 3.00 per copy to print and bind.

    So it's not the cost of the paper :-).

    What drives prices is the need to make a profit and pay all the people involved. All the editorial, production, and marketing costs must be borne by the quantity of a given book that a publisher expects to sell over that book's lifetime, and that quantity is often quite low. Sales projections of less than 20,000 units over a three year period are quite common, and many books will never even break the 10,000 unit mark. The high pricing that you see, and reader's willingness to pay it, is what allows many tech books to even exist.

    In the end, it does all boil down to supply and demand. The smaller a given market is, the higher the share of cost each customer must bear.

    And that SQL*Plus book I mentioned earlier? The second edition released in November 2004. Since then it has sold 1060 units, making me a total of $2883.91. In hindsight, it wasn't worth the effort to produce the second edition. I've had other books do better though, and in the long run the averages work out well enough that I'm happy (given that writing is supplemental income, and not my primary source). Publishers play the averages too. Some books will break out and be very profitable. Most will not. It is rarely easy to determine which is which until after the fact.
  • I was recently looking through Amazon for SQL books, and picked out 5 to get. I stumbled acress bookpool [bookpool.com] by accident, but the prices were so much lower than Amazon, that I could get overnight shipping and still save $20 .

    As for why they are more expensive than, say, the latest Xanth novel or Pilates workout book, others have already said. Fewer buyers to pay for the writer's (and publishers) income.
  • Technology books are different than any other books. Most books can be published and printed, and if they don't sell right away, they can always remain on the shelf until they sell, even after publications of it stop, someone will eventually want that murder mystery. Tech books however, have a shelf life. If it is a book on Windows '95 (for example), it is only as good as long as windows '95 is popular, or around.

    So, I have always convinced myself that it is the short life of the necessity of these books
  • The simple answer is high demand and low supply. But a closer look reveals that this isn't necessarily the case. Supply is actually very high, and the market nearly saturated. And while demand for tech books as a whole if very high, demand for any particular book is quite low (unless it's one of those few notable titles). It doesn't seem as if the tech book market is following the laws of supply and demand.

    Actually it is. The problem is the people keep trying to compare it to the non-tech book markets. You
  • See my sig for a catalog of about 800 free math, science, and computer books.

    The biggest ripoffs, IMO, aren't tech books, they're textbooks. Unlike a book on Linux, a book on calculus doesn't become obsolete in 3 years. However, the publishers bring out a new calculus book every 2-3 years purely in order to kill off the used book market.

    You might also be surprised how little margin there can be for the publisher in a relatively expensive book. Producing books in color (like most textbooks) is actually pre

  • I buy all my tech books from BookPool.
  • I was reading somewhere that getting 5k to 10k books sold is a *good* run for tech books.

    After that, it's easy to do the math.

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