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Stacia Misner

Books are Dead! Long Live the Books!

We live in interesting times with regard to the availability of technical material. We have lots of free written material online in the form of vendor documentation online, forums, blogs, and Twitter. And we have written material that we can buy in the form of books, magazines, and training materials. Online videos and training – some free and some not free – are also an option. All of these formats are useful for one need or another.

As an author, I pay particular attention to the demand for books, and for now I see no reason to stop authoring books. I assure you that I don’t get rich from the effort, and fortunately that is not my motivation. As someone who likes to refer to books frequently, I am still a big believer in books and have evidence from book sales that there are others like me. If I can do my part to help others learn about the technologies I work with, I will continue to produce content in a variety of formats, including books. (You can view a list of all of my books on the Publications page of my site and my online training videos at Pluralsight.)

As a consumer of technical information, I prefer books because a book typically can get into a topic much more deeply than a blog post, and can provide more context than vendor documentation. It comes with a table of contents and a (hopefully accurate) index that helps me zero in on a topic of interest, and of course I can use the Search feature in digital form. Some people suggest that technology books are outdated as soon as they get published. I guess it depends on where you are with technology. Not everyone is able to upgrade to the latest and greatest version at release. I do assume, however, that the SQL Server 7.0 titles in my library have little value for me now, but I’m certain that the minute I discard the book, I’m going to want it for some reason! Meanwhile, as electronic books overtake physical books in sales, my husband is grateful that I can continue to build my collection digitally rather than physically as the books have a way of taking over significant square footage in our house!

Blog posts, on the other hand, are useful for describing the scenarios that come up in real-life implementations that wouldn’t fit neatly into a book. As many years that I have working with the Microsoft BI stack, I still run into new problems that require creative thinking. Likewise, people who work with BI and other technologies that I use share what they learn through their blogs. Internet search engines help us find information in blogs that simply isn’t available anywhere else. Another great thing about blogs, also, is the connection to community and the dialog that can ensue between people with common interests.

With the trend towards electronic formats for books, I imagine that we’ll see books continue to adapt to incorporate different forms of media and better ways to keep the information current. At the moment, I wish I had a better way to help readers with my last two Reporting Services books. In the case of the Microsoft® SQL Server™ 2005 Reporting Services Step by Step book, I have heard many cases of readers having problems with the sample database that shipped on CD – either the database was missing or it was corrupt. So I’ve provided a copy of the database on my site for download from http://datainspirations.com/uploads/rs2005sbsDW.zip.

Then for the Microsoft® SQL Server™ 2008 Reporting Services Step by Step book, we decided to avoid the database problem by using the AdventureWorks2008 samples that Microsoft published on Codeplex (although code samples are still available on CD). We had this silly idea that the URL for the download would remain constant, but it seems that expectation was ill-founded. Currently, the sample database is found at http://msftdbprodsamples.codeplex.com/releases/view/37109 but I have no idea how long that will remain valid.

My latest books (#9 and #10 which are milestones I never anticipated), Building Integrated Business Intelligence Solutions with SQL Server 2008 R2 and Office 2010 (McGraw Hill, 2011) and Business Intelligence in Microsoft SharePoint 2010 (Microsoft Press, 2011), will not ship with a CD, but will provide all code samples for download at a site maintained by the respective publishers. I expect that the URLs for the downloads for the book will remain valid, but there are lots of references to other sites that can change or disappear over time. Does that mean authors shouldn’t make reference to such sites? Personally, I think the benefits to be gained from including links are greater than the risks of the links becoming invalid at some point.

Do you think the time for technology books has come to an end? Is the delivery of books in electronic format enough to keep them alive? If technological barriers were no object, what would make a book more valuable to you than other formats through which you can obtain information?

Published Monday, February 28, 2011 4:00 PM by smisner
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Alexander Kuznetsov said:

Stacia,

You are making some good points. Regarding "technology books are outdated as soon as they get published", apparently high quality books with original in-depth content may stay around for a long time, and stay very relevant. For example, "Test Driven Development: By Example" by Kent Beck has been published in 2002, Martin Fowler's "Refactoring" was published in '99, and many developers are reading them in 2011.

Come to think of it, "Expert SQL Server 2005 Development" by Adam Machanic was published in 2007, is about SQL 2005, yet it is on the MCM recommended reading list for SQL 2008.

If, however, a book just rehashes MSDN without adding much value, then its half-life is somewhat shorter.

Regarding "Blog posts, on the other hand, are useful for describing the scenarios that come up in real-life implementations that wouldn’t fit neatly into a book". It's the other way around for me - I had been playing with blog posts for a year until I was ready to write a high quality book.

I concur with the conclusion to not rely on AdventureWorks, so that when it changes, it does not break my examples. I did the same thing.

Re: "what would make a book more valuable to you than other formats through which you can obtain information". High quality makes all the difference. Putting on my business hat, it is much cheaper for me to buy high quality books for my team, than to prepare presentations for them, or have them waste their time reading through hundreds of free, but low quality information.

I am not implying that all free information has low quality, of course. But I do mean that all-too-often a good book can get a new team member up to speed much faster than free resources, and much cheaper than sending them on courses and such.

February 28, 2011 9:38 PM
 

smisner said:

Thanks for the comment, Alexander! If a technology book is less focused on a product, then it certainly has a longer lifespan.

And as for blog posts versus books, I meant that for me, I see blogs as supplemental to books and not replacements. If you used your blog as the means to build up to a book, that's another great example of one complementing the other. Books and blogs alike can be rehashing of MSDN (if not outright copying), so the buyer/reader must beware. Like you, I would prefer a book as a reference for new team members though. Usually it's more linear than reading through a blog and most blogs don't cover everything that you'd find in a book on the same topic.

March 2, 2011 5:17 PM
 

Raj said:

I prefer PDF books, rather than the physical book. But currently book sellers seem to charge the same price - which is annoying. Yes, the content is the same, but with no physical shipping (between multiple addresses) and no storage involved - the price for PFD should be two thirds of the physical book! With search facility, no extra 'weight' when traveling to assignments and the vital added resource of commenting/highlighting using PDF tools - PDF books are the way to go. Paper physical books are a thing of the past - especially concerning technology books. Currently I search for an online PDF copy of a book and if I find it then I also buy the paper book - so the publisher makes their money - I prefer Microsoft books where they include the PDF. If I can't get a PDF I don't bother buying the physical book.

October 11, 2013 11:49 AM

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