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Friday Report: July 10, 2020

It was a somewhat frustrating week! Let me tell you a bit about that, and also share some thoughts on how we choose book topics, since that question has been coming up a lot lately.

Two Bugs Forward, Two Bugs Back

The theme for this past week has been going backward to go forward.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I am not a credulous or superstitious person. I like the scientific method, I like looking at actual data, and I have no patience for magical thinking. So, the fact that for several weeks Mercury has been retrograde should be, for me and any other rational person, nothing but a trivial astronomical observation. Astrologers, however, make a big deal about Mercury retrograde, associating it with widespread miscommunication and misunderstanding. Well…let’s just say that if I were the sort of person to believe that claptrap, I would feel that this particular period has been one of the Mercury retrogradiest ever.

Item: Despite having gone out of my way to be clear and precise, I’ve had an extraordinary number of exchanges with customers in which what I intended to communicate was entirely different from what they perceived, or vice versa.

Item: My Take Control to-do list remains at 98 items, as it did last week, even though I spent many long hours this week fixing bugs. These were bugs that I either inadvertently caused myself, or was simply unaware of until this week. So I essentially added them to my list, dealt with them, and deleted them, leaving me back where I was before.

Item: I’ve made only a small amount of progress on the books I’m writing, and other authors have also fallen behind on schedules they’d been quite confident about. Indeed, in a sense I’ve made negative progress, in that things I learned this week indicated that I have far more work to do that I thought I did.

On the whole, I’ve been feeling rather uncharacteristically grouchy, and I’m very sorry if that has come across in some of my emails and phone calls. It just hasn’t been a great week for me.

About New Book Ideas

We often get emails asking why we don’t have a book on a particular topic (for example, iMovie, Photoshop, or Final Cut Pro) or asking if we’d consider creating such a book. We’ve also had several people offer to write books on subjects of interest to them. I consider all these requests, but much more often than not the honest answer is that we don’t have that book and never will. I wanted to give you a bit of insight as to why that is and how we make decisions about what books to publish.

When we agree to do a book, after all the preliminaries (outlines and marketing discussion and contracts and whatnot), the author gets busy writing. Depending on the topic, the author, and the type of book, that process might take anywhere from a few weeks (for a very short title) to many months. Then the book has to be edited, which involves paying an editor for their time (unless that editor happens to be me)—and good editors don’t come cheap. (There’s also overhead of various sorts, but I’ll ignore that for now.) At a minimum, then, we have to cover the expenses of creating and selling the book and hopefully, via royalties, reimburse the author fairly for the time they invested.

If we released a new book and it sold only, say, 500 copies, the income might not even pay for the cost of editing, and the author’s time would have been more profitably spent at a minimum-wage job. As a first approximation, we expect a book to break even for both the author and the publisher once we’ve sold about 1,500 copies. (Of course, we always hope to sell an order of magnitude more, or beyond, and often we do!) If it takes more than a year to get to that point, then we’ll retrospectively feel that was an unwise publishing decision. Because we operate on thin margins and our authors need to eat, we do our best to select only titles we have good reason to believe will at least pass that minimum threshold.

We base that decision partly on history—we look at how the hundreds of titles we’ve published since 2003 have sold (or haven’t), and why. We base it partly on customer feedback and requests. And we base it partly on educated guesses. But crucially, we’re not looking at how many of the Earth’s 7.7 billion inhabitants might be interested in a topic. We’re looking mainly at how many of our existing customers are likely to be interested in it. That’s because we know for sure that we can reach our existing customers, but advertising to the wider world is a different story. In our experience, the cost of advertising to acquire a new customer generally exceeds the income we receive from that customer. So, even if we knew for sure that a million people desperately wanted a book on some topic, we wouldn’t take it on without also having a reliable (and cost-effective) way to reach those people.

Two different people in the past week have asked why we don’t have a book on Keynote and if they could write that book for us. Well…ahem…we did have a book on Keynote—I wrote it! But it sold so poorly that we couldn’t afford to keep it updated, and we discontinued it. You’d think Keynote would be every bit as popular as Pages and Numbers, and that it must have millions of happy users. It probably does! But even after several years, that book’s sales fell way short of our minimum. (I still harbor a hope that someday I’ll figure out a cost-effective way to resurrect that book, because I liked it so much!)

To a point, that hypothetical 1,500-copy threshold applies to books of any length, on the theory that the price of a book scales roughly with its length, which in turn is roughly proportional to the time required to write it. However, in order to do justice to a huge app like iMovie or Photoshop, we’d need a very long book indeed—many hundreds of pages. But our customers have told us loud and clear that they’re not interested in paying $40 or $50 for an ebook (or even $20, for the most part), regardless of length or quality. Practically speaking, $14.99 is the ceiling we have to work with. Which means that once a book gets to a certain length, the author’s returns diminish dramatically—they spend more weeks or months writing, but don’t get any more money for their efforts. That fact alone rules out certain titles.

One more thought! Some of our books cover specific products, like Pages, Apple Mail, DEVONthink, or the Apple Watch. Others cover processes, like handling your passwords, running a paperless office, managing a large photo library, or designing a wireless network. Of the two, the process books are usually more popular, and they’re also much more in keeping with our brand. (They’re also harder to write!) When someone proposes Take Control of Some App, I’m always much less enthusiastic than when someone proposes Take Control of Doing That Complicated Thing That Everyone Needs to Do. And that’s especially true when the app in question is not one I know to be fabulously popular.

As I’ve said many times, the quintessential Take Control book is one that, from its title or short description alone, obviously solves a problem that our readers already know they have. If we have to convince you that Some App (that you’ve never heard of) is something you need, and then further convince you that you won’t be able to master it without help, and then further still convince you that our book gives you the help you need…well, that’s a lot of convincing. All things being equal, I prefer books that essentially sell themselves, because you already know you need them!

In sum: however odd it may seem to you that we don’t already have a book on iMovie or Photoshop, or that we discontinued our books on Keynote and GarageBand; or however puzzled you may be that we don’t jump at the idea of publishing Take Control of FileMaker Pro, there’s a method to our madness. We’re here mainly to solve as many of the big tech problems as we can for our existing audience, within the practical limits of time and money. Anything beyond that is icing.

Look at the Time

Wow, that was a lot more words than I intended to write. I need to get back to writing actual books! As always, if you have questions, comments, or concerns, email us.