The wearer of the crown

O’Reilly Media occupies an unusual position in the publishing field. Most publishers’ books have one good year and then decline sharply in sales. But some of our oldest books have actually gone up in sales over the years—and nearly all of them stay steady (so long as they’re updated appropriately to reflect technology changes).

We’re also uniquely loved by customers. They expect the highest quality from us, and we almost always deliver. Many people look for an O'Reilly book first when they need help with a computer topic, and some routinely buy any new book we produce. We’re now among the top-selling three or four publishers in computer books.

A few anecdotes show the carefully cultivated reputation that we have and that you, as an author, can benefit from.

How do we do it? I don’t claim to know all the magic involved. But I see a few simple rules in action.

Each book counts

First, we’re selective. We don’t produce a lot of books, but we consider each one carefully to make sure it meets a real user need.

We don’t put out a book on a “me too” basis, just to be in a field that other publishers are in. If good books already exist on a topic, we leave it alone. For the same reason, we don’t let our own books compete with each other. We’re always there to add value. It’s not only a better way to serve people, it’s ecologically responsible—we don’t end up with huge numbers of returned books, like publishers who just push things out quickly and try to milk a market.

So every book is part of a strategy. We ask, “What are we trying to accomplish in publishing this?” and “What contribution will this book make to people’s lives?”

In the past two years or so, both our subjects and our style have been adopted by other publishers, so it’s getting harder to stand out. But we don’t have much evidence that they think about their relationships with their readers, and about their whole reason for being, the way we do. So far we’ve done well by sticking to our principles.

Give each book the best

Once we’ve chosen to do a book, we really put in a commitment. This goes from the editing through production to marketing and sales.

Our editors work closely with authors from the first glimmer of a proposal through the final draft. We usually know our subjects well, so we can give a lot of support. Many people wonder how we create a certain O’Reilly feel to each book. It’s through the constant intervention of the editor.

Sales and marketing also look at each book as an individual case, and return to books over and over again when planning publicity campaigns. That’s why we have consistent sales: we don’t concentrate all our ads and trade show promotions in the first few months of a book’s existence. We plan for our books to have lasting value, and we follow through by promoting them year after year.

One seventeenth-century writer decried the slew of ill-considered books by poorly-educated authors that flooded the market after the invention of the printing press. Noting that most such works disappeared quickly, he said, “The sun sets at noon for the authors of these books.” Too many publishers try to exploit the market with books that will be soon forgotten; in contrast, we want the sun to shine on our authors for a long time.

Know the subject and the market

Our company is full of people who learn their field professionally. We draw on all their knowledge—editors, graphic designers, production staff, system administrators, customer service, everyone.

So when a book comes in, we look around for someone who has a background in that field, and we apply it to the proposal.

As we’ve branched out beyond UNIX and the X Window System, this kind of expertise is harder to maintain. I don’t intimately understand every topic I work on. But I choose books that are close to the areas I’ve worked in before, so that I can be an intelligent reviewer.

When a book of mine is released, I don’t pace back and forth nervously awaiting reviews—I know that reviewers will like it, because I’ve done my homework.

Build a relationship between the author and the editor

A few authors starting out think that a book is just a personal project: that they turn in a complete draft and it goes through a routine production pipeline. Experienced authors who have had good experiences with their publishers know differently. The editor’s attention, sensitivity, and knowledge can make all the difference. They affect the planning of the book, the choices made at key crossroads in the project, the marketing, and the feeling that the author comes out with at the end.

Because O’Reilly editors work hard to be part of the communities we serve—because we stay technically knowledgeable and have a commitment to our readers—our authors feel like they have a partner in their struggle to make sense of their subject. Contrast this feeling with the horror stories one hears from so many people who have worked other publishers: stories about projects that switched editors four or five times, or where the publisher wasted all its work because no one there understood or cared about the audience, or even where the editor overruled the author to the point where the book included embarrassingly trivial errors.

There’s no special trick to maintaining our reputation. The separate things we do can’t be taken out of context. We just have a commitment day after day to finding out what readers want and providing it. As we move into the age of online book publishing, we hope to show people that online technical books can be more readable than they had imagined.

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