O’Reilly’s new initiative, Safari Flow, which is currently available in beta form, is a timely prompt to review the success, and the qualities, of its elder brother, Safari Books Online. For several years Safari Books Online has been a great exemplar of digital publishing. For some users, including me, it represented a far more fundamental shift to digital delivery than the later, and seemingly more successful, rise of e-books.
What’s wrong with e-books? Nothing, except that the paradigm of publishing has shifted so little in the move from delivering a complete book in print form to delivering a complete book in digital form. Publishers didn’t have to do much, really: pretty much everything else in the content creation process remained the same: the reader bought the whole book, and if the reader then chose to read not all but just some of the book they had purchased, well, that was their affair. The publisher could continue to pretend that all books are bought to be read in their entirety. But, of course, books are not read like that. This paradigm might be true of fiction, which a purchaser will typically read from start to finish, and it’s no surprise that fiction has been one of the most successful genres of books sold in e-book form. Many books, probably most books, are never read in their entirety. I’ve no way of telling, but I would guess that computing books are probably read in their entirety less often than books on pretty much any other subject. Why? Well, when did you last read the whole of a computing book? One obvious reason would be that students of computing are probably not great readers, and a second reason would be that IT knowledge moves faster than many other subject areas. Most computing books, by the time they are published, are out of date. It is rather unlikely that printed computing books could survive in an age where IT knowledge develops so rapidly, but also because it tends to disseminate via online means – forums, wikis, communities (not least of which is Stack Overflow). There are probably better established communities in computing than in any other subject. What is a publisher to do? Abandon print books entirely? This isn’t so simple. To its great credit, Safari Books Online attempted to map the user journey for computing subjects. Readers in this area are not typically motivated to read an entire book. Nor, horror of horrors, are they too worried about the publisher of the book or even its author. If a book contains the answer to a question they have, then there is a chance they will buy the book for that one solution. I remember standing in front of a shelf of computer titles in Borders, and thinking to myself, I don’t want to buy just one of these titles, I would happily buy several if I could be sure they answered my question adequately and enabled me to get solve the problem, such as completing a website, or understanding how a particular database worked. Safari Books Onine enables all that. Instead of selecting a book, with its imperfect index, the user can key in a term or terms and see how many books deal with the topic. Safari Books is a pleasure to use because the indexing is so powerful. In addition to faceted search (not shown below), there is a clear display of hits in context from the text of the book – all before the user has subscribed:
Then, on subscribing, the user can now access the full text of several books, and compare what they all say on the topic. Instead of consulting one book and keeping his or her fingers crossed, the user can confidentally jump to references in many relevant titles. It’s not surprising that Safari Books Online has been a huge success, and that the revenue it generates is higher, at least for O’Reilly, than from e-book sales. From the start, Safari Books Online recognized also that it didn’t need to be restricted to one publisher, and the number of publishers included has continued to grow. In fact, the more publishers included in the service, the better it becomes. If there is a criticism, it is that Safari does not cover all areas of IT equally well, although many of the gaps have now been well filled.
Given this success, how could Safari Books get better? That was (and is) the challenge faced by Safari Flow. But that is for another post .