Laura Lemay's beta books

In the brave new world of "information-ware," where print mates with software and everyone rushes to market, even the books can have bugs.

Published February 27, 1997 12:32PM (EST)

two and a half years ago, Laura Lemay was one of thousands of tech writers slaving away in Silicon Valley, thoroughly unthrilled by the prospect of pumping out yet another lifeless software manual. She yearned to write books with broader appeal, but "everybody told me you'll never make any money," Lemay recalls. Today, her name is on 23 different computer books, some of which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. She has fans and she commands big advances, but she's more than just a success -- she's a brand name, a publishing power in her own right. Software executives come to her, hats in hand, hoping she'll deign to write a guide to their latest product.

Lemay's books offer compelling introductions to some of the hottest topics in cyberspace -- Web publishing, Java, "push media." But their significance lies as much in their form as in their content. They are striking examples of a vital trend in publishing: the convergence between software products and computer books. A Lemay book, endlessly repurposed into multiple editions, complete with bundled CD-ROM and Web site adjuncts, is a book of the future -- more a constantly morphing information tool than a physical manifestation of paper and print.

This information-ware future is especially alluring to software and book publishers looking for new ways to market their products. It has helped propel the growth of the computer book industry, now one of the most thriving segments of the overall book market. But it's not without drawbacks. As books become more like software, their success is judged as often in terms of time-to-market as it is by intrinsic quality. And so books take on the flaws of software -- they become buggy. As these books are more and more frequently published by software companies themselves, strange new twists may begin to warp the traditional relationships among reader, author and publisher.

Lemay's career trajectory succinctly parallels the evolution of the Web. Her first book, "Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML in a Week," published in January 1995, is now a part of Web lore. The title was no joke. HTML, the language of the Web, could be learned in a jiffy and put to use by anyone with a hankering for self-expression. Lemay's book, the second HTML guide to hit the market, enjoyed spectacular timing. In 1996 she struck gold again with "Teach Yourself Java in 21 Days." Java, a complex programming language which is to HTML as chess is to tic-tac-toe, promised to add enhanced interactivity to the static Web. Its emergence marked the end of the era in which any old hacker could become a high-paid Web designer simply by spending a few afternoons with Lemay's HTML book. Lemay's most recent book, "The Official Guide to Marimba's Castanet," published this month, is completely devoted to a proprietary software "push media" product representing the latest fashion in Web publishing.

From simple to complex, from egalitarian to proprietary -- where the Web has gone, so has Laura Lemay. The verdict is by no means in on Castanet, but so far her track record is impeccable. Even as Lemay's books tracked the development of the Web, though, the Web's own internal dynamics forced changes in how she was able to write about it.

The Internet market dramatically accelerated the production cycle for software. The Net, by encouraging the free downloading of software, also encouraged developers to release unfinished "beta" products, no matter how buggy, to the masses. The strategy of Netscape Inc. became the model: Get the software out in public, grab "mindshare" and don't charge until the final version, if indeed a final version ever arrives.

The result has been a nightmare for computer book publishers and authors who must time the release of their books with the release of the software or hardware the books are about. Computer books are notorious for being produced quickly -- three months from start to finish is not uncommon -- but the beta strategy puts even the most inhumanly fast writer and streamlined production process to an impossible test. Beta software has resulted in a whole new kind of book, what computer book literary agent David Rogelberg calls the "beta book."

The beta book is never intended to be 100 percent correct. As long as it is mostly correct, that's fine. Errors will be fixed in the next edition. Or posted to a Web site. Or corrected in a new CD-ROM.

"These books are out of date before they go to press," says Paul Hilts, the technology books editor at Publisher's Weekly. "But the readers know that. They buy the book as if they are buying a subscription. They're establishing an ongoing relationship, not a one-time transaction."

Lemay, despite her acclaim, is far from immune to the ravages of the beta invasion. And as her focus has moved toward increasingly commercial topics in a hyperfast environment, it's just gotten worse, she admits. Each new book is less authoritative than the last. But that's no disaster, because Lemay isn't writing a traditional book, she's writing beta books. New editions of her books trip over each other's heels. Her "Web zone" is packed with "errata sheets" -- listings of known mistakes. She stays in constant contact with her readers, through e-mail, mailing lists and online conferencing. She embodies the new "ongoing relationship."

Lemay has to take these steps because her books are increasingly being marketed as software products. "Teach Yourself Java" comes packaged with all the software accessories you need to program in Java and is as likely to be found in software stores and other computer retail outlets as it is in plain-vanilla bookstores.

"They moved more software in the book 'channel' and more books in the software 'channel' than almost anyone else," says David Rogelberg, referring to Lemay and her publisher, And Lemay notes that the Castanet book, tied so closely to a product aimed directly at the commercial market, is even better positioned to be marketed as a so-called "book-in-a-box."

Lemay's example isn't unique. The bundling of books and software is omnipresent in the computer book industry. The trend is further accelerated by the growing tendency for book publishers to ally themselves with software producers. Netscape has a publishing imprint with Ventana. Adobe Press is a subsidiary of Macmillan (as is Macromedia Software is allied with Peachpit Press. Web sites that accompany books with online tutorials, updates and corrections to printed versions are now de rigueur for any serious computer book.

And where geeks lead, the rest of the world may soon follow. According to Hilts, the mainstream publishing industry is poised to trot down the same path. Wolff New Media, says Hilts, is already publishing travel books equipped with CD-ROMs. Hilts, a history fan, looks forward to history books published in tandem with hypertext Web site-based bibliographies and interactive CD-ROM maps.

Books marketed as software, beta books, "books-in-a-box" -- in the current go-go computer book market, says Rogelberg, there is little downside to flooding the market. Book sales overall are "flat," he observes, but computer book revenues grew by 15 percent in 1996.

"It's been fat city for computer publishers," says Rogelberg. "It's cheaper to publish the book and have it fail than to do some market research to see whether it will fail."

But fat city can't last forever. With more than 40 computer book publishers churning out thousands of new titles simultaneously, the competition is ferocious. Those who do not update their books with Web addendums, or come out quickly with improved second, third and fourth editions or, most importantly, establish the kind of reader rapport that a Laura Lemay enjoys, will not survive.

But that trust may be the hardest thing to achieve, as books become more like software tools and their marketing becomes driven by incestuous industry alliances. It may be true, as Publisher's Weekly's Hilts notes, that new publishing companies are popping up all the time, beneficiaries of advances in publishing technology that lower the cost of entry and ensure diversity. But at the same time, a few very large publishers like Macmillan and IDG dominate most of the computer book market. Along with the largest software companies, they have access to marketing and distribution networks that smaller publishers can't possibly match. What will ensure that every new book won't toe the software companies' preferred line?

Rogelberg, for one, is unworried. "Competition," he says, will protect the reader. "Readers don't want propaganda."

The Net, that same force that transformed the marketing of software and of computer books, may be the best long-term protection for consumers in the new "information-ware" world. In Usenet newsgroups and chat rooms and Web-based conference systems, readers are free to pass on recommendations and solidify relationships with authors. It has worked for Laura Lemay, to the point where she now has the leisure to spend time digging up stumps in her backyard garden and mulling her plans to write a novel. If books are becoming tools, only the useful ones will prosper. If we're lucky, the Net will see to it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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