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The StartX Files: Why Johnny Can't Read Linux Books

Penguins Chasing the Publisher's Eye

June 4, 2001

Some of you may know that I write books for a living.

Until recently, all of these books have been about some aspect of Linux, except for a lone Microsoft Outlook book I wrote when I was young and foolish. I am particularly proud of these titles, though not many of them have sold very well. This last statement can be made without a lot of personal remorse. While I know there are better books out there than mine, I also know there are worse.

But I am not taking low book sales personally because I know something else: hardly any Linux books are selling very well--especially at the consumer level.

Before I delve into this topic, I must offer a bit of disclaimer: though I am a book author, the point of this article is not to generate more sales for my works nor any others'. Sure, that would be nice, who could deny that? But what I really want to do is illustrate how one part of the technology industry is pulling away from Linux at a time when many people are jumping on the Linux bandwagon.

I am referring to the technical book publishers: a strange species of publisher that has an outlook on their title lists that is very similar to that of an oil explorer: if you don't strike it rich with a particular title or series, then move on to the next big idea just as fast as you can. And, should you strike it rich, then pump that well dry until there is nothing left but dust.

A classic example of this is the IDG (now Hungry Minds) Dummies series. What started as a cutesy little series of beginner computer tech books as exploded into a multi-million dollar industry that has propelled Hungry Minds to the top of the computer technology book sales list. Like most of these things, the success was a bit of an accident: a manager over at Macmillan Computer Publishing (now Pearson Education) came up with the Dummies idea. Political reasons did not get this idea of the ground at Macmillan, so the manager took it across town to Macmillan's new competitor IDG. IDG ran with the series and Macmillan spent a lot of time and money trying to play catch up.

But the Dummies series has just about reached its saturation point on the market, if it hasn't already. There are some good books in the series, even today. But I think the series pretty well went over the edge with the best seller Sex for Dummies. Since I am a big believer in natural selection, the thought of people needing a beginner's guide to sex was a bit off-putting, to say the least.

Okay, cheap shot. But you see what I mean about saturation.

Now Hungry Minds is scrambling around trying to find the next Big Thing. And so is every single one of its competitors. Not just for series, mind you, but for topic ideas as well. About two years ago, the potential Big Thing was Linux.

And the publishing companies poured their resources into this (to them) fledgling technology. (That statement alone shows how much trouble they were in for.) As more and more users were migrating to Linux, they reasoned, they would need books to help guide them on their way.

On the surface, this is a logical argument. It might have been true, once upon a time. But just below the surface was some hard reality that the publishing houses would have to face up to.

For one thing, Linux was not "new" in any stretch of the imagination. It just got brought to the public's attention when it was mentioned as a possible competitor by Microsoft during its antitrust trial. Once the media took a look at it, the then-eight-year-old kernel and the component files suddenly became all the rage as it was now elevated to "official" status.

What many publishers chose to ignore was the fact that Linux had already been around for quite some time and already had its own form of documentation. Whether it was the man pages or the Linux Documentation Project or some other contributors' database of knowledge, the users of Linux pretty much already knew how to use it. What really rankles the publishers is that newcomers to Linux are still using these methods for getting information instead of buying their books.

So what's that about?

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