☞ More Publisher Follies

🍿 Preface, December 2022: Why This Page

This page's content was nearly removed in late 2022, because it's negative and dated. The six-year period which it spans—2016 through 2021—saw radical changes at my publisher, most of which were frustrating and sad to those of us who remember this company's better angels. It's a true but dire tale, which I no longer update here.

Nevertheless, this story may be of interest to potential authors as one example of what it can be like to deal with publishers. First-time tech writers are particularly vulnerable, and may do well to talk to a literary agent before signing on any dotted lines. This is extra work and expense, but might shield you from the sort of perils documented on this page. In the end, sales support is a lot more important than an author hat.

Just as importantly, this page calls out an ugly business practice that's become unfortunately common on the web. Over this log's span, O'Reilly Media largely morphed from a seller of books made for developers, to a seller of online media subscriptions targeted at corporate decision makers, and even employee snoops. Whether by design or accident, this shift to online media also enabled the publisher's darker sales of information about, as well as access to, its customers—an abuse of trust that would have been unthinkable in this company's storied past.

You'll have to weigh this publisher's new business models for yourself, of course. In its defense, this company was also a means for reaching readers around the world, and still prints and sells my books today. But turning your customers into unknowing revenue streams is especially disappointing for a company once respected for being an ally of developers and champion of open-source transparency. That's not what I signed up with all those years ago.

At least that's the TL;DR version. For the whole story, grab some popcorn and read on; it's dark, but entertaining.

The Show Goes On

This page is a review of my books' publisher, O'Reilly Media, and a sort of appendix to the 2015 publisher notes on the Teaching Python page. Its content was moved here after its 2020 updates officially made it too large for inline inclusion in the career retrospective. This is useful info, but it was too distracting and out of sequence in its page of origin, and this separate format better allows for the inevitable updates to come.

Although the publisher concerns voiced in the main page were already well underway when introduced by its 2015 notes, the events of ensuing years painted a much clearer picture of the company's morph. The list below collects a representative sample of these later events, as information for book buyers, cautions for prospective authors, and fodder for readers of writings on the wall. As it stands, the publisher of my titles now soft-pedals books for the sake of online-learning subscriptions, which regrettably opens a Pandora's box of tracking, marketing, and personal-information sales. The journal entries ahead tell how this came to be.

There's more under this dysfunctional circus's big top than this page means to cover—including uncollected translations revenue; perennial issues with content changes, paper quality, and author payments; inserted ads for unrelated products, some with photos of unrelated people; and the stupidly self-righteous dogma of DRM-free ebooks, which inflated egos and normalized theft at the expense of publisher revenue and author royalties. For here, though, it's on with the show:

🎪 May 2016: Promoting Infringing Titles in a Nutshell

First up in center ring is the sales spectacle captured here. No, that's not my book in the middle; as described more fully by the May 2016 note here, my publisher started selling and even preferentially promoting another publisher's "Learning Python" late in 2015. The most generous spin on this is a curious and arguably misguided quest to maximize revenue by marketing and selling other publishers' books—even those that blatantly infringe on the seller's own trademarked titles.

While this move probably never harmed my book's sales significantly, it undoubtedly left many readers confused and proved immune to author objections, in a stunning display of disregard for both parties. Competition is great, except when it comes from your own publisher!

Update: the infringing title was eventually renamed "Learn Python Programming" for its second edition in 2018, but this took two and a half years, and the original copycat title is still sold by its publisher in 2021. Mistakes happen, and imitation can be flattery, but it's difficult to imagine that anyone working in the Python books domain is unaware of the O'Reilly classic's title. Especially O'Reilly.

🎪 September 2016: Head First Disloyalty

Our next attraction features this month's strange, sad scene on Amazon.com—sponsored content from my publisher, that showed up above my book in searches for "Learning Python," and was designed to lure book buyers away to video options recently acquired from another company. Whether marketing blunder or darker agenda, this publisher is now actively working against its own best-selling products (and its own half-million-unit author).

Takeaway: be careful with your publishing choices out there, people. Exclusive-rights contracts may include the right to soft-pedal your book for the sake of competing agendas.

🎪 June 2017: Brand Destruction For Dummies

And now for the main act. In June 2017, my books' publisher stopped selling both print books and ebooks at its website, and shifted nearly all its sales focus to Safari: an online, video-centric subscription service, with marketing aimed more at training departments than individuals. The site's book pages now try to steer visitors away from traditional books—which can account for 90% of author royalties, and to the oddly expensive Safari—which profits the publisher more, and is run with a complete lack of transparency to content producers. This is not the hallmark of an author-focused company.

O'Reilly books can still be purchased in both print and ebook formats at all the other usual retailers (despite the nearly disabled Amazon links and weirdly puerile marketing), and the books will still be produced as before (per the marketing-speak FAQ and damage-control blog), so this may be a non-event for most readers. Like many lofty rebrandings, this could turn out to be a real-world dud.

But after the rhetoric has settled, this move remains a shifting of priorities further away from books. Whether born of necessity, failure, or greed, the net outcome is the same: the book producer that was clearly is no more.

🎪 November 2017: Teach Yourself Product Shortage in 24 Hours

The encore: five months on, it's now apparent that the publisher's move of the prior update has had no impact on my books' sales—which means that this publisher no longer sold many books at its own site anyhow (and may help explain its new-found obsession with online subscriptions). Happily, consumer interest can have very little to do with producer agendas, and tech audiences are less gullible than tech publishers often presume.

What has impacted my sales, though, is that the publisher allowed my best-selling title's print books to go completely out of stock at Amazon for the entire month of November, at a time when demand was surging. Another of my books fared even worse in this period, being unavailable in print for over two months, and monthlong outages will recur in 2018 and 2019—the latter of which will span the entire holiday shopping season.

And of course, Safari stands eager to take subscriptions online for books unavailable in print. Grievous, yes, and suspicious, perhaps; but it also works as not-bad comedy. After all, O'Reilly authors do get a really cool hat...

Update: shortly after the 2019 outages noted above, O'Reilly started both printing 6,000 paper units per reprint, and initiating print runs earlier. The combined effect largely solved prior inventory issues, though the sales impact of leaner years is impossible to quantify, and the boost in online access during print shortages is a complete unknown due to the publisher's lack of reporting transparency. But yeah, the hat is awesome.

🎪 January 2020: Programming Evil

Finally, the closing parade? Two years later, my titles continue to sell as well as ever, but this publisher's focus shift away from books has grown only starker. In 2019, it acquired yet another online-learning company and explicitly denigrated books in the process. This is a follow-up to the earlier video-training adventure, and comes at a time when my best-selling book is still regularly allowed to fall out of stock (per the prior note). Plainly, this company is now much more interested in topping corporate-training lists than printing popular books.

This publisher also purged its web-based history in 2018; jacked up its online subscription prices by 25% in early 2020; renamed Safari too many times to recount; and plans to nuke its customers' ebook libraries in March 2020—see the promise, and its coercive betrayal. Lesson: "lifetime access" lasts only as long as companies have a vested interest in providing it. Inference: despite powering civilization for millennia, traditional books may face a similar fate at the most myopic of today's publishers. For companies that abandon loyal customers, one broken pledge is as good as another.

Worst of all, though, this publisher now blatantly harvests and sells your personal information, unless you explicitly opt out. This omen is particularly dark, given the company's overarching goal of corralling readers into its online—and trackable—medium. Opt out or not, Safari allows this publisher to monitor and record your behavior in ways never possible with traditional books. The net result is a profile of you which can be packaged and sold by default, with only obscure notice and lengthy disclosures that are habitually ignored, and with no compensation to you for providing the product sold.

That is: Safari turns people into unwitting profit centers. Such backdoor revenue schemes may be unfortunately common on the Internet today, but this one is especially sad given this company's history. What was once an ally and advocate for open-source practitioners has now officially joined the ranks of tech giants who've adopted point-of-control customer exploitation as a core business practice. Kudos all around, but don't be surprised if some content producers pass on contributing new bait.

🎪 April 2020: Brand Destruction For Dummies, 2nd Edition

And the circus marches on: as of late April this year, O'Reilly customers' online ebook libraries have not been removed, and the prior note's deletions warning was silently pulled. In fact, ebook library pages were redesigned, so this may count as a minor victory of sorts. Regrettably, though, this publisher also terminated its conferences business after a quarter century, a run which included OSCONs held since 1999 and earlier precursors. Though spun as a response to temporary events, this clearly is a permanent end of an era.

So, to recap—although my books are still being printed and sell as well as ever, during this log's tenure their publisher dropped direct sales of books; shifted focus to online products pitched to management; and has now discontinued its long-running conferences. This leaves online-learning subscriptions as the main thrust of a company that sells customer access and personal information.

In this climate, reading content on Safari means letting a legion of salespeople peer over your shoulder as you use products for which you've already paid in full. Though common on the web, it's time we start recognizing this practice as deceptive and unethical. Change is sometimes sad, but covertly monetizing private lives this way is always wrong.

All that being said, Python did rise and my books have been enormously successful. Regardless of its motives today, this publishing company played supporting roles in both stories in the past; has been known to do the right thing too; and naturally may rewrite its own story in the future. Indeed, this company tends to change focus and staff faster than open-source projects change code, so you'll have to stay tuned for this melodrama's conclusion. For O'Reilly Media (f/k/a O'Reilly & Associates) and its Online Learning (a.k.a. Safari), the past is rarely predictive.

Whatever regimes may come, this publisher, almost despite itself, served as a catalyst for reaching and helping scores of readers around the world, and that was a net win for authors and learners alike in years gone by. Its current edition, though, could really use some editing work.

🐘 Postscript, December 2020: Books Redux?

Of course, the problem with conclusions is that they can be too conclusive. In late 2020, my books' publisher resumed direct book sales at its website, and even changed its book pages to emphasize Amazon purchase options. See the current publisher-page screenshots here and here, and their live versions here and here. The direct sales appear to be managed by the printer, but they amount to a direct channel for the publisher nonetheless.

If this endures, it represents a major reversal for a company that dissed and dropped book sales cynically over three years ago. Along with the earlier ebook-library salvation and book-inventory redemption, this seems a genuinely positive development which may negate some, though not all, of the preceding discourse. The bits about selling personal information and customer access still loom large, but print books may now have officially held their ground against a legion of online contenders aggressively promoted by a shortsighted publisher.

Disclaimer: all this is naturally prone to change by the time you read these words (e.g., in 2021 and true to prior form, the publisher's latest website redesign managed to simultaneously demote books and insult visitors, and access to customers remains a disgusting sales focus). But it's tough to make definitive observations about companies and domains that tend to rewrite their mission statements every other Tuesday.

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