Investigating reader preferences for a core technical reference book on the eve of its self-published rebirth

John Huntington sez, "I'm preparing a new (and self published) edition of my book, Control Systems for Live Entertainment. And so I put a survey online and got over 100 respondents. It's not a huge sample size, but what was most interesting to me was how much they were willing to pay for a printed edition, and how few actually wanted an e-version."

The whole thing is a great read -- it was interesting to see how many respondents thought that $50 or more was the right price for the book. This is a core professional technical reference, a great candidate for self-publishing, and John is taking a very systematic approach to getting that right.

77% of the respondents are willing to pay $50 or more for a printed trade paperback (I asked them the maximum they would pay). This was a bit surprising to me, and while I do plan to keep the book as inexpensive as possible, this information definitely helps me set the price in a way to help me recoup my up-front, self-publishing costs as quickly as possible...

Clearly, the respondents want to pay significantly less for E-Books: It almost flips right around that $50 point, with 85.2% wanting to pay $45 or less, and the most willing to pay around $25 or $30.

Only 13.9% prefer an electronic edition: This is good for me because I've been planning to develop the printed edition, and then port that format over to an E-Book format.

Survey Says! New Book Version Results From My Readers (Thanks, John!)


  1. There’s something here I think about wanting to grow the audience vs charging the amount that the current audience is willing to pay. The people who responded to the poll are likely part of the existing audience (they cared enough about the book to find the poll and answer it).

    Not being part of the existing audience, I didn’t answer the poll, and I also definitely wouldn’t pay $45 for an ebook of anything. Maybe I’m not part of the audience because the book’s not aimed at me, or maybe I’m not part of the audience because I’m priced out. I guess we’ll never know.

    1. This is essentially a good argument for releasing the book at one price, and then decreasing the price over time to expand the audience. Isn’t that why publishers release $25+ hardcovers long before the mass-market paperback versions?

    1. I’m guessing you’ve never needed a book like this… Not everyone has the budget/desire/time to install new systems as soon as they come out. When  you’re called in to operate or re-engineer a 10- or 15-year old installation cobbled together from parts you only dimly remember, you want this book at your side. (And yeah; there’s a Kindle version of the 3rd edition. Side note: in all my years of part-time sound reinforcement I’ve noticed that when people steal from a show or job site, it’s always hardware that goes missing, never frumpy books ;-)

      Even if you have no immediate application for a work like this, it’s a tremendous overview/history of the field; well worth the time and expense to read. Kinda like the old Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook; it’s not gonna help you fix a dead encoder on a Soundcraft Vi4, but you’re still gonna learn a hella lot about sound production.

      1. Thanks!  

         Also, I should point out that while I’m leaving in the “legacy” information (because those technologies are still widely used), there is a lot on networking in there currently with more coming in the new edition.  Unlike “spinkter” I hardly consider a hundred or so pages on IP addresses, VLAN’s, PoE, etc to be “stale”.

  2. Maybe I’m just part of the 13.9%, but as this point I really won’t buy books anymore unless I can read them on my kindle. Ditto for movies if you replace “kindle” with “iPad” (note to movie publishers – my iPad doesn’t have a DVD player). Mostly this isn’t out of any hatred for paper books, but for my own convenience. If I’m looking for entertainment or information *now*, I want it right now, not three days from now when your paper book comes in the mail. Believe me, I’ll have found the answer to the question I was asking on google before then.

    1. For me it’s all about the context.  I like reading on my Kindle (or the Kindle software on my Android) just as well as I like reading paperbacks, when it comes to most general reading material.  As a rule of thumb, I read my fun stuff (pulp science fiction, or untested genre stuff that I may not want to keep, for example) on my Kindle.  Sometimes I’ll download stuff onto it that I want to read right this very minute.  And generally speaking, I’ll buy books I want to keep, lend out, or re-read in dead tree format.

      But that sometimes bites me in the ass.  When everyone started talking about HBO’s Game of Thrones last year, I realized that somehow I’d never gotten around to reading the Song of Ice and Fire series.  So I bought the first volume on my Kindle, enjoyed it immensely, then bought the whole series (including Game of Thrones for the second time) in paper, ’cause I knew I’d want to keep it.  And even though I bought the Heinlein biography the second it was available on my Kindle because I was that hot to read it, and even though I was chuffed to realize that reading my 2nd-generation Kindle was easier on my forearms than lugging around the two-pound 624-page hardcover doorstop, I was a bit less pleased about the clunky footnote system on the Kindle.  Patterson includes footnotes on nearly every page of that Heinlein biography, and though a touch-screen e-reader would have made short work out of flipping back and forth between text and footnotes, on the Kindle it was a bit like pulling teeth.  But I did it, for every last footnote.

      I think it was remembering that experience that led me to order Twain’s autobiography in hardcover.  I have no problem with flipping pages back and forth, but Twain’s doorstop is over 100 pages longer than the Heinlein one, and is simply not comfortable bedtime reading.  I shoulda got the ebook version, since bedtime is my only real recreational reading time for books (not counting those stolen moments in the crapper at work, when my Kindle subscription to Asimov’s can be easily accessed on my Android with no co-workers any the wiser).

      But things change again when it comes to reference works and technical manuals.  Circumstances dictate my preference.  Searchability is nifty, as are zoomable illustrations and all the nifty 21st century advances that come with electronic publishing.  But some of that stuff can get in the way.  Last year I had to replace a leaky intake manifold gasket on a 1997 Volvo.  Usually I can get by using Chilton manuals, but their quality can vary.  Volvo started switching to electronic manuals on DVD in the late 90s, and they’re hard to come by.  Expensive, too: $315 for the complete manual set for about 15 years’ worth of 700- and 900-series Volvos.  Still, cheaper than the books: those were going for over five grand.  (That’s a lot of books, so I understand.  The factory service manual for a 1993 Chevy Caprice is nearly three inches thick, and only covers 1993 Caprices.  A set of books for fifteen years’ worth of Volvos is gonna take up some shelf space.  They’re intended for dealerships and authorized service technicians.)

      Anyway, I found a bootlegged Volvo manual on CD-ROM on eBay, and fixed my car using that.  And oh my God, what a pain in the ass.  Never mind how filthy my computer got.  Automotive repair that requires frequent consultations of the manual is best done with a paperback book, if you ask me.  Yeah, they get dirty real quick, but unless you’re doing the same service hundreds of times so you don’t need to consult the manual (like pros do), or unless you don’t mind dragging your iPad under your car to compare the illustration with the transmission’s actual wiring harness, the dead tree service manual is here to stay, and Volvo can take their shadetree-mechanic-unfriendly manuals and stick ’em where Stockholm’s sun don’t shine.

      Another thing to keep in mind is backwards-compatibility.  Since my Volvo is a 1997, the repair manual software was written for Windows 95.  Like an idiot, when I upgraded my then-top-of-the-line Sony laptop to Windows 7 two years ago, I chose the 64-bit version, not realizing that I was screwing myself when it came to a whole bunch of semi-obsolete software, even using Compatibility Mode.  I actually had to buy a crappy old XP laptop to be able to run the repair manual.

      I’m pretty confident that doesn’t happen with books.  I’m also pretty confident that (especially among us shadetree mechanics) most cars have life expectancies far exceeding that of any given operating system.

      1. You bought books that required specialized software and found they suddenly stopped working. This is why I don’t buy eBooks with DRM – they’re just not future proofed.

        But have you considered for this sort of one-off job taking your computer, plugging it into a printer, and printing off the relevant pages?

        If your software lets you, of course.

        1. It probably would have let me; dunno, didn’t try.  The software was not without value.  It was not actual Volvo software in this case, but was repair manual software intended for professional mechanics that aren’t marque-specific, i.e., contained on that disc were manuals for a couple dozen different carmakers and several model-years per brand.  So one could print out the pages relevant to repairing the Volvo’s intake one weekend, then pages covering a Jaguar’s transmission the next.  And since you wouldn’t need the several linear feet of shelf space all these printed manuals would require (and could print on an as-needed basis), it would seem to be ideal.

          But once again there’s the problem with obsolescence.  The text files of ebooks are handy, especially the way one can reformat and resize text for specific viewing needs, but illustrations can be problematic.  JPEG has had a good long life as a standard, but still… I repair my 1970 Mercury Cougar using a recent reprint of the original five-volume 1970 Ford Factory Service Manual, and my old 1962 Buick Skylark was kept running using a beat-up, 45-year-old  Motors manual inherited from my dad.  It’s as useful as it was when new, for the cars covered by its content, and though someone could scan and digitize its content quite easily, when you’re actually underneath the car and up to your elbows in grease, the dead tree book works better for me than the ebook.  And will generally outlast the car itself.

          Other contexts will certainly differ.

  3. I’m definitely a part of the 13.9%. Why on earth would I want a 10 lb book when I can have a digital copy that could be on my kindle and/or my phone whenever I might happen to need the information? Why on earth would I want a hard copy when I can’t press CTRL-F (or ⌘-F) and search the entire manual for the information that I want instantly. Indexes are nice, search functionality is WAY better.

    1. Do not forget about the ability to change size of font!

      I have a tech book to read – but I can’t even force myself start it. I was so happy when I was ordering it – less then 300 pages! topic isn’t as complicated as I thought!! – only to realize that the book uses so small font that probably it should have been printed on 600-800 pages instead.

      Some printed books are good – but an average ebook is better.

  4. In my experience ebooks are great for what I call single-thread reading — either following a story or looking up one thing at a time. I find them much worse for multi-thread reading — needing quick access to several areas of the book at once (like a physics text where you are looking at a reference table, your current place in a chapter, overview questions, etc).  

    1. I agree. When it comes to technical manuals I prefer the hardcopy, although having both is perfect. Flipping between several identical-looking pdfs open at once (each with a couple of different sections bookmarked) alongside other documents just gets confusing, even on 2 screens. Until someone invents an A4, lightweight, colour, long-lasting and inexpensive e-reader without a built-in keyboard or stupid software I’ll stick to dead trees.

  5. It would be perfect to have both.  A technical manual on paper is nice to have and stick my little orange notes on as needed (and write in the margins), but the search functionality of an electronic document just cannot be beat.

    IMO it would be ideal to buy a book like this and get the e- version with it, possibly as a part of the price. For those who only require the e-version that could be sold cheaper.

    And $30-50 for a good technical manual is fair. Not that many copies get sold of most manuals, and that stuff is labour intensive AND worth the money for those who buy them.

  6. Not every type of book is suited for every type of publishing.  The “airport paperback”, read once and discard, is perfect for it.  Coffee-table books and other things of beauty are generally hopeless. 

    Technical books that have to be regularly referred to and thumbed around in are very good in paper – the size allows good illustrations, and as the “ipads in education” experiments show, ebooks aren’t so great for flicking between sections a lot.  (Someone should do some research into that)

    On the other hand, an ebook is ideal for necessary ephemera: technical manuals for devices obsolete next year, that sort of thing, which just eat shelf space and where, mostly, you’ll be looking up that error code or the size of that frelling grommet once only before the whole product like goes end-of-life.

  7. arikol has it right – BOTH. With some kind of package deal for buying both, and upgrade deals for discounts on buying the other when you get one. Perfect world is perfect.

  8. I would like both formats but I really learn better with paper books. I can flip back and forth to reinforce and check things I am learning. Maybe I have an archaic way of learning but for me ebooks don’t cut it. But for novels my Kindle is awesome.

  9. My answer to that question depends entirely on what the book is.
    I have gotten to the point where I completely refuse to buy paper for stories (novels, short stories, etc) and mostly for magazines, but for reference works, I really want paper.  ebooks still haven’t really reached the convenience of paper for quickly referencing one paragraph in 800 pages via good indexing and bookmarking.  Those features are there and maybe I just haven’t become good at using them, or perhaps I haven’t seen a reference work that had those features well done, but I still like paper for reference.

    For MOST of what I do though, which is programming, even though I have reference books on the shelf, I hit Google.  I can usually have the answer before I can even open to the index in the paper book.

  10. The audience for the book for which the poll is based may not be sophisticated in computer information technologies.

    The book in question is for technical systems for “Live Entertainment” and, last I checked, tech crews for stage productions are a stubbornly analog/physical group of people.

    I’m guessing a poll of readers whose documentation choices rest between a hard copy book and a search engine would reveal an overwhelming preference for ebooks.

    In the context of understanding the audience for his book, Huntington does a good job by getting data from his potential customers. However, in the context of media analysis, this poll is an anecdote built from too narrow data (datum = opinions regarding 1 book).

    As I said in a comment elsewhere on BoingBoing, the plural of anecdote is not necessarily data.

  11. I guess I’m in the minority here. I do a lot of R&D work and while I hate it, I often spend $20 for a single paper. I’ve already purchased a number of Kindle based textbooks, some priced at over $100.

    Compare the cost of a book to the cost of one lecture in college (somewhere in the range of $50 at a private school). And the value of the book is the information, not the paper, so the price shouldn’t change too much with medium – at least when you can draw a straight line between the information in the book and the ability to do some useful work.

  12. Some how my combination of vision problems and lifestyle have ensured that I will forever be a part of the ebook market that can’t be reached. I also just really *like* the book, perhaps I find the physical interaction with it comfortable… but then I like writing things by hand even though as  a child I never turned anything in that wasn’t printed from a computer. It’s just that I *enjoy* writing on paper for the same reasons I like drawing on it. I tried to do the ebook thing, but reading them makes me queasy and I get irritated with them somehow… probably because I read things on a screen for 8-12 hours a day as a compulsory part of my job and then come home and do that for a few more hours most days.

  13. I have a heavy investment in a different kind of technical reference – roleplaying game books. Anyone who says these aren’t technical references (especially “core” books that dense with rules and light on fiction) is in denial.

    For these, I’m rapidly approaching DRM-Free-PDF-only as the only thing I’ll accept. My favorite publisher (Steve Jackson Games, who have a long and happy relationship with the EFF) have a strict policy on the DRM-Free-PDF-0nly thing, and I’m thrilled with it.

    Good strong indexes, plus the “goto page” function in every PDF reader I’ve used mean that I can cross reference without the flipping around of paper books. SJG produces PDFs with fully populated bookmarks for major and minor headings, and a click-to-goto table of contents as well. Plus if it’s not cross referenced or I don’t get an explicit page reference, I can control-F to search across my entire library of books.

    I understand Adobe Acrobat Reader remains the same cripplewear as always – not allowing you to set your own bookmarks or add your own notes. Break free and use something less brain-damaged! I can leave a bookmark for the pages I need to flip back and forth to, my reader remembers the page I had it last open on so I can always pick it up where I left off, and I can scribble more notes in the margin than I ever could in a physical book with the “add note” features (great for penciling in errata and house rules!)

    I like physical books as art objects, but I need to actually use these things, not just look at them. Often under time constraints (at the game table, while other players are waiting for me). PDF makes this possible.

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