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May 29, 2013

The future of computer book publishing

Computer book publishers have always struggled to keep up with software releases. The rise of cloud-based software with incremental releases requires new thinking.

At Scriptorium Press, we are wrestling with this problem on a very small scale. Recently, Adobe announced that the Creative Suite software (InDesign, Illustrator, and the like) will switch to a subscription-only model. Users are not required to accept updates right away, according to the Adobe FAQ:

As a Creative Cloud member, am I required to install an upgrade to a desktop application when it becomes available?

No. You are not required to install any new version of the desktop applications available in Creative Cloud. You can continue using your current version of the product as long as you have an active membership. You have flexibility on when you install a new release to take advantage of new product features, if you choose to do so.

There is, however, no schedule for updates:

How often will Adobe be adding new features to Creative Cloud?

Adobe plans to add new applications, features, and updates to Creative Cloud on an ongoing basis. As these features become available, notifications are sent to users through their activity stream in the Creative Cloud desktop app. Customers can also keep up to date on what’s new in Creative Cloud by following the Creative Cloud blog.

No announcements yet on the tech comm products, but it seems reasonable to assume that they will join the cloud party as well.

So what happens to third-party content that deals with subscription-based applications like the Creative Cloud? The author documents the software as of May 2013. In September 2013, Adobe rolls out updates. Now what?
Updates every six months would be a bare minimum for cloud software, and they make traditional book publishing, which generally has a lead time of more than six months, completely impossible.

It seems that book publishers have to look at new options:

  • Printed documents will be obsolete, at least in parts, as soon as they are printed (or even before printing). 
  • Blog-based publishing with frequent updates. This would point an author toward some sort of a membership-based site. Or perhaps members get early access and content then “decays” into public content after a few months? Maybe the public content is for the previous version of the software and the latest updates are behind a paywall?
  • Become the curator of a user community for a specific piece of software.
  • Provide more conceptual information and support for exploration. For an application like Illustrator, information about how to create an attractive gradient fill should be relevant in any version of the software, although the exact steps may change.
  • Publish an EPUB/ebook with incremental updates included in an ebook subscription.

What do you think? What sort of possibilities are there for people who (used to) make their living by explaining software in published books as the software moves to the cloud?

PS This problem is largely of academic interest to us. We derive the vast majority of our revenue from content strategy consulting and implementation, and (thankfully) not from book sales.