Several years ago I was courted by O’Reilly Media. After the success of my first book, Show Me the Numbers, the folks at O’Reilly were interested in publishing my second. I responded cautiously at first, because my prior self-publishing experience was extremely positive. Analytics Press, the publisher of Show Me the Numbers and Now You See It, is owned by my friend Jonathan Koomey; by working with Jon I was able to manage the entire process myself from beginning to end without interference—essentially self-publishing. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if a large publisher such as O’Reilly could deliver on its promise to add value to the process. After two months of negotiating a contract to guarantee my right of approval over design decisions (book layout, paper quality, binding quality, printing quality, etc.), I agreed to work with O’Reilly to publish Information Dashboard Design. This is the story of that collaboration.
I worked with two good editors at O’Reilly who made the book production process navigable whenever rough seas arose, which occurred more than once. The acquisitions’ editor, Steve Weiss, and my primary editor, Colleen Wheeler, both possessed integrity and practical minds. Working with O’Reilly took much longer than my self-publishing experience had—bureaucracy tended to get in the way—but the book was finally shipped off to the printer and we all breathed a sigh of relief. While waiting for the finished product, I eagerly imagined how O’Reilly’s marketing and distribution prowess would extend the reach of my work. I was hoping that it would do so significantly, because I was paying for it dearly, allowing O’Reilly to retain all but a small fraction of net sales.
When the book was finally published, I soon discovered the sad reality of working with a large publisher: unless you’re a celebrity, publishers do nothing that you can’t do on your own just as well or better for a fraction of the cost. What did O’Reilly do to publicize my book? They listed it on their website. That’s it. Information Dashboard Design has, with rare exceptions, been the bestselling book about data visualization since it was originally published back in 2006, but O’Reilly doesn’t even include it on its list of data visualization books. What did O’Reilly do to put my book within reach of readers? They worked with the same distributors and retailers, such as Ingram and Amazon, that I could have worked with directly. So, if O’Reilly didn’t promote the book and didn’t get it into sales channels that I couldn’t reach myself, what did they do? What they did was screw up and break our contract time after time.
Approximately two years after the book was published, O’Reilly sub-contracted with an unapproved printer and allowed them to produce my book using thin, cheap paper in direct violation of our contract. Not only did this cause images to bleed through the pages, which is unacceptable for any book, let alone one about design, but this caused the book to be so much thinner when bound that the artwork on the spine—an example of my bullet graph—was cut in half. I discovered this while distributing books to my students at the end of a workshop. I was mortified, and then I became angry. After weeks of heated negotiations, which seemed doomed to failure, there seemed to be no alternative but to launch a legal battle to force O’Reilly to honor the contract. In a final desperate effort to resolve matters, I wrote to the founder, Tim O’Reilly, who no longer served as the publisher but remained at the helm of the company. Thankfully, Tim possessed what the publisher who replaced him, Laurie Petrycki, seemed to lack: integrity and good business sense. Within a day or two, much to my relief, the matter was resolved. The remaining defective copies of the book were destroyed, a new printing was set in motion, and an amendment to the contract was written to prevent this from happening again, or in the event that it did, to make sure that O’Reilly surrendered its rights to the book, posthaste.
One provision of the amended contract required that O’Reilly allow me to review and approve final printer’s proofs before each new printing to make sure that no unauthorized and harmful changes were introduced. Since that time, they only remembered to honor this agreement once. At another time I discovered that my book was being sold in a Kindle edition without my approval, also in direct violation of the contract. This Kindle edition automatically reformatted the book, ignoring the careful page layout that I worked long and hard to produce, and it also reduced the colors, which were critical, to monotones of gray. On another occasion they forgot to ship a large order to a conference where I was teaching, which left over 100 students without their books until we could collect each student’s mailing address and individually ship the books.
I doubt that any breaches of contract were willful. The root of the problem, however, was O’Reilly’s lack of concern for me and my rights as an author. The authors who write the books that keep O’Reilly in business are mere cogs in the wheels of O’Reilly’s churn-‘em-out business model. It is in part because so many publishers treat their authors poorly that the traditional publishing model is dying. Alternatives to working with a traditional publisher would not be so attractive if authors were respected in the manner that they deserve. Rather than adapting to a business model that will work in the modern world, O’Reilly’s publishing wing has dug in—an act of insanity.
Two years ago when I started planning a second edition of Information Dashboard Design, because my editor Colleen Wheeler was still at O’Reilly (she has since moved on), I agreed to let her pitch the benefits of publishing the second edition through them, despite their many errors. Colleen did her best, but our discussions made it clear to me, and I believe to her as well, that I would be a fool to work with O’Reilly again. Several weeks ago I contacted Steve Weiss of O’Reilly to remind him that I would be publishing a second edition of the book but wouldn’t be working with O’Reilly. I wanted to make sure that the path was clear of any effort by O’Reilly to oppose my decision. Eventually, I was routed to the publisher, Laurie Petrycki, who informed me that I could not publish a second edition of the book except through O’Reilly. She insisted that our contract locked me forever into working with O’Reilly when writing anything that was derived from Information Dashboard Design. I interpreted the meaning of a “derived work” differently, but instead of debating semantics, I decided to cut through the murkiness by pointing out that O’Reilly had broken our agreement on several occasions and was therefore contractually obligated to surrender its rights to my book. At that point, Petrycki turned matters over to her legal team, which put into motion a series of maneuvers that were designed to waste time and discourage opposition.
I generously offered to resolve matters simply, peacefully, and to both parties’ advantage. I agreed to sign a release that O’Reilly provided, dismissing them of fault, if they would continue selling the first edition of Information Dashboard Design until the second edition was published in July of this year. This would serve their interests, allowing them to earn additional revenue and maintain good will with me, but more importantly, it would serve the interests of potential readers. How did O’Reilly respond? They stopped production of the book immediately and have refused to continue selling it. This was an act of pure spite; the reaction of a petulant child. No wonder authors are increasing looking for alternatives to established publishers like O’Reilly.
O’Reilly Media—the publishing wing at least—appears to have lost its soul. I have no doubt that Tim O’Reilly founded the company with a great vision and high respect for authors. I don’t know when things changed, but it’s obvious that they have. It’s hard to value anything that O’Reilly Media is doing today, including its conferences, when its publishing wing is this dysfunctional. Nevertheless, I would never tell people who are looking for useful content to avoid O’Reilly’s books; that would deny readers useful content and deny authors the revenues and audience they deserve. What I will do without hesitation, however, is encourage authors who might be considering O’Reilly Media as a publisher to look elsewhere.
Perhaps other publishers are equally soulless. I suspect that many are. If you’re looking for a publisher and can’t find one with integrity that offers real value and is willing to commit to it contractually, I would encourage you to do what I’ve done: skip the middleman—a book-mill that does the least possible for 85% to 90% of the revenues—and self-publish. This is increasingly what authors are doing, and for good reason. If there remains even a glimmer of decency within O’Reilly’s management (Tim, are you still there?), I hope they wake up and show some care and intelligence before the disease that is rotting their core fouls the memory of O’Reilly Media forevermore.