O’Reilly Media Has Lost Its Soul

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.

Take care,

52 Comments on “O’Reilly Media Has Lost Its Soul”

By jon. March 11th, 2013 at 5:31 pm

So, are still going to be able to get out your second edition on your own?

I’m not a big fan of old media. I think this is just a natural response to organizations that have been able to “monopolize” the market, a new technology comes out and they are useless since they are not willing to change with the times. It’s a good thing, since it gets rid of bloat and creates higher quality products. Sorry to hear you got messed up with a dinosaur!

By Stephen Few. March 11th, 2013 at 7:48 pm


Yes, due to it many breaches of contract, O’Reilly has no choice now but to surrender its rights to the book, so I’m free to publish the second edition of Information Dashboard Design through Analytics Press, hopefully in July.

By Abhinav Agarwal. March 12th, 2013 at 12:00 am

Dear Stephen,

It is indeed a loss that OReilly has stopped production of your book. Furthermore, they have also removed it from their Safari Books Online library, citing the following explanation – “Although rare, there are instances when a title must be removed and generally occurs when the publisher has lost electronic rights distribution for a particular title.”

I have been reading your latest book, “Now You See It”, and have found it illuminating thus far.

I had read “Information Dashboard Design” some time back, and found it very informative. My review of the book, at http://blog.abhinavagarwal.net/2009/01/information-dashboard-design.html

I look forward to the second edition of IDD. Is there an e-book version expected? E-book formats have evolved considerably over the last couple of years, and it may be possible to preserve the layout, formatting, and colors of a book on design.

Kind Regards, Abhinav

By Peter. March 12th, 2013 at 9:46 am

The one thing O’Reilley did well was provide one place to look for more-than-half decent books on a topic (cough *apress* cough *packt*), and this is the one drawback of self-publishing – I wonder how many great books I’d enjoy/find useful I’ve overlooked because I’ve *never heard about them*?

By Mike. March 12th, 2013 at 9:56 am

For us non-insiders: when you say self-publishing, but you are also working with a 3rd party (Analytics), how does that differ from traditional publishers? I know you say you keep control. What’s the split vs 85-90% to the publisher? Are you personally doing the work of laying out every page, selecting paper stock, hiring a cover artist and so on?

By Indradeep Dasgupta. March 12th, 2013 at 10:06 am

Dear Stephen

Thank you for sharing your experience. I guess most large organizations, whether publishing or not, regress into becoming bureaucratic machines without intending to do so. Processes created to streamline activities become excuses to pass the buck internally.

Would love to hear more about your self-publishing experiences, especially marketing and promotion.



By Steve. March 12th, 2013 at 10:07 am

It feels from the outside that Tim got sucked in to the Obama hype with Gov 2.0 and all that. Again from the outside, it doesn’t look like any of that really panned out. Perhaps the distraction is keeping him away from being detail-orientated at O’Reilly.

By Stephen Few. March 12th, 2013 at 10:21 am

Peter — Few people find my book through O’Reilly. Today, most people find mine and other books on Amazon. If you look at the comments that people made about Information Dashboard Design on O’Reilly’s website (only 5, with an average rating of 3 out of 5) vs. those on Amazon (89, with an average rating of 4.4 out of 5), it is obvious that few people located the book through O’Reilly. Those who went to O’Reilly’s website and searched for books about data visualization would not have found my book, even though it is the best-selling book on data visualization available.

Mike — I self-publish my books in that I do all of the work that a publisher would normally do. Rather than starting my own company to serve as the publisher of my books, I work through Analytics Press, but handle the process just as I would if I’d wanted to establish Perceptual Edge as a publishing entity in addition to a consultancy. The publishing process involves 1) writing the content (the work of the author), editing the content (the work of one or more editors), book composition (laying the book out for print using software such as Adobe InDesign), cover design (usually done by a graphic artist), printing and binding (done by a printer), distribution (either done directly by a publisher, which rarely happens these days, or done by a dedicated distributor), marketing (usually done entirely by the author). Good editors, compositors, and graphic designers are readily available to do this work on a contract basis, and authors can work directly with many distributors or directly with retailers such as Amazon. Because I write regularly, Bryan, who works with me at Perceptual Edge, has learned to do book composition using Adobe InDesign, so this work is now done in-house. Even when I hired an outside book compositor, however, I always worked closely with that person to lay out each page in the way that works best for the reader. Publishers won’t usually work with an author in this way during the composition process, but prefer to automate most of the layout process because it’s fast and cheap, but for books like mine that have many figures, this doesn’t work. Although there is certainly work involved in producing a book on your own, it can be done with relative ease if you hire good people to help.

By Philonous Atio. March 12th, 2013 at 10:53 am

Your story about O’Reilly Media makes me sad. But I’m not surprised that the experience didn’t live up to your expectations.

My own experience with a different highly-regarded technical publisher also was underwhelming in similar respects. Minimal effort went into marketing my book. The people I worked with were likable and competent, but bureaucracy dictated the way things got done. The publisher handled routine requests efficiently, but anything out of the ordinary, well, fuhgeddaboudit.

I consider myself fortunate I didn’t get into any disputes with the publisher. My contract was pretty close to the publisher’s “standard” contract. The publisher observed the letter and spirit of the agreement, so for me it was 100% gold.

I think the foregoing is just the nature of the beast, perhaps even the best one can expect. If you want things done your way with proper attention to detail, you gotta do them yourself. I suppose you now know that.

By Corinne McKay. March 12th, 2013 at 11:24 am

Thanks Stephen for this insightful post! As a fellow self-published author, I agree with you on all counts: self-publishing isn’t that hard once you break it into manageable steps and get good people to help you; and nearly every author I know who’s gone the traditional publishing route has ended up very disappointed. In some cases the book was published with horrific typos; in some cases the book was specifically designed to be the first on a certain topic…until it was “held up in production” for 2 years, in some cases the author was required to set up a website, hire a publicity person and go on a book tour *at their own expense* while the publisher did little more than get the book listed with online retailers. I’ve published three books through Lulu (print edition) and BookBaby (electronic edition) and they’ve done well, selling up to 5,500 copies each and dramatically boosting my teaching and consulting business. It’s doable. I’m not looking to switch to a traditional publisher anytime soon.

By Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller. March 12th, 2013 at 11:25 am

I’m an author who went through not one, not two, but three disappointing experiences with a major book publisher. I have another book in the works, but instead of going through a publisher I’m publishing it myself.

If publishers don’t aggressively market an author’s books, what good are they?

By fpp. March 12th, 2013 at 12:06 pm

BTW – had a look at the O’Reilly page of your book ( http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596100162.do ) – under product details it mentions Safari Books Online as a format, but I could not locate your book (or you as an author on Safari).

By Amy. March 12th, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Hi Stephen, as an interaction/workflows designer with a love of data, I loved IDD. Luckily I got an earlier edition and not one of those horrible misprints!

I quit publishing for good after a similar experience with O’Reilly, earlier in the cycle. While my book never made it to market, they tried to screw me as well. After three of my coauthors quit in succession, I was left writing the book alone. It was a herculean task but I kept at it, even took days off work to work on it, until the day they emailed me and said, “Your book is late. You can’t cancel and you can’t slip any further.” Their exact words: “You can’t cancel and you can’t slip.”

Well, that’s not what my contract said. I told them to stuff it and I canceled.

This was *after* they had already created ill will by begging community leaders to tech edit for free, for sending the wrong chapters to reviewers at the wrong time and thus wasting their time on half-finished work, etc., etc. They gave me basically zero editorial support. That was in 2006. I had done tech editing work for years for “lesser” tech publishers like Que and Sam. Those “lesser” publishers actually paid – up to $4 a page. As a former TE, and somebody who had to live & work in the programming community, I was appalled at O’Reilly’s cheapness. They got a great rep early on and have been trading on it, and coasting downhill, ever since. What a shame.

Since then I’ve self-published two ebooks and a long-form written course. I won’t be going back to traditional publishing unless a publisher offers me a very special carrot indeed.

By Stephen Few. March 12th, 2013 at 12:30 pm

fpp — Apparently O’Reilly has cancelled the availability of Information Dashboard Design via Safari. Another example of a spiteful response. I didn’t ask them to do this.

By Chris MacKenzie. March 12th, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Stephen, how much work does Analytics Press typically do for an author who is self-publishing? What are they charging you for and at what rates?

By Reader. March 12th, 2013 at 12:58 pm

One counter point: I am much more likely to purchase an O’Reilly book because I trust the brand. Their original books with the animal covers are usually decent quality. I very, very rarely purchase a development-oriented book from another publisher – if I do I first do a heck of a lot of research via Google Books, etc.

By Tim O’Reilly. March 12th, 2013 at 1:22 pm

(The following comment is from Tim O’Reilly, with Stephen’s responses inserted in blue.)

While I was not directly involved in your discussions with the editorial team at O’Reilly, I have looked into your allegations, and would like an opportunity to respond.

A couple of salient facts that your readers of this post might want to know:

1. It is our interpretation of your contract that we had the right to produce a second edition, but we also agreed that you had the right to terminate the contract.

Actually, this is not true. O’Reilly Media did not agree that I had the right to terminate the contract. In fact, that right does not exist in the contract. When O’Reilly was in breach of contract the first time, because the contract did not clearly state what would happen if you failed to honor it, your publisher, Laurie Petrycki, sicked the lawyers on me when I asked that my rights be honored. Only when you eventually got involved at my request was the matter resolved through an addendum to the contract that clearly spelled out that you were required to surrender your rights to the book immediately if you were ever again in breach of contract. Even with the addendum, I had no right to terminate the contract. Instead, you were required to surrender your rights if you failed to abide by it. That’s quite different.

So when you said you wanted the rights back so you could self-publish the second edition yourself, we accepted that. That is hardly a soulless machine that gives no regard to the interests of authors.

Also, not true. When I informed Petrycki that I had written a second edition of the book and was planning for it to be published by Analytics Press, she told me that I had no choice but to have O’Reilly publish it. This was not true, because the existing contract only covered the existing edition. I pointed this out to Petrycki, and she again said that I had no choice but to either have the book published through O’Reilly or not at all. Essentially, she said that, unless I agreed to the terms that O’Reilly offered, I was out of luck and would have no opportunity to publish my book, period. Yes, this was a soulless response.

Not only that, when we reverted the rights, we agreed to provide you with all the design files so that you could print additional copies of the first edition yourself.

This didn’t happen as you described. You did not agree to revert your rights to me. When I pointed out how you had been in breach of the contract several times and that, as such, according to the addendum to the contract you were required to surrender your rights, Petrycki ignored me and once again said that the book could not be published, except by O’Reilly. When I stood my ground and pointed out the breach of contract a second time, Petrycki turned the matter over to your attorney who sent me a release form absolving O’Reilly of all responsibility for the breach, and demanded that I sign it before O’Reilly would surrender its rights as contractually required. At that time, I said that I would gladly sign the release—something that I was not required to do—if you agreed to continue selling the book through June. Your opportunity to continue selling the book for a reasonable period of time after surrendering your rights to it were guaranteed in the contract. Continuing to sell the book through June would have provided you with additional revenues and would have provided books for readers, approximately 300 students who will be attending my workshops between now and July, and for students who use the book in university courses. Your attorney was instructed by Petrycki to deny my request. I am still waiting for you to surrender your rights to my book. Even though I first contacted O’Reilly about this on December 6, 2012, I still have not received the Adobe InDesign files from you.

2. Because of your exacting design requirements, the book is a four-color book printed in Italy, with a 6-8 week reprint lead time, and a cost that is highly dependent on the number of copies printed. We have only just run out of stock; effectively, you wanted us to print enough stock for only three months of sales. This would drive up the unit cost dramatically.

The book does not need to be printed in Italy. It can be printed here in the United States much more quickly. You usually have it printed in Italy to save costs. This makes sense when you have the time. You ran out of stock because, when I first approached Petrycki, she immediately put a stop to process that was already in motion to print additional copies of the book, but she did not inform me of this fact. I discovered this when I recently placed a book order for one of my workshops as was told that it was out of stock because Petrycki canceled the planned printing. Had the printing proceeded as planned, the books would have already arrived. Because your attorney has engaged in a series of delay tactics and still has not delivered the Adobe InDesign files to me, I have been prevented from having additional copies of the book printed myself. By the time that I receive the files, it will be too late to supply my workshops. What Petrycki did was an intentional act of spite.

By the time I even heard about the issue, you were asking for a reprint that has a two month lead time with only three months to go before you were planning to publish the second edition. (You had originally told us that you were going to publish the second edition in June; in your account above, I see that has now slipped to July.)

I informed O’Reilly Media of my intention on December 6, 2012. I did not hear back from Petrycki until late January, over a month and a half later. I was not responsible for any of the delay. You only became aware of the situation personally about a week ago because I contacted you and asked for your help to cut through the crap. Had Petrycki done her job, the additional copies of the book that will be needed to supply demand through June would have arrived in early February.

This is one of the real problems with the old-fashioned printing methods that are the only ones that seem to provide the quality you insist on. You have to buy large print runs, which don’t always line up neatly with real-world demand, requiring large investments in inventory. We’ve moved to print-on-demand for many of our books (even for four-color books such as yours), but that leads to precisely the kind of quality tradeoff that you insist you don’t want. Print-on-demand allows for continuous availability as well as for sudden spikes in demand.

Given my self-publishing experience, I’m very familiar with the printing process. You don’t have to buy print runs that are larger than the 1,500 copies or so that would have been needed to fill orders through June. Yes, it costs more per book when you print fewer copies, but you would have still made plenty of money. You get to keep 85% of net revenues. Even printing a small quantity, you would have made a nice profit. Also, you don’t need to rely on print-on-demand to maintain continuous availability, you simply plan ahead, which is your job. I manage to maintain availability of my other books just fine.

But in any case, it is normal publishing practice to let a first edition lapse in the months before availability of a new edition. If you’re a consumer, the last thing you want to see is a new, improved edition of a book a few days or weeks after you just paid for what is now the out-of-date edition.

Whether this is normal publishing practice, I can’t say, but it is not my practice because my books are continuously needed for the workshops that I teach and for the university courses in which they are used.

In short, there is no “spite” in the decision not to reprint the book.

The facts suggest otherwise.

I’m sorry you and your students got caught in a squeeze here. Given that we have reverted the rights to you, you can most certainly consider reprinting the first edition yourself, perhaps using print-on demand and accepting some reduction in quality to meet the gap in availability.

This squeeze that I and my students are caught in didn’t just happen, it was manufactured. As I pointed out above, by the time that you finally provide me with the necessary files, it will be too late to have them printed in time. Even if I had the time, Petrycki has denied me the right to use the ISBN number that currently exists for the book, which means that I would need to set up a new ISBN with resellers such as Amazon, which takes additional time.

I wish you well with your self-publishing endeavor. I started out as a self-published author myself, and built up my company from there. It’s more challenging than many authors imagine, but it’s most certainly doable. But it does put you in touch with the messy realities (and economics) of manufacturing, inventory management, and distribution that make this kind of difficult situation come up from time to time.

The only messiness that I’ve experienced related to publishing is that which has been caused by O’Reilly. Compared to that, self-publishing has been a breeze.

If you want to see if print-on-demand could satisfy your requirements to produce copies of the first edition until the second is ready, I’m sure we could connect you with some appropriate vendors.

As you know, print-on-demand cannot satisfy the requirements of books like mine. As you pointed out in an email to me, you have written books yourself that require offset four-color printing, which you would never allow to be printed on an on-demand laser printer.

Tim – I brought you into the loop on this matter because I thought that you would choose to handle things more ethically and rationally than Petrycki. I’m disappointed to find that you support these bad practices. Given the fact that it is in your power to correct Petrycki’s bad behavior, it appears that the loss of soul at O’Reilly has spread farther than I wanted to believe. What a shame.

By pybolt. March 12th, 2013 at 1:37 pm


Could O’reilly be responding to your claim that they are “contractually obligated to surrender its rights to my[your] book” by no longer printing or selling it? That would seem like the conservative “cover your butt” move of a large company.

By Rick Altman. March 12th, 2013 at 2:19 pm

I published my first 15 books through traditional means and can’t imagine doing so now, for many of the same reasons that have been discussed by Stephen and the others here. Self-publishing is so much more satisfying, and unless you are seeking to write the Great American Novel, book revenue is just not what it used to be. (I treat my book more like a business card than a literary work and practically give away the PDF version if it might lead to business.)

The big challenge is the self part of self-publishing. With a background in desktop publishing, I create final PDF entirely myself, hiring only editors. Without that background, it would be a much heavier lift, and I’m not sure if I would have the patience for it. That is more of a self-commentary than one on the business, but there you go…

By Stephen Few. March 12th, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Chris — Analytics Press doesn’t really function as a full-fledged publisher. Jonathan Koomey started Analytics Press originally to publish his own wonderful book “Turning Numbers into Knowledge.” I became acquainted with Jon through his book while writing “Show Me the Numbers” and asked if I could publish it through Analytics Press and do all the work of a publisher myself. This arrangement has worked wonderfully for both of us. Although he isn’t obligated to do anything other than list my books on the Analytics Press website, Jon has voluntarily promoted my books in a number of ways. You’re welcome to contact Jon to see if he would be willing to publish books that you write, but this would only make sense if you’re willing to handle the production process on your own.

Reader — As I mentioned in my original post, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from buying books from O’Reilly, because that would primarily hurt the authors, which wouldn’t be fair. O’Reilly built a good reputation for technical books long ago, but is now losing authors because it treats them poorly. If this continues, in time you will not be able to trust the O’Reilly brand.

pybolt — I specifically asked O’Reilly to continue selling the first edition of the book through the end of June. Even without my permission, O’Reilly has the right per the contract to continue selling the book for a reasonable period of time after surrendering its other rights due to the breach of contract. O’Reilly’s refusal to supply the book in the meantime is an act of petulance. They intentionally created roadblocks in the process to keep me from getting the Adobe InDesign files in time to print more copies of the book myself to keep them in supply until the second edition becomes available. I’m still waiting for the files to be delivered.

By Kathy Sierra. March 12th, 2013 at 2:40 pm

I am a good candidate for self-publishing because:
* I do virtually all of the interior layout of the book, delivering camera-ready files
* I do not need — or care — about marketing

But I still feel it is worth it for me (not everyone) to go through a traditional publisher including O’Reilly because I want to focus and spend my time on one and ONLY one thing: creating. I don’t want to spend a moment researching and handling the business side, and when you have books being translated into dozens of languages, negotiating foreign distribution rights, etc. etc., this is a big deal. I know a lot of self-published authors who simply don’t have those foreign translation and/or distribution and licensing deals, and it is, for me, a non-trivial amount of my income, thanks to O’Reilly.

I, too, am disappointed that Tim is no longer involved much with the publishing side.

By Stephen Few. March 12th, 2013 at 2:57 pm


It is true that the self-publishing model takes time and work. Having O’Reilly handle the production process, however, did not save me any time or work. In fact, it took more time and work, because I wasn’t able to conveniently sit down with O’Reilly’s editor, graphic designer, book compositor, etc. like I was able to do by contracting these services directly from local providers. Because O’Reilly provided these services, rather than paying for them directly as I prefer to do, O’Reilly paid for them, but the cost to me was enormous. A typical publishing contract pays the author only 10-15% of net revenues (not the list price, but the wholesale price that is paid to the publisher by distributors and resellers). For the books that I publish through Analytics Press, after all of my expenses are accounted for, I make at least 45% of net revenues.

Your point about foreign publishing rights, translations, etc., is perhaps a valid reason to work with an established publisher, but this doesn’t apply to me because I don’t allow my books to be translated. I care too much about the quality of the end product to trust a translation that I cannot myself review.

By Kathy Sierra. March 12th, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Oh yeah, just wanted to add that there ARE some really amazing people still at O’Reilly media, including several I believe still reflect the “soul” of O’Reilly. The business came dangerously close to death in the dot-com crash, and they became more business-focused to stay alive. But that near-death experience also caused Tim, at least, to be even MORE open to trying new things (“what do we have to lose?”) even while others became more conservative. It was during that time that O’Reilly agreed to take on a book by a total no-name (me) in a bizarre format that was strongly turned down by other publishers. Even many within O’Reilly at the time hated the idea of my first book and some nearly quit the company over it. It was Tim and a few others (our fabulous editor Mike Loukidies, and some marketing folks) who believed in it. That decision has kept some people at O’Reilly employed over the subsequent years. — as that flatly-rejected series has since sold more than two million print copies alone.

Every now and then I wonder what it would be like to have self-published and gotten a much bigger chunk of the income from the book. But it takes me about ten seconds to realize that for me, this would be absurd. I would be trading away the best parts of my brain’s limited energy each day in order to do all the other things O’Reilly does, most of which I never have to think about. I have had my fair share of squabbles with some of them, some quite stressful, but taking the long view, wow, they have REALLY had my back. I trust them not just far more than any other publisher, but also far more than I would ever trust myself to do what they have done with the books.

If I was developing something for a very small niche, and did not anticipate big demand, or need foreign rights dealt with, etc. I would probably self-publish. Indeed I have a couple of hobby non-tech projects that will be self-published ebooks. But if there is a chance that what you are creating could be *big*, a publisher (or at least O’Reilly) can make that happen. Also, anyone who expects a publisher to do marketing is just kidding themselves, and I wish publishers would quit using that as a selling point. And it really makes almost no difference… when it comes to books on topics that are already in demand, it pretty much IS a meritocracy. Not based on *objective quality*, because nobody knows what that means for a technical book. But he/she who builds the book that helps the target audience do whatever it is they were hoping to do, doesn’t need a marketing campaign. For a tech book, marketing makes a different mostly when there is a huge pile of books on the same topic, and none of them appear to have any other significant differentiating competitive advantage. But I would not want to pour a year of my life into making a book that had no real advantage over other books, and by “advantage” I mean in a way that reader’s perceive as useful and valuable for them. The tech world is overflowing with extremely high-quality books that too few actual readers find usable or approachable. And I blame the “write a book as a big heavy business card / cred” as the problem. It is not easy to create a book/user experience that simultaneously makes the author look smart AND actually makes the reader smarter. These two goals are nearly incompatible unless you are writing purely for an audience that is in the top % of programmers AND pretty much already knows the technology.
We’re not talking about writing for dummies; we are talking about writing for, say, the astronaut who does not know this technology. In other words, smart person with limited time, no prior experience, who doesn’t want to waste time trying to parse a technically-correct-but-completely-obscure paragraph. And there is plenty of evidence that most technical books fall into this category, including — often ESPECIALLY — the most technically accurate, comprehensive, and intelligently-written ones. High quality must factor in the user/reader experience and results.

By Stephen Few. March 12th, 2013 at 3:18 pm


While working with a big publisher like O’Reilly may work for you, which I would never try to contradict, self-publishing does not require the effort that you suppose. As I wrote previously, it actually took more of my time to work with O’Reilly than it did to produce my books through Analytics Press using the self-publshing model. The only difference is that I hired the people that I wanted to work with; I wasn’t stuck with the people that O’Reilly assigned to me. The size of the audience isn’t a factor. My books, like yours, have been highly successful–the best-selling books in my field–but the book that I published through O’Reilly has had no advantages over the others. They have all reached a large international audience.

I absolutely agree that, no matter what route you choose, what matters most is producing a great book for readers. Working with good editors is definitely required. So many technical books are poorly written, and this includes many of the books that are published by O’Reilly. When Information Dashboard Design was being produced, O’Reilly wasn’t set up to produce a design-oriented book of high quality. In part, they learned how to do this by working with me. They didn’t want to take the time or put in the effort that was required. It was only because I negotiated a contract that gave me control over design decisions that I was able to produce a book through O’Reilly at the time that matched the high standards of my work.

By Kathy Sierra. March 12th, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Stephen, I can accept that my books– and my experiences — might be unique. Not everyone there was someone I wanted to work with, but we were able to have more of a say in who we worked with than most, so I really don’t know how it would have been otherwise. And we did have one major incident that relates to what you’re saying about quality: when one of the earlier books was being put on Safari, we expected that it would of course be a PDF, because it was designed to be extremely depending on very precise layouts. The code was blended with graphics and annotations, etc. The first time they put up one of the books in XML, it was a disaster and completely unusable. I was DEEPLY upset that nobody thought to review what the process had done to the book (and especially the code). There was some pushback by some people, or at the least they felt I was dramatically over-reacting (I wasn’t. As it seems you know– you don’t make good books without fighting for the user experience at every moment). Granted, this layout-heavy book did not lend itself to their normal process in any way, but still… But they DID take it down within less than 24 hours. They definitely did the right thing, though I was still a little upset that the people I was dealing with at the time weren’t themselves deeply disturbed by having a book like that *available*, even for a nano-second.
I suppose nobody cares about your book as much as you do, but I don’t mind being a pain in the ass to do it. And it does sound like your experience was nothing like mine. If it means that I was lucky to get “the good people”, I’m grateful. Just as my mostly *good* experiences don’t in any way take away what happened with yours, the bad experiences you’ve had I don’t believe reflect O’Reilly as a whole, with or without Tim. The soul is still there, even if a little less visible.

By Fred Fnord. March 12th, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I have been somewhat disillusioned with O’Reilly for a LONG time. Back around 2000-2001, when Mac OS X was being released, O’Reilly came out with two books, one on Carbon and one on Cocoa. They were rushed to print, and were basically unedited collections of Apple’s tech notes. They were unreadable as books, unusable as reference works (the indexes weren’t even very good), full of typos and poor grammar, and so forth. I bought them, tried to use them for a couple weeks, and eventually put them on a shelf and forgot about them.

I bought them because I trusted O’Reilly to turn out something at least somewhat useful. These simply, literally were not. They were only there because O’Reilly knew that a lot of people would want reference books on the new OS, and would buy the first thing that came out, especially if it had their name on it. And they knew that that huge initial sales surge would be worth the nearly-zero investment, even if (when) people realized how bad they were.

By Ernie Zelinski. March 12th, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Thanks for your post. I always wondered about O’Reilly.

Sadly, traditional publishers seem to be getting worse in their dealings with authors instead of improving.

I have been self-publishing for over 20 years, having self-published my first book in 1989. But I also have had some of my books published by traditional publishers, such as “The Joy of Not Working” which was originally self-published, but which I turned over to Ten Speed Press in 1997. The relationship that I had with Ten Speed Press was great until Random House purchased Ten Speed Press in 2009. Since then it’s been downhill.

When Random House bought Ten Speed Press, they immediately cancelled the distribution Agreement I had with Ten Speed Press for the distribution of my self-published “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”, but Random House wanted to take over the publication of the book in a normal publisher/author relationship. This would have meant that I would be earning less than a third of what I was earning with the book being self-published.

Despite the fact many people would love to have a book published by a major publisher such as Random House, I had the pleasure of rejecting Random House.

I immediately got National Book Network to distribute “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” for me and it has been selling about 40 better than it was selling in the last eight months that it was with Random House/Ten Speed Press. In fact, in 2012 the book had its best year ever (with 18,600 copies sold in the print edition in the U.S. and Canada) since it was published in 2004.

I am already well over $150,000 ahead in profits by having rejected Random House and over the next few years I will earn several hundreds of thousand of dollars more.

Moral of the story: Self-publishing can be much more profitable than being published by a major publisher!

Ernie J. Zelinski

By Teren Teh. March 13th, 2013 at 6:53 am

Thanks for your insight on the situation, Stephen. I stumbled upon your blog but knew your book from a long time back. How I wish I had bought it then! Now that I need it most, it’s a pity that they have decided to stop publishing it. I’m eagerly awaiting for the next edition of the book.

By jonny. March 13th, 2013 at 8:48 am

Thanks for sharing the experience. It seem more and more creatives (writers,musicians, filmmakers) are needing the big companies to market and distribute their work. They do charge alot of very little guaranteed return.

By Jon E. March 13th, 2013 at 10:52 am

Someday I’ll understand why graphics on Kindle / Mobi formats are such a tough nut to crack. I love e-books; the graphics should outshine dead tree publications but don’t.

By Stephen Few. March 13th, 2013 at 11:14 am


With today’s relatively high-resolution screens, graphics can potentially look fine on mobile reading devices, but many of them are not large enough for many graphics. For example, many of the figures that appear in my books need more space than is available on a Kindle to be clearly seen. An iPad and other devices of similar size can display most graphics nicely, but graphics that were formatted for a printed book are not properly formatted for an iPad. For example, I design my books to be read as two-page spreads (a left-hand and right-hand page) that are simultaneously visible to the reader. If I make my books available in PDF form so they can be read on an iPad, only one page at a time can be displayed because a two-page spread makes everything too small to read. But when I designed it for a two-page spread, I was able to place figures on the facing page rather than the page on which the text appears that is associated with the figure, if necessary, because it would still be visible to the reader. I think that it is important, whenever possible, to allow the reader to see the figure when reading text that applies to it without turning to a different page. It takes a great deal of work to make this possible. For my books to be as readable on an iPad, I would need to design the layout in a way that was appropriate for viewing only one page at a time. This is rather limiting, so I would perhaps want to take advantage of the interactive features of the iPad to make figures appear only when needed in a separate container from the text that could be viewed simultaneously without conflict.

What I’m saying is that reading devices are different from printed books, so the content of books must be designed differently for electronic readers. This is why my books are not yet available in electronic form; I simply haven’t had the time to format them appropriately, but I hope to in time. Currently, most reading devices such as the Kindle ignore the layout of a book when formatting the content for the device, which destroys formatting by reflowing text and figures using automated algorithms that merely attempt to get everything to fit without concern for the reader’s experience. This works fine for novels but not for books that require careful layout.

By Josh Carter. March 13th, 2013 at 11:46 am


I browse visualization books from time to time, and I just want to add my (entirely anecdotal) experience: I’ve stumbled across “Information Dashboard Design” far more often than your other books. Mostly on Amazon — including their “recommended for you” section — and sometimes traditional bookstores. That could be due to a number of factors, of course, but publishing with O’Reilly surely contributed to that book’s great placement.

Best regards,

By Stephen Few. March 13th, 2013 at 11:53 am


The “recommendations for you” on Amazon are largely controlled by them, without influence from the publisher. It is true, however, that Amazon allows publishers to purchase better placement opportunities, but this can be done by those who self-publish as well. O’Reilly did not pay Amazon to improve the placement of Information Dashboard Design. Its placement was a result of its popularity. The topic of dashboard design is more focused and popular than data visualization in general, so my dashboard book has sold somewhat better than my other two books overall, but I’m not aware of anything that O’Reilly did to influence this. Two years ago when O’Reilly tried to convince me that I should let them publish the second edition of the book, I told them that I was not aware of anything that O’Reilly did to market the first edition, and they were not able to provide any examples to contradict my observation.

By Nancy Wirsig McClure. March 13th, 2013 at 2:05 pm


Thank you for your detailed post and responses to comments. I now feel lucky that I acquired IDD in 2007, and I’m looking forward to the new edition. It’s sad to hear that O’Reilly is just as bad as the other majors when it comes to books with intense visual content. And it’s fascinating to read the thoughts of technical authors who care about visual communication.

Also, thank you for articulating the point that the spread is the true unit of printed book UX (a UX that includes page numbers, index, TOC, etc).

You said, “This is why my books are not yet available in electronic form; I simply haven’t had the time to format them appropriately, but I hope to in time.”

This will be a fascinating process. I hope you blog about it (and perhaps seek assistance from amongst your blog’s followers, ahem…)

Maybe what we need is an e-publisher specializing in electronic books where layout and graphics are a key part of the communication.

By Stephen Few. March 13th, 2013 at 2:16 pm


Is e-book layout something that you specialize in? If so, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Also, I’d be interesting in hearing your opinion of the e-book version of Nancy Duarte’s book “Resonate,” if you’ve seen it.

By Alistair Croll. March 14th, 2013 at 11:32 am


I read your story with considerable interest. As an author or co-author of three books—two of which are with O’Reilly, and one of which launched this week, I’m very curious about the publishing world.

I work very closely with O’Reilly on a number of things including the Strata conference. Whatever your business dealings may have shown, I can assure you that they are, nearly to a fault, wonderful, generous people. Tim has, for decades, sacrificed profits to work on stuff that matters, and that culture still permeates everything from Foo Camp to Make to the many other initiatives the company runs.

So let’s separate the personal attacks—which I think are unwarranted—from the business issues, which are complex and manifold. In situations like this, I usually invoke Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”—or in this case, complexity.

I have had my run-ins with publishers, both O’Reilly and Prentice-Hall, over everything from marketing to book design to choice of title. Generally, they’ve been resolved well. And on the balance, after three books, I would say the positives outweigh the negatives. The O’Reilly team has always been polite, even when I’m a grumpy, curmudgeonly, narcissistic jackass (which I am a lot.) Their design, copy editing, and logistics have been superb. Just last week, they raced to get 70 books to Austin straight from the printer, bending the laws of physics, so I could do a signing there. And I really support their decision to sell DRM-free, perpetually downloadable books in multiple formats including PDF and .mobi.

It sounds like your requirements were far more demanding than my own, and that you went into this project after already having understood the self-publishing model. It also sounds like your book, which you sell as part of your course, is your livelihood, and represents a spend from your students from which you’d like a bigger piece of the pie. That makes you different from the vast majority of authors, who have relatively standard requirements; don’t want to manage the publishing process themselves; and are doing it for recognition and credibility. Most of the authors of technical books with whom I’ve spoken don’t do it for the money—they do it for the accolades. It gets them jobs, speaking gigs, and free beers

The last few years, and Lean Analytics in particular, have shown me the amazing challenges that a dominant vendor like Amazon has wrought on the industry. They change purchase orders at the last minute, and I’ve seen publication dates vary dramatically. They have a race-to-the-bottom pricing model. This is a challenge for traditional publishers. Most of your readers are likely not aware of these nuances, which exacerbate special requests such as control over design or short-term print runs,

I agree wholeheartedly that publishers need to change. I also think O’Reilly is at the forefront of that change, with stuff like Safari. I think many of your criticisms are founded, but you do yourself a disservice by characterizing them as personal vendettas.

I’ll end with one question: what if, rather than taking 85% of your book revenue (and none of anything else) a publisher took 30% of all your revenues, such as teaching fees, honoraria, T-shirt sales, paywalled-blog subscriptions, and whatever else you made around your brand—and in return acted as marketing platform’, speaker bureau, and so on. Would you feel that was a more equitable model? It would certainly align the publisher’s interests more closely with your own, and might change the behaviour of both parties.

Anyway, thanks for provoking such an interesting thread; I’m sorry it came from such a negative experience, and mine has been completely the opposite.

By Stephen Few. March 14th, 2013 at 12:12 pm


I see that you write for O’Reilly Radar. To partner so intimately with O’Reilly, I suspect that your experience with them has indeed been different from mine. As you yourself point out in your comments, however, your experience with O’Reilly and other large publishers has in fact not been “completely the opposite” of my experience. You too have experienced problems.

Regarding Hanlon’s Razor, “’Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity’—or in this case, complexity,” the problems that O’Reilly Media have created in my case are not due to complexity. Their failures to honor the contract have likely been due to incompetence, rooted in the fact that they don’t care enough about their agreements with authors to put the appropriate controls in place to make sure that they honor them. Petrycki’s responses to me have indeed been due to malice. She attempted to bully me into relinquishing my rights. She had her legal team engage in nasty maneuvers to discourage me from pursuing my rights and from getting the files for my book in time to print the additional copies that are needed. This is pure malice, and also stupid business practice.

Regarding the personal nature of my response to O’Reilly, this matter is very personal. I suspect that, if you were in my position, you would understand this and respond much as I have. Acting as matters of this nature have no personal component would be dishonest. People at O’Reilly Media are personally responsible for the wrong that has been done. I have not described thier bad behavior because of a personal vendetta. Rather, as a matter of principle, I believe that we have a responsibility to speak up when wrongs have been done that affect others. If this were not of interest to the public, I would have kept it to myself. As you can tell by responses from others, what I’ve written has struck a chord. I have heard privately from other authors who have had similar experiences.

I have no doubt that Tim O’Reilly does much that is good. It was because I assumed his good character and business acumen that I reached out to him. As you can see in what he wrote to me, which I have no not edited, however, Tim is supporting a series of lies and bad business practices. He did not initiate them, Petrycki did, but by supporting them, he shares responsibility. Ultimately, O’Reilly Media is Tim’s company. Many people who do good also do harm. The good that they do does not excuse them of the harm. I’ve been told by others that Tim has mostly checked out of the publishing business of O’Reilly Media. Perhaps he needs to remember to vision that got him started in this business and do what he can to infuse the company once again with that vision.

Regarding Amazon, I agree with you that they are creating significant problems for the publishing industry. Amazon’s conduct at times is downright nasty, which is unfortunately typical of most large corporations. I would love to see a viable alternative for international book sales.

I don’t understand what you’re suggesting in the second to last paragraph of your comments. O’Reilly Media signed an agreement to publish one of my books. I only needed this one service from them. I certainly don’t want O’Reilly to be involved in other aspects of my work, which they don’t understand. The thought of how this is horrifying. O’Reilly does not need to be involved in other aspects of an author’s work to serve in responsibly carry out their role as a publisher. The fact that O’Reilly has failed to handle my book as well as I–someone who is not a publisher–has been able to handle my other books, should concern them. If I were in their position and had failed to honor my agreement with an author as they have with me, rather than denying all responsibility and becoming intransigent, I would be mortified. I would do everything in my power to make things right. I expect this from every business. We excuse the bad behavior of corporations such as O’Reilly Media far too easily and often. Only by speaking up can we ever hope to change things for the better.

By Alistair Croll. March 14th, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Two quick responses (I don’t think this is the place for back-and-forth; that place is beers, and maybe we can share some one day.

– the complexity I referred to on both sides: that of the Byzantine publishing industry, and your unusual contract which gives you far more control over the design of the book than that of most authors. I suspect each is responsible for no small amount of the chagrin here.
– my second-to-last paragraph was just a postulate, as I’m convinced that is where publishers will have to go, much as labels have become promoters and concert operators and merchandisers for their artists.

By Stephen Few. March 14th, 2013 at 1:48 pm


That beer sounds great right about now.

My contract with O’Reilly was unusual at the time, because mine was one of their first design-oriented books, but it was not complex in the least. It simply gave me the right as the author to participate in and have final right of approval over design choices. The parameters for those choices (4-color offset printing, good paper, careful layout, etc.) were all discussed before the contract was signed. For books about design, this is essential, otherwise the author’s reputation can be ruined by a poorly designed book. I’ve seen this happen to books about data visualization. Imagine having your hard work and reputation destroyed by a publisher’s poor design decisions.

By grasshopper. March 15th, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Thanks for this inside-look into publishing books. I’ve published 1 book (through my employer), and if I ever publish one outside of work, I now know that I should self-publish.

By Nancy Wirsig McClure. March 15th, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Hi again, Stephen.

I believe it’s worth considering e-books, because many people love them. They’re physically smaller (easier to hold; you can travel with whole libraries) and earth-friendly (no paper, no shipping, etc.)

I wish I could say that I could step right up to e-book creation, but I only follow the field — my hands-on experience is in web and UX design and print InDesign work. I got a bit carried away by the fantasy of helping bring my favorite subject to a new medium.

However, I do have opinions based on my reading. I think an author of visually-rich content has to consider several major issues with e-books, which you touched on in your mentions of PDFs, etc:

(a) What should the digital experience be for the reader? Is what’s right for Nancy Duarte’s content right for Stephen Few’s content?

(b) How can a small screen convey the relationships between “content units” such as text, illustrations, asides, footnotes, etc?

(c) What hardware and software would you want to require for readers of your e-book?

The discussion of these turned into a long essay, so I put it over on my blog. I hope you find it worth reading.


By Al Sweigart. March 18th, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Wow, thank you very much for writing this blog post. I’m the author of a couple self-published (through createspace.com) programming books. I haven’t had any problems with the self-publishing route, but doing all the editing, layout, and publicity is huge amount of effort. I was wondering if I would be better off going through a traditional publisher (specifically O’Reilly), but now I’m much more skeptical about that route. I’m well past the “not-a-real-publisher” stigma of self-publishing (the books sell and printed at a good quality), and I’m not entirely convinced I’d want to take the hit to my royalty rate (about 33% of the cover price).

By Mazarine. March 20th, 2013 at 11:11 am

I really liked this post. This validates my decisions!

I’ve self published two books,
The Wild Woman’s Guide to Fundraising
The Wild Woman’s Guide to Social Media

And about to self publish a third.

Penelope Trunk has an excellent and funny post about self publishing, check it out!




By Paul D. Bain. March 21st, 2013 at 11:40 am

Steve Few,

I am sorry to hear of your difficulties with O’Reilly Media. I found your article to be interesting and extraordinarily informative. I have long wondered about the advantages of self-publishing. And, now, I know.

If I publish a book, I will probably try to self-publish first, and I will probably publish on the web, instead of using a traditional, “dead tree” book. Furthermore, I think that my knowledge of web CMS’s will facilitate that effort. I suggest that all writers learn at least one CMS and a thing or two about Internet advertising.

FWIW, over the years, I bought and read scores of IT books published by O’Reilly, which was one of my favorite IT publishers, along with New Riders. I was also a technical reviewer for Addison-Wesley for several IT titles, mostly on J2EE.

— Paul D. Bain

By stephen black. March 27th, 2013 at 6:15 am

I applaud your resistance to a messed up Kindle edition of your book. Kindle books are too often typographical and layout abominations. But have you explored any other electronic publishing formats?

I hate Kindle when layout matters but the convenience of having lots of content in one place is very high and I would like to find an alternative that works when layout and typography matter.

By Omar. March 27th, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I certainly understand your hesitation in creating ebook versions of your works as it makes a lot of sense that it dramatically changes the readers experience. While I am a big fan of the Kindle, perhaps you should publish them to the iBooks store. The iPad, to me, will provide the most accurate representation of your efforts with it’s high resolution display. While I prefer reading on my Kindle, at this point I would accept almost anything.

Show Me The Numbers is Too Big For Me to Read on My Daily Bus Commute, and With A 1 Year Old Baby at Home That’s My Only Quiet Time.

By Stephen Few. March 27th, 2013 at 7:47 pm


Unfortunately, only a single page at a time can be viewed on the iPad, despite its high resolution. To make my books available on the iPad, I will need to redesign them for single page rather than dual-page reading. This isn’t easy with books like mine that include many figures, many of which are large.

By Omar. March 28th, 2013 at 8:24 am

Firstly, thank you for taking the time two respond.

I have two points here I think are worth noting:
1) I understand your concern about needing to redesign your books. For us consumers, many of which are clamoring for a digital version, I think having something, whether perfect or not, would be of great value.
2) On the topic of redesigning for a single page, the iPad at least lends itself to other methods of interaction such as rotational reflow, touch-based image pop ups or magnifications,non-linear progression, etc. Not to mention that image transformations would add another layer for you to interact with us. This may negate the effect that a single page view may have.

Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve never read a book on my iPad in single page layout. I’ve always read them in two-page view. eMagazines are a different story, but I certainly enjoy the creative ways in which the creators choose to display content.

I feel that with all the possible options there is certainly a way to, not only preserve your design, but make it even more engaging. I know that I, for one, would be thrilled to buy the digital versions of your 3 books, even at the same price as the print works all of which I own already.

I’m quite happy to be one of your guinea pigs should you want a readers input on design/experience/enhancements. I’m currently considering buying another copy of Show Me the Numbers just to cut it to bits and rearrange it to show you how much I believe it can work. :)

By Stephen Few. March 28th, 2013 at 5:50 pm


My books can certainly be designed for reading on an iPad, and the design could surpass that of the printed books. They don’t exist for the iPad, not because it wouldn’t be useful, but merely because it will take time to design them — time that I haven’t yet been able to set aside. I’m hoping to get to this, but first, I have new book taking shape in my head that is clamoring to get out.

By Clint. March 28th, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Thank you for writing this very thoughtful and detailed account of your experiences with O’Reilly. I’ve been considering self-publishing, but haven’t made the jump yet.

I’ve written several books for a major publisher (not O’Reilly) that I guess could be considered a competitor to O’Reilly.

My first book with them was a great experience, so when they asked me to do a second book I was easy to convince. But, that experience was not at all like the first one. Though they promised all the same things in the contract they didn’t fulfill their end of the bargain. But – the book was published and, though it took a lot more work on my part than it should have, I am happy it is out and it is doing well.

When they approached me do the next one I was somewhat reluctant, but thought that maybe problems with the second one was just due to certain people there, so I (with some reservations) agreed to do another with them. That was a disaster. At every step along the way, they seemed to make everything more difficult than it should have been, and take way longer than I could have done it myself (with a lot less hassle and aggravation). I honestly think it would have been a much better book if they would not have been involved at all. It would have also taken much less time to create. The book was published and did well, but it was enough to cause me to decide to never do another book with them again, and perhaps not with any publisher.

I was wondering if a different publisher might be worth trying for the next one (I am somewhat reluctant to try the self-publishing idea) but your note makes me think the problems I saw are more pervasive in the industry than just the publisher I was with.

Anyway, thanks for your post. Very enlightening to me. It also makes me feel even more that it shouldn’t be a hassle to work with a publisher. For the huge cut they take from the proceeds they should be ADDING value, not providing roadblocks.


By Matthew Clapp. March 31st, 2013 at 8:30 am

I just picked up a 2nd copy of IDD at Barnes and Noble last week so it’s still being distributed which is good news – or maybe this was a last copy. I also bought your other books but I’ve never been able to find them in book stores. I’ve always ordered them online. Maybe this is on good reason to go with a mainstream publisher? I wish there were ebook versions of your other works but I’ve read your reasons for this elsewhere.

By Stephen Few. March 31st, 2013 at 9:15 am


My self-published books are also sold in bookstores such as Barnes and Noble. There’s no guaranty, however, that every individual store will have all three books, because each makes its own buying choices. Some probably have my self-published books and not Information Dashboard Design. Although I don’t like the trend, bookstores (as opposed to online booksellers) are becoming increasingly less relevant, especially for specialized books like mine.