e-books

Subject: e-books
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 11:47:36 -0500

Erin Cullingham is working <<for a Custom Software company that develops
supply-chain-management solutions for the agriculture and forestry
industries.>>

Drop me a line (privately) about what you do; might be a way to get our
employers working together for mutual benefit, since we're doing some
supply-chain research for our clients.

<<the higher-ups here at Ye Olde Software Shoppe are trying to find ways to
hang onto our clients and keep them happy, while at the same time, reduce
our expenditures on things deemed "less-than-vital." One of the things that
came under close scrutiny was our ever-so-very expensive User Guides.>>

Isn't that always the case? One solution they never quite figure out is to
work with you to embed help-style information in the interface, thereby
reducing the amount of documentation needed in the first place. Not to
mention spending some time improving the interface itself. These are two
things you should try to work on personally; not only do you get a better
product, with less documentation, but you also increase your visibility
within the company and thus make it easier to survive downsizing.

<<These books are quite large (about 500 pages each); they deal with an
entire suite of applications, and how they work and
integrate with one another to get certain forestry/agriculture tasks done.>>

One thing to consider would be an interactive demo that shows how the
products work together; sometimes showing really is better than telling, and
then you don't have to print that explanation. Flash is great for this kind
of work, but there are other products that can do the same. (I'm only just
getting started in Flash, so I can't claim any product expertise. But others
on techwr-l can provide more specific advice on this and other products.)

<<These books cost us about $60 each to print and bind. Each client is
entitled to two books per release - after that, any additional copies will
cost them about $100. So there is potential to make a tiny profit (however,
our client numbers are small, and the $40 profit per book is quickly eaten
up by the monetary value of the man-hours needed to write the darn
things).>>

Since the profit is so tiny, why not simply decrease the cost to cover your
production cost and proudly proclaim that you're saving the client $40 per
book? Among other things, they might order more books, and that could
increase your print run enough to further lower costs.

Short-run printing is expensive enough that it might also be worthwhile
contacting your larger clients and asking about advance orders; if you know
beforehand that you're going to need an additional 500 books, you can print
them at the same time as your regular print run (2 copies per copy of the
software) and save additional money on printing costs. Tough to do well, but
when it works there's good payback. We've done this successfully in the past
for a few of our larger clients, and are planning to do it again this
summer.

<<The managers caught wind of the fact that we could quickly and easily
convert these large book files into very nice, user-friendly PDFs through
which the users could navigate easily, and from which they could print out
only those pages that *really* applied to their specific, respective
tasks.>>

It's an interesting approach, but it doesn't tackle the real problem here:
developing large documentation sets is expensive. Printing them is generally
only a small part of the cost. One thing that might be worth investigating
is the prospect of dropping the printed documentation entirely and shaving
$200 (your reported cost for the 2 books) from the product price. That might
be very attractive to purchasers (depending, of course, on how much the
software costs). But doing it without talking to your audience is very
risky.

<<I have to come up with a big pros and cons list for this idea. I'm having
a heckuva time with it, because I can only really look at it from my own
personal point of view>>

Which suggests that this is a great opportunity to contact your audience and
ask what they think. If they're all PDF-heads who love working online and
shun paper, you might greatly increase their satisfaction by providing a
good online support document. If not, you're risking a fair bit of anger,
and that's never wise.

<<I can see great merit in the speed and ease of the distribution of
e-books. And yes, they are "free" to produce, so as a budget-minded
manager, I can see the benefit there, too.>>

I don't know what your print runs are, but documentation is never free to
produce, and printing costs are generally well below the cost of employing
you.

<<If a user could essentially print off a million copies of an e-book if it
suited them, should the cost of the e-book license reflect that, and be
incredibly high to account for inevitable bootlegging?>>

Nope. You're selling software, not books. The books just let them use the
software, and you want to encourage that.

<<What have been your experiences with e-books?>>

I don't like them, primarily because they don't let me work the way I want
to work; it's still far easier to have a printed manual open on my desk and
not obscuring the software I'm working with. I also want you to print the
book for me, at less than 1/3 the cost to me of having to print it on my own
printer (crude but reasonably accurate estimate).

<<Do you know of anyplace where I might be able to find actual "market
research" on this matter?>>

Your marketing and technical support staff would be a great place to start.
You could also investigate establishing an online community in which your
audience can vent, ask questions, and generally provide you with feedback.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at
www.raycomm.com/techwhirl/usersadvocate.html

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a
personality, and an obnoxious one at that."-Kim Roper

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