RE: e-books

Subject: RE: e-books
From: Erin Cullingham <ecullingham -at- linnet -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 11:47:22 -0600

Thanks for the replay, Geoff. I was beginning to wonder if my question was
going to go unanswered, what with some of the heated debates abut
punctuation and typewritten profanity that seemed to have everyone occupied
these days.

You've given me lots of things to think about with regards to this whole
User Education undertaking...

"Embedding help-style information in the interface" is one thing that,
around here, gets the old heave-ho the second it is brought up in a meeting.
We've suggested it many times and it has been deemed too superfluous for our
needs ("our needs" being the dire need to get our software out reasonably
close to the release dates we've given our clients so that they don't pull
the plug and hate us forever. The developers have to focus on putting the
functionality in, and can't be spending time worrying about Map IDs for
context-sensitive Help or "What's This?" Help and whatnot. Our Help is
totally bare-bones and non-flashy. Whether great Help goes along with the
software release is not nearly as important as getting the release out the
door on time. I guess I can understand this.).

Re: Flash. *droooool* I wish. We've just gotten them to ponder the idea
of using SnagIt's little animation doodads to create slightly animated Help.
The higher-ups are still wary though. Buncha engineers in Upper Management
think there's no place for "cutesy" animation in a Hardcore High Tech
Enterprise Software Solution such as ours. Nerds.

Re: short-run printing. This is all we do. We have maybe 15 full-fledged
paying clients right now... I think the biggest run of books we ever did was
50 (they were obsolete in a week, by the way. Oooh! Side topic: Does this
happen to everyone or is it just me? As soon as we finalize and print a
hard-copy book, they decide to rename a field or remove a button and send
the corresponding patch out to the clients, so that the big juicy book we've
just written for them is no longer current or correct. This happens EVERY
TIME we finish a book over here. I blame this on poor communication from
the top-down - people "forget" to tell us when the interface/functionality
is going to change. Of course, we get flak for "forgetting to ask."
Ri-i-i-ight... I seriously think some of our GUI design changes happen
because someone got drunk at lunch). Anyway, 500 books never happens. I
don't think it ever will. And because our software is still growing and
changing (daily) - as briefly touched on in my little side-rant above - the
books are, too. The job security's great, but you never really get that
sense of accomplishment...

As I said though, you have given me a couple of points to ponder: 1) beefing
up the Online Help. Typically, we keep our OLH very basic (Open this, click
here, type that, Press OK...), and we save the really cool, in-depth
instruction for the book. Our thoughts were that our users (farmers and
lumberjacks, to put it bluntly) wouldn't be huge fans of Online Help -
online ANYTHING for that matter. We figured they'd prefer to have a good
ol' fashioned book to read. It's one case where you have to consider your
audience, and our is decidedly low-tech (is this uncommon?). Anyway, the
thing is, we followed these ideas based on the assumptions that our users
were a bunch of bushwhackers and cropdusters - we never even really ASKED
them what their preferred method of User Ed-u-ma-cation was.

We have an online User's Group - I think I'll draw up a poll and have it
uploaded to the site, to get some real feedback. Maybe these guys would
prefer to see some kick -at- ss Help (oops - can I type that???) rather than a
kick -at- ss book. But I like FrameMaker sooooo much more than RoboHelp...

Another thoughts on e-books: can you say "redundant?" I mean, we already
have Online Help - do we really want to also have an Online Book?? Geoff,
you claim to hate e-books (and I do too, for the same reason you cited).
I'm sure many people feel the same way you and I do about the idea of
obscuring the application in which you're working to read instructions off
of a monitor. With this in mind, somebody explain to me this: why, then, is
Online Help so widely accepted? I personally hate e-books AND Online
Help... to me, OLH is an e-book. I prefer a printed book over either of
those, any day. Curious...

Again, Geoff, thanks so much for your insight. I'll be putting a user's
poll up on the user group site as soon as I can, and I'll find out what THEY
want to see. That should have been the logical first-step anyway... but
then, I've never been known for my "logic" skills.

Anyone else have anything to add?
...anything that, preferably, has nothing to do with my writing style and/or
punctuation tendencies - ...such as my overuse of ellipses and hyphens -
I AM a writer... I promise.

This user group stresses me out, man.

Erin Cullingham
Head Writer-Chick and Second-in-Command for All Your Graphics Needs
Linnet - The Land Systems Compnay

-----Original Message-----
From: Hart, Geoff [mailto:Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA]
Sent: Friday, March 15, 2002 10:48 AM
To: Techwr-L (E-mail); 'Erin Cullingham'
Subject: e-books

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

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

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

<<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

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

<<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

<<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

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

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