Sunday, April 27, 2008

Where do technical books go from here?

Even though the Mastering Exchange Server 2007 book has been out for nearly a year, I have just had an opportunity to review some of the comments on the book for the first time. I do read the comments and take them seriously. After writing or contributing to nearly 10 technical books over the past 8 years, I wanted to share some insight on the process.

Often, the publisher approaches the writer with "their vision" of what the book will be. The writer has to work within those constraints. The publisher's vision of the book often sets the tone, voice, and target audience for the book. We (the writers) then have to figure out what to leave in and what to leave out based on the publisher's expectations for the title. We are usually constrained by factors such as "keep things simpler", "no more than 600 pages", "fewer graphics", "more graphics", and "make it a broader audience."

Reader T. Rhodes was not particularly pleased with the Mastering Exchange Server 2007 book (and I *don't* disagree with his observations about the material that I wrote.) Here was one salient point:

"I only read the first 1/3 of this book before I got involved in an Exchange 2003 to 2007 transition. Some of what I read was applicable, however doing further research on the topic on TechNet I was able to find practically the same information for free, and often, in greater depth than this book offers."

The other bad review of the book was from reader C. Gilbert. He was looking for a book that would help him get started as a messaging administrator. His experience was almost the opposite of T. Rhoades. And, he is right, the Mastering Exchange Server book will not help you if you are just getting in to messaging administration, we did make some assumptions about your previous skills.

Though I have ten years of IT experience, this book has not yet helped me with my first venture into e-mail server administration. It summarizes topics without providing implementation guidance and real-world tips. Though it was written during the beta cycle, isn't some of the authors' Exchange 2003 hands-on experience applicable to 2007? Perhaps I'm spoiled by Minasi's "Mastering Windows Server". Beginner e-mail administrators may want to look elsewhere.

Now, this brings up an interesting side question (at least from the perspective of someone that writes such tomes). Would a chapter or two on the basics of e-mail and messaging administration be useful for some people. Obviously, Mr. Rhoades does not need this, but Mr. Gilbert does. I contemplated putting in about 50 pages as an introduction to messaging administration (such as basics of messaging, SMTP, client/server versus shared file messaging systems, how Outlook works, etc....) in to the Mastering book. But I was honestly afraid it would be shunned by most readers. Thoughts?????

Often, when writing on a new topic, such as Exchange Server 2007, when we write the material (during the beta phase most of the time), the material exists no place else (at least publicly). However, shortly after the product is released, you can find the same ideas, concepts, and information in 100 different places. When I first wrote the Exchange Server 5.5 24Seven book, I would like to think that I had shared some useful experiences and information that was not found (at least not easily found) any place else.

Over the last 10 years, Microsoft has gotten better at documentation. A LOT better at documentation. The Exchange 2007 documentation is just about some of the best production documentation ever produced. Seriously, it is quite good, easy to read, has practical examples, and good documentation.

As the product gets released, TechNet ends up with literally thousands of pages of material on Exchange Server. Much of this is practical advice and real world (though usually from the Microsoft view) material.

However, on a product such as Exchange, Microsoft often has dozens of writers all churning out technical material. Some of these folks have the specific job of being a technical writer, some of them are people from the Exchange team, others are Microsoft Support personnel, some of them are even Microsoft coders/programmers, and still others work for Microsoft consulting services.

So, where does that leave independent writers (like me) and publishers like Sybex? I really don't know, to be honest. From the perspective of a customer and an Exchange implementer, it is a very good thing. LOTS of information that is widely available and all free.

From the perspective of someone that spends his nights and weekends trying to generate useful material for others, I'm not sure I'm thrilled with it. Maybe we are seeing the end of "independent" texts on the subjects like this and only the BIG sellers (like Minasi's Mastering Windows Server 2003) will remain on the book shelves? I'm just musing here, but encourage comments from people that have read my books as well as others.

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3 Comments:

At 5:25 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I have been doing technical support for a decade. Some writers are boring and dry, and some make reading the material enjoyable. I have both the 2003 and 2003 books for Exchange support. The guys that I work with who need to learn Exchange enjoy the books. The Exchange 2007 book is lighter reading, but then I have never found any book to be a "bible". I check the Microsoft documentation for flaws and missing background information by reading a few books. If you think can run Exchange without a braod scope of knowledge then you aren't going to do a good job.

Good job Jim.

 
At 5:26 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I have been doing technical support for a decade. Some writers are boring and dry, and some make reading the material enjoyable. I have both the 2003 and 2003 books for Exchange support. The guys that I work with who need to learn Exchange enjoy the books. The Exchange 2007 book is lighter reading, but then I have never found any book to be a "bible". I check the Microsoft documentation for flaws and missing background information by reading a few books. If you think can run Exchange without a braod scope of knowledge then you aren't going to do a good job.

Good job Jim.

 
At 9:57 PM, Blogger yacoob said...

As a kind of admirer of Your 'Exch2003 Advanced Administration' book, all I can say: there is the 'technical articles'-like writing, and there is the book-like writing. The first is mainly for solving some minor problems, the second - for having broader point of view.
The book in question - 'Mastering Exch2k7' - I've bought it a few weeks ago (here in Poland You can't just buy such books in the bookstore), so I have no opinion as for now.
And maybe I'm a sort of conservative, but - apart from technical content level - You simply can't put TechNet on the bookshelf :).
I can only agree with michael - keep up doing Your good job!

 

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