Don't Buy Tech Books that Don't Have Betas

While I was reading the final version of Agile Web Development with Rails today, I noticed that one of the pages, page 53, looked completely different than it had when I’d read the first “Beta Book” version of it (back when it was page 51). Three footnotes had crept up onto the page, two of them after the line, “That wasn’t hard now, was it?” Apparently it was harder than the authors had originally thought. One of the footnotes has a special warning for people running Mac OS X 10.4; another addresses a MySQL compatibility issue; and a third warns about an error you might get if you were still running an example from earlier in the book. I went back and looked at the earlier versions of the book, and the first beta copy had no footnotes; the second (of the ones I have) had one footnote; and the final had three footnotes.

It made me think: why would I want to buy a technical book that hasn’t gone through this sort of public review? For that matter, why would I want to buy a cookbook without the same system in place?

The Beta Book program apparently made a fair bit of money for the publishers: more than US$50,000 on PDF copies alone, if I read David’s numbers correctly. But the program did more than that — it made the final, printed copy of “Agile Web Development with Rails” better for everyone who buys it — not just the Beta Book participants.

Most or all tech publishers, including O’Reilly, use tech reviewers to ensure that the book is accurate and clear. (That is, in fact, how I first came to know the people at O’Reilly — by being a tech reviewer on a CGI book back in the day.) But no tech reviewer would have caught all three of the notes needed on page 53. That’s why I’m glad to be reading a book so many other people tried before it went to press.

It’s what I would want from all the tech books I read. That’s not so hard now, is it?