State of the Computer Book Market – Mid-Year 2009

If you have read previous State of the Computer Book Market posts, you know we typically publish between 3-5 posts that summarize the computer book market for a given year. SInce it’s mid-year, I thought I’d do a shorter, one-post summary of where things stand in 2009 thus far. The picture looks like our US economy: lots of bad news peppered with small glimmers of hope. So let’s look at the Market, Categories, Publishers, and Languages.

The market has been on a steady decline since mid-2008 and has continued downward right through the first half of 2009. And there are very few signs that the book-buying slump is going to turn around anytime soon. Overall, the market saw 595,821 fewer units sold in the first half of 2009 than were sold in the same period of 2008. Although we do not have data to show the trends between 2000 and 2003, the market performance this year is the worst we’ve seen since the fall of of 2001. You’ll notice in the chart below that the seasonal patterns have remained consistent, but sales are at a much lower volume than any previous year.

State of the Computer Book Market - Mid-Year 2009

No matter how we look at the data, it’s not great news. Of our top 121 established categories, only 8 of them showed an increase in units sold for the first half of 2009. In descending order those categories are:

  1. Mac Programming
  2. Objective C
  3. Online Video
  4. Global Positioning Device
  5. Computerized Home
  6. Mobile Programming
  7. Coordinated Systems
  8. Open Source Topics.

The eight categories showing the biggest decrease in unit sales for the first half of 2009, in descending order are:

  1. Office Suites
  2. Web Programming
  3. Mac OS
  4. Web Page Creation
  5. Spreadsheets
  6. Rich Web Interface
  7. Digital Photography
  8. Windows Consumer

In other words, Windows Consumer was the biggest loser year-over-year. Unfortunately, none of the categories that showed growth were large enough to make the top 20 (of the 121 categories) from a units sold perspective. I do find it interesting that Open Source seems to be doing better during this time of economic uncertainty The chart below shows our top 20 categories for the first half of 2008 and 2009.

State of the Computer Book Market - Categories

From a publisher/imprint perspective, John Wiley, the non-Dummies part, was the only imprint that demonstrated growth for the first half of 2009 compared to the first half of 2008. The other 19 imprints sold fewer units in 2009, and the imprints with the largest declines were the ones that had the best performances in 2008 — namely O’Reilly, Dummies, and Peachpit. Unfortunately for us, O’Reilly experienced the largest drop-off in units for the first half of 2009 compared to the first-half of 2008, where we had a tremendously strong start. The chart below shows the imprint performance for the first half of 2008 and 2009.

State of the Computer Book Market - Mid-Year 2009

The big success story among programming languages is Objective-C, which has grown from a small (low unit sales) language into a large (high units sales) language. iPhone and Mac development is fueling this growth. After Objective C, PHP and Actionscript are the only languages with more units sales in 2009 than in 2008. C# continues to be the largest language for unit sales, followed by Java, PHP and Objective C. C# also experienced the largest decline in units sold sold during the first half of 2009 and was followed on its decline by Ruby, SQL and Javascript.

State of the Computer Book Market - Languages

I almost forgot about the glimmers of hope I mentioned at the beginning of the post. Mac Programming, Objective C, and Open source are doing well, but I do believe there are other events happening this year that will give the market a boost. A highly anticipated release of Windows 7 should give a large segment of the market a significant boost. Two other Microsoft technologies will also help the market: Sharepoint and Visual Studio releasing new versions later this year. And of course, there is Mac OS X Snow Leopard coming “soonish.” That will also be a nice boost for computer book sales. HTML 5 is getting lots of attention, and I would imagine that books will be showing up soon. Finally both Adobe and Apple keep bringing out new releases of their products, so there is always a bump upwards in our industry. What we hope for is that new books on new releases sell more units than books that are returned due to obsolescence. In other words, will there be more Windows Vista books being returned from retailers to publishers than Windows 7 books are being sold to consumers? We’ll see in about six months.

A little disclaimer material: This information comes from Nielsen Bookscan and is the US Retail Point-of-Sale data. In other words, a “sold unit” is recognized when you walk into a bookstore like Barnes & Noble or Borders or order online at Amazon. This is NOT data that is used to calculate royalties or report on the financial health of any particular publisher. Many publishers report that more than 50% of their revenue is achieved as direct sales, and those numbers do not get reported into Bookscan. Sales at traditional college bookstores are typically not reported into Bookscan as well. Again this is US Retail Sales data recorded at the point of sale to a consumer.

Thank you for reading. If there is something that you are itching to see (understand more clearly), please let me know and I will try to help. I plan to excerpt updated pieces of these posts on twitter throughout the year. They’ll come from @mikehatora and will likely get RT’ed by @oreillymedia.

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  • It’s sad to see a once great publisher fall so far. Books like Unix System Administration and the Motif Programming guides were staples for a long time. More recently the Dreamweaver CS3 Missing Manual book got me up to speed with that program. When this site went political with strong Obama support is when I re-examined my book purchasing habits. I guess you can call it change you believe in.

  • interesting: it seems that it is developing for the MAC trend of the moment … iPhone effect?

  • Yes it is Objective C every where just for the sake of earning millions in one night

  • Driveby

    I like these reports, thanks for sharing.

  • JOhn Davis

    Seems pretty logical to me!


  • Here’s my take on it (qualitative, not quantitative):

    For the longest time, technologies coming out of the free software world were driving a promise of growth in demand for labor and payout incentive per hour of entrepreneurial effort.

    Whatever the aggregate demand for labor did (up or down) there were free software areas characterized by labor shortages: not enough ruby programmers, not enough mash-up makers, that kind of thing. Even when aggregate job demand meant down I think that those perceived shortages sold a lot of titles as programmers want to add “hot skills” to their resumes.

    Whatever aggregate VC did (up or down) they payouts for fairly small amounts of new technical work (the original Facebook, the original Twitter) looked very high. Do you remember a few years ago when one of the human interest stories on the business pages was about “nomadic entrepreneurs” who spent all day in cafes working on their as yet unfunded start-ups? I think that that sold a fair number of titles, too.

    When labor demand crashes hard enough, as it has of late, the perceived shortages dry up – there’s less incentive to add anything new to your resume (and less under the sun to add).

    When VC dries out, and the vaunted valuations of celebrated startups is more openly questioned — and when nomads have to move on and pay rent — that source of demand for titles dries up.

    That way of looking at things makes it unsurprising that the introduction to the market of “app stores” – directly linking basement-entrepreneurs to customers – that soaks up readers who have become disillusioned with both the labor market and VC market. The “perceived promise” moves in the direction of DIY, direct-to-consumer business models. Hence the good performance of Objective C titles (as noted above)

    What does the future hold, then?

    Perhaps titles around health care by fall of this year or early next, depending on how the legislative process goes. Perhaps android, chrome, chromeos, and wave titles but not so much until next year, at least.

    Some see likely a “double dip” economy where late this year or early next the indexes take another, deeper dive and unemployment gets even worse. That means that android and chromeos are going to have trouble because consumer demand for devices will be lousy. Meanwhile, overall spending at app stores won’t grow as fast and the average and median returns for an app will fall as the supply side becomes overcrowded.

    It’s not clear to me that health reform, if it happens much at all, is genuinely going to create a huge rush of new software development spending. (I.e., I’m not I’d be rushing to come up with a lot of health care titles at this stage.)

    On top of all that gloom, it looks like backlash against social networking services and Google is on the rise as awareness of their surveillance-based business models seeps into greater public awareness.

    What’s left?

    One wise guy likes to quip “work on things that matter” and I think what “matters” in this scenario is helping consumers cope with deprivation and aid in escape from lock-in to business models in which they lose trust.

    On the server side, distributed, decentralized systems for one-to-one, many-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many communication look interesting.

    On the client side, doing “more” with “less [expensive] HW” is an interesting trick. A positive sign here is that OEM deals for less expensive hardware are easier to come by for less money for a broader range of gadgets.

    If I were in an O’Reilly editors’ meeting, I might suggest looking for books about how to get good deals in the leased server market, how to build slender gnu/linux distros, how to use developer kits for new gadgets, how to use various dist./decent. server technologies, and how to get innovations built with such parts to consumers professionally and effectively yet with as little investment as possible.

    I also assume, as I think O’Reilly does, that out of the current buzz of activity around open government some platforms will emerge that recapitulate *in miniature* the kind of labor demand growth we saw with the early LAMP stack. That is, open gov platforms applicable at the municipal, county, or state level (and perhaps also in some corporate settings) and resulting demand to customize these and deploy them in many different governments. I’m not sure, though, how large an industry that will be given the fiscal condition of all of those levels of government (and of the federal government). Potholes, fire departments, schools, and so forth come first and are increasingly in triage mode. It’s hard for a government to decide to undertake long-term IT investing at a time when its busy trying to keep the most basic services from falling apart. Still, some new platforms will arise, there will be some buzz about them, and that’ll be good for at least a small boost to book sales for a little while. This is probably already in the pipeline, somewhere.


  • Wondering

    Has anyone considered that Windows consumer would be down anyway? I haven’t noticed a lot of Windows 7 books out there, and even non-technical people know it is coming.

  • Any idea when Paul McCartney will be playing next? Everyone else is secondary, he’s a hero.

  • Ted

    Here’s the thing: some of your books are too pricey.

    This book: worth 10-15 bucks.

    This one: while its quality is unquestionable, just doesn’t worth 30 bucks (the thickness factor brought it down). I’d say it worth 15-17 ish.

    So what would I do? I would go to my local library, borrow the second book, take notes, put it on my blog for me to recall the information in the future.

    Some of your books worth as much as an “International Edition” version of textbooks; why would the customer buy something that is more expensive and not everlasting?

    I went to a closing-down bookstore once (Half Price Computer Books), people were grabbing cheap books (price tag: $5-$7) even though some looked outdated or have low hype level (Web Programming in Tcl/Tk). If you guys can cut the price to $5-$20 with $30 tops for thick book like C# 3.0 (I consider Erlang, Haskell or anything less not mainstream does not worth $30 even if the book is thick), you would see more of your brands in any bookshelves.

    I’m pretty sure that authors understand that they can’t make much money out of selling technical books. They use the opportunity to publish their names/brands/consulting companies.

  • Maya

    How does the downturn in 2009 compare with the period of 2001-2003? Book sales slumped significantly then, and it would be good to see how we’re stacking up now.

  • Simon Hibbs

    @Ted: Erlang and Haskel have very limited audiences, therefore limited sales. Let’s say that 60% of the book price is profit when sold direct. You would at least have to increase sales by 6 times to break even, whereas in practice it’s unlikely you’d even double sales.

    Try setting up your own publishing company and see how far your philosophy gets you. Seriously, if your model worked there would be people doing it.

  • Ted Hoise

    For me, I’ve gotten a little gun shy. The programming book market has grown rapidly, but the quality seems to have deteriorated badly. The books I have purchased lately don’t seem to be giving me the information (and value) I am looking for. I am using the web more and more. Sometimes I find what I need; sometimes not. But at least I am not out 30-40-50 bucks on a book that doesn’t really tell me anything. That really hacks me.

  • Thanks for the data!

    @Ted I agree with you. It does seem that the quality of technical books have detoriated lately. The authors don’t seem to be be doing enough research before writing the books, which is sad. Probably, everyone is in a race to complete a book before the book gets outdated.

  • It seems obvious enough that the size of the audience is only increasing both in the US and internationally, i.e. there are more people now than there have ever been who need access to the sort of information in books you publish. This will continue to be true until there is some radical, and unforeseeable change. As a society we haven’t even begun to approach the idea of computer fluency in any real way.

    As someone with more than a decade’s worth of IT experience who recently went back to school for a Masters in CS I was taken aback by just how computer illiterate the community of people at a well-respected university in the U.S. is in the year 2009. Faculty and students both outside of the CS department and within the department simply don’t know how to use their personal computers, much less understand topics related to networking and infrastructure. The ability to think creatively about how to utilize technology is almost completely absent. People struggle with how to use single applications. Many of whom have been living with this technology more or less in its current form for 10 – 15 years now. Long story short, there are a lot of problems. The best answer for all of them are books, perhaps supplemented with video tutorials and that sort of thing.

    So what’s the issue then? I look at a publisher like O’Reilly – the books published and your online presence, and it strikes me that the nature of the conversation is such that you’re talking to a very small group of people. It feels like writers writing for publishers, not for readers, and publishers chatting amongst themselves. There’s something very incestuous about it like some hemophilic Russian monarch. O’Reilly as Nicholas II, what do you think?

    The other issue is that over the past 5 years especially, I’ve observed a shift of an emphasis from quality and a sense of responsibility to profitabiliy. That is to say, why aren’t we profitable and what can we do about it? Based on that, a whole bunch of schemes were develeoped in the interes of making more money, not selling more books. To put it in terms of O’Reilly’s products, there is everything from the buy 2 get 1 free book deal to Safari. In between there are any number of promotions and discount codes, certification and training products, video series, digital products, bundles of all of the above, etc. It’s confusing. That confusion costs O’Reilly money and weakens the market in two ways: (1) As a customer I don’t know what to buy (2) I don’t know when to buy. It’s a mini research project to figure out exactly what I’m buying, from whom, and for what. I have to repeat the work every time I want to buy a book. For example, I can’t just buy one book because I should buy 3 so I can get one free. But there aren’t 3 books that I want at the moment so I don’t buy even one.

    If you’re not selling books, you’re doing something wrong. Stop bemoaning the state of the industry and figure out how to sell more. I for one could easily see myself buying 2x or 3x the number of books I buy currently if you weren’t making it so hard for me.

  • Jon Harrop

    That’s interesting. Our book sales are 5.6× higher that the same period last year. You probably want to start trying to increase the quality of your content and then your prices…

  • MySchizoBuddy

    looking forward to mid 2010 data

  • Great post! Is an update for 2010 (or 2011) planned for this? I’d be curious about more recent stats.