Finished “Mac OS X 10.3 Panther: Visual QuickStart Guide”

Thoughts and insights on a tough revision and the computer book publishing industry.

Mac OS X 10.3 Panther: Visual QuickStart GuideMy last entry was pretty depressing. I was under a lot of stress to get the book done. Now that it’s done and the stress is gone, I’m feeling much better. The book is nothing short of a masterpiece, if I do say so myself, and I’m extremely pleased with it. We (Peachpit Press and I) got a lot of feedback from readers about previous editions. It seemed that my VQS wasn’t considered “good value for the money” because it didn’t have as many pages as other competing books. What most people didn’t consider was that VQSes are traditionally short (around 300 pages). Mine was actually long at about 400 pages. And it was considerably cheaper than the other books. But I guess if you calculated price per page, I probably fell a bit short of the competition. And I can’t deny that buying two books (a VQS and a VQP) does cost readers more money. In defense of Peachpit, the idea behind that strategy is that not all readers need all that information and we could provide affordable books tailored to two markets. But that’s not how reviewers saw the situation.

That said, we decided to combine the two books into one title. The resulting “Mac OS X 10.3 Panther: Visual QuickStart Guide” is about 670 pages long and features 20 chapters and over 2,000 screen shots. Topic range from the most basic basics (like how to point and click) to Unix commands. The price tag is an extremely competitive $29.95 US, making it a very good value. If this book doesn’t please readers, I don’t think any book will.

Writing the book was a bit of a challenge. First, there was the merging of the content from two books. What do we include? What do we exclude? Not much. The biggest casualty was the AppleScript chapter written by Ethan Wilde, which was replaced by an AppleScript basics section in the Applications chapter. (Those interested in AppleScript really ought to buy Ethan’s book!) Almost everything else that was in my Mac OS X 10.2 VQS and VQP remained in this edition.

Of course, everything has been updated for Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. That was the second challenge. Not just the update, but merging information about new features into existing chapters. Where do we discuss each new feature? Chapter 4, which is available as an excerpt from my Web site , got quite a few new pages. So did the i-Applications chapter, which was expanded to cover iCal and iSync (neither of which was available when I wrote the Mac OS X 10.2 VQS last year). The only chapter that got trimmed down a bit was the installation chapter. I cut out the info about installing Mac OS 9.2, since that information appears in the Classic Environment chapter.

There was a lot of pressure to finish the book on a timely basis. Timing is everything in the computer book publishing world and when a hot new product hits the market, publishers want their books out first. Trouble is, authors have to work with beta software, which often changes on a weekly (if not daily) basis to get the book done timely. Mac OS X 10.3’s beta software was available for about two months before the software was finally released. But the beta software changed. Any author who wrote about early versions of the beta wrote some stuff that isn’t right.

Want some examples? The first beta or two included a Print command under the Finder’s File menu. That command disappeared before I could try it out. Those first betas excluded a Favorites folder in the Sidebar. Sometime in the middle of the beta process, the Favorites folder reappeared. Then, near the end, it disappeared again. It was almost as if Apple wanted to kill favorites, thought they would get a lot of negative feedback, and then decided “to hell with the bad feedback” and killed it. (But favorites aren’t really gone, as you’ll discover when you read my book.) Icons changed, too. Internet Connect’s new icon didn’t appear until halfway through the beta process. Any screenshot of that icon taken before the beginning of October will be wrong.

So here’s the situation: publishers want the book written quickly. Once the book is written, it has to be laid out, proofed, edited, and printed. For most publishers, this is where time is lost. From the moment the author hands over the last manuscript chapter and TIFF files to the time the book appears in print, two or more months may have gone by. So do the calendar math: if the author waits until Gold Master of the software — on or around October 15 in this case — to finalize the draft manuscript, the book can’t possibly appear in stores until December 15. So what do authors do? Under pressure from publishers, they finalize before Gold Master. As a result, their books contain inaccuracies.

Peachpit and I don’t work this way. We have a remarkable arrangement. I do layout as I write, so I submit fully laid out pages as I work. My editors mark up this draft manuscript and I update pages as the software is changed and I get edits. As a result, when the software went Gold Master, we already had fully laid out pages for about 3/4 of the book. I wrote and laid out the rest the following week. This made it possible to send our completely accurate 650+ page book to the printer only three days after the software’s release date. I expect to hold a copy of the finished book in my hands by November 14 — just three weeks after the software’s release.

Any book that makes it to stores before mine can’t possibly be based on final Mac OS X 10.3 software. It’s just impossible. And that’s not an author’s fault. It’s the fault of publishers who don’t trust their authors to do layout. Peachpit trusts me and I don’t let them down.

Next on the agenda, Excel 2003 for Windows: Visual QuickStart Guide. Another revision — but this one should be a piece of cake.

What do you think?