If some people don't HATE your product, it's mediocre.
That notion is shared by lots of folks including Don Norman, and we've taken it to heart, given how many people hate (with a passion) our books. But if you take the safe path, your chances of breaking through the market clutter is almost zero. There's simply too much competition for virtually *everything* today--and with so many choices of products, services, whatever, making a dent requires something dramatic. Dramatically different. No, not just different, but different in the ways that matter to the user.
Seth Godin has a comment (I think from the Purple Cow book) that goes something like this, "Today, being safe is risky, and being risky is safe." (I might have mangled that, but that's the idea.)
So we had a choice with our first book series (the Head First books): do we play it safe and write a good, solid, decent programming book that the widest range of readers can appreciate, or do we completely abandon the conventions in favor of something that many would HATE, but that would be a dramatically better experience for others? If we played it safe, we knew we'd have to kick and scream and claw (and the publisher would have to spend a fortune on marketing) to take even a tiny piece of the market already well-served by at least a dozen well-respected, technically excellent books. But if we took the unsafe path, we risked getting viciously BASHED in public (just *imagining* what Slashdot would do to us was made me ill) and losing whatever minor reputation we'd built with javaranch. But really, we had almost nothing to lose. It was O'Reilly that really took the Big Risk (more on that story in another post), since they DID have a reputation at stake... a reputation crafted over many years and with thousands of books.
So we thought about it for around five seconds and decided to go for it ; ) We took Seth's advice and chose the risky-is-actually-safer road by questioning nearly every assumption about The Way Things Are Supposed To Be. Instead, we asked, "If there were no constraints other than the ones imposed by the 2D page/book format, what could we do to help people learn better, faster, deeper?" We knew a lot about how to answer that question (from years of research and experience working on it), but we also knew that some people would hate it. REALLY hate it. We just crossed our fingers (as did O'Reilly, thanks mainly to Tim's personal pleasure at being disruptive) and hoped that just a few more people would LOVE it than hate it, and that the people who really loved it would care enough to spread the word.
And thankfully, that's what happened. Several things surprised us though:
1) More people loved it than we expected. Head First Java went immediately to the top of the Java bestseller list in the US (across both online and brick-and-mortar stores, according to Bookscan), was a finalist for a Jolt Cola/Software Development award, and was chosen a Top Ten Computer Books of 2003 by Amazon), and stayed on top for 18 months until it was replaced by our Head First Servlets book (which was selected as an Amazon Top Ten Computer Books of 2004). The other two Head First books became instant bestsellers in their categories as well. We could not possibly care more about what our learners have to go through to learn this stuff, and that caring and extra effort (these books are much more difficult and time-consuming to build) is making a difference.
2) Of the people who hate it, the most vocal have been other computer book authors. We chalked this up at first to a simple Who Moved My Cheese thing, but later realized it isn't that simple. We now believe that a lot of it has to do with defining what a "book" is... and that most of the computer book authors were writers, and many of them damn good ones, who saw our books as a degradation in writing, a kind of "pandering to the MTV generation". In many ways, that's *exactly* what our books are. But we don't consider ourselves writers and we don't consider our users to be readers. We consider them learners. And that means our job is not to write but to help them learn. Another issue is that many folks believe that it is just unprofessional to put such "silly" things in a technical book, and that it shows disrespect for both the learner and the professional topic. We violently disagree, of course, because everything we do in the books has a very specific purpose based on reaching the brain, and we're very passionate ourselves about both the topics and the act of delivering them, but that's a more involved topic I'll look at later.
3) Of those who started out hating it, some later found it to be "an acquired taste", and some of our initial vocal haters later became vocal supporters.
4) Of the folks who hate it, most (but certainly not all) are not in the target audience. In other words, they believe it's bad "for others", rather than evaluating it as someone actually trying to use it for its intended purpose. In other words, they believe they're speaking on behalf of the people who really ARE in the target audience. So we get a lot of comments like, "How can ANYONE learn from this crap?" from people who already know the topic.
5) A surprisingly vocal group hated it *not* because of its format, but because its very premise--making it easier to learn Java--was just BAD. Bad for the tech industry. Bad for the existing Java programmers. Bad because it would allow those who "don't even DESERVE to learn Java to start taking our jobs". We dismissed that as ridiculous at first, but then we heard that a few other authors of beginning Java books had experienced the same phenomenon. One well-known author of an excellent, but very advanced Java book, put it this way, "I guess it makes sense that your book would be successful now... all the SMART people already KNOW Java."
What did NOT surprise us was that the audience for the Head First books is skewed younger. People with brains wired up in the 60's and 70's are more likely to find our books [euphimism]unpleasant[/euphimism] than those wired up in the fast-cut visual sensibility world of Sesame Street/MTV/Video Games. This is not 100% (and let's just say that Bert and I grew up when Pac Man and Space Invaders were considered "stimulating media"), but we used the research that points to differences in brain wiring and visual perception between those raised on slower media and those raised on, well, the faster stuff. I'll talk more about those brain differences in other posts.
We couldn't possibly be more supportive now of the "be risky" and "embrace the hatred" model for launching a new product or service. Because let's face it--getting people to choose your excellent-but-mainstream product over all the other excellent-but-mainstream products that serve the user's needs is an uphill (if not impossible) battle today, and even if it's possible... who has the marketing budget?
So take a chance, and be brave. My skin isn't as thick as it needs to be... when people trash us, for good or lame reasons, it hurts. But it's worth it. We offered this series to two other publishers (more on that in another post) and they didn't just turn it down, but turned it down with impunity...laughing as in, "Oh, like THAT is going to work! Ha-ha-ha...". I was virtually fired from Sun for some of the ideas that proved to be most-liked by customers (in other words, Sun said, "Customers will hate this... shut up about it OR ELSE."). But thankfully for us, O'Reilly was more than willing to take a chance (although rumors abound that it caused quite an internal battle at O'Reilly--with Tim and Mike Loukides and Kyle Hart on one side, and many, many others suggesting that Head First books would seriously damange their reputation).
As my partner Bert likes to quote, "If you aren't living on the edge... you're taking up too much room." (Of course, we were lucky enough to have O'Reilly footing most of the bills for this *experiment*, but still...the first book took six months of pouring our heart into it, day and night, for both Bert and I). To all of our early adopters and vocal supporters, THANK-YOU! We owe you so much, and when you take the time to tell others -- and even better, to tell US -- what the books have meant to you, that makes it so worth it. Computer books are not a way to make a good living today because the tech book market is down so far today, but the emails from happy user/learner folks keeps us going.
Posted by Kathy on December 23, 2004 | Permalink
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Tracked on May 1, 2005 7:07:35 AM
"People with brains wired up in the 60's and 70's are more likely to find our books [euphimism]unpleasant[/euphimism]..."
My brain was wired up in the 60's, but I still love your design patterns book. I already knew something about patterns, but the book helped me solidify the why and the how. The approach is perfect for that aspect of learning.
You're really on to something with this whole blog - it's gone immediately into my "daily" links folder.
Posted by: Kyle Bennett | May 2, 2005 1:04:19 PM
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