Field Guide Books: A Quick Update

Posted on March 22, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows, Windows Weekly with 1 Comment

In the two months since we launched, I’ve been somewhat consumed by the need to get the site up to speed, and stocked with new and relevant content. That job will never be done, of course, but I think it’s time for me to also give a bit of attention to the Field Guide Books series that’s been languishing during this time. That is, it’s time to start cranking out some books.

Field Guide Books, like this web site, isn’t really a solo project, and in the case of the books I’ve been working with Rafael Rivera, my long-time Windows book co-author, and, more recently Martin McClean, who designed all of the book covers and has worked up some magical content for Surface Pro 3 Field Guide that we’ll be revealing soon. The three of us will be working together on Windows 10 Field Guide.

But before I get too far ahead of myself here, I just wanted to remind you of the point of the Field Guide Books, and provide a bit of information about how this series of books is evolving.

I’ve been writing books for over 20 years. I’ve lost exact count, but suspect I’ve written and co-written about 30 books by now, almost all of them related to Microsoft products and technologies. In the past, writing a book was a time-consuming process that never paid (me) particularly well, and the amount of money one can make writing technical books and publishing them traditionally has only gone down over time. It has always made more sense for me to focus on publishing to my web sites, at least from a financial perspective.

But with the recent explosion in digital publishing capabilities, I somehow convinced Rafael to give e-books a go, starting with Windows 8.1 Field Guide. The goal with that book was to see whether we could self-publish a lengthy how-to book about the latest version of Windows and, if all went well, make as much money doing so as he had on previous Windows Secrets books, which were published traditionally through Wiley.

We basically did meet that goal, but neither one of us is happy with the results at all.

See, I had figured that if we charged the low, low price of $2 for a 500+ page book, my readers and Twitter followers would simply jump on board with no reservations, since $2 is about the price of a single cup of coffee these days. Instead, only a tiny fraction of readers actually forked over the $2, and after about a year, we had barely made as much on this book—about $20,000, split two ways, and before taxes—as we had on the last Secrets book.

And not only was the book a major time sink, just in the writing, but the support costs of dealing with Amazon and PayPal payments, various e-book publishing requirements, payment disputes (!)—and yes, multiple people actually took to PayPal, Amazon and their credit card companies to dispute the $2 charge, most always because when they saw it on their statement, they didn’t know what it was—and other associated nonsense made the whole process pretty miserable.

Long story short, if you figure out what we actually made on Windows 8.1 Field Guide, it makes absolutely no sense for either of us to do such a thing given that we have jobs and other commitments. I made a lot more recording Windows Weekly in that year than I did laboring over the Windows 8.1 book, for example.

So obviously we’re going to do it again.

We’re just going to do it a bit differently. What we’ve got is a slowly growing collection of e-books—the Field Guide Books series of books—which comprises one big paid book (Windows 8.1 Field Guide) and several free books, like Microsoft Band Field Guide, Surface Pro 3 Field Guide (still incomplete), Windows Phone 8 Field Guide, Xbox Music Field Guide, and so on.

Going forward, we will not be dealing with Amazon, Nook or any other e-book publishing services. We will just offer you the books—in PDF, ePub and MOBI—formats directly. This will let us update them immediately, which is a big part of the reason we’re self-publishing in the first place.

The non-Windows field guides will continue to be shorter, hopefully less than 100 pages, and will continue to be free. I will excerpt them in articles here on in a bid to recoup some costs and not have to keep rewriting the same things over and over again, but the content is free. I will try to expand this series of free e-book as well, to include topics like OneDrive, OneNote,, Office 365 and so on.

And then there’s Windows.

One of the books that’s stuff in development hell is Windows Phone 8.1 Field Guide. This is an update to Windows Phone 8 Field Guide, of course, which I wrote as a sort of experiment a few years ago to see if e-book publishing made any sense. (I really learned my lesson there, I guess.) The problem is that this book is huge, there have been several sets of Windows Phone 8.1.x updates and many new features, and of course Windows 10 is around the corner. The fate of this book is unresolved, but could include just doing it normally, restarting and doing a delta guide (new features only) or skipping it for Windows 10. We’ll see.

The other one, of course, is Windows 10.

The question there is whether this is one book—Windows 10 Field Guide—or two or more books (maybe Windows 10 Field Guide for PCs and Windows 10 Field Guide for Phones and Small Tablets). I’m leaning towards the former. But we’ll see.

What this book will not be is a strict update to Windows 8.1 Field Guide. That book focuses largely on the Metro stuff because that is what was so no and different in that release, and it is fairly long-winded. With Windows 10, I’m going to assume that everyone reading understands Windows and include a lot less basic material. This will let us expand out to more complex topics and cover just the important stuff. Hopefully, it will be a shorter book. But hopefully it will simply be a better book.

With regards to money, it won’t be $2. I’m not sure where it will fall–$5? $10?—but we’re now looking at the Windows title as the “key to the kingdom.” You can have the other stuff for free, but we need to charge for this one so that it makes sense to even write it. Will we make “more” doing this? Given our experience, absolutely not. I don’t think there’s a good way to make money doing this at all. But we’ll try.

Short term, I’m going to finish up Surface Pro 3 Field Guide and update Xbox Music Field Guide to accommodate the recent OneDrive integration changes that make that service so much more compelling. Then, I’ll try to figure out Windows Phone 8.1 Field Guide. But I’ve already started blocking out Windows 10 Field Guide as well and have written parts of a few chapters. I’ll start posting excerpts soon.

For now, you can find the books on the Field Guide Books web site, which is still called Windows 8.1 Field Guide and is overdue for a redesign. We’ll get to that as well. I updated both Surface Pro 3 Field Guide and Microsoft Band Field Guide recently, and as noted more is on the way.

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