Thursday, October 27, 2011
In Praise of the "Beta" Book
I am not receiving any financial backing from, nor do I get any other tangible benefit from Pragmatic Publishing, other than access to their books and an occasional review copy of titles to post on TESTHEAD. In other words, Pragmatic Publishing is not paying me anything to say this, nor am I obligated to say anything positive or negative about Pragmatic Publishing.
Something interesting is happening at the moment. Actually, it's been a business model that Pragmatic Publishing has been doing for quite awhile, and I think befits is name quite well. I have become a fan and a regular practitioner in its "Beta Book" program.
What's a Beta Book, you might ask? Well, it's the idea that you can buy a book as it is effectively being written, and have access to the content months in advance of anyone else. Note that the key word here is "buy". When you participate in PragPub's Beta book program, you buy the book for its advertised price. You can also choose the formats you would like to receive the book. You can purchase a print version and the electronic version, or an electronic only version. I so far have opted for the latter, and I am definitely becoming a fan of this approach.
The first reason is that, I find the act of technical writing interesting. Let's face it, if I didn't, I wouldn't be writing a (somewhat) technical blog. To this end, I enjoy seeing the creative process as it unfolds. Second, with the PDF option for the beta books, I can receive them quickly, put them into my Dropbox folder, and have access to them anywhere when I'm online (and on my local drives when I am not).
The real benefit, however, comes with the ability to contact the publisher and author with feedback on the chapters as they are developing. Realize, when you get access to these Beta books, you may well be getting a first beta version that is 50% of the book. Yep, a lot of it may be yet to be completed. In most cases, the first several chapters are completed, so that you can examine the topics from their initial introductory level and work through. Later on, updates will provide errata fixes, new chapters and content, and incorporate feedback from readers and reviewers.
This is really cool for me, as it lets me get my hands on a book and work through the ideas and see how they play out in real time on my systems, and it gives me an opportunity to ask for clarifications, or to question if the content as printed is clear. Yes, there are typos. There can be odd page formatting. There are occasionally pictures, charts and graphs that just say "Coming Soon". Each time that there is an update, you will receive either an email message or a tweet (or both, in my case) whenever a title has been updated. Log into PragPub and download the latest version (always handily numbered so you can tell which version is which).
I know some of you might be itching to ask “OK, Michael, then what books are *YOU* currently reading in Beta format?" I'm glad you asked (and for those who didn't, I'm going to tell you anyway, so you get something for nothing... awesome, huh :)?).
The Cucumber Book
This title is exactly what it implies to be, it's a book dedicated to the ins and outs of Cucumber. While "The Rspec Book” dabbles a bit in Cucumber and focuses most of its attention on the underlying plumbing framework that is Rspec, this book puts most of its attention on Cucumber itself and the various technologies that it can be implemented with (command line aps, Selenium/WebDriver, Capybara, etc.). The Cucumber Book uses Ruby as its underpinning, which makes me happy because that's the language my company uses and the one I'm spending most of my time learning. It's currently in its 7th beta issue, and has grown substantially since I first received Beta version 1.0.
I was drawn to this title because, well, TESTHEAD attempts to be a technical blog. There's a lot in this book that matches what I do, and quite a bit that I could do more of or implement that I haven't yet, but would like to. This title is currently in its 3rd Beta revision.
Build Awesome Command-Line Applications in Ruby
Come on, with a title like that, what's not to love? Actually, I don't really know, as I just picked up the first Beta version of this book yesterday, and have yet to get very far in it, but I like the idea of what it's looking to cover. As an old school shell script-er, I appreciate a lot of the ability to do things from the command line with little to no extra intervention on my part. Many of the Ruby examples offered in various books are either very rudimentary or they are focused on applications to run on the Web (a la Rails). I like the immediacy of interacting with the command line because you can quickly see if a small script is doing something useful and expand on it little by little and get very quick feedback. This looks like it will be a nice companion volume to "Everyday Scripting With Ruby", a book I am working my way through as well.
Is the Beta Book approach for everyone? I'd say that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for me, but for some that want to have everything up front to work with, the holes in the material may be disconcerting. It also means that you may have to wait for the key chapters that are specific to what you want to do at that point and just wait it out until they are available. For others, that may be a big plus, in that you have the chance to shape a book that may be of great interest to you. I consider myself part of the latter camp. It's also cool in the sense that, when a book hits the street proper, you may have already read, worked through and reviewed several iterations of it (a boon to would be book reviewers :) ). In short, I'm happy to be a supporter of this approach to book development, and yes, expect full and proper reviews of al three of these titles when the books are "production" released, as well as any others I sign up for.
If it seem like "Whoah, how was Michael able to read and review a technical book so fast?!", now you know one of my secrets. Guess what, you can take advantage of it, too, if you want. There is no special waiting list; anyone can participate in PragPub's Beta Book program. If you do, let me know how it works for you. Personally, I love it, and I wish more publishers would offer a similar opportunity.