It's no secret that the computer industry is struggling, or that jobs in just about all economic sectors are scarce. But all those computer-savvy workers with time on their hands have become an unexpected bright spot for computer book publishers and retailers. While sales of books for computer professionals (such as programmers) have slowed, consumer titles aimed at digital photography buffs, amateur movie makers and Macintosh enthusiasts are enjoying brisk sales.

Businesses aren't buying much new equipment these days, explains Richard K. Swadley, executive group publisher for Wiley Technology Publishing Group. That reduces the need for employee computer training—a need computer books have often filled. What's more, cash-strapped companies will no longer reimburse for computer books as easily as before, Swadley notes, and employees are often unwilling to foot the bill themselves. Finally, many employees who once worked with computers at the office are now unemployed, further dampening demand for professional-level computer books.

On the other hand, books focused on digital media have experienced steady sales, Swadley says. "The consumer side of computer book publishing—especially books that support the digital lifestyle—is the big story of the year," says Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly Publishing.

For instance, David Pogue's Mac OS X: The Missing Manual has been O'Reilly's biggest seller since 1992's The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, according to O'Reilly. The pace for Macintosh-related books "seems to be accelerating," he adds. Recent upgrades to the Mac hardware and software—such as the iLife suite of applications for digital photography, music, photos and video—along with the elegance and user-friendliness of the Macintosh operating system is driving demand for Mac-related titles, O'Reilly believes.

O'Reilly adds that books on Adobe Photoshop and digital photography are "incredible bright spots for all computer book publishers." Digital photography, video making and DVD authoring are the topics that consumers are most enthusiastic about today, he believes. With Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe all offering digital media software, competition is heating up.

"Many consumers continue to make the switch to digital photography," adds Don Jackson, editorial director of Bookspan's Computer Books Direct book club. "But they need to manipulate their images, and we've done well with books that help them accomplish this." Jackson cites Digital Photography: 99 Easy Tips to Make You Look Like a Pro (McGraw Hill-Osborne Media) and 50 Fast Photoshop 7 Techniques (Wiley) as strong sellers.

Similarly, bestselling consumer titles from Pearson Technology Group include Adobe Photoshop 7.0 Classroom in a Book (Adobe Press), Photoshop 7 Down and Dirty Tricks (New Riders Publishing), and Mac OS X Unleashed, Second Edition (Sams), according to Gary L. June, CEO of Pearson Technology Group. At the same time, June says, titles about networking and programming "are getting crushed." Businesses aren't installing large computer systems, he explains, and are continuing to move programming offshore, thereby depressing demand in this country for highly technical computer books.

With 24 million digital cameras sold last year, demand for digital photography how-to books is expected to continue for some time, says Scott Rogers, associate publisher of Osborne/McGraw-Hill. More importantly, Rogers adds, interest in digital cameras leads consumers to explore computer technology in greater depth—and that helps expand the market for computer books.

Other technology areas of interest for consumers include wireless networking, buying and selling on eBay, Windows XP and handheld devices such as Palm and Pocket PCs, publishers say. Small, low-priced, highly visual book formats are popular, too. "Most computer users know the basics by now," O'Reilly explains. "Now they want to know what's different about a new version of a software program. And they want to get the best tips from someone who really knows the program."

Digital photography aside, what's the picture for computer books in the next six months? While nearly everyone agrees that digital media is hot, opinions about the industry's health in the near future are decidedly mixed.

"I'd love to say we've hit bottom, but my sales numbers don't agree with me," says June, who predicts no significant sales improvements until 2004. "A lack of major technological change, continued corporate and consumer belt-tightening, and global outsourcing seem to be the status quo for the foreseeable future," he explains.

The next six months should be stable but challenging for computer book publishers, says Rogers. "Customers are out there, but they're more judicious than ever." To prosper, publishers must balance product quality with price sensitivity more than ever before. Producing fewer titles, Roger says, can lead to higher-quality books—and that will be good for the industry overall.

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