For the first time since the tech slump began, sales of computers to vendors rose in the double digits last year, up by as much as 15%, to $12.5 billion, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. And the news from the business front is equally encouraging. In a survey of 1,000 wholesale distribution executives, Pembroke Consulting found that wholesalers and distributors spent nearly $53 billion, or $1 out of every $5, on computer hardware and software in 2003. Spending is expected to rise to $80 billion by 2008. These figures, along with some heartening in-house statistics, are contributing to an upbeat mood among computer book publishers, who have struggled in the wake of the dot-com crash and a slowdown in corporate computer purchases after the Y2K frenzy.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Richard Swadley, v-p, executive group publisher, Wiley Technical Publishing tells PW. "We've been having some growth in some parts of our program. And there are leading indicators that the bottom has been reached. This coming year looks like it could be a pretty good one." Similarly, Tim O'Reilly, founder and president of O'Reilly and Associates, notes, "It's starting to pick up. Last year, our sales were flat, but we gained 25% of market share." Some smaller houses weren't affected nearly as harshly at the beginning of the 2000s. Charles River Media in Hingham, Mass., for instance, was one of PW's fastest-growing small presses for 2001 and 2002 and saw revenue increase 145% from 2000 through 2002. Others, like Manning Publications Co. in Greenwich, Conn., which employs a dozen full- and part-time staffers, suffered a steep drop in 2001, followed by increases of 70% and 56% in 2002 and 2003, respectively. "It shows that a small company can buck the trend and go the other way," says publisher Marjan Bace. At Independent Publishers Group, which distributes Manning and 19 other computer-book publishers, sales were up 15% in 2003 for the category as a whole, according to computer book specialist Joe Phillipp. "As long as we have publishers willing to identify niche markets, things will be healthy," he says.

What's Up in a Digital World?

For large houses like McGraw-Hill Professional, which includes Osborne, "you have to cover the bases," says group publisher Brandon Nordin when questioned about which categories are strongest. "It used to be that the beginner's market was the latest version of Windows. Topics like digital photography, Photoshop and eBay are the killer apps of today," says Nordin, adding, "IT is still a central part of anyone's business for competitive advantage. Computer security is the most vibrant part."

While McGraw-Hill and other publishers have begun addressing the changing technology-book market by introducing new series, others have met the challenge by expanding into new areas on a title-by-title basis. That's not to say that staples like Windows have shrunk entirely. As O'Reilly points out, the market for Windows titles is still quite strong, and as are Macintosh-oriented books, even though sales of Macs lag significantly behind those of PCs. Says O'Reilly, "The top areas in the last year are Windows XP, Photoshop and Mac. Bright new categories are Google and eBay." O'Reilly's bestseller continues to be David Pogue's Mac OS X, Panther Edition, The Missing Manual, which has sold 350,000 copies in all its versions and is currently in the top 100 at Amazon.

At Sterling Publishing Co.'s Lark imprint, consumers' digital lifestyle (one-third of all U.S. households now own a digital camera) is driving book sales. "What we've done is stayed completely out of computer books except for the digital," says president and CEO Charles Nurnberg, who jokes that his technical knowledge is limited to the on/off button of his computer. "The upcurve has been great. By far our bestselling book is Michael Freeman's The Complete Guide to Digital Photography, which has sold about 140,000 copies at $29.95." Since the introduction of the first SLR digital camera under $1,000 last fall (the Canon ES Digital Rebel), and with more expected coming this year, digital camera books should continue strong this year. It's so strong that Sterling, which publishes about 500 books a year, is making Jeff Wignall's The Joy of Digital Photography its lead title for the fall.

"The computer book business is not monolithic," notes MIT Press executive editor Bob Prior, who characterizes many of the press's titles as "idea books that are at the intersection of advances in computer technology and business, gender issues and privacy." One strong seller from last fall concerns the overlap between computers and creativity, Ben Shneiderman's Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing. "The other segment of the market that's done well for us is textbooks," says Prior. "There are a lot of new students coming into computer science and staying for graduate degrees." The press has also found tremendous growth in computational biology, a field so new that MIT published its first book in the area only five years ago.

Scratching a Niche

Of course, sometimes what's old is still new. That's the case at Mike Murach & Associates in Fresno, Calif., which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and continues to limit its list to one or two books a season. It is one of the few publishing houses—certainly the only computer book publisher—to rely on staff writers, who sometimes spend as much as six months studying a specific topic, to write and edit each book. "I started out as a staff writer for a publishing company," explains founder Mike Murach. "I realized if a manuscript is bad, there's nothing an editor can do to correct it. I thought it would be better to develop and train staff. The reason no one uses this model is we have to sell 15,000 copies of every book." Perhaps the biggest change for Murach's company is the market shift from 70% direct sales and 30% bookstore business when it started in 1974 to the exact opposite today. The topics have also changed, from mainframe computer titles to C#.

"There's definitely a gradual trend of people buying more," says Amy Pedersen, cofounder and v-p of Syngress Publishing in Rockland, Mass. While part of her optimism is connected with Syngress's recent shift in trade distributors to O'Reilly & Associates, it's also grounded in sales for the company's first work of science fiction, last year's story collection Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box, which has sold 39,000 copies worldwide. "I wish I could say it was deliberate," says Pedersen of the company's decision to publish infotainment books for geeks. "We're used to doing how-to and step-by-step books. We've shown there is another way to provide a picture for readers." In April, Syngress is following up with Stealing the Network: How to Own a Continent, which incorporates real-world security issues and technology.

Manning Publications' decision to move into the business computer book world was much more deliberate. "The nice thing about the idea," wrote Bace on his blog, "is that I could read and enjoy the books myself. So I called Kurt Mathews [CEO of IPG] to see whether he had any opinions. Kurt told me there was only one market segment doing worse than computer books and that was business books." Manning, which published 13 books in 2003, will release its first business book in April, Erik Keller's Technology Paradise Lost: Why Companies Must Spend Less to Get More from Information Technology, and is planning to launch a business/computer book series. Cisco Press is also interested in the financial implications of technology, specifically network technology. Last fall it released its first Network Business book, Rouzbeh Yassini's Planet Broadband, and will do six more titles this year, including Taking Charge of your VoIP Project (Mar.) by John Q. Walker and Jeffrey T. Hicks.

So far the signs are aligned for a strong 2004, starting with a recent FCC decision geared to making the Internet and, by extension, technology, even more readily available by allowing Internet access through electrical outlets. As Wiley's Swadley notes, "We are at a beginning. People often underestimate what can happen in three years and overestimate what will happen in five to 10." Still, by moving carefully into new niches and continuing to publish into strong older ones, most technology publishers are working to compute a winning formula not just for this year, but for several years ahead.

The Next New ThingAs computers become more and more ubiquitous, from laptops to cell phones, there are growing signs that the computer book business is trending up, especially in the area of beginner books. "Even though computers have become easier and easier to use, people still need beginner books," notes Brandon Nordin, group publisher, McGraw-Hill Professional, who compares the changing relationship of people and computers to people and their cars. "In the '40s, people drove a car. In the '60s, your lifestyle was based on it."
One key difference though between today's starter books and those published at the height of the dot-com boom is that current titles tend to take a much more visual approach. Frequently, too, the information is organized recipe-style, step-by-step, like Cisco's First-Step series for networking novices and budding IT professionals, which will start off with seven books this year, including Wendell Odom's Computer Networking First-Step (Apr.). CMP Books' new Creative Titling series is similarly structured, although it is aimed at a different segment of the market, those who want to produce Hollywood-quality title and credit sequences. The first two books provide help with leading digital video programs: Ed Gaskell's Creative Titling with Premier Pro (Feb.) and Diannah Morgan's Creative Titling with Final Cut Pro (Mar.).
McGraw-Hill/Osborne has several introductory series. For users looking for books on Microsoft Office, eBay or Photoshop CS, there is QuickSteps. To better understand security issues, Roberta Bragg is editing a series that will lead off with her own Hardening Windows Systems (May). Osborne is expanding its Demystifying Series, which Nordin describes as "textbook lite," into technology. Buoyed by the success of books that made geometry and algebra easy—okay, relatively easy—this spring it will offer Databases Demystified (Mar.) by Andy Oppel.
For 17-year-old technical publisher Idea Group in Hershey, Pa., launching a series on Advice from Experts coincided with the introduction of its first trade imprint, Cybertech Publishing, distributed by IPG. President and publisher Mehdi Khosrow-Pour anticipates doing 10 Cybertech titles over the next two years—relatively few compared with the company's academic output of 120-plus books annually. Khosrow-Pour views the new series as an opportunity to enter the corporate professional market. "We're on the borderline of IT and management," he says of the first list, which includes his own E-Commerce Security (Mar.).