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February 17 2012

Top stories: February 13-17, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

The stories behind a few O'Reilly "classics"
Tim O'Reilly: "It's amazing to me how books I first published more than 20 years ago are still creating value for readers."

How to create a visualization
Creating a visualization requires more than just data and imagery. Pete Warden outlines the process and actions that drove his new Facebook visualization project.

Let's remember why we got into the publishing business
At the 2012 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference this week in New York City, keynoter LeVar Burton reminded the audience why storytelling will always matter.

There's Plan A, and then there's the plan that will become your business
Drawing from the Lean Startup and other methods, "Running Lean" helps entrepreneurs transform flawed Plan A ideas into viable companies. "Running Lean" author Ash Maurya explains the basics in this interview.

The bond between data and journalism grows stronger
This interview with Liliana Bounegru, project coordinator of Data Driven Journalism at the European Journalism Centre, offers more insight into why the importance of data journalism continues to grow in the age of big data.


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The stories behind a few O'Reilly "classics"

This post originally appeared in Tim O'Reilly's Google+ feed.

It's amazing to me how books I first published more than 20 years ago are still creating value for readers. O'Reilly Media is running an ebook sale for some of our "classics."

vi and Vim"Vi and Vim" is an updated edition of a book we first published in 1986! Linda Lamb was the original author; I was the editor, and added quite a bit of material of my own. (In those days, being the "editor" for us really meant being ghostwriter and closet co-author.) I still use and love vi/vim.

"DNS and Bind" has an interesting back story too. In the late '80s or early '90s, I was looking for an author for a book on smail, a new competitor to sendmail that seemed to me to have some promise. I found Cricket Liu, and he said, "what I really want to write a book about is Bind and the Domain Name System. Trust me, it's more important than smail." The Internet was just exploding beyond its academic roots (we were still using UUCP!), but I did trust him. We published the first edition in 1992, and it's been a bestseller ever since.

"Unix in a Nutshell" was arguably our very first book. I created the first edition in 1984 for a long-defunct workstation company called Masscomp; we then licensed it to other companies, adapting it for their variants of Unix. In 1986, we published a public edition in two versions: System V and BSD. The original editions were inspired by the huge man page documentation sets that vendors were shipping at the time: I wanted to have something handy to look up command-line options, shell syntax, regular expression syntax, sed and awk command syntax, and even things like the ascii character set.

The books were moderately successful until I tried a price drop from the original $19.50 to $9.95 as an experiment, with the marketing headline "Man bites dog." I told people we'd try the new price for six months, and if it doubled sales, we'd keep it. Instead, the enormous value proposition increased sales literally by an order of magnitude. At the book's peak, we were selling tens of thousands of copies a month.

Every other "in a nutshell" book we published derived from this one, a product line that collectively sold millions of copies, and helped put O'Reilly on the map.

"Essential System Administration" is another book that dates back to our early days as a documentation consulting company. I wrote the first edition of this book for Masscomp in 1984; it might well be the first Unix system administration book ever written. I had just written a graphics programming manual for Masscomp, and was looking for another project. I said, "When any of us have any problems with our machines, we go to Tom Texeira. Where are our customers going to go?" So I interviewed Tom, and wrote down what he knew. (That was the origin of so many of our early books — and the origin of the notion of "capturing the knowledge of innovators.")

I acquired the rights back from Masscomp, and licensed the book to a company called Multiflow, where Mike Loukides ran the documentation department. Mike updated the book. Æleen Frisch, who was working for Mike, did yet another edition for Multiflow, and when the company went belly up, I acquired back the improved version (and hired Mike as our first editor besides me and Dale). He signed Æleen to develop it as a much more comprehensive book, which has been in print ever since.

"Sed and Awk" has a funny backstory too. It was one of the titles that inspired the original animal designs. Edie Freedman thought Unix program names sounded like weird animals, and this was one of the titles she chose to make a cover for, even though the book didn't exist yet. We'd hear for years that people knew it existed — they'd seen it. Dale Dougherty eventually sat down and wrote it, mostly because he loved awk but also just to satisfy those customers who just knew it existed.

(Here's a brief history of how Edie came up with the idea for the animal book covers.)

Unix Power ToolsAnd then there's "Unix Power Tools." In the late '80s, Dale had discovered hypertext via Hypercard, and when he discovered Viola and the World Wide Web, that became his focus. We had written a book called "Unix Text Processing" together, and I was hoping to lure him back to writing another book that exercised the hypertext style of the web, but in print. Dale was working on GNN by that time and couldn't be lured onto the project, but I was having so much fun that I kept going.

I recruited Jerry Peek and Mike Loukides to the project. It was a remarkable book both in being crowdsourced — we collected material from existing O'Reilly books, from saved Usenet posts, and from tips submitted by customers — and in being cross-linked like the web. Jerry built some great tools that allowed us to assign each article a unique ID, which we could cross-reference by ID in the text. As I rearranged the outline, the cross-references would automatically be updated. (It was all done with shell scripts, sed, and awk.)

Lots more in this trip down memory lane. But the fact is we've kept the books alive, kept updating them, and they are still selling, and still helping people do their jobs, decades later. It's something that makes me proud.

See comments and join the conversation about this topic at Google+.

October 24 2011

A focus on the stuff that matters most

This post originally appeared in Tim O'Reilly's Google+ feed.

This tweet by Steve Case (@stevecase) struck home for me, because in the aftermath of Steve Jobs' death I've been thinking a lot about O'Reilly, wanting to make sure that we streamline and focus on the stuff that matters most.

Steve Case tweet about Steve Jobs

Here's the money quote from the article Case mentioned:

"My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products," Jobs told [biographer Walter] Isaacson. "[T]he products, not the profits, were the motivation. [John] Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It's a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything."

Jobs went on to describe the legacy he hoped he would leave behind, "a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now."

"That's what Walt Disney did," said Jobs, "and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That's what I want Apple to be."

All of our greatest work at O'Reilly has been driven by passion and idealism. That includes our early forays into publishing, when we were a documentation consulting company to pay the bills but wrote documentation on the side for programs we used that didn't have any good manuals. It was those manuals, on topics that no existing tech publisher thought were important, that turned us into a tech publisher "who came out of nowhere."

In the early days of the web, we were so excited about it that Dale Dougherty wanted to create an online magazine to celebrate the people behind it. That morphed into GNN, the Global Network Navigator, the web's first portal and first commercial ad-supported site.

In the mid-'90s, realizing that no one was talking about the programs that were behind all our most successful books, I brought together a collection of free software leaders (many of whom had never met each other) to brainstorm a common story. That story redefined free software as open source, and the world hasn't been the same since. It also led to a new business for O'Reilly, as we launched our conference business to help bring visibility to these projects, which had no company marketing behind them.

Thinking deeply about open source and the internet got me thinking big ideas about the Internet as operating system, and the shift of influence from software to network effects in data as the key to future applications. I was following people who at the time seemed "crazy" — but they were just living in a future that hadn't arrived for the rest of the world yet. It was around this time that I formulated our company mission of "changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators."

In 2003, in the dark days after the dotcom bust, our company goal for the year was to reignite enthusiasm in the computer business. Two outcomes of that effort did just that: Sara Winge's creation of Foo Camp spawned a worldwide, grassroots movement of self-organizing "unconferences," and our Web 2.0 Conference told a big story about where the Internet was going and what distinguished the companies that survived the dotcom bust from those that preceded it.

In 2005, seeing the passion that was driving garage inventors to a new kind of hardware innovation, Dale once again wanted to launch a magazine to celebrate the passionate people behind the movement. This time, it was "Make:", and a year later, we launched Maker Faire as a companion event. Around 150,000 people attended Maker Faires last year, and the next generation of startups is emerging from the ferment of the movement that Dale named.

Meanwhile, through those dark years after the dotcom bust, we also did a lot of publishing just to keep the company afloat. (With a small data science team at O'Reilly, we built a set of analytical tools that helped us understand the untapped opportunities in computer book publishing. We realized that we were playing in only about 2/5 of the market; moving into other areas that we had never been drawn to helped pay the bills, but never sparked the kind of creativity as the areas that we'd found by following our passion.)

It was at this time that I formulated an image that I've used many times since: profit in a business is like gas in a car. You don't want to run out of gas, but neither do you want to think that your road trip is a tour of gas stations.

When I think about the great persistence of Steve Jobs, there's a lesson for all of us in it.

What's so great about the Apple story is that Steve ended up making enormous amounts of money without making it a primary goal of the company. (Ditto Larry and Sergey at Google.) Contrast that with the folks who brought us the 2008 financial crisis, who were focused only on making money for themselves, while taking advantage of others in the process.

Making money through true value creation driven by the desire to make great things that last, and make the world a better place — that's the heart of what is best in capitalism. (See also the wonderful HBR blog post, "Steve Jobs and the Purpose of the Corporation." I also got a lot of perspective on this topic from Leander Kahney's book, "Inside Steve's Brain.")

See comments and join the conversation about this topic at Google+.

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