Technical Book Publishers – a Review

Well, I've just thrown down another Wrox book in disgust, and I have to say something.  I've read enough technical books on web development now, and my book shelf is crammed with books from all publishers.  I haven't seen any one comment or review of technical book publishers yet,  I thought I'd  give you my opinion, and maybe save a few of you folks some dollars.

There are a small group of publishers in the world that make a living publishing technical books.  Here is my short list in no particular order: Wrox, O'Reilly, Apres, Packt, and Manning.  This list is not a complete list of publishers.  There are the big houses that publish some technical books like: McGraw Hill, Addison Wesley, and Prentice Hall, but have not created a recognizable technical brand yet.

The first group has taken the time to establish a distinguished look and type of technical book that may appeal to some readers and not others.  Let's take them one at a time.

Wrox is the brand name for Wiley.  These books are distinguished by there red covers and the book itself is printed on cheap paper.  The cover is cheap, the book easily bends and flops.  I have been consistenly disappointed with the content of these books.  In general, they are poorly organized, the writing is poor, and the editing is poor.  The code usually has errors, which the editors or authors do not catch before publishing.  My impression is that these books are thrown together rapidly with writers, not technical experts, just to get a title published in a new hot technical topic.  Don't waste your money.  ONE STAR.

O'Reilly has two recognizable brands.  One is the "Head First" series, and the other brand has green and white covers with a picture of an animal done in black pen.   O'Reilly focuses on technical book exclusively, and has a huge catalog.

The "Head First" books are unique.  They feature a series of diverse activities or learning activities that interupt the writing.  The idea is to engage both sides of your brain.  These books are very good.  They run about 600 pages, but because of a large number of illustrations and white space, they read like a 250 page book.  If you want a thorough grounding in a topic, these are good books to learn the fundamentals.   Their depth is not great, but their coverage of the fundamentals are in depth.  The drawback of these books is that you can not return to them and use them as a reference.  The index is poor, and even if you found what you wanted you have to read several pages to get the entire gist of the topic you were researching.  They're read once and remember the fundamentals books.  FOUR STARS

The other O'Reilly series is what I'll call the "Animal" series since they always have an animal on the cover.  I think of these books as reference books.  The writing tends to be dry, but it is to the point, well indexed, with good chapter organization.  I buy these books for references, not to read.  They have a sub series entitled "Cookbooks" which are code snippets on small technical problems with explanation, which I like.  FOUR STARS

Apres books are distinguished by their yellow and black glossy covers.  The paper is a higher quality than the Wrox books and the covers are stiffer. They feature well organized chapters, detailed indexes for reference, and  good writing.  The editing is good, and the code is accurate.  The writing seems to carry you logically from one topic to the next in an order that is understandable.  The topic is covered just to the right depth.  You can tell the publisher didn't just throw a book into the world, they took their time to get it right.  I have been pleased with every Apres book I have purchased.  Apress is my favorite publisher.  I tend to look for their titles when considering a new book.  FIVE STARS

Packt books are done in orange and black with a color picture on the cover.  They feature the same glossy cover as the Apres books and the paper is about the same.  They tend to print in a slightly larger font, and their books come in at about 350 pages.  They give you a good overview of the topic and the organization is good.  Like the writing the index is an overview and thus not great for a reference.  I leave Packt books feeling like I could have gotten more.  It's almost like the publisher wanted to keep the book small on purpose to appeal to the technical person that does not have a lot of time and wants to get through a topic quickly.  I've found Packt books somehow disappoint me in the end.  The problem is you feel like the topic was brushed over and you missed something, the extra detail that you wanted.  If you want a slightly beyond a basic introduction to a topic, what I would call an extensive overview, these books fill the bill.  I don't walk away feeling like I know the topic, but I can fake it.  THREE STARS

Manning books are distinguished by a drawing of an old 17th century costumed figure on the front.  Their titles are called, " X in Action,"  or "X in Practice."   The covers are glossy and the paper is good.  The font tends to be smaller than the other publishers.  They have good indexes and organization.  The Manning books tend to be the opposite of the Packt books.  They are overly dense and detailed.  The topic is covered in depth.  It's too deep.  You read on and on about a topic that may be of interest to you, or why you purchased the book, but the rest of the book is like this, and in the end, after you grok your topic of interest, you get bored, and throw the book down.  THREE STARS

There you have it, my overall impression.  Here comes the disclaimer.  Every book has a different author, and you may find a gem in my lower rated publishers.   Ultimately, the publisher controls what they publish and their care in publishing a book says something about their care in picking their authors and editors.

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