Writing books still matters—reading them does, too

Ivan, over at ipspace.net, has an interesting post up on writing books —

Why would you want to write a book? If you think you’ll earn a lot of money, think twice… unless you plan to write a science fiction bestseller, Swift-for-Dummies, or 50 Shades of Something.

Several points in reply…

No, you won’t make a lot of money. Writing books for a living (in fact, writing for a living at all) has been pretty much destroyed by several factors, including the absolute dismal rate at which our culture reads (I’m considered something of a freak with my goal of reading 100 books/year; C.S. Lewis read that many in a few weeks in the hospital, across four or five languages), and the rate at which people try to “climb the author pile” by writing for free on blogs/etc.

There is one comment here that I think is really worth pointing out: To make matters worse, core networking is not exactly a popular topic (compared to Swift Programming or Introduction to IPv6)… I’ve heard this a lot in my time as an author—for instance, my books simply don’t sell as well as just about anything at the CCIE level, and CCIE level books just don’t sell as well as books at the intro level. I can even translate this into my time as a Cisco Live SGM—the more theory a session has, the smaller the room you should plan for. This was never related to the speaker or the actual topic at hand, it was always just this: people want to know how to configure things first, they want some idea of how they work next, and they don’t really care about why they work.

I’m of two or three minds about this phenomenon. Is this because we have way more people entering the field than are at the top of the field? After 25 years in the industry, I don’t think this is true. Is this because basic information is really that much more valuable than the more advanced books? It might be true that most networks are small or mid-sized, and the vast majority of network engineers really only need to know how to configure some pretty basic stuff to “get by.”

But I’m going to turn this argument on its ear. Another way to put this is that we’ve all decided, as engineers, that learning just enough to get by is “good enough.” Maybe we just don’t read past searching for a blog post that tells me which new “big brand box” to buy, and how to configure something to get a problem solved.

If so (and I suspect this is the real reason), we’re not only selling our entire culture as engineers short, we’re also selling our employers short, and—worst of all—we’re selling ourselves short as people. It would be truly sad to come to the point where no-one reads because we’re all convinced we can get by on a diet of video, blog posts, and short form sell sheets—that we would truly say, “we’re all okay with being expert beginners forever.”

Don’t be an expert beginner. Seriously, go read a book. And I’m not saying this because I want the royalties—it would be nice to retire on the proceeds of the ten books I’ve written, but I’m realistic enough to know it’s not going to happen. You need to go read some books for you. Get out and grow some, would you?

Exposure? Ivan is probably right here; starting a podcast, blog, or even blogging on an established portal will probably get you more exposure than writing a book. In fact, I often struggle with whether I should be building this blog, or writing on an existing portal, and I don’t ever seem to be able to come to a solid decision either way. The main reason I keep ‘net Work alive is because I can talk about what I want to talk about. I’ll never get the hits of a blog that’s mostly doing configurations, but that’s okay—because I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I can tell you that learning a new configuration is good for about a year, but learning why something works the way it does is good for about twenty years.

So, given I don’t write books for money, and I don’t write books for exposure, and ignoring my little rant in the middle—then why?

I’ve been presenting at conferences large and small since around 1998. I’ve written white papers, blogs, and all sorts of other things. I’ve recently broken into video (I have an IS-IS LiveLesson releasing through Pearson this month, and I have several more planned). Given all this, I still have to say—nothing beats a book for structuring and laying out a lot of information quickly and efficiently.

So I still plan on writing books because the format has a lot to offer. There is something about having the space of 80,000-150,000 words, with diagrams, sidebars, asides, and all the rest, that allows you to actually say something that you just can’t say in a video (just as there is something about the visual nature of a video that allows you to say things that are hard to say in a book). Further, books are more interactive than video and blogs in some ways; you can really get deep into another person’s thought processes and understand concepts in a fully orbed way through a book that you’re just not going to get in any other format. Authors can listen and respond by modifying, updating, and pushing new content—what’s recorded on video, and what’s in a blog, must almost be replaced rather than updated.

So if you want to do what’s best for you, feel free to dive into blogging, making videos, and the like. If you want to really learn a topic, go read a book or two or five or twenty. If you really want to explain a topic, then writing a book might be a good idea. Books still have their place in the world—both writing books and reading them.

And that’s why I still write books.

9 Comments

  1. WaxTrax! 6 April 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Russ, your books are at the top of my list with regards to networking. You have a style that makes it easy to understand complex topics. I also agree with your thoughts on digesting the material in books. I do watch videos and read blogs, but by far I learn the most from reading books and taking notes. Videos can contain very good information, but I can read and absorb information faster than people can talk. Blogs also can contain excellent information (and I have a large collection of people’s blog postings saved in Evernote for quick searching), but there is also something to be said for the continuous flow of information that resides in a well-written book. That is something that blogs are simply not designed to do. So, as someone who learns best by reading books, I thank you for continuing to write them.

    • Russ 8 April 2016 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I agree about blog posts, as well — I do like to blog, but I do find it hard not to break into 14 part series, then lose my way along the way because I didn’t write the whole thing up front.

      🙂

      Russ

  2. Michael Kashin 6 April 2016 at 8:27 pm

    I think there’s a simpler explanation to that phenomenon you’ve mentioned, Russ. It’s simply difficult for an inexperienced person to understand some of the concepts at a depth that books are presenting them. From my experience, it takes a few videos and configuration guides and a few hours on command line to even begin to understand some of the complex topics. The problem with books is that they take you from 0 to the deepest depths in a few pages and a lot of people are simply not prepared for that kind of pace. And as people acquire more and more knowledge through blogs/videos/guides they reach that 80/20 point when they know enough to “get by”, like you said, but they don’t have enough interest to go through the remaining 20 percent.

    • Russ 8 April 2016 at 4:01 pm

      This is a good point… Maybe authors (like me) need to learn to write stuff that’s more understandable on a regular basis. The problem is often figuring out how to balance between the technical depth and the slow ramp while keeping the page count down to a reasonable level. OTOH, I do often assume people know what I’m talking about… or only need it explained once.

      🙂

      Russ

  3. alan.wijntje 11 April 2016 at 3:35 am

    He Russ,

    I’m actually wondering if this might be a much larger phenomenon and not just “us techies” not reading enough.
    Personally I love reading (technical, fantasy, sci-fi etc) because it allows me to use my own imagination to visualize whatever is being discussed (this can be how a packet flows through a network or how some dragon might look in a fantasy novel).
    And by visualizing I have to take the time to form a mental picture of all the parts and how they interact (which I find is easier to remember).

    If however I look at the “current” generation (ouch that made me feel old) and how they rather use tablets and watch youtube videos instead of reading book I fear we are losing some of this “imagination”.
    This imagination in turn drives our ability to “think outside of the box” instead of needing a “pre-defined”-image to work from..

    Anyways, my order for “navigating network complexity” cam in this weekend so I’m off to do some old fashioned reading…

    Ps. how do you feel about audiobooks?

    • Russ 11 April 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Alan —

      Thanks for the insightful comments, as always… I do think it’s a larger phenomenon… For instance, even in theology and philosophy, two fields that are text rich, people don’t seem to read as much as they used to. I always get weird looks when I mention the number of books I read in a year, even in those topics (just finished reading The Rebel by Camus). We just seem to be moving towards a visual world, which is going to be a sad thing…

      🙂

      Russ

  4. George Davitiani 11 April 2016 at 5:41 pm

    100 books a year very impressive in my book 😉

    Do you shoot for 2 books per week? What’s your average daily page count?

    • Russ 11 April 2016 at 6:33 pm

      I try to read two books a week, but the reality is more like 70 books a year… My goal is always 75 pages a day, including books, papers, etc., but I don’t always make that.

      🙂

      Russ

  5. Patti West 11 April 2016 at 5:51 pm

    Hello Russ — came across your blog while I was looking for a textbook for a new BAS Network Management for Information Professionals course I’m putting together. The course is primarily reviewing infrastructure basics, design principles, requirements analysis and managing explosive growth. Got anything?

    No joke about the reading books thing, the only books my grown kids read are textbooks…despite being exposed to books all the time when they were young. It is sad, because many of my students (and even the net techs that worked for me) only want to know how to “make it work quickly”, light-the-lights so to speak. They aren’t all that interested in reading about why you have to be concerned with traffic mix and flow, or even protocol functionality. The outcome is Swiss-cheese knowledge, really strong where they have experience and big holes everywhere else. More sad is that some really bad networks light the lights and pass some traffic, so they think their approach is successful. As you alluded to in your post — these people are only cheating themselves and their employers.

    There probably is some holy grail of material out there that is the exact right proportion of structured reading and exploratory activity that will change this trend. I think the whole move towards entirely video is going to slow, if for nothing else than it is really difficult to “skim” a video and cut and paste notes from it 🙂

    Saw from your bio that you are now pursuing your PhD! Congrats!

Comments are closed.