The news that Microsoft Press had decided to lay off all its editorial staff came as a shock, especially as I know some of the folks working there as a result of writing two Exchange Inside Out books. It’s always sad when people lose their jobs, but it is much sadder when a highly profitable company can’t find a way to keep such a worthy business unit going. It’s true that hard times exist for publishers, but even so, it’s horrible to see Microsoft Press go down this road.
A sign of continuing financial pressures on the traditional book publishing market came in last week’s decision to layoff all the Microsoft Press editorial staff. These individuals were responsible for bringing Microsoft Press book projects through from initial concept to final publication and are well respected in the industry. The work is now likely to be done on an outsourced basis, probably in association with Pearson, who already handles the distribution of Microsoft Press titles. It is a sad day for a part of Microsoft that has contributed so much to the advancement of learning about the company’s technology since 1984.
The rapid pace of change in the software industry has created huge problems for book publishers. The traditional approach where an author would take six to nine months to create a draft of a book followed by some months of work to do technical and copy editing, indexing, and formatting, is simply unsustainable today. Where on-premises software products might have had one major release every three years with service packs issued annually, cloud software like Azure or Office 365 changes on a weekly or sometimes daily basis. Although many of the changes are small, enough of them occur to make it terrifically difficult for publishing houses to keep pace.
Any commissioning editor considering a proposed title covering cloud software has to figure how quickly the material can be written and published and how long the book will be viable in the market. Prior to the advent of the cloud, it could safely be assumed that a title would generate sales for at least two to three years before sales tapered off because of new software. That assumption cannot be made today, which means that figuring out what titles might be profitable is becoming much harder.
If you look at the Microsoft Press titles covering Office 365, the books can be broadly broken down into the following focus areas:
- Programming: For example, “Programming Microsoft Office 365 (includes Current Book Service): Covers Microsoft Graph, Office 365 applications, SharePoint Add-ins, Office 365 Groups, and more” (due in August 2016). Microsoft is engaged in a radical overhaul of the Office 365 APIs and books (like this one) that focus on the new REST-based APIs are likely to be popular. However, attempting to document a fast-moving target is always challenging!
- Exam Preparation: For example, “Exam Ref 70-346 Managing Office 365 Identities and Requirements with Practice Test” (published in June 2015). These books are always popular because they are directly linked to the Microsoft accreditation exams. However, given that Azure Active Directory, Azure, and Office 365 are being constantly updated, the older a book (and its associated test) becomes, the greater the distance between their basis and the reality of what administrators see in their tenants.
- Administration: “Microsoft Office 365 Administration Inside Out” (October 2013) or “Microsoft SharePoint Online for Office 365: Administering and configuring for the cloud” (June 2015). As a writer of two Inside Out books, I am fond of the series and know the dedication that goes into their production. But the Office 365 Inside Out book is now horribly outdated and I was surprised to learn that an update has been commissioned for publication in October 2016 (I hope they include all the new material that the engineering groups will reveal at the Ignite conference in September). Fewer updates have occurred in SharePoint Online, but even so, hybrid search has taken on huge importance recently and there’s lots of work ongoing to make SharePoint Online “sexier”, including the launch of the SharePoint app.
- Client: “Microsoft Outlook 2016 Step by Step” (Feb 2016). “Fat” client technology (like Outlook or the other Office desktop applications) have traditionally enjoyed extended sales lifetimes because of many factors. People usually don’t upgrade desktop clients until they change PCs. Older desktop clients can connect to new servers. And companies kept old servers going for a long time (some Exchange 2003 servers are still in production). Even so, the cloud is changing the rules of the game for clients too as Microsoft insists that Office 365 tenants use recent versions if they want to be supported (or even be able to connect). In addition, the advent of the “click to run” version and the regular updates that are pushed to users means that new features appear on an ongoing basis, which means that when a writer describes a feature of Outlook 2016, a user might not see the same thing on their screen. Take the many ways that you can archive an item in Outlook 2016 or the expected introduction of the Focused Inbox, both changes that impact discussions about how to use Outlook.
In summary, programming and exam preparation books are likely the easiest to predict when it comes to market longevity while client and administration books are challenging once cloud services are involved. The cloud also affects the market for books covering the administration of on-premises servers because the transfer of workload from on-premises to cloud systems reduces the number of people who might potentially buy these books.
All in all, it’s a world of hurt for publishers of books about software. Microsoft Press has attempted to become more flexible and has a good record of publishing books in mobile formats. It has also launched a “Current Book Service”, which means that it commits to providing three updated digital releases of the eBook version of selected titles over a year. The updated version of “Office 365 Administration Inside Out” is one of those titles and it will be interesting to see how well this model works for Microsoft Press. In saying that, based on our experience of writing and self-publishing the “Office 365 for IT Pros” eBook, an update on a monthly basis might be more required. As evident in our change log, depending on what’s happening inside Office 365, we have sometimes updated the book several times in a week.
I’m sure the decision to let the editorial staff go was arrived at after many careful hours of gazing into the depths of a management spreadsheet. It’s certainly the case that previous decisions by Microsoft Learning (MSL), the organization that includes Microsoft Press, have been taken with a firm eye on the bottom line rather than quality and the need to provide the best possible information to customers, like the decision to cancel the Microsoft Certified Master program in 2013 or the rather slipshod approach to MCSE recertification through the Microsoft Virtual Academy.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for requiring managers to manage and to make sure that organizations stay within budget and achieve their committed goals. Anarchy would exist if management didn’t happen. What I do find strange, however, is how the training and education arm of the world’s largest software company seems to have forgotten that quality education can never be measured in dollars and cents. Where once I respected MSL, now I cannot. Sad, but true.
Follow Tony on Twitter @12Knocksinna.
Want to know more about how to manage Office 365? Find what you need to know in “Office 365 for IT Pros”, the most comprehensive eBook covering all aspects of Office 365. Available in PDF and EPUB formats (suitable for iBooks) or for Amazon Kindle.