According to the OpenOffice.org website and material I’ve read in various articles there are approximately 40 million users of StarOffice and OpenOffice.org. That’s a pretty big user base, roughly the same number as the estimated number of Macintosh or Linux users in the world. Yet, for some reason, books written about OpenOffice.org do not sell. Macintosh and Linux books sell very well.
There are a number of titles out for OpenOffice.org. From the information I can gather, which you must understand is limited because there is no accurate way in the book industry to know the total sales through to a customer of any book, is that the best selling OpenOffice.org book has sold about 8,000 copies in the past 18 months. That is “decent” but nothing to write home about. The next closest book has only sold about 2,000 copies. That means it isn’t selling well enough to have a second edition.
O’Reilly decided to publish a book on OpenOffice.org specifically geared towards the component most people use, the word processor Writer. This book, OpenOffice.org Writer: The Free Alternative to Microsoft Office by Jean Hollis-Weber is a reprint of a self-published title formerly called Taming OpenOffice.org. It is geared specifically towards intermediate and advanced word processor users like students and other academics and technical and professional writers. Despite excellent reviews on Amazon this book has not done well.
But back to the discussion of OpenOffice.org and the 40 million people who supposedly use this software, but strangely enough don’t buy books on it. I’ve come up with a number of reasons for this, and I’m sure the readers of this weblog could come up with more.
1) Maybe there aren’t 40 million users of OOo and StarOffice. There might have been 40 million downloads or licenses distributed, but there are not that number of full time users. For instance, I installed OOo 1.1 on all the computers I used to administrate so the users would be able to open OOo files should they receive them, but not a single one of those 30 computer users run OOo full time. In fact, I doubt any of them run it at all. I’m sure there are lots of other “downloaded” copies of OOo that suffer the same fate.
2) I believe one group of people who adopt OOo are very experienced computer users. They are making a conscious decision to use OOo because it saves them money, avoids proprietary formats, because its geeky cool, or because they have identified abilities in the software that they like or need and can’t get from other Office suites. These people are usually savvy enough that they may feel they don’t need help to use a simple Office suite, so they just wing.
3) Another group of people are those who may have OOo foisted upon them by their IS department or “bosses”. Maybe these people work for a school, non-profit, or small business and they have been given OOo instead of MS Office in order to save the organization money. These people only need the most rudimentary of functions and OOo in its basic form is similar enough to Word and Excel that they have little trouble grasping it. And since these people never purchased MS Office books to learn with, they don’t bother with OOo books either.
4) People for whom English is a second language may not buy an English printing of OpenOffice.org Writer no matter how much they need it. And, of course, people who don’t speak or read English at all won’t buy the book. With the growing adoption of Free and Open Source software (FOSS) internationally and in poorer nations this is going to become increasingly common. A growing populace of OOo users in such places really need documentation, but traditional publishers like O’Reilly won’t find it profitable to publish an OOo book in Portuguese when they can’t even profitably publish it in English. These users needs may get taken care of by publishers native to that country or by community written documentation.
5) Some people like to think that those who use FOSS programs are either pirates, cheap, or both. I don’t think this is universally true, but I do think that businesses, organizations, and governments who adopt open source solutions like OOo are interested in saving money. So, are these users too cheap, or just too poor to be able to purchase documentation. When you deploy OOo to a group of 1,000 users in your government for free exactly what documentation are you supposed to give them without spending $40 U.S. on a bible book? I would imagine most groups want something smaller and cheaper or are satisfied with the electronic documentation. This point also ties in with point 4 because many governments that are starting to use OOo are not English speaking nations.
6) I’ve noticed that a lot of technical books languish as middling sellers until they get some sort of exposure to a dedicated community, then they rocket to the forefront of book sales, particularly at online sites like Amazon. Exposure like this is sometimes a flash in a pan, and the book quickly moves back to obscurity afterwards, but other times the book continues to sell well once people became aware of its existence. Books reviewed favorably on Slashdot exemplify this trend. For instance, the recently released Knoppix Hacks was reviewed on Slashdot and in a matter of hours it was a top 100 seller on Amazon and briefly hit #1 in the Computer category. Whether it continues to sell well is still undecided, but its 15 seconds of Slashdot fame may be just the exposure it needed to become a top star instead of an also ran. Is it merely lack of exposure preventing a good OpenOffice.org book from starting down the path to best sellerdom? If so, exactly where does it need this exposure?
What all of this highlights for me is how little we sometimes know who our audience really is. I mean, just a couple of years ago who would have thought that a prime group of users of Mac OS X were really Unix nuts? When you walk around an open source conference like O’Reilly’s OSCon over 50% of the users have a Macintosh laptop, and probably less than 1% of them are running Linux on it. That’s one indicator that some Unix users were moving to OS X as a desktop OS, another was when O’Reilly took a chance and published Mac OS X for Unix Geeks and was rewarded with robust sales. And now that O’Reilly does know that many hackers with Unix backgrounds have adopted the OS X desktop, we were able to publish more titles useful to that group.
So, who is the group of users for OpenOffice.org? Because there aren’t yet any books that sell well to this group of 40 million it remains somewhat a mystery as to what these users want and need. A basic introductory title? A hacks book? A switching from MS Office book? And unfortunately, with sales of existing OOo books so poor most publishers aren’t willing and can’t afford to experiment in this field to find out exactly who this audience is or even if there is one.
If you’re an OOo user and are willing to buy books to learn OOo better, what type of information are you looking for?