Selecting a Computer Book

Readers contact me on a regular basis about selecting a computer book. I often think they want a precise recommendation from me (and some do ask me to provide a specific recommendation). However, I can’t choose a book for you or any other reader for a number of reasons. Most important of all, I don’t know how you learn. There are other issues too. For example, I can’t always guess from the e-mail precisely how you intend to use the book or what sort of information you need from it. In short, my best guess probably won’t be good enough.

Originally, I tried to handle the situation by providing a blog post entitled, “Techniques for Choosing a Technical Book.” The blog post worked well for a while, but it still doesn’t really answer reader needs. For example, readers would often act oddly if I didn’t recommend one of my own books, even though I knew from the reader query that my book would only solve part of their need and there was a better option out there. (Part of creating a book proposal is to look at the competition in depth and determine how your book will fill a niche that the competition doesn’t. I try to be honest with readers in this regard so that when they do buy a book, they’re happy with the purchase.) With this in mind, I wrote a series of three articles that examines the whole question of selecting a computer book in significantly more detail:

The goal of these three articles is to provide you with the best possible information about selecting and using a computer book. The thing I’ve noticed most often when I receive complaint e-mails is that even when a reader does select a truly usable computer book, sometimes they don’t get the most out of it. A purchase is only as good as the value you receive from it. These articles are designed to increase your satisfaction by helping you use the books more effectively.

Choosing and then using a computer book effectively will help you gain new marketable skills and insights into the computer industry. Overall, it’s my goal to help you earn more money or live a better life when I write a computer book. In other words, my goal is to help you gain something of value—something that you can later say improved your life in some way. Of course, I’m always refining my skills and choosing new techniques based on reader needs at any given time. That’s why I always want to hear from you at


Getting the Most from Your Technical Reading Experience

There are many ways to work with books. However, in all cases, there is some work involved. No book, no matter how well researched and written, will simply spit out answers without any effort on the reader’s part. It’s true that the author can employ techniques to make the reading experience more pleasurable, productive, or efficient, but in the end, it’s the reader who decides just how much information a book conveys with regard to a specific need.

Of course, the first step is to ensure you get the right book. I’ve already discussed this issue in the Techniques for Choosing a Technical Book post. So, let’s assume that you have possession of a book that’s the best possible match to your needs. It may not be a perfect match, but it offers more than any other book you’ve checked.

Now you have to decide on how to interact with the book. That may seem simple, but many readers fail to discover what they need from a book, even when the book contains the required information in several places. Let’s face it, books are relatively large and it’s easy to lose track of a required bit of information. Without some guideline, the mind wanders and tends not to work very hard.

To obtain the most from a book you need a goal. The goal determines how you approach the book. Someone who is trying to learn a new skill will probably begin at the front of the book and work toward the end. Skipping chapters is akin to skipping classes in collegeyou can’t expect good results if you don’t obtain all of the information. As a contrast, someone who is trying to fix a specific problem under the watchful eye of a boss, probably doesn’t want to waste any more time than necessary finding the required information. This sort of reader will want to locate the section of the book containing the answer quickly. There are some readers though, who really don’t know what they want to dothey lack a goal and are thwarted when the author can’t guess what the reader wants. So, ask yourself why you’re reading the book and create a goal for that particular session. In some cases, you may very well want to wander through the book randomly looking for something interesting, but few people have the time or need to perform this sort of reading with a technical book.

Depending on your goal, you’ll want to determine where to start. Someone who is learning a skill will start in the Introductionnot in Chapter 1. If you don’t read the Introduction, you’ll discover that your educational experience is going to be less helpful. The Introduction is where the author conveys book goals, knowledge requirements, and required training aids. For example, you might not be able to use the educational version of the product you have to learn a new skill with this particular bookit may be necessary to get the released version of the product instead. Researchers and those who simply need the book for reference would do well to check both the Table of Contents and the Index. A book intended solely for reference may include tables in an appendix that provide additional ways to locate information, so you’ll want to find these tables as well.

You’ve likely heard all of the advice for creating a good study environment before, such as turning off the radio. A good study environment also requires focus on your part and the availability of the required equipment. Simply reading about how to perform a task isn’t nearly as good as actually performing the task. Reinforcing the information by putting it into your own words is helpful as well. Everyone learns differently, so it’s important that you take time to discover how you learn. Whatever it takes for you to create a good study environment, you won’t get much out of a book until you create it.

Everyone seems to be in a hurry today, but being in a hurry won’t help with technical information. Hurrying only creates errors. Take time to actually read and understand the materialread it several times if necessary. Work through the material before you act. Yes, I realize that the boss is ready to pound little knots all over your head, but he’s simply going to have to wait. A good solid answer that produces results often requires a little more time up front to create. The book probably has the information you need, but you have to take time to find it.

One of the most important things to remember is that the author isn’t clairvoyant. You won’t find a precise answer to any given question in any book. It’s possible to find an answer that’s close, but in most cases you’ll have to create a solution based on the information the book providesquick answers are rare.

I wish it were possible to create some form of instant mental transfer of precise data. Perhaps someday it will become the norm to do so, but I hope I’m not around. Part of the joy of technical reading is obtaining the author’s point of view and then creating your own permutations of that information. Working through problems creatively is a challengeone that I hope people working in technical areas continue to enjoy. If you have any pointers to getting more from a technical reading experience, let me know at


Techniques for Choosing a Technical Book

I often get e-mails from potential readers asking whether a book I’ve written is the right choice for them. I try my best to ask about their needs and provide an unbiased answer. It’s in my best interest to provide the best answer I can, rather than make a quick sale and have to deal with a discontented reader later. However, in all honesty, it’s hard for me to be completely unbiased because I know my books better than any other book out there. I’ve spent many hours carefully crafting my books and know them quite well. Even when I read a work written by someone else, which I do regularly, I’m less familiar with it. Still, I do try my best to provide a good answer.

Getting a potential reader to make a good selection is still the best scenario in my mind. A number of readers have asked that I provide them with some specific technique for doing this, but all I can offer is a partial solution. The technical content of a book is only part of the solution for any reader. A reader must also consider the author’s method of presenting material and writing style. The use of teaching aids is also important. You must ask whether you want a book that contains questions or activities at the end of each chaptermany readers learn more by doing, than by reading. Communication, even in books, is a two-way process. The author often communicates ideas in subtle ways that help some readers and offend others. When a reader writes to an author, the author picks up subtle hints on how to improve the next book. It’s an ongoing process.

Everyone begins looking for a book by viewing the cover. Something about the title tells you that this could be a helpful book. The cover design and text tell you something about the book’s content from a marketer’s perspective. If you stop here, however, be prepared for disappointment. I’ve had more than a few covers that just didn’t do justice to the content of my book and a few that ended up misleading some part of the reader population. Believe me when I say that it’s never my goal to mislead anyoneI want my readers fully informed before making the purchase and happy with the book they receive. Covers are incredibly hard to get right because there is so little space on them to convey information that’s truly useful to everyone.

When I select a book, I normally begin by reading the Introduction. This important bit of reading is only seven or eight pages long in most cases, but usually characterizes the author’s attempt to convey everything the book contains as an overview. Reading the Introduction tells you about the author’s writing style and informs you about skills required to use the book successfully. You also discover special equipment and software that you need to use the book. If you find yourself disagreeing with the Introduction, you can be certain that you won’t like the rest of the book either.

Next, I look at the Table of Contents to determine whether the topic I need is covered in sufficient detail to warrant a purchase. A book’s title and cover material is often deceiving. The Table of Contents tells me more about the book content from the author’s perspective. I go through the entire Table of Contents just to see what sorts of interesting information the author has decided to include. I may also thumb through the index to determine more about topics covered in the book. It’s important to note that the index is normally created by a professional indexer and not the author, so the index may not tell you everything you need to know, but it’s a great place to see the sorts of topics the author has chosen to discuss.

Finally, I go to the specific chapters that I feel provide the information that I want from the book. I’ll eventually read most of the book, but these chapters are my main reason for buying the book today, so that’s where I look. I probably won’t read the entire chapter in the store (or online using Amazon’s Look Inside feature), but I’ll scan it and pay attention to particulars such as the code provided in examples or figures used for explanation. I’ll read segments of the discussion to see how much information the author provides and how the information is conveyed.

I know that many people consider my approach too time consuming. It is a time consuming approach, but I find that I make fewer bad purchases using this technique. I’ve had more than a few people write to me to ask why I didn’t cover a particular topic in my book and I have to wonder why they didn’t realize that the material was missing when they made the purchase. A few readers have literally written that they ran into the store during lunchtime, looked at the cover and decided the book must include what they need, put down their hard earned money to buy the book, ran back to work, and only then bothered to look inside. If you truly are pressed for time, please do write before buying one of my books. I’ll provide you with the least biased answer I can. However, the best way to buy a book is to make your own decision using the techniques found in this post. Let me know your ideas about buying books at