The "big three" publishers, share a variety of traits once you abstract differences based on communities and approach. I'd like to look at some common benefits and drawbacks, then offer some advice for anyone in (or wanting to be in) this space.
Benefits of Being a Big-Box Publisher
I see three primary benefits to being the big box stores of the technical publishing world: economy of scale, a bigger set of resources to work with, and access to book stores.
Because these publishers are bigger, they can push for and get better pricing from their vendors (materials, printing, binding, and distributing, thus increasing their margin, allowing them to lower prices, or both.
Selling more books with a higher margin means more money is available to strengthen their position in the marketplace. This money might be used to provide books to Users Groups or to regional Conferences. It might be used to support less popular, but still important books. It might be used to fund other activities, like a conference.
Finally, because a publisher is well established, it is easier for them to place their books in a bookstore. Store owners are more likely to buy a new book from an established publisher than a new book from an unknown (there are certainly some exceptions, but I think they're rare enough to ignore).
Drawbacks to Being a Big-Box Publisher
I see three significant drawbacks: loss of connection to community, loss of agility and cost of reputation management.
Once a publisher reaches a certain size, I believe that they begin to lose there connection with the community — they become a provider to the community and not a part of it. Once this starts to happen, it's easy to become arrogant and lose sight of what the community really wants.
Being larger also means that it's harder to make changes in process or positioning. When things are going well this isn't such a big deal, but when there's an opportunity you need to act on now it can be a really big deal.
Finally, there's the cost of keeping your reputation up. Once you've made it big, it takes a lot of money and resources to stay there. You have to keep producing great books or suddenly you're "slipping". It's a treadmill that just keeps getting faster with each new success.
My Advice To Big-Box Publishers
If you're one of the big guys, and you want my advice, you're in luck because that's just what I'm going to give you. This may not be the game I'd like to be playing, but that doesn't mean that no one should. If you're happy here (or want to get onto the field), here are three things you should do.
First, be selective in which communities you join. Don't try to be all things to all people. I don't mean stick to one or two (or five or six) communities. Watch for new communities to form and when they match your goals, get involved.
Second, look to your chosen communities for guidance. Just because you're big doesn't mean you know what the community wants or needs. You might have been a driving force behind Perl, Java, or C#, but that doesn't mean the same things will work with Lua, Haskell, or IO. Get on the mailing lists, irc channels, wikis, and whatever else the community uses to communicate — and once you're there, listen and act on what you hear.
Third, foster growth in your chosen communities. As the community grows, so will your opportunities. Because you're involved in just a couple of communities, and because you're paying attention to them, you'll be able to make things happen. Will it be sponsoring user groups? (If it is, don't ship Perl books to the Ruby guys.) How about running a booth, a bofh, or an after hours bash at a conference? What about sponsoring a programmer working on some important tool or library in the community? (If you play your cards right, you'll also have the inside track on the best book about the new development.)
Okay, so you've read this far. Hopefully you've found some ideas worth your time. Do you agree with what I wrote? Have I missed something? Let me know.
Join me next time, when I talk about the Mom & Pop publishers.
This post is part of a collection of articles about Publishing, Growing Markets, and Books.