I don’t have any books about Flash or AS3 on my bookshelf. Yet I can read Making Things Move, Essential ActionScript 3.0, and Actionscript 3.0 Design Patterns any time I like. It’s all thanks to Safari Books Online.
What is it?
Basically O’Reilly have taken a whole bunch of books, scanned them in, and put them online. And for a monthly fee, you can read them in your browser.
OK, there’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic idea. It’s like Netflix for books.
The selection is pretty good; on the right you can see three of the books that came up in a search for “ActionScript” — the one at the top hasn’t even been published yet, but you can read it online. Most of the well-known books about Flash and AS3 are in there, but there are a few notable exceptions, like Real-World Flash Game Development.
[EDIT: A few weeks after I posted this, Real-World Flash Game Development was added to the site! Fantastic.]
In fact, there’s a general lack of newer books on game design. Some of the classics are there, like Chris Crawford on Game Design, but A Theory of Fun isn’t in there, and neither’s The Art of Game Design. The focus is really more on programming, graphic and web design, business and management, and general software development. Having said that, there are some books on other topics (including electronics, neuroscience, maths, food photography, and even ghost hunting). Just don’t expect to find a huge selection outside the core topics.
How Much Does It Cost?
There are two pricing schemes:
- Safari Bookshelf, which allows you to “borrow” up to ten books per month
- Safari Library, which gives you total access to every book in the system, as well as videos and unpublished books
At time of writing, Bookshelf costs $23/month and Library costs $43/month (each has discounts if you buy a year’s subscription at once). The current pricing is available here.
I used to be on the five-book version of the Bookshelf, which was a real bargain at $10/month, but when it got discontinued I switched over to the Library. I’ll outline the less-obvious aspects of each:
Pick ten books you want to read over the next month and they’re yours. On paper, that’s great. There is a huge advantage to using Safari instead of actually buying the ten books (aside from the savings in space), and that is full text search. Do you ever find yourself looking something up in a real book and trying to hit “find”? Well, here you actually can, and it’s awesome.
When I started using Safari the interface was a bit clunky. Full-screen mode didn’t make the best use of the space, and it all just felt harder to use than it needed to be. Now things are greatly improved; full screen is actually full screen, and you can use keyboard shortcuts to navigate between pages, and add bookmarks and tags and notes to any page of any book. None of these features are ground-breaking, but before they were implemented they definitely felt needed!
However, when I was using Bookshelf I noticed one major problem — it felt restrictive. This surprised me, so let me explain. When there are potentially thousands of books you’d like to read, being told you can only access five of them for the next month is harsh. What if in two weeks you suddenly need to read all about PHP, but you’ve already used up all your slots on AS3 books? That’s not a fun situation, so you should keep a slot free, just in case. And what if the book you’re thinking of taking out turns out to be rubbish? You’re stuck with it for a month, wasting a slot that could shelve a better book. So you’d better make sure you’re making the right choice, and research all the books fully on Amazon to make sure you pick the best one…
With ten Bookshelf slots I don’t think this’ll be such a problem (heck, maybe it’s just a problem for me, and most people don’t worry about these things). Also, you’re given five “download tokens” a month, which you can exchange for downloadable PDF versions of single chapters (or whole books, if you save up) which you can keep forever:
Extra tokens can be bought for $2 each, and just being a member of SBO gives you a 35% discount on some books, and while this isn’t a great incentive to join SBO in itself, it certainly helps the “oh no, I want to read ALL the books” problem.
I see Bookshelf as being most useful for anyone who wants to really dig in to a new technology and read all around the subject very quickly, but doesn’t want to spend huge amounts of cash on buying every single recommended book. I couldn’t really see myself using it for much else, to be honest; if I wanted digital access to a small number of books long-term I’d rather own the ebook versions than pay a monthly subscription.
But then, I’ve been spoilt by Safari Library…
I said that Bookshelf was awesome because you could search the entire text of one book. Well, Library is even better, because you can search the entire text of EVERY book at once. It’s like adding Google to Amazon.
Library also includes “rough cuts”, draft versions of books that haven’t been published yet, which means that there are books covering very new topics like… well, whatever I write here will just go out of date, but let’s say Google Wave or iPhone development. There’s also videos, unlike Bookshelf, though to be honest nothing here has caught my eye apart from Colin Moock’s Lost Weekend.
The five free monthly tokens and 35% discount carry over from Bookshelf, and the interface is essentially the same too; the main difference is that instead of a ten-slot shelf, you get an unlimited-slot “favourites” section, which can be split into different folders. So you can have one folder for books on AS3, one for web development, one for graphic design, and so on. When you want to search for something, you can just specify one particular folder to search in, too, so you don’t get random results from the business section.
What makes Library so much better than Bookshelf is the way you can find information that you didn’t even know you wanted. I joined SBO to brush up on my AS3 and to get to grips with some other programming languages, but over time I’ve read more and more great books that I’d otherwise never have known about (or if I had, that would’ve sat on my Amazon wishlist for years).
For example, I’ve got a copy of The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s fantastic; a really great introduction to basic design principles. But it’s a second-edition copy that I bought years ago, and it’s since been replaced by a newer edition. Psychologically, it’s difficult to convince myself to buy a copy of the newer version when the only difference is one new chapter… but it’s on SBO, so I don’t need to. I can read that new chapter any time — or even use a token to download it and print it out.
Every now and then something will pop up in the “Just Added” section that catches my eye: a book on data analysis, or on the history of code, or on typography, or some other subject that interests me but that I never get round to researching. Sometimes I see such a book in a bookshelf, or mentioned in a blog, or recommended by Amazon, and it’ll be on SBO so I can start reading right away.
I realise I’ve essentially described a local library, but mine certainly isn’t that well stocked. And there’s more to it than that — it’s like the books have been placed alongside web pages and RSS feeds and tweets so that they’re now part of the Internet.
They’re not real books
That is fantastic, but of course you can’t change the medium of a book without losing something in the process. This is the real problem with Safari Books Online: the books aren’t made of paper any more.
Bookmarks allow you to keep your place anywhere in the book, and even tag the spot so it’s easier to find later… but it’s not the same as sticking your thumb in the page and flicking back to it. You can’t flick through a digital book at all.
On a less romantic note, I do all my work on a laptop without an external monitor, so I can’t read SBO while also having something else up on the screen. This is actually a huge downside, though less so to those with a spare monitor or extra computer.
What about the Kindle, and other ebook readers? SBO does have a cut-down mobile phone version, and apparently this can be accessed by Kindles — but not in the UK, as our Kindles don’t have Internet access.
Should you sign up?
Give the ten day trial a go first and see what you think. Some O’Reilly books have a coupon in the back that’ll give you free access to its digital version for a month or so, to let you see what the interface and search is like.
To sign up for a personal account, use http://my.safaribooksonline.com/. For a workgroup or business account (i.e. for more than one person’s use), you’ll want http://safaribooksonline.com/Corporate/Index/
As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of the Library, but not quite so keen on the Bookshelf. It just doesn’t show off the freedom I really enjoy about the service. It’s a shame they got rid of the cheaper five-slot bookshelf option, because that was a great introduction that cost next to nothing. Your mileage may vary.
If you’ve any questions, or you find some great gems on there you want to share, please post them in the comments below.