Review: Safari Books Online

by Michael James Williams on January 20, 2010 · 36 comments

in Articles

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.

screenshot

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.

[EDIT: And a few months later, The Art of Game Design and Chris Crawford on Game Design were also added. There's now quite a lot of books on game design and game development on the site!]

How Much Does It Cost?

There are two pricing schemes:

  1. Safari Bookshelf, which allows you to “borrow” up to ten books per month
  2. Safari Library, which gives you total access to every book in the system, as well as videos and unpublished books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:

Bookshelf

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:

screenshot

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…

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).

screenshot

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.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Porter January 20, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Sounds like a pretty useful service for anyone looking to dive into some books. If the rates were slightly lower, or I had more time to devote strictly to reading, I’d definitely jump in on it. I can definitely see this taking off and being a big thing over the next few years, neat stuff.

Michael Williams January 20, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Hey Porter,

Yeah it’s definitely useful! You’re right, it’s awesome to think what this could lead to over the next few years.

Brian Yamabe January 20, 2010 at 9:34 pm

One suggestion, you might want to check if your library has a deal with them. The Santa Clara Library system allows you to login to a version of Safari with your library card. It is a has a subset of books and also doesn’t include the “rough cuts” or videos.

Rasmus Wriedt Larsen January 20, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Nice introduction to SBO. I actually never heard about them, but it seems really nice. I just don’t have time for reading 1 book / month, so it would be like throwing money away buying rights to 10 or even more! But this will definitly go in my bookmarks for later use!

Michael Williams January 20, 2010 at 10:24 pm

@Brian: Wow, that’s awesome. How do you find that out? Just ask at the library?

@Rasmus: Cool :)

Ah, that’s the problem with SBO, though. All they can really advertise it on is the idea of being able to read a book online. Thing is, there’s so much more to it than that, but it’s difficult to appreciate it until you’re already subscribed. I know I didn’t. :/

Rasmus Wriedt Larsen January 21, 2010 at 12:01 am

@ Michael

Well there are good things about reading physical books.

- One thing will be that you could get off your computer for a while. Even though you’re reading about tech stuff that should be a plus!

- This also means you can get off the damn chair you’ve been sitting on a lot of your day, and thereby not smashing your body that much! That’s at least a plus in my book.

- I remember hearing that you’re reading faster in a physical book, I have no proof for this, but my experience is the same.

- You’re able to write comments and highlight important stuff much more intuitive (but in my opinion it doesn’t match the search function of a document).

- If you don’t have two screens, or even just a large one, it can come very handy not having the book on the screen while trying out the code you’ve learned from it.

But of course there are some bad stuff about it as well. I guess you know this, so you can take this as a reminder of some of the good things about physical books.

Michael Williams January 21, 2010 at 12:54 am

@Rasmus: I agree! (Well, except maybe on the point of it being easier to write comments. SBO has a cool feature I didn’t mention where you can print out all your comments from a book as a series of notes.)

I read physical books a lot, and I love them. Even beside the sensible reasons you’ve listed, there’s just something about a real book that you don’t get when reading off a monitor. So please don’t think I’m suggesting we should all read everything digitally from now on.

It’s like… hmm. It’s like comparing orchestras to MP3s. You can’t say “an MP3 is better than an orchestra” (or vice-versa), it just doesn’t make any sense — even though they both involve music. But orchestras have huge advantages over MP3s (mainly to do with the experience) and MP3s have huge advantages over orchestras (mainly to do with how much power you have over them).

Trouble is, because SBO is still fairly new, people can only think of it in terms of how it relates to physical books, because that’s what’s familiar. (Like I say, the same was true for me.) And physical books still have huge advantages over SBO… but just as with music, that doesn’t mean it’s the only useful format to have them in

arxanas January 21, 2010 at 12:58 am

Very interesting, I once bought a book with some coupon in the back like you said, but never bothered to redeem it.

@Rasmus:
Having the book on the computer would make it easier in my opinion – just alt-tab over to Flash or Dreamweaver or Photoshop or whatever other program you’re using, You can also copy and paste code (which I most certainly do not at all approve of), and you’re less likely to lose your line if you can leave a cursor in there.

sharedtut January 21, 2010 at 8:21 pm

has anyone sign up and give any reviews to this ?

Ryan January 23, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Great post on Safari Books. I remember you talking about this when we were creating our ebook, but it’s nice to see a more in-depth review about it and how it can be useful. Personally, I find it hard to read books on the computer as I’m adjusted to paperback books I suppose. But if I can get used to it, the huge supply of books and instant access would make Sarari Books a great option to try.

Michael Williams January 26, 2010 at 7:24 am

@arxanas: Might as well dig it out and try it, then :)

@sharedtut: I’m signed up, but I haven’t written any reviews for it. Actually, it grabs reviews from Amazon, as well as using ones written by SBO members.

@Ryan: Thanks! Yeah, it’s tricky to actually sit down and read a book on a screen. I don’t know why it’s so much less convenient than reading a blog, say, but it is. Perhaps the rumoured Apple Tablet will fix everything? :P

Sharedtut February 1, 2010 at 5:21 am

haha apple tablet ? ipad ? you mean, ?

I do like the idea of being able to rent this books online like netflix

Michael Williams February 2, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Yup, the iPad. (I wrote that before it was announced :P )

Eddie Offermann February 2, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Near as I can tell, the 5-book option is still available for $9.99 – perhaps it was only discontinued temporarily. I just updated my account info and they gave me the option to select it. My reading habits would tolerate the 5-book option, but it doesn’t provide for free chapter downloads and I actually do that a great deal.

I love SBO, and often keep a book or two in my bookshelf that I have printed copies of just so I don’t have to carry the printed ones with me. The Python Cookbook at 608 pages just doesn’t make the cut for “things I want to carry around with me all the time.”

.-= Eddie Offermann´s last blog: =-.

Michael Williams February 4, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Really? Oh! Yes, I see it too, but only when logged in. I guess it’s available to members that joined back when it was an option, but not to new members.

I do the same thing with some books. The Head First ones are pretty good for this, as it can be tricky to find the page that actually defines whatever it is the chapter is about. Good thing we’ve got Notes :)

I really want to see this on the iPad now. Hope it won’t be blue-lego’d.

Michael Williams February 8, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Interesting: a banner for this page has started appearing when I log in to my account. It talks about the mobile site, which is not new. But check out the screenshot: that looks like a Head First page, on the Kindle! I thought the mobile site was restricted to text-only books, so that’s awesome.

Wish I could check this out. Anyone got a Kindle?

Michael Williams February 9, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Oh hey, I’ve just got an email telling me that Real-world Flash Game Development is up on SBO! This is fantastic :)

Danny February 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I’m a long time user of SBO Library
As an IT professional I find it invaluable – we don’t buy these (IT) books to ‘read’ but to look up certain topics, research, examples, ….
If there is one chapter per book that is really useful it already a winner – mostly it is only a few pages, some sections, sometimes a few lines. Buying expensive (30 $/€ +) per hardcopy comes close to ‘wasting money’ (at least my spouse thought so)
Now the library gives me all books all time.
I couldn’t live without

But I would really really really appreciate if they could have chapter downloads in kindle format (I know I can read pdf’s on my kindle dx – with a magnifying glass – but it is just nog good enough)
And since I’m based in Europe – no SBO online on the Kindle :( (would probably be more expensive than buying the books anyway)

Michael Williams February 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Yeah, the Kindle situation really sucks over here doesn’t it? I really hope the iPad prompts other people to make cheap, internet-ready tablets and ebook readers.

Oh, the PDFs don’t display nicely on a DX? I’m surprised — that seems like a clear choice for a format for SBO to pick.

I definitely agree with not buying these books to read; there are some reading books on there (like histories of certain subjects and so on) but I never find it very comfortable to sit reading it off the screen for so long. I don’t know why (I can happily do it with an RSS reader). And yeah, €30 is a lot when you consider how often these books get updated!

Michael Williams February 21, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Well, I can see about a dozen books on game development (game industry, game design, game programming) on the Just Added section, so you can ignore what I said about a lack of such books! I wonder if they read this…

Dion March 11, 2010 at 7:16 pm

@ Michael: Of course we read this! LOL! I actually work for Safari Books Online as an Account Manager. I’ve seen positive feedback and great questions from here. I would like to assist anyone who is inquiring about our content and/or services. Please feel free to contact me.

Dion Anderson
Account Manager
Safari Books Online, LLC | http://www.safaribooksonline.com
Direct: 480.258.6689 Fax: 1 888 620 9501
Email: mailto:danderson@safaribooksonline.com

Michael Williams March 20, 2010 at 11:53 am

@Dion: Oh wow, awesome! Thanks for commenting :) I might get in touch, actually…

Michael Williams May 20, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Art of Game Design, my favourite book on the subject, is now up on SBO: http://my.safaribooksonline.com/9780123694966

Fantastic :)

Jonathan September 13, 2010 at 9:51 pm

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 recently began a SBO subscription. I started out on the 10 book subscription (this was the cheapest available when signing up), but the $23 was a bit pricy after a while. So I went into “Change Subscription” and was able to change down to the 5 book plan for $9.99 a month! I don’t get download tokens anymore :-( but I’m saving $13 a month!

Michael Williams October 4, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Oh, nice! I just checked, and I can switch back to five/month, too. Thanks for the tip :)

Rob December 18, 2010 at 11:44 am

the tokens are useless e-books in SBO can be downloaded without tokens.

Rob December 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm

just kidding,, i wish i could do that to save some money.

Julia August 25, 2011 at 2:13 am

I have been a Safari Books on Line for a couple of years now. I signed up to teach myself how to do web design. While it’s been a slow process, I can’t blame the books on Safari. I have the 10 bookshelf as I can’t afford the library. But I have been very pleased with it. It doesn’t always have every book I am looking for in non-web design areas, but it is very good.

Leighton September 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

I subscribe to Safari Library and think its fabulous. They have expanded on 3 lines. Computer Tech obviously but they have also moved to human resources and photography as well. They are adding more lines too Their Math line is weak but I am sure it will improve over time. The video side is fairly robust In terms of Photoshop and Illustrator and Programming Courses There are 245 on Photoshop alone so if you use other vendors Corel, Gimp you have to convert or they have books. But video’s explain technology so much easier than following it from a book in my opinion. I think Safari is excellent.

Margaret September 27, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Just as a warning to people using Safari Books: Safari books told me that my downloads and tokens ‘will expire today’ – giving me the impression that I had at least that day to use them still. But then it turns out that I could not use them. When I contacted customer service the first email I got back stated ‘Your tokens expired early morning Eastern time when they should have expired at midnight’ and then asked me which books I wanted to download. I was very pleased with this response and sent along a list of books I was looked to download any part of. I then received an email saying that my when my account had been renewed it had invalidated the tokens and downloads and that they couldn’t help me. So be warned Safari books users!! Not only can the site be misleading but the support is inconsistent at best!!

Michael James Williams October 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Oh dear. That’s a mess :/

Rajeev January 13, 2013 at 12:36 am

Good post.Can I cancel after one month? Is it mandatory to continue after trial period?Then what trial period means?

Eric W January 28, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Beware: they keep increasing their monthly fees for some reason. I was surprised to see it was raised 8.00 more per month in the last 3 months. I don’t recall getting an email saying they were doing this. If you have a tight budget, avoid them. They seem to believe everyone memorizes their terms of service. Not very professional, IMO. When you raise a subscription, you let the customer know as a courtesy. I cancelled. I don’t see the value in a 28.00 per month to rent 10 books. I could own many more books for that cost. Not worth it.

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