Are WordPress Books Worth It?

I love books. I’m almost thirty-three and I love reading a book every weekend. I carve out time on the train to read. I get resentful when I can’t read at least for 10 minutes a day. I re-read books constantly. Up until about five years ago, I felt the only way to learn was from a book. Lately I’ve remained an advocate of reading, but my source for reading when I want to learn new computer technical things has become the computer. It’s easier to copy/paste examples and clean them up than it is to type in lines and lines and lines of code.

So when someone asked me on the train “Do I need to buy this book about WordPress?” I had to stop and think about that.

The first answer I had was ‘Of course not!’ and I still stand by that. You don’t need the book. I didn’t need the HTML book I had back in 1997, but in the pre-Google days, it was great to have a handy resource. Even today, I have a set of these one-sheet PDFs with the basics of RegEx because I’m always forgetting this stuff. But there, in and of itself, is my problem.

Added Byte’s Cheat Sheets are invaluable. And they’re online. I download them and put them on my DropBox account so I can have them at work, at home and everywhere else. Even my flippin’ iPhone! So right away I realized pretty much everything is digital. I no longer bring pen and paper to meetings (I take notes on my iPhone, yeah, I’m bad-ass). I go to classes and make a list of URLs where I can get information on the various products I’m learning from.

The part that bothers me is not that I’ve gone digital, it’s that I feel bad about it. See, I make heavy use of people’s websites and online documentation. If they made a book, I’d buy the book, they’d get some money, and I’d never feel guilty about abusing their brains. I am a huge proponent of Open-Source and Share-and-Share-Alike (but remember to credit!), so the idea of giving away knowledge for free, just because someone asked me a question, is a natural, happy feeling. I want to make the world smarter, and nothing’s gained by me hoarding secrets about CSS formatting and PHP calls all to myself.

Perishable Press is one of my favorite sites. They’re on my RSS feed and I refer to this site regularly. This is where I learned how to redirect my WordPress feeds to FeedBurner without a plugin, I picked up some stupid .htaccess tricks, and I suddenly master bits of server security. When something I do regularly (review my error_log every Sunday) is mentioned as a good habit, I feel proud. Jeff Starr, who runs the site, recently made a book Digging into WordPress. I’ve skimmed it (a friend bought it after asking me if this Jeff guy knew his shit – I said hell yes he did), but I’m glad I didn’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book, but I’m not about to pay for it since it’s not what I need.

I had to sit and think about why I didn’t want to buy the book. It’s not because I’m the best WP guru out there. I’m a happy kludgy amateur who enjoys playing around. I know enough to get my job done, and I know how to look up what I don’t know. That’s my strength, I feel. I know not only how to look things up, but where, and when to ask for help, and from whom. I’ve rarely had a problem that lasted more than a day, and I always take time to pay it forward and help out other people. Sure, sometimes I get cranky and tell them “Did you try Google?” but usually I’ll help.

Now that I’ve determined I don’t not-want the books because I’m smart, I had to think if it was the money. And again, no. I have NO problem paying for services I feel are useful. A reasonable fee is no one’s enemy! Look at Justin Tadlock’s Theme Hybrid! I can download his stuff for free (and I did), but if you want support, you pay per year. After a month of fiddling, I said ‘$25 isn’t that much, I’ll pay.’ I’ve never regretted it. Justin’s amazing, nice, and he can explain things for the thick-headed. On the other hand, there’s WPMU Dev, which has some of the best WPMU plugins I’ve ever seen, and yet I won’t pay for the site. They’ve pitched their prices at the big guys, and I’m not one of them. They would cost me more a month than I spend on hosting four domains, which is just insane. Plus some of their plugins cost extra, on top of their fee.

It’s not the money directly, it’s the money-to-product ratio. Justin’s Theme Hybrid is cheap at cost. I’d pay him $50 a year and still feel like I was getting more than my money’s worth. But if Justin wrote a book, I realized that I wouldn’t buy it either.

That was a revelation moment for me. There’s only one ‘code’ book on my desk, and it’s “UNIX in a Nutshell.” The old copy, revised in 1994. The only other book is a pocket dictionary which I actually use when spell check fails me. But that’s it. I have a “Unix For Dummies” reference guide (and I think a C++ ones as well) at home, and I use them often enough to justify them. But these are reference books. They’re also references for solid, baked, never changing systems.

And that’s the problem with books on things like WordPress, or even your OS or phone! Everything changes too fast. The technology moves faster than a book can be written, so you get a book just in time for the next version, where everything’s changed. Suddenly your book isn’t worth the cost anymore, and by the way, I’m just going to Google it anyway.

Going back to Digging into WordPress (which is $27 for a downloadable PDF that you can copy/past from), while I suspect some of the technical parts might phase out in a few years, if not months (WordPress 3.0 is on the horizon, and objects in your mirror are always closer than they appear), the authors went into more than just ‘How to make a perfect loop’ and integrating with Twitter. They talk about the basics on how to set things up, how to make things secure, how to run a site, and the mentality you’ll need to get through the day.

So should you buy that WordPress book? I can’t say yes or no. Never buy it sight-unseen. Skim it in the store, or read the previews on the website, and see if it’s more than just code. If it takes the time to explain things, then yes. Make sure it’s the book you need for your situation. If you’re really good with normal WordPress, but you want to step into WPMU (Multi-Site) and BuddyPress, you may not need a book since they’re all grounded on the same principles. That said, you may be more comfortable reading a book than relying on forums.

Could you get all that information for free? Sure. But sometimes it’s better to pay for ‘support’, even if you rarely use it. It’s also a good idea to ‘reward’ people who help you. I’m not saying you should toss me money via PayPal for helping you on a forum, but if you get all your tech support by coming here (or emailing me), a cup of coffee wouldn’t go amiss. Nor would just a tweet or a blog post to say ‘Hey, Ipstenu rocks!’ But more than that, if you’re making money off your blog, and someone bails you out, thank them. Publicly. Loudly. Everywhere. If they accept donations, toss them $5. Come on, it’s the cost of one extra-large, whipped fluffy Starbucks mocha-chino-latte-frappe.

After all, you’d pay more for their book.