I think the very same day that Justin, Dion, and I released a beta version of our new book, Pragmatic Ajax, Google integrated their maps engine with Google Local. Because one of our chapters teaches you how to write your own version of Google Maps from the ground up, including generating a JPG map from an SVG source, spliting that map into tiles, and writing all of the Ajax UI magic, this change instantly made many of the screenshots in the chapter and other related content in our book a little dated. While this particular example isn’t terribly troubling (minor UI changes; functionality is the same), it illustrates a real problem with books: It’s just too darn hard for the printed word to keep up with hypertext.
By allowing us to release our book significantly earlier in the process, the Pragmatic Press’ Beta Book program lets us get our material into your hands when its fresh. We’ll still kill trees and distribute the legacy format and consider the book “done” at some point, too — so in fact, the beta program is the best of both worlds: early access and finalized printed output, with ebooks all along the way.
Another key advantage: reader involvement early on. Shortly after the beta book got into people’s hands, one of the loudest voices we heard was from the PHP community: why no Ajax/PHP chapter? A few days later, and we’ve got a PHP chapter checked into the book’s Subversion repository. It’ll make it into another release of the beta book real soon now. For the readers who wanted it, and for us authors who want to meet readers’ needs, this was a big win.
Something you want to see in the book? Buy the beta, check out what we have, and let us know what you think is missing and how you think we should improve the book before our final release to press a little later this year.