Safari Books Online

Safari Books Online is a subscription library for computer books and tech training videos, with some additional subjects that also appeal to computer book readers, like digital photography.  They offer individual and corporate subscriptions, and many libraries are subscribers too, so you might check your library first.  Safari Books Online has a 10-day free trial if you just want to get the feel of how it works.  Right now they are offering a 5-Slot Bookshelf for $9.99/month, a 10-Slot Bookshelf for $22.99/month and the unlimited Safari Library for $42.99/month.  You only have access to Video Training and the Rough Cuts (prerelease books) titles with the Safari Library.

I got an offer for the 5-Slot Bookshelf when I registered one of my O’Reilly books to get a 45 day free access to the online edition.  For $10, I figured I’d try it out.  It’s a bit confusing how they work things.  With the 5 and 10 Slot Bookshelves, you can only read the full text of 5 or 10 books at a time, and you must keep your picks on your Bookshelf for at least 30 days.  You can preview all the books, but they only show the top third of each page.

At first I was cautious about filling up my 5 slots, but as I spent time actually studying books, time passed quickly and I usually seem to have 1-2 books ready to be checked back in so I could pick new ones.  I felt for $10 a month, this was a real bargain, but I was disappointed I couldn’t see the Video Training and Rough Cut titles.  Then one day Safari sent me an email offering a 20% discount to the Safari Library subscription, or just $34.99 a month for up to 12 months.  I figured, what the hell, and switched.  I can go back any time to my 5-Slot sub if I want to.

What a Bargain!

One reason Safari Books Online appealed to me was because I was having to switch my entire programming paradigm at work form ASP to PHP and I was about to go out and buy a bunch of new computer books for PHP, jQuery, CSS 2, XHTML 1.1, CodeIgniter and Eclipse.  I tend to buy computer books, use them for awhile, let them sit on the shelf for five years, and then put them out on the free book table at work.  Spending $120 a year and having access up to 60 titles seemed like a real deal.  More than likely I’d probably only read 10-20 books for real, but even that is a huge bargain over buying the books.

Reading Online

Most people don’t like reading books at their computer screen, but if you’re reading computer programming books while programming, ebooks work out great.  At work I have a dual monitor setup and I even turned my left monitor to portrait mode so I can enlarge a full page of a Safari book so I see the entire page at once with about a 50% magnification.  Of course this now makes me want to have a triple monitor setup, with Safari book on left, Eclipse IDE in the middle, and browsers on the right.  But don’t get me wrong. reading a Safari book on the same screen as the editor isn’t bad either.

Books can be viewed in two modes:  page mode and HTML.  I prefer looking at the page mode because it’s just like the printed book, but cutting and pasting is easier from the HTML mode.  However, reading is less pleasant from the HTML model unless I up the browser magnification and narrow the window so the scan line width is reasonable.  In page mode you have nice big margins and the print and fonts are the same as the printed book.  If the original book was hard to read, then page mode is also hard to read.

Slowly I’m learning that hanging on to page mode is limiting.  Once books are freed from the confines of pages, content can be presented in new ways.  I expect Safari to discover this in the future and invent new ways of looking at the material.  Books like the Head First series beg for this kind of treatment.  I also expect in the future there won’t be a division between printed books and video training titles.  If authors start writing titles specifically for Safari Online Books they could teach in new ways.


As of today, I can select from 9,902 books and 631 videos.  Plus lots of great computer book publishers are a part of Safari Online Books:

  • O’Reilly (Head First, Missing Manual)
  • Sams (Teach Yourself)
  • Packt Publishing
  • Addison-Wesley Professional
  • New Riders
  • Microsoft Press
  • Peachpit Press
  • Manning Publications
  • Adobe
  • Que
  • Apress
  • Sitepoint
  • Sybex
  • John Wiley & Sons
  • Prentice Hall

Most of the titles relate to computers in some way, but there’s lots of books on photography, and occasionally there’s a book that relates to investment or retiring.  I have 80 books flagged that I want to read.

The Future of Books

For special purposes, like these technical books, a subscription library really makes sense, and I’m perfectly happy to do without the printed edition.  I expect publishers to even do away with the page mode and eventually optimize everything for HTML mode which also works with mobile devices and ebook readers.  I would even buy a subscription to a science and history book library if I owned something like an iPad.  For fiction I prefer audio books or a device like a Kindle.  I wonder if subscription libraries for other subjects will catch on.

I think the future of books is paperless publishing, and Safari Online Books even hints that rental libraries might become an alternative to owning books.  However, rental libraries are rather specialized.  I’d be interested in a science and history rental library if its selection was as broad as the Safari Books Online is for computer books.  Also, I imagine that a rental library for school textbooks would be appealing to kids if durable iPad like devices caught on.

In my quest to give up paper, I’ve stopped getting magazines and newspapers, and now I have an alternative for technical books.  For fiction I prefer audiobooks.  Before now, I would have said art/photography books could never be replaced by ebooks, but while my second monitor was in portrait mode, my desktop background cycled through some art pieces, and they were very impressive magnified that way.  Freed of the confines of the printed page, art might do very well in ebook editions.  I saw a comic book on the iPad which had a mode of showing the page panel by panel and it was obvious the iPad is now the best way to look at a comic.

JWH – 4/25/10

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