The market for technical information is growing. John Gilbert assesses the new names which are adding computer titles to their lists
THE MICROCOMPUTER book market has turned into a battlefield. Companies already established in the market are fighting to acquire the best names and a number of companies are trying desperately to enter this area of publishing.
At the London Book Fair it was apparent by the number of new technical titles on display that publishers which have, until now, been in the arts field have begun to find their way into the technical side of the business.
Penguin is one such company. Until recently it had been best-known for its wide range of general interest books, especially in the field of the arts. Now Penguin has decided to put a series of computer books on to the market. They will have a standard format and provide an introduction to the Sinclair machines, as well as to other microcomputers.
Although some publishing companies which entered the race when the ZX-81 was launched have now disappeared, many names are still in the running. One of them is Bernard Babani Publishing. Michael Babani, managing director of the company, thinks that the collapse of some companies was the result of lack of technical experience. He says:
"These companies have jumped on to the bandwagon. The people who work for them are editors who have no technical expertise. They may have some good outlets but if a book is not good in the first place, it will not sell."
Babani also thinks that many of the books which are being produced are too costly. "What we want to see is a situation where books are being sold for £1.95 or £1.50 and not at some of the prices being quoted now," he says.
Babani's company is already established in the electronics field and that should give it a firm base when it launches its next computer book, Easy Add-on Projects for the Spectrum, ZX-81 and Ace. All those machines use the Z80 processor, so the add-ons should be compatible between them.
A company which is no stranger to the technical book world but which has just discovered the Sinclair machines is W Foulsham. Most people remember the name of the company because of the Old Moore's Almanack which it produces annually. Now it is publishing a series of machine-specific books.
Foulsham is one of the first publishers to launch a book on computer programming specially for children. It is called Spectrum Magic and is levelled at the very young.
The company is also producing a book for ZX-81 users called Family Fun on the ZX-81 - Top 20 Programs. It is aimed at all the family and not just one enthusiast at home. It contains programs which will interest children and adults alike and is trying to popularise family use of the machine, something which has been neglected by other publishers.
A series of books on computers with the general name of Up and Running Today is also being launched by Foulsham. The series has been designed specially so that all the books will allow the user to switch on a machine and do something with it immediately. The books will again be machine-specific and cover most of the popular machines on the market.
Shiva Publishing is a company which has made its name in the microcomputer market. It has produced several books on the ZX-81 and Spectrum, including Peek, Poke, Byte and RAM by Ian Stewart and Robin Jones, and has started to produce software. Stephen Bishop, Shiva editor, says:
"The software came into existence because of our computer books. Two of our authors improved on programs which they had put into their books and we started to sell them. Obviously the programs had to be better than those in the book, or no-one would bother to buy the tape. On the other hand, nobody would type-in programs from the books if they were available on cassette, so we have had to make them different."
The company has a series of educational titles which it plans to launch this month but Bishop sees its policy of producing introductory books to new machines as something with which it will stay. He says:
"Obviously this part of the market will reach saturation point at some time but we will continue to produce books for new machines as they reach the market. We have a good relationship with most manufacturers so usually we can produce books more quickly than some of the other larger publishing houses. That gives us an advantage over most other publishers in this field."
Shiva policy seems to be working well, as the company has just moved offices and doubled the number of people it employs. That is a general reflection of the publishing scene at the moment in a sellers' market.
The growth of the market will continue unless publishers start to panic and publish anything they acquire. If that becomes the case, the computer book business could take a turn for the worse so far as publishers are concerned and become a buyers' market.