If you’re a Ruby or Rails programmer, you know all about beta books. This is something that didn’t really exist a year or two ago, but now I almost take them for granted. Why beta books? A sudden interest in Ruby with the release of Rails, and there were very very few books about Ruby. Or Rails. In fact, no publisher who is presently offering beta books (to my knowledge) doesn’t have at least one title about Rails.

Eager programmers grew frustrated with the Rails wiki, the mailing list, the dozens of blogs, and the API documentation, with valuable knowledge increasingly scattered. And rather than wait a year or two for some books to come out on this suddenly popular subject, one publisher after another has come out with their take on the beta book concept. I have a half dozen of these at the moment, so I suppose I’m just as qualified as anyone to review some of the offerings.

The Pragmatic Programmers were the first out of the gate and arguably invented the concept of a beta book. Initially reluctant about the concept, Dave Thomas and company have embraced it wholeheartedly, and have probably 5 or 6 of their own out right now. They’ve put the most thought into the concept, too, using the beta release as a way to improve the books, something no other publisher has done. Every page of every beta book contains a link that lets you post a correction or comment, which they then review and incorporate into subsequent versions. This really leverages the community support and the resulting products are always outstanding.

O’Reilly is certainly a notable mention because of the high quality (and quantity) of their books. They already offer perhaps a dozen of what they call Rough Cut books, on very cutting-edge topics such as Ruby, Rails, AJAX, and more. Unfortunately, their offerings are seriously crippled by their integration with their Safari book program, which I consider abhorrent. It’s really bad. You can download PDFs of the Rough Cuts, but they’re all-but-illegible, an insult to the quality of their printed works. Also, they are rarely updated and often cluttered with chatter between the book’s authors.

Manning has launched what they term MEAP, or the Manning Early Access Program. So far we have picked up a copy of Ruby for Rails, a book which teaches the beauty and elegance of Ruby to programmers interested in the Rails framework but coming from different languages. I get the impression that this book is mostly written but is being sort of proofread and cleaned up, as they’re releasing a chapter every few days. Actually, it feels a lot like going to school, and being assigned two chapters a week. Which I like. The quality of this release from Manning is on par with any of their books, which are beautiful, well written, and a pleasure to read.

Surely I’m missing several publishers here, but these are the books I’ve been looking at lately. In conclusion, The Pragmatic Programmers and Manning are excellent choices for their beta books, but stay far, far away from O’Reilly Rough Cuts. It’s just not worth it.

Photo by cactusbeetroot on flickr

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