The trials and tribulations of writing and reviews

I guess an author wouldn’t be human if they didn’t check out the reviews of their books that are posted on major book-buying sites like I do this on an irregular basis, mostly because other tasks get in the way. Often, I learn from the reviews and appreciate the time that people take to write them and I am very thankful for the feedback.

And then a one-star review appears. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I thought that the review posted some interesting questions that deserve debate. Here’s the review as posted for Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out.

A one-star review -- aaaaghhhhh!

So, let’s look at the comments and figure out what’s valid. First, a straightforward opinion:

“I don’t really see what people think is so great about this book.”

OK. That’s fine. No problem there. Some people like my writing and some don’t. Such is life. The next point describes why the book was bought – to find out more about Exchange 2010. The writer is clearly unhappy with Microsoft’s documentation and believes that the product is complex:

“I bought this book so I wouldn’t have to do a google-search on every darn Exchange 2010 issue that pops up. And a lot do pop up. Microsoft seems to have gone out of its way to be cryptic and counter-intuitive with this product.”

I actually think that Microsoft has done a lot of work over the past decade to improve and expand the documentation for Exchange. If you compare what was available for Exchange 2003 and what’s available now for Exchange 2010 SP2, I think that any reasonable human being would say that the current body of knowledge is much better organized, complex, and extensive. However, Microsoft doesn’t provide a manual for Exchange 2010 and it’s true that many administrators have to resort to their favorite search engine to locate information about the finer points of Exchange, even after they attend training and even if they are experienced with previous versions of Exchange and indeed, previous versions of Windows Server. Blogs and articles published recently can be extraordinarily valuable in terms of uncovering the current best practice in an area and certainly add to the static (or perhaps, fixed in time) picture presented in books.

“So I bought the book, based largely on the reviews, and you know what? I still have to do a google-search on every darn Exchange 2010 issue that pops up.”

I’m not honestly surprised by this statement. The book spans some 400,000 words and 1,170 pages. Some 45,000 words were cut out of the book to make it fit the requirements of Microsoft Press (otherwise it might have been a 3 pound monster instead of the 2.2 pound svelte and slim volume that it is).  Even so, I doubt that any author would attempt to cover every single technical detail of a product that’s so deep and complex as Exchange in a single book. That’s just impossible unless you want it to be done in as a simple fly-by coverage that will force even more consultation of search engines. In addition, our knowledge of technology evolves continually. What we know today is not what we knew yesterday, or in my case, what I knew in the period to September 2010 when I wrote the book. Every day I learn some other nugget that might or might not deserve inclusion in a book like Microsoft Exchange 2010 Inside Out. And then there’s the small matter of software evolution to deal with. Since the book appeared, Microsoft has shipped Exchange 2010 SP2 and Office 365, both of which introduced new features and issues to discuss and debate. Is there any wonder why you might have to look up the net to find out the latest information?

The review continues:

“90% of the material in this book is of this variety:

“To open a file, click on the FILE menu pulldown and choose OPEN” I’m not quoting from the book, here, I’m just saying that’s the level of information that the book is chock full of: Explanations of the obvious with nothing deeper sewn in.”

I take exception here. The writer is just plain wrong. You couldn’t complete a book at the required level and get past the mandatory technical edit if the material was as described. There are going to be times when you have to describe the steps that a reader should take to accomplish a task and that occurs in the book, but I don’t think my writing style fits the common model for educational/training material for technology topics.

“Example: Try setting up a DAG based on this book only, without once going to the internet. I dare you. I double-dare you.”

Obviously I did create multiple DAGs during the writing of the book – but I also went to the Internet to consult information such as the parameters for the various cmdlets that are used, such as Add-DatabaseAvailabilityGroupServer. After all, I wanted the material to be technically accurate. But seriously, I think that any administrator worth their salt will perform due diligence before they undertake fundamental tasks such as DAG planning and deployment by seeking out whatever information and advice that they can find so that they do not repeat mistakes that have already been made by others.  I think that going to the Internet is a positive rather than a negative and would like my book to be used as a guide rather than a definitive tome.

“Also, one of the reasons I bought this book was somewhere I got the idea that it would provide a lot of information on the use of powershell cmdlets. It doesn’t. Oh, some are in there, yes. But not all in one place, not all in one list… not “all” at all.”

Sounds like a boring book to me. Microsoft has done the work to document every one of the 600+ PowerShell cmdlets used by Exchange 2010 (many of which are also available for Exchange Online in Office 365). Why would you waste time, money, and energy and kill more trees than are necessary to duplicate their work?

“Want to learn more about cmdlets? Once again, go to the internet. (Although even there, good luck.)  There might be a book that’s got them all in one place. But this is not that book.”

Absolutely. Microsoft Exchange 2010 Inside Out is not a book crammed with PowerShell cmdlets. It incorporates many examples of PowerShell cmdlets to show how the shell can be used in an intelligent manner with Exchange 2010, but if you want a deeper discussion on PowerShell, you’d be better off buying a book such as Windows PowerShell Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Scripting Microsoft’s New Command Shell or Windows PowerShell in Action, Second Edition to learn the fundamentals of how to code with PowerShell or Mike Pfeiffer’s excellent Microsoft Exchange 2010 PowerShell Cookbook to learn how to use PowerShell very effectively with Exchange 2010. Because it is focused on building solutions for real-world problems, the latter is better (in my opinion) than Ilse Van Criekinge’s Exchange Management Shell: TFM, which is more of a listing of the available PowerShell cmdlets (for Exchange 2007).

David’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s, including mine. I just think that his opinion isd probably based on an incomplete realization of the complexity involved in the process of writing technical books and the struggle to complete with the ever-updating nature of the Internet. I do think that his review illuminates some of the problems that are faced in documenting and supporting complex software products. A natural thirst for up-to-date, technically accurate, and complete information exists that is increasingly satisfied by always-on access to the Internet. Our natural inclination is to go to the Internet for the latest and greatest news, something that cannot be delivered by books, especially when dealing with a product such as Office 365 that follows a regular update cycle to introduce new features.

Books provide a wonderful way to educate and to spread knowledge, but I wonder if we’re using the last set of software products that will spawn traditional books. The future might well be in the form of electronic publications composed of small and easily updated chapters that are bought on a subscription basis. Microsoft is now working on the next major version of Exchange in development. We shall just have to see what volumes appear to describe how that software works and whether the authors who take on the challenge of describing how to use Exchange “next” can do any better a job than today’s books.

– Tony


About Tony Redmond

Lead author for the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook and writer about all aspects of the Office 365 ecosystem.
This entry was posted in Exchange 2010, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The trials and tribulations of writing and reviews

  1. Kevin Ball says:

    Looks like you’ve given more time and effort to your response than ‘David’ did to writing his review.

    When reading this post I was convicted that I agreed to review your book when we spoke at last year’s Summit – I’ve now corrected that particular omission, sorry it took so long, and hopefully this helps redress the balance a bit.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    I thought about writing this for a couple of days and then decided to do it, if only to point out how easy it is to write a bad review for a technical book without understanding the context in which books are written and the changing way that the technical community seeks for and consumes information. This trend is what is really in my mind because it’s a major influence in my thinking about whether to ever take on the challenge of writing another technical book again.


  3. Andy I says:

    I think that as always, comments made by those without a full understanding say more about the person commenting than the content of the review. Even the best restaurants/hotels get awful reviews from people that don’t understand true quality.

    Your view on the benefit of published books is really relevant in terms of the speed at which products are being rushed to market(everything crossed for the ambitious O15 plan). I wrote a technical configuration guide this week that contained more links to the Exchange Team Blog, and Technet than detailed content from me. With the profusion of low level bloggers out there, marking their own answers as solutions on certain sites, knowing which of the documents are valid create the problems faced by those in David’s position and I have sympathy for them. Books by authors such as yourself and those you mention above still have a place as a static reference point and a base introduction from trusted authorities.

    To say the Exchange Team, of all at MS, are not doing enough belies again the lack of understanding when other teams (Windows) could benefit from working in such a coherent manner. If David had seen the recently published Installation Guide Templates for various Exchange server roles I doubt he would have felt as much of a need to complain. Things like that, the MB Role Calc and BPA have made our lives so much easier as the product has become far more complex.

    The only real worry is that when (rarely these days) working offline, all those links to the lovely guides aren’t there and my incremental internet backup keeps failing! 😉

    • Good comments. I absolutely agree that the Exchange development group has done a terrific job with Internet content, their blog, guides, white papers, and tools. It’s a world of a difference from the dark old days of Exchange 2000 to Exchange 2003 when a) many system changes had to be applied with registry updates, b) there was a lack of documentation about exactly how parts of Exchange worked, and c) the documentation was strewn with errors. It’s so much easier to work today – when the Internet is available!


      • SAT says:

        I believe your commentator doesn’t fully understand the depth/complexity of the product or his own argument – of course you cannot possibly cover every item. Your publication provides an excellent additional tool for us all to reference based on someone close to the originating source. Only thing i would add here to your points on TechNet content, all of which are well made. When onsite at a customer, I have found occasional bugs as we all have…I read all the various blogs for things to watch out for, the experiences of those gone before. So the one thing I wish the Exchange Team would do on their Blog is provide a link of ‘known’ issues, items identified for bug fixes in the next RU etc. Often these are blogged about by one individual or another, but if you didn’t hit the right blog post or your search term wasn’t correct, you can spend hours and days before you find it’s actually already documented. Providing a centralized/rolling update reference point would save us all a little time and allow MS to show their diligence in providing fixes is ongoing.

  4. David Ayew says:

    I’ve just had ‘Exchange Server 2010’ handed to me by the postman (or hauled over the threshold of my door!). I don’t spend much time administering Exchange anymore (and had limited exposure when I did) but I may do in the future. However, since the Exchange 2003 book by Tony I’ve brought the 2007 book and now 2010 to keep up to date. I really like the style of writing. There are lots of Exchange books on the market so I do look out for Tony’s book when a new version of Exchange comes out. So I say keep the books up Tony – your books are really appreciated.

  5. Terrance Brennan says:

    I’m not sure which book the original person reviewed. You can not write an all encompassing book on computer technology and expect it won’t have to be updated somewhat by the time it leaves the printer; all technology is constantly changing so some of the details will as well. I like the books Tony writes because in addition to trying to cover the details of administration he also gets into the details of how the product works; that part doesn’t change nearly as much and having that background is essential to understanding how to work with the product as it continues to evolve.

  6. Sunny says:

    I have a question.
    When you buy any book on Windows/Exchange, what do you actually “buy” ?

    If you are buying a book for a list of cmdlets, I am sure Technet is a better source and the material is constantly updated. I am not sure a book will help you if that’s what you need. If you are buying a book on how to setup a DAG/CAS/HT/MRM, I am not sure if a book is the right place to look for a 10/15 step solution to your setup problem either.

    I usually buy a book to understand how a well-known author on X topic approaches the subject. I am not looking for a cmdlet or a setup guide. I am trying to find out how the author approaches the problem, whether it’s a design/setup/maintenance issue, or a new concept introduced in the recent version like RBAC/MRM.

    I am not sure if a count of 10-step recipes to do X is a measure of quality of a book. By that standard, Jerry Cochran’s Mission Critical Exchange 2003 will fail badly – but it’s an excellent book. Same goes for the original Distributed Systems Guide from Microsoft.

    Anyway, if the reader is committed to the topic, I assume they will give more than a passing glance to the links listed in Ex2010-Inside-Out. With the text + links in the book, Inside Out is as good as it gets on Exchange 2010. Also, the book doesnt have any filler material (XXX pages on What is AD / DNS on a Exchange book ?). I really dont feel like I am wasting my time after reading any page. I have this book for over a year and I still go back and re-read certain chapters.

    That, to me is a testament of a well written book.

    Tony’s book passes that test.

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