What do you want to see in a OneNote 2007 book?

Over the past few months, I’ve been asked by some of my readers if I can recommend any good books about OneNote.

In short, the answer is a reluctant “No.”

If you do a quick search in Amazon.com’s Books section for “OneNote 2007” (include the quote marks in your search), you’ll see that the results will be underwhelming. You may remember that the previous offering for OneNote 2003 a few years ago was much more generous. So, why the sudden dearth of choices now?

While I don’t have any official data on this, I suspect that it’s just another case of everyone tightening their belts these days. Just as companies of all sizes in nearly every industry have radically consolidated their businesses and narrowed their scope to save costs, so have book publishers who used to pump out a gazillion books each year. It’s not hard to imagine why those books that are dedicated to version-specific, software-related subjects would be most affected by this. They almost always have a very limited shelf-life because of their specific focus.

Computer books are not everyone’s cup of tea. A lot of people never crack one open and prefer to read Help content online. But I’ve met a lot of people (customers, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances) who have told me that they much prefer learning about computer programs by keeping a book next to their computer, in which they can follow along in an overview of the software or in tutorial lessons that teach them about the software’s many features. In terms of training, books almost always succeed with their target audience because the information they contain is presented in a linear, sequential fashion. Help topics are meant to get you out of a bind when you’re in the middle of doing something and you don’t know how to use a certain feature.

When I started at Microsoft twelve years ago, it was still common practice for software companies to fully document a product — right down to the last toolbar button and dialog box. At Microsoft, we didn’t yet have Office Online at that point (or anything like it) and customers were unable to tell us what they thought about the usefulness of our documentation. We had no way of measuring which features (and associated Help topics) were the most popular, or which features created the biggest pain points and needed more explanation. As a result, literally everything was documented, just in case our users needed to read up on it someday. For better or for worse, those days are long gone.

One thing hasn’t changed. Companies continue to give their employees software programs to use at work, but little (if any) training is made available to help them master these tools. These days, if you can’t demonstrate a good grasp of Office software, your résumé may well be passed over. So, where’s an ordinary person supposed to get reasonably-priced, comprehensive training to get up to speed on software? Back when so-called “day one” software documentation was beginning to narrow more and more, a new industry sprung up to fill the sudden void. Technical self-help books like the Dummies series were being published to help novice users who had trouble ramping up with a software program.

Love them or hate them, these types of books have done very well in sales over the past several years. But despite their popularity, even these publications seem to have downsized their catalogs as of late. For example, to cover the various new Microsoft Office programs, book publishers seem to have combined everything into a single “Office 2007 for Dummies” or similar book in which the individual programs are discussed in much shorter fashion. That may work well for established and ubiquitous programs like Microsoft Word. But even though it may not seem like it, OneNote 2007 is only a Version 2.0 program that happens to have done incredibly well as a standalone product. Surely it deserves more comprehensive training coverage than this?

If you happen to belong to the group of people who love computer books, and you would like to finally see one dedicated to OneNote 2007, I have good news! Kathy Jacobs, one of OneNote’s most dedicated and vocal fans (who just happens to be a prominent Microsoft MVP) is planning to write a book of her own and she wants your input. In a recent blog post, Kathy outlines some of her plans for this title. Rather than copying the same repetitive approach of previously published tech books, she wants to create a book that speaks more to home users and students instead of only corporate users.

Personally, I think this is a great idea. If you can learn to master OneNote 2007 in a more natural and less formal setting and get comfortable with its features, you can easily apply those skills when using OneNote at work. By contrast, I think the opposite isn’t always true. It can be much harder to learn OneNote if you’ve only seen it discussed in work scenarios and not every home user or student can necessarily identify with these.

So, here’s your call to action. If you’ve been a consumer of technical self-help and training books and you’ve always wanted to give someone an earful about what you liked and disliked about these types of books, let Kathy know. Do you want step-by-step tutorials or broader overviews with specific case studies and scenarios? Should it cover only basic features or describe advanced techniques from expert users? Is a bound and printed book best or would you prefer a downloadable, electronic version instead?

You can share your ideas and requests for a OneNote 2007 book by leaving a comment here on my blog, by dropping me a line, or by responding directly to Kathy’s original blog post. As fellow content producers, Kathy and I will both be very interested to read your thoughts and responses!