Book Review: Drupal 6 Panels Cookbook

It's pretty rare for me to read a Drupal book that I can't recommend to anyone. So rare, in fact, that this will be the first time I've done so while reviewing books for DrupalEasy.

Before I go into details, I want to be clear about something: writing a technical book isn't easy. While I haven't written one myself (unless my Master's thesis counts), I have written my share of technical articles and I'm never surprised at how much longer it takes me than I originally imagined. This is mainly due to the difficulty to make my thoughts clear to a large group of people. Combine that with a topic as difficult as the Panels module and you've got quite a task ahead of you.

While the idea behind panels is easy to grok, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Earl Miles (merlinofchaos on, and one of the very few to score "11" on, the creator of panels, has stuffed every conceivable option and an unbelieveable amount of flexibility into the Panels suite of modules. As with many things in the Drupal community, this makes for something very powerful, but also something very time-consuming to fully understand and use - both in theory and practice.

Several books that I've reviewed in the past have included a chapter or two (at most) about Panels. Authors of these books have had the distinct advantage of not having to go into too great of detail. The author of Drupal 6 Panels Cookbook did not have this luxury - and unfortunately fell short of writing something that will be useful to the vast majority of Drupal users.

One of the first issues I had with the book was the fact that many complex ideas were introduced without adequate background information or explanation. The ideas of "variants" and "context" were both introducted very quickly and without much explanation. Anyone familiar with Panels know that these are two of the main building blocks of anything except than the most simple panels. Much of the rest of the book quickly builds upon this ideas - I have the feeling that readers new to Panels will quickly get lost.

While the concept behind a "variant" is explained - it is done so in a section about upgrading from Panels 2 to Panels 3. The vast majority of readers will most likely skip this section (as I did) since Panels 2 wasn't that widely adopted. Unfortunately, this means that most readers will miss the "variant" explanation.

The explanation of "context" is even more baffling. Instead of describing it in his own words, the author simply repeats Earl Miles' definition and explanation from Earl's Angry Donuts blog (without a reference) and then swiftly moves into how to implement it in Panels. As an experienced Drupal instructor, I've found that explaining what "context" is (to both newbies and experienced developers) in the Drupal sense requires significant discussion and often multiple examples. 

The aspect of the book that put it over the top for me is the lack of apparent understanding on the author's part on how to override node displays. Panels allow site administrators to override the default node display so that you can layout the various parts of a node (title, body, tags, comment form, etc...) using Panels instead of (or combined with) custom theming. The author instructs the user to create a new panel then use context to create the override - for each individual node. At no point does he talk about the built-in "Node add/edit form" panel that performs the same task but in a much more generic way. I can only hope that the author was working with an early alpha- or beta-version of Panels 3 that didn't include this. There are numerous cases in the book where the author describes a specific case that works for one particular node instead of the generic case that works for groups of nodes. I feel this does the reader a huge disservice.

There is also the case of where I feel the author doesn't adequately grasp the fundamental concept behind Drupal's menu system. In one example, he adds the "Navigation" menu to a Panel pane. In the very next example, he modifies the Menu setting of the Panel to cause the "Navigation" menu to disappear. While this might work as a coincidence, the Panel's Menu setting is used to place a reference to the panel in Drupal's menu system - not for displaying a particular menu in a pane.

The author does make a nice effort to discuss Drupal modules that leverage Panels (OG Panels, Advanced Profile, and Views, to name a few), but unfortunately, these chapters are built on a weak foundation of previous concepts and examples.

As I said at the top of the article - writing a technical book isn't easy. Writing a technical book about Panels (or Views, for that matter) is a pretty steep hill to climb. This might explain why this is the first book to focus solely on Panels and there is only a single book that focuses on Views (and a subset of Views at that!) I love the idea of having a single reference book that focuses on Panels, and I was hoping this would be a book that I can use and that I can recommend to other developers and clients. Unfortunately, it is not.

If you're needing to learn how to use Panels, perhaps a better bet (for now) would be to dive into the Drupal documentation, user forums, and Drupal Planet articles until something with a more solid foundation is available.

Relevant links:

Understanding Context

Understanding Variants



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Yeah, totally agreed with your assessment of this book. I'm just now working my way through Panels, and the book is proving to be more hindrance than help. What a shame, since Packt usually does a nice job.

Like most of my Drupal experience so far, it looks like the best method to learning Panels is to just jump in and start making mistakes.

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I can't rate it because I haven't read it, but I'm glad someone else is willing to give a book from Packt a negative review. Packt honestly churns out a lot of junk. It continues to amaze me how they get so much praise. They have had a couple of good books, when they use authors who have contributed a lot to the community. However, for the most part they use people who have contributed very little. Those people, not knowing a lot about Drupal, go and take most of their stuff from the handbooks and paste it verbatim into the books.

For this book, take Bhavin Patel, user mindtrades on He has very few posts, and gives him a 1. Then take the fiasco of their "Drupal 7" book. It was published in Sept, before there was even a beta release of Drupal 7. The author Dave Mercer has very little given back to Drupal, heck he doesn't he rank on certifiedtorock, and see Ill let the d.o. webmasters say it best regarding his contributions here:

This is not to say they shouldn't be contributing, it's great to write books and try to get people on board, but I don't think it's helping the Drupal community to churn out half-assed books from non-experts. Why not talk to Earl Miles if you are going to write a book on panels (merlinofchaos). If you are going to write a book on Drupal 7, why not talk to Angie Byron (webchick). Which, by the way, her book "Using Drupal" was leagues above Packt Publishing's offerings. Why not wait until there is enough material for a good book rather than churn one out right away. This especially irked me with "Drupal 6 Performance Tips" where they basically copy pasted 100 pages from the handbooks. Seriously, if you don't believe that go take a look at the book, over half of the book consists of how to install and set up Drupal. Does that sound like Performance Tips to you?

I hope going forward that the greater Drupal community starts pushing back against this exploitation.

Thanks for doing a great service to the Drupal community with this review. The book so incensed me that I even thought of beginning a blog just to review this book.

It's a shame that Packt ever allowed this book to be published. It deserves to be trashed. I have done technical writing myself and don't like to pull down the work of others, but this book is really quite bad.

Submitted by venkat-rk (not verified) on Fri, 12/03/2010 - 19:39

I have to agree with you. This book was a big disappointment.

Submitted by Mickey (not verified) on Sat, 12/04/2010 - 07:25

Spot on.

While I've found several PacktPub Drupal books quite useful, a few others - like this one - suffer from shoddy editing, both technical and writing style-wise. Also, some suffer from poor layout and typographical practice .. and plain ol' padding.

To cite 2 examples from the first pages of this book, what the heck can one make of the following from the "About the Author" section:
"Along with the feel of technology, Bhavin has a penchant for open source: a transparent development process. He strongly believes that with open
source one can reduce the speculative outlay and costs involved in software trials. Moreover, as a true wonder of open source, if something exceeds the skill of the staff, a user may buy the services of a vendor, allowing risks on peripheral expense."

or from the "Who this book is for" section:
" This book is for Drupal developers who want to enhance the attractiveness of their website and make it impressive."

These are hardly important sections of the book; nonetheless, it is hardly reassuring to read such gibberish and dross on the first few pages of a technical book.

The author's sins notwithstanding, the finger must be pointed squarely at the publisher, editors and technical reviewers. I laud Packt for publishing books on hot topics in timely fashion, but, equally, I shake my head when I get a book like this one.

Submitted by Adrian Casillas (not verified) on Sat, 12/04/2010 - 14:36

I'd tend to give the book more slack than some. Cookbooks are rarely filled with the insights and understanding needed to become a great chef. They're more intended to help you easily duplicate an expert's results than to discover all the knowledge that allowed the expert to arrive at the final destination. I would be curious to know if you feel the book fits under that concept better.

Personally I think a deeper book about panels is what I need but sometimes a recipe can guide you to where you want to go faster. Understanding how to adjust it might be a different story. I've read some cook books and few would provide insight like what spice or ingredient to use to adjust if you added too much of something else. Thats reserved for cooking school.

Agreed. It was a waste of time. Very sad, as it's the only Packt book I haven't liked.

Submitted by narcissus (not verified) on Mon, 12/06/2010 - 09:35

I saw this author at Drupal Camp Toronto 2010. He was giving a talk on Panels while at the same time promoting this book. Let's just say that I was glad I saw him in person before I considered buying the book. It was pretty obvious he wasn't a panel expert and probably didn't write a very good book. Your review has confirmed my suspicions.

Submitted by Matt Oliveira (not verified) on Tue, 12/07/2010 - 12:43

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