The Future of the Text Book: A Printbook, an eText and a Custom walk into a bar.

Well, it’s still Banned Books Week so I thought I’d follow up on this and talk about text books. I’ve just come from a meeting with a Leading Publishing House (LPH) who, in this fine age of diversification, have made some serious moves into electronic publishing and learning systems. This really doesn’t identify any of the major players because they’re all doing it, we just happen to have a long term relationship with LPH. My students are not the largest purchasers of text books, a fact that LPH’s agent confirmed. While Engineers buy a lot of books, Computer Scientists tend not to buy many and will, maybe, buy one serious text if they think it will be of use to them.

It’s not hard to see why. Many programming language or application books are obsolete within weeks or months, sometimes even before they arrive, and when the books cost upwards of $100 – why buy them when you can download all of the documentation for free? Unlike Humanities, where core texts can remain the same from year to year, or Engineering and Physics, where the principles are effectively established, my discipline’s principles are generally taught by exposure to languages and contextualisation in programming. There are obvious exceptions. Bentley’s Programming Pearls, almost anything by Knuth and certain key texts on algorithms or principles (hello, Dragon Book!) all deal with fundamentals and the things that don’t change from year to year – however, this is not the majority of recommended texts in CS, which tend to head towards programming language guides and manuals. With very few exceptions, any book on a specific programming language has a shelf-life and, if we are updating the course to reflect new content, then we really shouldn’t be surprised if students don’t feel the need to keep buying the new book.

Ah, the Dragon Book.

In other disciplines, the real text book is still being sold extensively and, interestingly, in Australia the eBook is generally sold in a bundle with the real text, even when we know that the student has some form of eBook reader. The model appears to be “work at home from the book and have the eCopy for skimming at Uni”. Both of these forms are still the text book and, if we’re talking about the text book, it appears to be that if students see the need, they’ll buy it. However, the price is becoming more and more important. Is there a widespread model where students can only buy the chapters they need, much as you can buy individual songs from the iTunes Store, and wait until later to see if they want to buy the whole thing? Well, yes, but it’s not widespread in the text book world and, as far as LPH is concerned, it’s not something that they do. Yet.

What is interesting is the growing market in textbook mash-ups. It is now possible to pick a selection of chapters from a range of a publisher’s offerings, add some of your own content, get it checked for copyright issues and then *voila* you have your own custom printed book with only the chapters that you need. All thriller, no filler. Of course, any costs involved in this, especially costly copyright issues, get passed on to the people who buy it. (The students.) This, fairly obviously, restricts the mash-ups to easy to mash materials – books only from one publisher where the IP issues are sorted, open-source images and the like. One problem that surfaces occasionally are people who put their own work in to be included in such a custom run and it turns out that some of the content is not actually original. This can be an oversight and even due to inheritability sometimes. Suppose that Person A created a course from a text, B inherited the course and made some changes based on the course, then continued to change it over the years. It’s a Boat of Theseus problem because the final work is the work of A and B but probably retains enough of the original text source to cause copyright issues when combined back into a new book. Copyright issues can often be overcome but it increases costs and, as stated, that costs the student more.

Given how expensive text books (still) are and that the custom market still operates at a high-ish price point, I’m still waiting for one of the LPHs to take the radical step of providing books at a price point that makes them effectively irresistible. Look at the Orange Penguin reprints, which I do often because I own a million of them, they cost $10 (cheaper in a bundle) and you can pick them up anywhere. Yes, there is an amelioration of the editing costs because these are all reprints of previous versions. Yes, there are no cover arts costs and they are using relatively mainline stock for the printing. But, hang on, isn’t this exactly what we can do in the custom sense, if we stick to jamming together existing chapters? Yet my early researches indicate that there is no large market of custom textbooks that are anywhere near this cost.

I’m going to put up the naïve and relatively ignorant flags here as I’m sure that LPH actuaries have been all over this so, rather than say “Surely…” (and have to kick myself), let me make this a wish.

“I wish that I could assemble a useful book for my students from key chapters of available works and, with low presentation costs, get a book together for under $40 that really nailed the content required for a year level.”  I’d be even happier if that $40 was $20. Or even free. There are some seriously successful free text book initiatives but, as always, there is that spectre of reimbursement for the effort expended by the author. I’m certainly not advocating doing authors out of their entitlements but I am wondering how we can do that and, with minimal overhead, make all of these books as useful and widespread as they need to be. 

There are some books and sets of chapters that I’d love my students to have, while respecting the author’s right to receive their entitlements for the work and setting a fair price. To be honest, it really seems like I’m expecting too much. What do you think?

E-Library: Electronic or Ephemeral?

My technical and professional library is a strange beast. Part Computer Science, part graphic design, part fiction, it’s made up of new books, books I had in Uni, books that I have inherited from other academics and books that I salvaged from libraries before they disappeared. But, of course, there is a new and growing section of my library, which you can’t see on the shelves – my E-Library. I realised that, this week, I now have started an E-Library collection that grows on a monthly basis as I add more content. I shall use the term eBooks for the rest of this post, but I’m not referring to a specific format – it’s just the digitised and electronically transferable image of a book that I’m concerned with.

Why am I buying eBooks? Because they arrive within minutes. I talk about this from a student perspective in tomorrow’s main post but, for me, I buy physical+electronic where I can because I will end up with a copy that I can use right now and a copy that I can add to my physical library.

When I am gone, or when I retire, my professional library will be stripped for those things that will be kept, by me or my wife, and the rest will go out into the corridor, onto a table, for the rest of my colleagues and students to pick through. The remainder will probably be offered to a school, as the main library is not really interested in my 1950s Engineering texts. But what of texts that only exist in the Ephemeral Library? There are so many questions about this form of my library:

  1. Will I even be able to transfer all of my books? I buy mostly from suppliers who allow me to legitimately transfer the electronic copies but there are some of my books that are locked to my identity or my machine.
  2. How will I advertise them? Put up a webpage with a download link? That immediately breaches most publishers restrictions. Asking people to register their interest and then provide it to them takes effort and, most likely, means that it will be a low priority.
  3. Will the formats that I am buying today be a working format in 30 years time? We have a tendency to think in the now, forgetting that 78s are gone, 8-track is gone, cassette is mostly gone and vinyl is more fringe oriented than mainstream these days. Beta is buried deep in the ground with VHS buried just above it. The physical formats are being obliterated in the face of the relentless march of digitised containers but, remember, standards change and, worse, standards evolve within the standards themselves. At some stage BluRay X will break BluRay 1.2, most likely. In the same way, PDF 22 may lose the ability to handle earlier versions. Backwards compatibility is a grand goal but, time and again, we have eventually abandoned it on the argument that it is no longer necessary.
  4. Will I maintain the burden of updating my media to make sure that 3 doesn’t happen? How much spare time do you have?
  5. Finally, what happens when I die? I don’t think I’m allowed to transfer my iTunes account details to my wife – so over 260 songs will, at some stage, disappear from our shared iPods. The same for my library. Suddenly, books disappear. Possibly books that have not been published for years and will never be published again. Gutenberg dies and all of his Bibles spontaneously combust? Not the most robust model.

Obviously, part of the whole management process that will have to be recognised is the difference between renting, leasing and owning a digital property. If we are actually going to own things, and most people think that they own things but would be surprised if they read the fine print, we have to come up with a form of identity management that allows transfer of property to occur across legally recognisable lines. One can only hope that we’ve sorted out the simple things like child rearing, marriage, hospital visitation and social security access before we attempt to push through a global, trans-corportate, persistent rights management system that allows us to keep our collections together, even after we die.