This post is prompted by recent development and discussions on electronic publishing, which themselves are prompted by book scanning initiative of Google and Open Content Alliance. Although, I am not talking about paper books being converted into electronic format, I like the idea of having the books available in a searchable electronic format. And certainly this is a must have feature for any newly written book.
Recently, I got two invitations to write for books. The first was to write a book on Network Coding. I felt that I was not the best person so I did not accept. If I had, then I would have insisted on a free electronic copy. Second, I got an invitation to co-write a chapter on Cost Sharing with Mohammad Mahdian for a book, Algorithmic Game Theory, edited by, Noam Nisan, Tim Roughgarden, Eva Tardos and Vijay Vazirani. I agreed to this because I felt that such a book is a great idea and I could make a positive contribution. My selfish motive was to spread knowledge of the subject to which I have contributed. And, I guess that was also the expected motive of the other contributors. This I could say because the explicit incentive offered in the invitation to the contributors was that the editors (originally Eva and Vijay only) have made an excellent deal with a publisher, Springer Verlag. The deal they have is $40 for up to six hundred pages. I am not sure whether it is a paper back or hard-cover. But that was not my focus anyway. My focus is the absence of any electronic publishing component in the deal. Because of that, I felt this is not such a good deal in today's electronic age. On one side we are talking about scanning paper books, starting electronic journals, writing wikis, blogs and on the other we do not even make a deal on electronic publishing of newly written books. I wrote an email back to the editors that I do not think Springer deal is a good one. I was hoping to get back a response and start a discussion with them on this, which IMO, was obligatory for them because I point blank disagreed with the incentive they explicitly offered. At this point I am assuming that there is no electronic publishing agreement with the publisher. This was the background.
Now, I realize that this is not something to discuss with the editors in private. This is an important issue which is likely to reoccur in other situations. So I requested this space from Lance so that I could discuss with the whole community. Following are some of my random thoughts and I like to hear everybody's thoughts too, random or not :-) Please press the comment button and put your thoughts in writing so that Springer and other publishers would know what we want from them.
There are at least two kinds of books. First kind, written by individual authors. Second kind, written collaboratively by the community like the above proposed Algorithmic Game Theory. Individual authors write books for various reasons and it is up to them what kind of deal they lock with the publishers. The books written by a community has a predetermined goal and that is to spread the knowledge of the subject. It is not up to one or two persons to lock whatever deal they think is great. So the community must form unspoken guidelines to facilitate the negotiation between editors and publishers. These unspoken guidelines must include minimum desires of the community. Such a set of guidelines would have resolved the prisoner's dilemma for me. I did not like the absence of electronic publishing agreement. If I decline the invitation then the book still has gone ahead without my contribution and if I accept the invitation, which I did, then I know that my efforts are not optimally used. But in case it were a common expectation from the editors to negotiate an electronic publishing agreement, then I know that I could reject the invitation because others invitee would also do the same, thereby insisting that the editors go back to the publisher and make an electronic publishing agreement. One would ask why publishers have any electronic publishing agreement. For information, Reinhard Diestel's book, Graph Theory, has a free searchable and hyperlinked electronic edition and further this book is published by Springer Verlag. Let us first discuss what Springer provides to us and what we provide to Springer. Then we should discuss whether we are getting the optimal deal.
- Springer does the marketing which sells the book.
- Springer provides the brand name which sells the book.
- Springer provides the brand name which makes the line in our resume about the book a bit bolder.
- Springer prints and binds the book, for which the buyer pays.
- Springer gave peanut financial support ($2000) to pay to students to draw pictures. This fund is for those contributors who do not have their own funds.
- Free content and transfer copyright so that they can legally publish the content. I am assuming there is no royalties involved in a community written book.
- Word of mouth marketing.
- Use our own funds for other expenses.
- Our university or companies resources.
- Status Quo. Springer publishes the book and sells them. Takes the copyright and does not provide free electronic copy. In future, if Springer wants, makes more money from electronic copy too.
- Reinhard Diestel model. Provides free searchable and hyperlinked electronic edition. A user can't conveniently print the pages.
- Springer publishes the book and sells them. Takes an exclusive time bound license, say one year. After one year, Springer still keeps the exclusive license on the paper publishing, but we could put the free electronic copies on our webpages.
- Springer publishes the book and sells them. Takes the exclusive right to publish the book in paper format — that's all it needs to legally publish the book. We keep all other rights. We put the book in electronic format on our webpages or at some cheap servers.
Because, as mentioned above, Springer provides some value. We could still avoid Springer and create these values ourselves. We anyway will be spending couple of thousand hours on this book (my experience on working with Vijay is that it takes at least few hours per page). There are at least two ways to avoid Springer.
- We go to a small publisher and get the book published. Transfer the exclusive right to publish the book in paper format. We keep all other rights.
- We publish only the electronic version.
- Springer does the marketing. We will discuss this later to see how we could do the marketing ourselves.
- Springer provides the brand name to sell the book. I think the brand name of the editors and the authors is much more in this case. This is also the case with any good book written by a community.
- Springer provides the brand name to make the line related to this book in our resume a bit bolder. First, most authors contributing in the book already have enough lines in their resume that they can do with one fewer line. Second, this line is minor for a community written book. Each person contributes a chapter, may be equivalent to writing one or two journal papers.
- Springer prints and binds the book. I do not know how much it costs to print and bind the book. "The Search" by John Battelle is a three hundred page hard-bound book and available at 16 bucks at Amazon. Well The Search probably will sell more than this technical book. But it shows that $40 for Algorithmic Game Theory could very well be an optimum profit making point for Springer rather than a favor as they want to portray to us. A small publisher would be able to beat that even in the presence of competing free electronic version.
- The last is the peanut financial support. I am sure we could arrange $2000 bucks without Springer. Even if we fail, grad student would be happy to contribute this for a credit. If I do not personally have time to draw pictures, then I do not mind having a co-author who does that for me. A picture is worth thousand words. If I am claiming authorship for writing thousand words then anybody who draws pictures deserves the equal credit.
- We create a pamphlet and a poster which we distribute to the program chair of various conferences.
- Put the electronic version at one place. Let each of the contributor links to it. If there are fifty links from places like, Cornell, Georgia Tech, Stanford then on searches related to the keyword in the book, the book should show up at the top.
- Let Citeseer crawl the book, let Google crawl the book, let us upload it on Wikipedia.
- Even if it is not sufficient then we could market for money via search engine paid listing. We could raise the money by having only one or two ads in the book, let us say in the content and index pages. If we have an electronic version we could even have Google Adsense ads at the book download page. Certainly Google Adsense would put ads for academic people. In this case, if we are anyway buying something we could buy through those ads.
Pre-bottom line is we give more to Springer than it is giving back in return. Game theoretically it is not a fair solution and we could do better. I am not sure whether there is any electronic publishing deal which the editors of this book have with the publisher, if they had then they probably would have told me. In any case this posting is about many others future books which will be written co-operatively. Bottom line is, any book which is not written for money must be available free of charge in an electronic format.