Wednesday, June 04, 2008

High Level Monographs- why?

I recently got two checks in the mail: (1) $500.00 honorarium for a talk I gave at a University (more than I thought it would be), and (2) $11.00 for book royalties for Bounded Queries in Recursion Theory. Perhaps I should talk more more and write less. I talk much faster than I write, so I could really rake it in.

Why do we write high level monographs that very few people will buy? Should we?
  1. We are delusional. We think that a book will sell and make us real money. (I never thought this for my book.)
  2. We want to get a certain body of knowledge out there. (Yes for my book, though I later wrote a survey gems.pdf, that did a much better job. This is partially because AFTER co-writing the book (co-author Georgia Martin) I knew what I wanted to say.
  3. We want an excuse to learn a field. (Yes for my book, and even more so for a book I am working on on van der Warden stuff. See later in this post.)
  4. We write books to help us get promotions. In terms of time spend, papers are much better for Tenure. For Full Prof books may be okay. (This is not why I wrote my book, though I think it helped my Full Prof case.)
  5. We are intrigued by the mathematics that dicates that the book cost $80.00 for you to buy, and for each copy my co-author and I split $5.00.
  6. We like the fact that if there is a mistake it's hard to correct, and once a new result is discovered its hard to insert.
Why do we go through a publisher? Note that our goals and a publishes are different. If I found out that there were illegal copies of my book in China I would be delighted!. And surprised. My publisher would not be delighted, though they may be surprised. My goal is to get the information out there. I do not care about the money (this is not altruistic--- we are talking about $11.00). Also, we can update much more easily if all is online. So why do we use publishers? They lend a certain credibility that chairman, deans, and even our colleagues recognize and respect. We need a way to certify that book is valid in some form without going through a publisher. If someone knows of such a way already in progress, please post a comment. This would be a boon to the community and should not be that hard. At least, it seems easier than the Journal problem.

Having said all this, there are two advantages to having a publisher
  1. If people refer to a particular theorem or page in the book, its bad if the book keeps changing. I don't take this seriously since the book won't change THAT much and this should not be much of a problem. Of course, you don't quite need a publisher for this, you just need discipline to not change stuff.
  2. The books may never get finished. I have 160 or so pages of a book on VDW stuff (co-authored with brilliant undegraduate Andy Parrish) that is on my website. (I am not supplying a pointer- I want to polish it some more before advertising it.) I was planning on getting it into a reasonable state and then blogging about it. But I keep wanting to add more. And its never quite finished. And I don't have a publisher telling me ``The draft is due on Nov 1, 2007'' . If I did then I would be forced to find a reasonable stop point.


  1. Books are beneficial for the community, and I think one of the current failings of the TCS community is a relative lack of (good) books. (Something that is, slowly, starting to be corrected.)

    Academics (should) write books for the same reasons we referee papers and serve on panels and program committees: because it is good for the community.

    Having said that, if I did devote the time to writing a book, I would like to be minimally compensated for my work. Others are welcome to feel differently. I'm happy when authors put their book on the web, but I'm also happy to pay for a well written book.

  2. We don't learn those skills because we don't need to learn. A few hundred years ago there wasn't any publishers but there were good books and writers. Without publishers we will learn soon or later that as Hilbert said, if you want something to be perfect it will never finish.

    >We need a way to certify that book is valid in some form without going through a publisher.

    Exactly. I think the process is already started by online journals, but it will take sometime before that happening for books. The problem is, in contrast to old days, we have much more information and classifying their value is time consuming, and we don't have enough specialists for this work. It's not just about books, but a more general phenomenon.

  3. I think that the most compelling reason to write a book is that you would like to be able to use such a book yourself. Another good reason is the realization that a body of work that you know well is not very accessible to others.

    Why official publishers? We have all been seduced at one time or other by the authority of well bound books. Wasn't there something more appealing about the nicely bound dissertation that you could show to your parents when compared with the latex/pdf file it came from? There is a feeling of permanence.

    We've been seduced by the book form but we have to value online publication more. As James Lee suggested for authors for the Encyclopedia of Algorithms more of us seduced by the book should make arrangements with publishers whereby we make our book-worthy materials online and exclusively license bound publication through the publishers in full knowledge that the online materials are already freely available. Publishers are constantly on the lookout for more content and the online versions often increase sales. (At least this works for now, though I am not sure what happens in the age of e-books like the Kindle.)

  4. (Good) Books are a huge advantage to someone who is new to a field and trying to pick up the overall situation. I think the reason to write is a unified topic, which ought to be presented as unified. If the contents of a book are just 20 random papers stapled together, I agree it should not be a book.

  5. anonymous said (incorrectly)
    A few hundred years ago there wasn't any publishers but there were good books and writers.

    A first minor quibble is that publishers is plural, wasn't is singular.

    More importantly, Gutenberg was a publisher, so certainly publishers were around as long as printing. I am not an expert in the area, but in the Roman Empire there was a brisk trade on papyrus rolls for wealthy citizens who wanted to have a copy of the latest poems of Horace in their home library. I am not sure of what was the common practice in classical China, and other non-Western written cultures, but "publishers" have been around longer than "books".

    The traditional role of Western scholarly publishing included not only some attempt of certification of correctness, but also proofreading, presentation (typesetting, graphics, bounding),
    marketing, preservation and indexing.

    Some, but certainly not all of these tasks are superfluous in the internet culture (I made my comment on grammar to illustrate one of the things we lack with informal publication.) On the other hand there are new tasks that we must address: updating urls, keeping formats current, etc. I can pick up printed books in the main library that appeared in 1750 and use them as well as our ancestors. On the other hand, can you listen to LPs or read 20-year old files?

    As editor of the online CJTCS --
    Chicago Journal of Theoretical Computer Science(

    ) I am clearly not opposed to publishing on the web, but the model of a "publisher" is not bad -- it is unclear that there is something better at the moment, at least for scholarly publication.