Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book review column

(I am a bit behind on posting links to my book review column- this blog post is about the Third (of four) for the year 2012, and the fourth of four has already appeared. I'll post that one later.)

My second-to-last book review column can be found here. The file pointed to does NOT include the BOOKS I NEED REVIEWED since that has changed. For that go here.

The column has an editorial! In a book review column for CS theory books?! It is an editorial against the high prices of books and the fact that many books are NOT online. These are well known problems, so what of it? I could say why the publishers are at fault, but frankly, I don't know the economics of the book market. So instead I recommend the community to do the following:

  1. Only buy books used or at a cheaper than list price (you probably already do this).
  2. If you write a book then insist that the contract allow for it to be online for free. This is not as outlandish as it sounds: (1) Blown to Bits by Abelson, Ledeen, Lewis (which I reviewed in this Column) is a book for a wide audience--- it is a popular book about computers and society. Even so, it is available online for free here. (2) Some book companies of Math and Science books allow the author to have the book free on line.
  3. When assigning a course textbook allow them to get earlier editions that are usually far far cheaper. There is no reason to insist they get the most recent edition.
Also of interest with regard to all of this- the Kistsaeung vs Wiley case: here


  1. As a book author, I disagree with your advice. Actually, I don't see how anyone could expect that a blanket statement for all authors to release their books for free makes sense.

    Sure, I did not write my book for the money. Still, it is nice to get some remuneration for all the hard work and time I invested in the project. And no, I did not work on it as part of my job; I worked on it in addition to my regular job.

    I fail to understand why books should be free, yet music, paintings, crafts, or any other human creation should not be.

  2. I'm not the author of this blog, but I'd imagine that were I the author, the argument I'd use defending the view that textbooks should be free is the same argument that I'd use to defend the concept of open access journals.

  3. Some of the books that are free on line still sell. Its a form
    of advertising the book.

    Academics really care more about getting their work out there so
    someday we may bypass publishers entirely, or have them certify
    the work. Non-academic books may have more of a problem, but
    (like music for $1.00) having a set low price might work.

    The book industry is in for some big changes.

  4. I buy printed copies of textbooks that I already have access to in PDF for two reasons: (1) A printed version is much more convenient than an online version (2) Bound books have much better readability than printed loose-leaf papers (and are often cheaper if you don't have free printing from your institution).

    Things would be different if textbooks were at all useful in Kindle/iPad versions but that just isn't close to being true. A novel read from front to back works fine but the kind of flipping back and forth one usually does with a textbook just doesn't work very well in current e-readers. (I might want to be able to look at parts of pages 32 and 53 at the same time for example.)

  5. I agree with Paul.

    At least for our generation which has the luxury of having both options, printed and pdf, it is more convenient to use printed material, particularly for textbook material where one wants to skim certain pages back and forth.

    The e-readers will never be able to beat this experience and/or convenience. Of course, it's a drag to carry books around but then again, there's always gonna be a tradeoff.

    From the cognitive perspective, i think that our brain takes material in more conveniently from printed versions rather than from a screen.

  6. Another example of a successful book that sells despite being freely available as a PDF online is Hatcher's Algebraic Topology. It is practically a standard/canonical textbook, and the paperback is good quality and sells for ~$30 IIRC. It sells like crazy despite being freely available from Hatcher's webpage. But not every book can be Hatcher.

  7. "I fail to understand why books should be free, yet music, paintings, crafts, or any other human creation should not be."

    I agree with this. However, my personal experience is that:

    1) royalties are extremely low;
    2) governmentS and bankS feel very free to take their unjustified share (I use the plural forms because my book was published by an editor in a foreign country);

    I did not write a book for the money either. But as a consequence of 1) and 2), I must have made something like $50 by selling 450 copies, which I find rather insulting given how expensive scientific books are as we all know.

    Therefore, I certainly don't intend to write another book, but if I ever do, it would make sense to make it freely available (but then what would be the point of a publisher?). And I fully support people who distribute the one I already published in PDF format on the net, or as xeroxed copies -- hell, I would even give my copies away for free if I had any to distribute.

  8. Bill is right: we write papers and books in a hope somebody will read them. Royalties for books are indeed so low that they don't count. So, why we (including me) are still sending manuscripts to publishers instead of just putting them on our homepages? I think this is the putridity system of science administration. (It counts only *published* things.) Not the lack of good will of authors! I am only happy that at least google allows to view my books almost entirely. Another way to overcome this "putridity of administration" is to put "draft" versions of books freely available on home pages. To avoid copyright issues it is enough just to make the "draft" be seen as "draft", changed layout, few missing things, etc. (Contents may be of the final version.)

    1. Care to set an example by doing this for your awesome book, ``extremal combinatorics''?

    2. Stasys -- you are the man!

  9. I have read Negri and von Plato. I may be able to write a review for it over the holidays. (I don't need the book.)

    1. YES- reviewing Negri and Vol Plato's book would be great.

      Email me directly so I can get you on the list-of-people-reviewing books
      and take the book off of the books-I-need-reviewed list.