Friday, January 20, 2006

Free Electronic Editions of New Collaborative Books

I am on vacation next week and I've lined up Bill Gasarch as a guest Blogger in my absence. But today we have a guest post from Kamal Jain. This is a long post but well worth reading through.

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.

  1. Springer does the marketing which sells the book.
  2. Springer provides the brand name which sells the book.
  3. Springer provides the brand name which makes the line in our resume about the book a bit bolder.
  4. Springer prints and binds the book, for which the buyer pays.
  5. 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.
We give to Springer
  1. 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.
  2. Word of mouth marketing.
  3. Use our own funds for other expenses.
  4. Our university or companies resources.
What are the possible deals we could have:
  1. 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.
  2. Reinhard Diestel model. Provides free searchable and hyperlinked electronic edition. A user can't conveniently print the pages.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Note that in all the above 4 options Springer is still getting something for free — the content. So it still is a good deal for Springer. 1. is the best deal for Springer. The only reason Springer could insist on 1. is because we do not insist with unity (Reinhard probably insisted very hard). If we insist then we could possibly get them to agree on 4. It is an irony that this book is about Game Theory, and the game theory principles are not used to get a better deal. Mohammad suggested that even if Springer wins on getting the first deal, we could still put our chapters on our webpages. This does not make sense because of three reasons. First, there are going to be cross-references. Second, the chapters together provide a synergy and that's the reason we all agreed to put our chapters together. Third, if we could all put chapters on our webpages then why can't we compile them together and put on a single webpage. A book is more than the sum of its chapters. A question which is typically raised about free electronic version is the following. If people could download the book for free then why would they buy from Springer? I think people would still buy, libraries would buy, professors would buy and anybody who needs to read a significant part of the book would buy. Still, for a moment let us assume that people won't buy the paper book in the presence of a free electronic version. In this case, it simply means people want only the free electronic version and not the paid paper version. That is having only the electronic version is what everybody desires. Then, under this assumption, why even deal with Springer?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. We publish only the electronic version.
What role would Springer play?
  1. Springer does the marketing. We will discuss this later to see how we could do the marketing ourselves.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
So the only value Springer provides is marketing. There are various ways we could do that too.
  1. We create a pamphlet and a poster which we distribute to the program chair of various conferences.
  2. 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.
  3. Let Citeseer crawl the book, let Google crawl the book, let us upload it on Wikipedia.
  4. 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.
One question which one could raise is that many people in the world still live on the other side of the digital divide. But such people do not have $40 bucks either. The solution for them is to have a publisher in India or China to publish this book and sells to these people.

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.


  1. This is clearly a worthwhile and timely issue for our community. Through the efforts of authors, the prices of books, some of which were clearly atrocious, are becoming more reasonable. But the web provides an altogether different mecahnism to make this happen. Looking forward to a useful discussion on Kamal's point.

  2. What about the format that O'Reilly is using on some of its books, where they sell a hard copy, but the book is also available on-line for free. I don't think that most authors would care about getting royalties, and then the publisher can charge whatever they feel like, but of course, since there is an electronic version, it means that they can not charge too much. An example of such a book is the Subversion Manual. Another advantage is that the comunity (or authors) can post updates to the book at any time.

  3. As an example of the feasibility of this approach, Victor Shoup has written a book on computational number theory that is published by Cambridge University press and is freely available on the web, under a creative commons license:

    (The book, by the way is excellent.)

  4. A post entitled "are you a Luddite" showed up (at least on the RSS feed) but has now disappear. What happened to it?

  5. (Sorry this is off topic)
    This is Bill Gasarch, next weeks guest-blogger.
    Lance and I were testing out the software
    used to post stuff, so the post on
    ARE YOU A LUDDITE was their briefly.
    It will be appear sometime next week
    and when it does it will surprise you.
    Hence it cannot be on Friday, since
    thursday night you'll know it will be
    Friday. It can't be thursday since
    Wed night you'll know... So
    I can't post it and surprise you.
    Imagine your surprise when I post it.
    (This is the paradox of

    bill gasarch

  6. This doesn't address the overall issue, but can't you negotiate separately on your chapter? If the other editors/contributors don't care enough to try to force the issue of having the whole book available for free, you can always ask Springer to at least agree that you can put your chapter on the web. I bet they'd agree (heck, they'd even benefit from effectively getting free online advertising for the rest of the book).

  7. I think that the "get the book published in paper by a relatively unknown publisher, and allow free distribution of the book over the web" is a great idea. All the work you have to do to get the book popular is word-of-mouth recommendations for the first one or two years, and have the book used as a text in a course. Once the word spreads that the book is good, it will automatically become popular.

    A good example of this model is the "Handbook of Applied Cryptography" (it's too much to call it a textbook, but it is a popular reference) which is freely available off the web, but is pubished in paper by a relatively unknown publisher (CRC press, IIRC)

  8. Why work through a traditional publisher at all? See You can create an open-access book, and hard copies can be printed on demand.

  9. I don't understand your complaining: no one is holding a gun to your head forcing you to write a book (or a chapter). If you want to write a chapter and post it on your web page, go ahead (or, follow the suggestions above and use a smaller publishing house)! Why do you need to change the way Springer and other authors are doing things?!

    Also, unless (or until) you understand the publishers' business model, all your speculation is meaningless. I doubt they are making tons of profit on most of the books we are talking about here (which serve a very small audience).

    Finally, I, for one, do not want "the community" setting up any "guidelines" for how books should be published. We have options (you can publish with a more reputable company and give up free electronic copies, or go with a less reputable company, or just forgo the whole process altogether and put it on your webpage) so let the authors choose what they like and the market will decide.

  10. CRS Press is not a "relatively unknown" publisher. They are a major publisher of technical books in engineering, math, and the physical sciences (and, to a lesser extent, CS).

  11. This is a response to "I don't understand your complaining" comment.

    Let me explain you using a simple game between 39 agents.

    Each agent has the following two strategies:

    1. Insist on a free electronic edition too.
    2. Do not insist. Go with the paper edition only.

    Outcome: If 20 or more agents are okay with paper only edition then the paper only edition is published with the chapters from the agents who are okay with the paper only edition. Otherwise editors go back to the publisher and negotiate a free electronic edition.

    Payoff matrix:

    1. If paper edition is published then each agent whose chapter is published get a utility of 1 and others get 0.
    (1 represent the satisfaction that so many people are able to read the chapter)

    2. If paper edition together with a free electronic edition is published then agents whose chapter is published get a utility of 2 and others get 0.

    There are only two deterministic Nash Equilibira here.

    1. Book with paper only edition is published with all the 39 chapters. Everybody derives a utility of 1.

    2. Book with free electronic edition is published with all the 39 chapters. Everybody derives a utility of 2.

    Both are Nash equilibria solutions and editors could have chosen either one. If editors have chosen the first one, then no single author could gain by deviating indepedently (that is the definition of the Nash equilibirum!) So this explains that I could not have deviated.

    Further, there is a Nash equilibirum which is clearly a less optimal equilibria. If for some reason editors choose this less optimal equilibria then what could agents do?

    The agents could form a coalition, i.e., they make a group decision. Which I am calling "unspoken guidelines". By "unspoken", I mean no body makes a hard and fast rule but somehow a common understanding develops that at least a free electronic edition is expected, at least for the books written by the community.

    Because these 39 agents are among the area experts of the community. If somebody is writing the whole book herself/himself than she/he could take whatever path. But if most of the community would be involved in writing the book then the editors are just leading the community towards the creation of the book. All I want is that the editors lead us to the optimal path. Or at least tell us why the optimal path is not optimal or why we could no go on the optimal path.

    This comment could be summarized by the following two concepts (one of them is invented by two of the editors).

    "The price of anarchy of the above game is 2 but the price of stability is 1."

  12. Kamal's point is a simple: Collectively, we have much more leverage than we have been using. As a community, we have the power for authors to insist on having free electronic editions for books that they produce and, if we do so, the entire community will benefit.

    Springer and similar companies will publish these books so long as libraries will buy them because that is the real profit center. I don't believe that we need to compromise even when dealing with these major publishers.

    On a related note, the usual agreement for publishing in Springer LNCS conference proceedings has become worse recently. It now is more explicitly restrictive and makes explicit the consideration Springer gives for its copyright transfer (discounts, etc) which makes the transfer much more easily enforceable. I have begun FAX-ing an edited version of this agreement that only includes a "license to publish and re-publish" that has no consideration in it and my papers have still been published. I am not even giving up anything on the discount since a single earlier paper is enough for me to qualify as a Springer author.

  13. Hi Kamal, I think you have made a good point. A suboptimal solution is for the authors to post their chapter on their personal homepage. The only Nash equilibria in this setting (if feasible) is for each author to post.

  14. Anonymous -2, Can you share the specific edits you make on a typical license agreement? Maybe everybody should be doing that.

  15. I like Kamal's suggestion to insist on having a free electronic version of our books. I don't like solutions that would only provide an electronic version (and no paper version), but as Kamal said, if we consider smaller publishers, we should be able to make them accept our conditions. This way we will set a standard that big publishers will also have to accept in the future.

    We might also be able to count on organizations like ACM to provide publishing services for such books, in the same way that they provide cheaper journals like TALG.

  16. I thought it was about time a publisher joined this discussion. Here are some not very organized thoughts:

    One of the major things the publishers are offering you that you cannot get for yourselves is the library market. Libraries are not going to buy a lot of books from Lulu. However, the library market for print books is not a particularly lucrative one. There are only a few hundred libraries that can be counted on to buy an academic computer science book. At a $40 price, that's not a lot of money -- expecially when you consider that those books are sold indirectly through wholesalers, who buy them at an average discount of 30% and do the libraries' cataloguing for them.
    The only segment of the library budget that's growing is the budget for electronic products, thus all us publishers are making use of electronic rights to license the books to electronic collections such as ebrary and NetLibrary. For some smaller libraries (not among the few hundred mentioned above), this makes a much larger collection of books available to their readers than they could otherwise afford to put on their shelves, and for all libraries, it makes books cross-searchable in a convenient way.

    As a previous poster noted, we have done some experimenting with this and have found that when books remain freely available on the web (such as Victor Shoup's book), the electronic libraries are less likely to take these books into their own collections. My own opinion is that as more and more books become available through author web pages, publishers and libraries are going to have to adapt to that and then we'll all wonder why we made such a fuss about it. But old habits die hard...

    We have also found that when a book has been on the web for a while and then a print version comes out, the web version has usually been good marketing: readers of the web version often are among the first customers for the book, as long as it's reasonably priced and fairly long. However, that web site audience is usually also a pretty narrow one; the world is not as small as you might think. So that's another thing a publisher offers you: marketing outside your own community.

    As far as Springer LNCS is concerned, Springer is offering you a library presence, a fast and convenient way to produce proceedings for your meetings, and a credit line for your CV (these books are specialized enough that broader marketing isn't an issue). So you have to weigh the value of that service against the copyright restrictions. When the articles are available for free download, then individuals don't bother to buy the book. This is a different case from a fairly long, single author book like Shoup's. For most purposes, downloads of articles are more convenient than looking things up in the proceedings volume. So then you get into the cycle of fewer customers (individuals), leading to higher prices, leading to fewer customers (libraries)... In other words, of course Springer is trying to make money, but they're not just being bloody-minded in asking you not to post the articles for free. They're also trying to keep prices within the library budgets while covering the cost of that efficient production service.

    You do all have options in the kinds of deals you make and the publishers you choose. For example, it surprises me how often people complain about the price of textbooks but don't bargain on this point. And I've never understood why you don't routinely try to retain the rights to your figures in the copyright release forms for journals -- surely you reuse those all the time? On the other hand, you should also be prepared, when you say "take it or leave it" about a free electronic version that sometimes the publishers will just leave it.

    BTW, I highly doubt that O'Reilly authors are not interested in money.

    Lauren Cowles, Senior Editor, Mathematics and Computer Science, Cambridge University Press