The Party is Over for Books on the Web

Two publishers have approached us wanting to do a hardcopy version of (the textbook for 6.171 at MIT).  Both have lost interest when we said that we wanted to keep the text online.  To a traditional publisher the Web is a place for stuff that isn’t quite good enough to sell.  If the manuscript ever does become good enough to sell it should be made inaccessible to anyone who isn’t able to scratch up the $40.  An amusing side note is that one of the publishers who felt that it was critical to make every last dime possible from the sale of our book was Microsoft Press, whose working capital is $40 billion.

This dovetails slightly with, a quixotic effort to fight every academic journal publisher and all professional societies.  (In my own little field, for example, ACM and IEEE do their best to deny access to computer science research results to anyone who is not working at a university, a member of their orgs, or willing to pay $$$.  I.e., if you’re a kid in Africa wanting to learn something about computer science you’re not going to do it by looking at these folks’ journals on the Web.)

Economic growth comes from scientific and technical innovation.  Scientific and technical innovation depends to a large extent on innovators having access to each others’ published results.  It is thus a shame that the only way that an author can get money or tenure is by turning over his or her work to an organization whose primary goal is artificially restricting access to that work.

26 thoughts on “The Party is Over for Books on the Web

  1. This is pretty absurd, since reading online is painful. Apress sounds like an enlightened company though; they’re reprinting Paul Graham’s _On Lisp_ even though it’s already online. (I’m assuming it’s a straight reprint.)

    On, the LOWEST used price for it is $183, despite being available free online. and .uk have it going at minimum for over $300. The market has decided.

    I guess it will be entertaining when publishers finally start falling over themselves to publish these online books, praising the “genius” of the first company bold enough to do it… And many will probably lose profits executing this strategy blindly.

  2. If some big-shots who already have tenure threw their weight behind free online journals, maybe the money-grubbers would wither and die due to lack of interest.

  3. O’Reilly puts some of their stuff online, but not all. They do always have sample chapters though.

    Phil, I’m a person who enjoyed both your previous books, and also read them online.

    Care to contrast the experience today with publishers with your experience when Thinking Person’s Guide and Philip & Alex’s were published?

  4. As I think about it, I think O’Reilly would be a perfect fit for your latest book. You also might talk with Tom & Dori Smith, who are technical wiriters and may have ideas.

  5. O’Reilly has printed at least one book (“Using Samba”) that is available free online because the author wanted it that way, and probably others. Also, “New Riders Publishing” published the GNU Automake book even though it’s available free.

  6. Joe: Publishers today versus in the late 1990s? Basically it is what I said, the companies today are a lot more pessimistic and grimly determined to extract every possible dime from a project. Perhaps also in the old days the thinking was “people are so rich that they’ll be happy to pay $35 for something that is free on the Web” whereas now the belief is that consumers are scraping by and won’t pay for anything that they can theoretically get for free.

    O’Reilly is a great company, obviously, but the ideal publisher for a textbook like this would probably be a textbook publisher, i.e., a company that has a full-time sales force that goes out to college professors and presses them to considering updating their curriculum.

  7. Save that the aforementioned textbook publisher is even less likely to want to leave it online. They are also likely to charge exhorbitantly for it. Textbook publishers seem to think they can charge twice as much, because, well, they are publishing “textbooks” not just books.

  8. After reading (most) of them on line, I purchased the dead-trees versions of “P&A’ and ‘Travels with Samantha’. So, there’s a market of at least one for IAW. By the way, I’m finding IAW very useful for inspiration and examples as I teach a web course. Thank you for so many years of sharing your knowledge, ideas and experience online.

  9. Not all scientific researchers/authors are millionaires. I work for a small academic press. We sell books and journals for the simple reason that our authors want to make some money for their work. If you’ve invested a large part of your life to a research project, or some other endeavor, you are entitled to get some payback from that. Are books and published journals the best way to do that? I don’t know…I’m just saying free journals are a lame idea. Maybe you could offer them for less on the web, but who wants to read (and frequently refer back to) a computer screen. The printed format is the most comfortable for readers. It costs $$ to print & distribute. Those costs, plus author’s royalties are why you pay for books.

    Also…margins on printed journals are so low these days that its difficult to turn a profit on them. I don’t think these scientific organizations are really stealing your money by forcing you to pay for their journals.

  10. Free online journals are not a “lame idea.” There are some excellent free journals, publishing work of the best people in their fields. See, for example, the Journal of Vision (, it’s a beautiful piece of work. It only takes the people working in a field saying “enough.” Probably works best in a relatively small field like vision science at this point, i.e. those fields where you can fit basically everyone working in them into one meeting hall. But the handwriting is on the wall…

    Gee, I had no idea my copy of “On Lisp” was worth so much. I wonder what my old Lisp 1.5 manual is worth. How about a UCI Lisp Reference Manual? I wonder whether kooky gray-haired book collectors will covet old Lisp books in 300 years (of course, they’re mostly printed on crap paper and won’t be around that long unless we seal them in nitrogen or something…)

  11. Two comments:

    Professors in most disciplines receive tenure based on the quality of the journals in which they publish. So even if a NEW journal is produced, it will not have the reputation necessary to attract high-quality article submissions. Exceptions may exist, but in general they will be rebuked.

    Also, if a publisher has to generate $250K to recover their publishing/marketing expenses on a text book, they need to sell 5,000 copies at $50. If 50% of the students read the book online for free (assuming the same 5,000 student market), the book price jumps to $100. If 80% read online, price=$250. You get the picture. Rational behavior, not gouging or lack of appreciation for online books.

    Grad Assistant dude

  12. Justin: Thanks for recognizing that academics are poor and would appreciate being paid for their work. Sadly, however, academics journals tend not to pay contributors. Nor do they pay reviewers. Peers write for free, peers review for free, peers pay to see the final result. If the process were done online and the peer reviewage happened with some sort of free open-source content management system (was looking at today on behalf of a friend), the only thing that the academics would be losing would be a mailed-to-their-door hardcopy and they’d be gaining collectively whatever they were spending on subscriptions.

  13. I was under the impression that most manuscripts (books, journal, etc.) became the property of the publisher in the publishing process, thus maintaining a personal online version of the copy after hard copy publishing was illegal. I know some contracts are more lenient than others, like newspaper articles can go online after a certain grace period. For example Paul Krugman will publish his NYTimes OP/ED pieces on his personal site a couple weeks after they’ve appeared in the paper. Philip and Alex’s Guide is an unusual case, especially since it was published by Morgan Kaufman. Philip must be a great negotiator to have kept the online rights, or perhaps it was early enough in the life of the internet that the publishing house didn’t see this as a potential loss of revenue. Good luck Philip, Eve, and Andrew with this endeavor!

  14. I’m dealing right now with a small academic publisher that finds itself lucky enough to publish a high-quality math book, which I want. It is painful and tedious. Their economics are fairly obvious — they think their audience’s demand is predictable, and they optimize to meet it with little leftover inventory. Such an industry thrives on conservative thinking, not in satisfying anyone’s needs. Even when they’re not malicious.

    Kent Pitman explains why he disassociated himself from the ACM, a well-known publisher that allegedly fools authors into thinking it’s on their side.

    Completely leaving aside the malicious academic publishers that give others a bad name, there is also the fact that most are inherently conservative. Pre-internet, their markets were clearly bounded and insulated from innovation. Going outside market boundaries usually incurred extra cost.

    Grad Assistant, your pricing analysis sounds logical, but how do people use textbooks? Do they want to stare at their computer screen for hours, refusing to meet up with people at the library since they can’t take their textbooks? They can buy a notebook PC for $2000 and maybe find someone who knows the wget unix command to download the html files locally, but they can’t flip through the books, outlining or bookmarking them. No notes to stick in between pages, no flipping through a book in class or during an open-book test. Just a clunky fragile battery-drinking thing to squint at, that will hurt your neck.

    Plus, this ignores the publisher’s big competition — used book co-ops. Online and off. People who would go through the trouble to stick with the online version, wouldn’t have kept those books anyway. They’ll undercut the publisher’s price at the first opportunity.

    How many copies of Shakespeare’s works do you find at the bookstore? All kinds, pretty bindings, cheap bindings, translated, untranslated… and the meat of it is in the public domain! Are these companies nuts, or are they actually making a profit?

    I’m not even too frustrated at the math book publisher I mentioned, since the market is hurting them more than I could. Rant over.

  15. I am a member of the Project Management Institute and have a similar story.

    They have a standards document called “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge”. The online version used to be free until a couple of years ago. Thereafter, seeing the potential in selling dead trees and plastic discs, they decided to not make it available to the online public any more. Now members can access a copy that has been “secured” from the ability to print, cut and paste, annotate. Pretty much anything.

    The point I am trying to make is that professional societies are not in business to advance the cause of their profession. Only the naive would believe that. The numero uno job of professional societies is to provide continued employment to its employees and executives, and yes, to have a nice vacation in a sunny spot each winter for its board of directors.

  16. I happent to work (thanks to a series of acquisitions) for a huge academic publishing house. You would think the business would be doomed because of Internet self-publishing. However, nobody there is all that worried thanks to the phenomenon Grad Assistant pointed out. Academic reputation-making is strongly linked to journal reputation, and the conservatism of academia guarantees that the current system will change extremely slowly. The reputation of the journal is based on the quality of its content and the reputation of its editors, but our company owns the name. So the scientists can’t just jump ship to an open access internet system even if they want to.

    The moral, as if we didn’t know this by now: revolutionary technology will be resisted by entrenched institutions.

  17. Ok, I’m way behind, but I wanted to respond to the first line in the Comment section: “This is pretty absurd, since reading online is painful.”

    This is true if you’re trying to read a scifi novel or whatnot. But I *hate* reading technical manuals in print format. This is because about 90% of the time you’re hunting for one little factoid or code snippet or button explanation. Cmd-F for a keyword will beat the “try and guess if the publisher indexed this or not” pretty much every time.

    Also, apps like Preview for OS X are making online reading much more palatable. The antialiasing is actually much better than it used to be (IMHO). I even read Corey Doctorow’s (sp?) Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom online when it came out.

  18. What about self-publishing? Here’s an interesting example of self-publishing (from a non-academic field):

    Basically, the author Brian Taylor is in the process of creating a short 3D animated film called Rustboy. The book documents the film-making process. Look at the price:

  19. Phil,

    You call PLoS ” a quixotic effort to fight every academic journal publisher and all professional societies.”

    There’s a lot wrong with what you’ve written here.

    PLoS is clearly operating in opposition to most of the for-profit publishers, but its relationship to the academic societies and not-for-profit publishers is much less straightforward than you suggest. For example, PLoS exists in a kind of equilibrium with the National Academy of Sciences. The Editor-in-Chief of Proceedings of the National Academy, Nicholas Cozzarelli, also sits on the PLoS Board of Directors. Marc Kirschner, another PLoS board member, is chair of the Cell Biology Dept. at Harvard and former President of the American Society of Cell Biologists. These folks are not looking to destroy their professional societies, not least because those societies do the lobbying that keeps NIH/NSF/DOE funding flowing to their labs and institutions.

    It is not clear to what extent PLoS will succeed with its obviously ambitious goals. But the effort is neither ridiculous nor futile, as you seem to suggest.

    The physics preprint server is a highly successful model for open scientific publishing. It does not serve as the organ of record for the field, but it is where many working physicists first read the most important new papers in their fields. PLoS has less of a track record but it does have significant financial human and financial resources: an impressive Board including former NIH director and Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus, and $9M from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The Editor of their new flagship journal, PLoS Biology is Vivian Segal, who was for the last several years the Editor (the successor to founder Benjamin Lewin) of _Cell_, the journal widely regarded as the most important in modern biology. She shepherded the launch of other very successful journals including _Molecular Cell_ and _Developmental Cell_. Both have rapidly achieved impact factors on par with the most important specialist journals in their respective fields. This track record indicates that Segal knows what she’s doing.

  20. Alex: Nobody would be happier than I if PLoS succeeds! And I admire their ambition in taking on so many 150-year-old entrenched organizations at the same time. But I fear that they won’t succeed unless the average university professor develops a spine and some scruples regarding public access to his or her output (usually funded by the U.S. taxpayer, of course).

  21. Phil,

    I agree to a point. But the truth is that new journals get launched all the time and many of them succeed. _PLoS Biology_ is in some senses just one more, and In my own field(s), I can name at least eight successful launches in recent years, and _PLoS Biology_ has both the editorial staff and an editorial board of extremely high-profile scientists going for it. In addition, many of us in the trenches really want ot see it succeed, and there is every reason to think that it will.

    Now, the journal is only one part of the picture. The question is to what extent PLoS Biology will, over time, advance the broader PLoS program. For that all depends on what real advantages it offers to the scientists who publish there. I suspect and hope that what we will see is an ecosystem that looks something like software, with big proprietary houses like Elsevier and Macmillan (MS and Oracle) competing in the same space as a spectrum of more open entities. As in software, the existance of an open option will inevitably change the landscape for everyone in the space. I agree with you that the more open models are the ones that scientists and engineers should favor and promote.

    All that said, I’m about to send a manuscript to the Journal of Cell Biology, which is published by Rockefeller University Press and which has taken a stance on these questions that in some respects borders on reactionary. This is because JCB is the specialist journal most suitable for the work that I’m presenting but also because I want the approval-stamp of a top-quality journal on this particular chunk of work as I go a-hunting for a tenure-track position. So the issues you raise are very real.

  22. AW has just put Eric Raymond’s new The Art Of Unix Programming — which is very good, though rough in a couple of spots — into dead trees, buying only the commercial paper-printing rights; the book is still available on line at under a Creative Commons license.

    I intend to buy a copy, even though I have, as someone suggested above, whacked it into my laptop as wedll. Laptops get sand in them at the beach. 🙂 And they’re a pain to loan out.

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