Monthly Archives: March 2011

The future of textbooks. Part 4: Author-led publishing

In my final post on this topic, I put forward my view that the textbook publishing industry, unless it changes radically and quickly, doesn’t have a future. But I also think that we still need textbooks so how will these be ‘published’ and brought to the attention of potential users. In this post, I’ll discuss two possibilities

Open source textbooks

The idea of open-source textbooks is an attractive one.  Like open-source software, the ‘community’ would cooperate to create a textbook that would evolve and develop as people contributed to it. Like open source software, this could not be a free for all but there would have to be some ‘editorial collective’ that decided on which changes to accept and which established the general structure of the book. The Open Text Book repository has a number of open source texts but no indication of how many users there are.  The Connexions project encourages authors to submit modules which can then be assembled into ‘book’, tailored for a particular course.

I’d like to write a textbook on systems engineering, have quite a lot of material but have major gaps in my knowledge and no time to fill these in. So, I have wondered about an open source approach.  But having looked at the topics I understand from existing sites, the quality is not up to my standards and the danger is that with an open-source text I would spend more time moderating contributions than actually learning about and writing the material.

The distinction between open-source software and books is that books are not that large and one individual can produce a book in a reasonable time. I would never say that open-source is an unworkable approach – but I doubt if it will become the normal model for textbook production.

Author-led publishing

Publishers currently support book production, printing, distribution and marketing.  They also supposedly have some quality control functions which some publishers take seriously. Others, such as Springer, in my experience don’t even seem to read the camera-ready texts submitted to them.

Printing and distribution aren’t required for e-books. Software to support production is getting better and better.  Production support such as copyediting is mostly done by freelancers. This leaves marketing which, in my opinion, most publishers don’t do particularly well.

So, why shouldn’t authors do it themselves. They produce the books and take all of the revenue from them – and pay people to do the work.  Currently, authors get well under 10% of the cover price of a textbook – let’s guess £2 for a £40 text. Now sell it at £20 – authors get 10 times their current income. Costs will probably be at least 60% -70% of this – but authors are better off and more importantly are in control.

Of course, there are two arguments against this – firstly, authors are not interested in getting involved – they simply want to hand over their book and let someone else take care of everything. Secondly, it changes the balance of risk – from the publisher to the author. The publisher rather than the author takes the risk that the income from the book will not cover the costs.

The first of these objections is not really a problem. The publishing industry is increasingly a freelance industry anyway and there are lots of people with publishing experience who could set themselves up as micropublishers. We could also see the revival of individual university presses, funded by authors in a university. They key difference between this and the current publishing model is control – authors own their books and pay as required for services.

The second objection is very valid in a world where costs are dominated by printing and distribution. However, with e-books, the absolute costs of production are very small – authors may chose to get professional help with design, copy-editing, etc. but if they expect their sales to be relatively low then they may simply do it themselves. Equally, they may rely on personal contacts and social media for marketing.  For books where sales are likely to be higher, authors may be willing to take more risks and spend more up-front on their book.

Of course, with e-books, a hybrid approach is possible. Low initial investment but if sales generate sufficient revenue, then re-investment in the design, editing and marketing is possible.

In conclusion, the future of textbooks is likely to be one where there is much greater diversity than there is at the moment. I am convinced that e-books will dominate with print-on-demand if paper copies are required. I think it likely that some major publishers will continue to publish texts that sell in relatively large numbers. However, the future for publishers who currently charge high prices for specialized texts, sold in relatively small quantities looks bleak. And, for sure, current high textbook prices cannot be maintained. Prices will definitely fall as authors take control and cut out the middle man.  Those publishers who wish to continue in existence will have to radically rethink their processes to reduce overheads dramatically otherwise they will simply be unable to compete.

Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete

Part 2: E-textbooks

Part 3: Textbook publishing

Part 4: Author-led publishing


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The future of textbooks. Part 3: Textbook publishing

Textbook publishers don’t have a good reputation. They are seen to be avaricious in setting high prices for textbooks, exploitative in bringing out unwanted new editions and (by some authors) uncommunicative and unhelpful.

Certainly, textbook prices have risen at a significantly higher rate than inflation in general and they are unaffordable by many students. This results in fewer sales and so publishers raise prices to maintain their revenue – thus perpetuating the vicious circle.

Yet, in reality – textbook publishing is not outrageously profitable; authors don’t make lots of money from their books and bookstores are closing.  Something is seriously wrong in the system. It is fairly obvious to me that the publishing industry have to look at the way they do things and find ways of doing them differently and much more cheaply.

From an external perspective, it seems to me that part of the problem is that very little has fundamentally changed in book production and marketing in the last 20 years. Obviously manuscripts are no longer rekeyed and are emailed rather than posted to the publisher (although my most recent contract had a clause about submitting a double-spaced single sided copy on paper – which I ignored). Apart from that the processes in producing the 9th edition of my book were very little different from those in producing the 1st edition in 1982.

There is enormous scope here for more agile, technology-enabled processes that could reduce the time from delivery to the bookshop by at least 50%.  Instead of a set of sequential activities, creating a decent collaborative environment for book production could make everyone’s like easier. But, if we have a decent environment, authors can work directly with freelance editors, designers and typesetters. Recommendation systems mean that authors can tell each other about good people to work with and the publisher middleman can be dispensed with.

But what about the publisher’s role in quality assurance.  Getting a reputable publishers to produce and print your book means you’ll end up with a high-quality product. Wishful thinking. Some publishers who specialize in small print runs, such as Springer, ask authors to produce camera-ready pages then they never read what’s produced before printing. The quality is dreadful. Some publishers do employ designers but the general standard of textbook design (even books that sell thousands of copies) is so bad that it’s difficult to imagine that anyone with even a modicum of design literacy was involved. Not a great value add from publishers here.

Maybe the problem is printing, inventory management and distribution. These are certainly expensive but they will disappear when we move to e-books.  So, another, currently important function of publishers will disappear.

What does this leave – marketing and sales. Some publishers (e.g. Addison Wesley) make a decent effort here but, like all others, continue to delude themselves that people read email. I haven’t had a marketing email from publishers for years as my spam filters pick them up and junk them. Other publishers are just awful at marketing and seem to make no effort whatsoever.

Certainly, there’s a real need for marketing and sales and maybe this one reason that some publishers will survive.  But maybe more specialist marketing agencies, working with authors and using modern tools could do a better job.

So, is there a future for textbook publishers? Unless things change quite quickly and they take on board that the world has changed, I really doubt it.  Maybe a small number of publishers who focus on high-volume texts will survive – but I predict that most of the current textbook publishing companies won’t be around in 10 years time.

Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete

Part 2: E-textbooks

Part 3: Textbook publishing

Part 4: Author-led publishing


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Abstraction and complexity

I gave a talk recently about complex systems engineering at Stirling University where I discussed my notions that software engineering is essentially reductionist and we need to rethink software engineering approaches to cope with the complex systems that we are now building. I was challenged by a questioner who claimed that abstraction was an effective way to deal with complexity and I’m afraid that I dismissed this rather glibly without any real rationale of why it was inappropriate.

I have now thought about this and I now think that I can present a better rationale of why abstraction is ineffective for complexity management. In a nutshell, complexity arises because of the interactions between the elements of a system (see my blog post on complexity). Systems are inherently complex when these interactions are dynamic and where they change their nature over time and in response to environmental stimuli. Complicated systems are ones where there are many elements, perhaps of different types and where elements may have many distinct characteristics but where the relationships between these elements are static.  For example, a topographic map is complicated but it is not complex.

Abstraction, however, is a mechanism for dealing with diversity in the system elements where abstractions represent the essential (for that system) characteristics of a collection of elements. Therefore, if we are building a transport model, we may have an abstraction ‘car’ which has characteristics of size and speed – we don’t care about marque, colour, etc. This is an absolutely essential mechanism for understanding and reasoning about systems and for helping us create software – but it helps us deal with complicated not complex systems.


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The future of textbooks. Part 2: E-textbooks

The current notion of a textbook as a sequentially presented, body of knowledge has been around for more than 100 years.  It will continue for some time yet but I take it for granted that the benefits of having an electronic, internet-enabled book are simply so great that paper books will, in the next 10 years, be supplanted by electronic versions.

What will this mean for textbooks – obviously it will change the distribution channel and it will offer textbook authors new opportunities to provide supplementary material alongside the principal text. Mike Hendrickson in his blog post has suggested that publishers may wish to hire producers to support their operations with books evolving into multimedia productions.

Well, this might happen for multi-million selling blockbusters but won’t happen for textbooks.  As anyone who has tried it knows, the effort and skills involved in producing high-quality video are do great that textbook authors simply don’t have the background or ability to do this. It’s hard enough to produce good, meaningful diagrams (which is why many textbooks have few diagrams) let alone multi-media productions alongside the text.

I think that the key benefits of e-textbooks are in 4 areas:

  1. The book can become the focus of a community of readers. I think this is, by far, the most important benefit. Students using the book can see other students’ experiences, can answer each other’s questions and may be able to interact directly with the author. Authors can see what students find difficult and can provide extra material to help them.
  2. Book reconfiguration. I’ve produced various editions of my book over the years and ever time I make a major revision I change the structure. The truth is that, for most topics, there is no single logical sequence of presentation and that the organization of material is best left to the course instructor rather than the book author. E-textbooks, if designed and written properly, can be loosely integrated allowing them to easily reconfigured to suit the needs of a specific course.
  3. Incremental acquisition. Many courses taught in universities use part of a textbook in different years. But students have to buy the whole book even if only half of it is relevant to their course. An incremental purchasing model for e-books allows them to buy the chapters that they need, when they need them. They may be able to subscribe for updates so that these are pushed to their e-book reader as they are available. Such an approach makes it feasible for instructors to draw on a number of different books for their courses – it’s currently unrealistic to expect students to buy all of these.
  4. Integration with ‘free stuff’. Although I have criticized ‘free stuff’ in a previous post, there is good material out there, especially research papers on authors’ personal sites and repositories. E-textbooks can link seamlessly to this, allowing some topics in a course to be explored in depth. Of course, the problem here is that lots of the ‘free stuff’ is ephemeral and likely to disappear as web sites are reorganized. But authors can work around this by caching local copies, etc.

An often suggested ‘advantage’ that I haven’t mentioned is the notion of continuous updating where the textbook is revised incrementally and readers always have the ‘most recent’ version of a chapter. I’m unconvinced by continuous updating (except, of course, for error correction) for 2 reasons:

  • It makes it very hard to maintain links between different chapters of the book. References from one chapter to material in another are potentially unreliable and you may find that styles differ from one chapter to another.
  • Instructors cannot rely on the material in the book. Say you teach from one chapter but by the time of the class exams, the chapter has changed. How do you relate what you have taught to what’s in the book. Pragmatically, instructors reuse material such as tests and exam questions in different years and really don’t want to have to continually redesign these.

We still have a lot to learn about how to write and design e-textbooks – simply re-interpreting the XML will lead to very ugly and unreadable books. But authors will go through this learning experience and e-textbooks in science and engineering will become the norm in the next few years.

Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete

Part 2: E-textbooks

Part 3: Textbook publishing

Part 4: Author-led publishing


How these books might be published and the problems of publishing will be the topic of my next post on the future of textbooks.


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