book proposal

I’ve been learning a lot about the book biz lately from avenues which I might write about some other time. But I’ve had an idea for how  academic publishers might improve revenues and increase the use of books in courses with e-book or print-on-demand abridged versions. Many of us assign parts of books to our students. The authors and publishers would prefer that we assign whole books, or enough of a book that we “require” purchase of the whole book. And sometimes we do. But the combined pressures of crowded syllabi and student concerns about textbook prices are counter-pressures.

What do you do when you want to assign only 20-30% of a book? The fact is that pieces of books are being copied and distributed to students in various ways. Publishers have been pushing back by suing copy centers to obtain royalties for material in course packs. Firms that produce “custom readers” also pay royalties, but require minimum orders. Other delivery methods, such as library reserve copies next to photocopy machines and PDF files on protected web sites, do not generate revenues for publishers. I know I have often searched out a published journal article  to represent an author’s work to avoid the issues around assigning a whole book or photocopying chapters.

Academic book authors’ main interest is in having people read their work. We have almost no interest in limiting its availability to potential readers. Publishers have an interest in recouping the costs of publication and staying in business. It has occurred to me that the technology of electronic books and on-demand book printing may provide another way for authors and publishers to recoup royalties from a book that has student appeal. It is technically possible to condense/abridge a book into a student-oriented version intended for class use and use new technologies to deliver that book as an ebook or a cheap paperback.  For undergrads, this version would give the theoretical argument, cut or deeply abridge the literature review sections, and include the “most interesting” empirical parts. I’m assuming that this version would follow the regular publication date by at least a year, to allow time for professional sales. In an ideal world, there could be custom selections.

My thinking is that such an option would not  cut into the sales of the book and could quite possibly improve them. I’m thinking that the editorial cost of doing a condensation could be borne either by the author or by the first few instructors who wanted an abridged book and that there could be a price point that would generate a profit relative to costs  while still being low enough to make it reasonable to ask students to purchase the book.

Is this already being done? Is it an idea worth pursing? I asked Shamus and he told me to put it up on Scatterplot and see what people think.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

8 thoughts on “book proposal”

  1. This reminds me of the abridged version of Wallerstein’s “Modern World-System Volume 1” which was published in a “reading” version without footnotes. This cut the size in about half! So many monographs follow a fairly standard structure that it would not be difficult to excise the “lit review” bits without missing them much.

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  2. If a few high-profile academic books were published in this way and became successes for their publishers I think this idea could catch on. I am looking forward to the day when students can purchase affordable e-books and bring them to class on a tablet-like device. This is the main reason I hope Apple’s iPad succeeds.

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  3. Erik Wright did something very similar to this with Class Counts (before the advent of POD), so you might ask him how it went. I think the Student Edition mostly cut methodological details and nuances of the empirical argument, more than lit review, but I’m not sure.

    My understanding of POD technology as it stands is that it would almost certainly not be possible for publishers to profitably print custom books in a short enough timeframe to be assigned in classes, at a price that students could afford. That’s for truly custom books; a separate, but standard, Student Edition that can be printed in advance through regular means (a la Class Counts) is a different beast.

    I think the low marginal profit on POD books (given existing technology) is a barrier even if the work of preparing the custom manuscript were something that the publisher had no responsibility over — which also may be unrealistic in the sense that even editing down an existing manuscript will create all kinds of copyediting challenges (e.g., numbering of tables and figures, references to earlier pages that are no longer there) which someone has to bear responsibility for. In theory publishers can put this all work on authors, and the now-routine lack of real editing at many houses is certainly a move in that general direction, but I would think (hope) that most presses would still be loath to release something under their imprint without minimally sufficient copyediting. Of course, if what olderwoman describes became a new economic model for publishers, then books might be created to be more modular in the first place, minimizing some of the relevant labor involved in shortening them.

    Personally, even though I’m very sensitive to the problems for all sides of having $35 books professors want to assign a single chapter from, I’m wary of any solution that involves substantially more work by authors. I can’t say I’ve got any better ideas, though.

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  4. I also think it’s a great idea. And I think it could be done just by allowing people to buy electronic versions of chapters (any combo you want, as long as it’s less than a certain percentage of the book). The “per chapter” cost would be higher than the cost of buying them all, but far less than buying the entire book. One challenge would be, once it’s electronic, how do you prevent students from sharing/circulating it? But this seems a solvable issue.

    I know editors read this blog. Have these ideas been tossed around at publishing houses?

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    1. Note that the relevant “cost” is a percentage of the paperback price, unless only hardback is available. With academic books, I think there’s a point a year or two out after which there will be essentially zero sales unless there is course assignment, so the question is whether there is a price that is attractive enough to supplant scanning something into electronic reserves compared to the cost to the publisher of supporting this. Per armchairsoc’s link, many classes need paper, not electronic: it depends how the material is used. Elizabeth’s comment suggests that print on demand is too cumbersome and expensive to replace local printing of a PDF when it is needed.

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      1. FWIW, print on demand costs will probably fall. Some people think they will fall dramatically and quickly; I’ve even seen speculation about bookstores eventually combining Amazon’s advantage of vast stock without much in warehousing costs with brick-and-mortar stores’ browsing advantages, via a system where bookstores contain a single display/browse copy of each book, and you order the ones you want to take home with you. We’re very far from that, but digital printing, which POD is based on, does seem clearly to be the future of print and I expect the technology will continue to improve.

        So printing off one or two chapters of a book that otherwise would have little further sales, slapping a cheap cover on it and shipping it to students might be a viable model not too long from now, I just don’t think it is yet.

        One thing I wonder is how that would change the economics of academic books in their whole form. If publishers are giving up any idea that there will be a course-assignment market for their academic books (as whole books), will the books all be priced for libraries and the lucky few with lavish research accounts?

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