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.