Lately I’ve been thinking about a few ideas for books that I might want to write at some point in the near future. However, that is not the topic of this post. Instead, I want to talk about how one should go about publishing an academic book in the post-internet age.
As an example, consider a book that arises from a lecture course. A prof teaches the same course for a few years, using feedback from the students to find out which explanations work well and which ones need to be improved. After a while s/he has established a good set of lecture notes, which might be worth making available to the wider community in book form.
These days, the lecture notes often appear online in various forms, either on the lecturer’s own website or on repositories such as MIT Open Courseware, Connexions, etc. One major advantage of this is that feedback can be obtained from an even larger pool of readers whilst the notes are still being written. However, it is actually quite a bad idea to just put lecture notes up on your own website without any form of explicit license, despite the fact that this is quite common practice in academia at the moment. You might intend the notes to be freely available, copyable and modifiable, but unless there is a specific license to this effect then standard copyright law still applies to them (at least in the US). If you later decide to publish a book based on the notes via a traditional academic publisher then they may demand that you remove the electronic version from your website after publication, forcing your future students in this subject to buy a copy of the book from them, often at an inflated price. You can avoid this by making sure you license your notes under a license that explicitly grants copying rights, such as a Creative Commons license, the GNU Free Documentation license or the Open Course license. However, if you do this then a traditional publisher may simply refuse to publish your work as a matter of policy.
My initial response to this problem is so what? After all, if the notes are widely available on the internet then why do I need to bother with a traditional publisher at all? If there is demand for a hard-copy version then it can always be made available on a self-publication service like Lulu. However, there are still a couple of reasons why you might want to publish your book via a traditional academic publisher in addition to making it available online. The first is that the academic publishers have a much better ability to promote your book than you do. If you want it to appear in university libraries, which are the main customers for academic texts, then it is still pretty much essential to publish it in the traditional way way. The second reason is the prestige attached to having a book published via a traditional academic publisher is far greater than just putting something on the net. Unlike online materials, having a traditionally published book is actually worth something on your CV, which is not a small concern for a young academic who is still trying to establish a reputation and secure a faculty position.
With this in mind, it is worth considering what the policy of the major academic publishers is on these issues. It is difficult to find out from their websites, so I recently sent out the following email to a some of them in order to test the waters. In coming weeks I will let you know their responses, and we will see which of them is most flexible towards online availability of materials.
I am collecting information on the policy of academic publishers towards publishing works based on materials that have already appeared online. I would be grateful if you could provide answers to the following questions. Responses may be quoted on my blog http://mattleifer.wordpress.com
Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared online on a website or blog maintained by the author?
Would you require the electronic version of the book to be removed from the author’s site after publication?
Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared on a website that is not maintained by the author, such as MIT Open Courseware (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/home/home/index.htm), LearningSpace (http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/) or Connexions (http://cnx.org/)?
Would you allow an electronic version of the book to be uploaded to a preprint server, such as www.arxiv.org?
Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses (http://creativecommons.org/about/license/) and, if so, which ones would be acceptable?
Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/fdl.html)?
Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the Open Course License (http://www.opencourse.info/license/)?
Here is the list of publishers I have sent this email to so far. If you would like to see any other publishers included then please let me know.
- Oxford University Press
- Cambridge University Press
- Princeton University Press
- Harvard University Press
- MIT Press
- University of California University Press
- University of Chicago Press
- Institute of Physics
Other Academic Publishers
- World Scientific
Publishing Online vs. Traditional Academic Publishers by Matthew Leifer, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.