Ever wanted to consult a text or translation of an ancient author in volume of the Sources Chrétiennes and then realised that the library is closed, or doesn’t have it? Or to look up an author in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum? It’s a pain, isn’t it?
I have here a volume of Isidore of Pelusium’s letters, and I’ve just had to walk down to the library and renew the loan this morning. That was a pain. And I’ll still have to return it, to lose access to it, in due course. I can’t afford to buy a copy, not with the recession and all.
But I have a scanner; why don’t I just copy the pages I want? Hey, why don’t I just scan the whole thing and make a PDF which I can keep forever? (In my case, I actually just don’t have time; but work with me on this a bit, hmm?)
Those thoughts must occur to an awful lot of people. They must occur to every student. They must occur even more to every post-graduate, or young PhD. All of them have no money, and lots of need for the book, and they have the means to do something about it.
I’ve gradually become aware that people are making PDF’s of these copyright but unobtainable books. More, that little networks exist whereby people swap them around. We’re all aware that this happens with music, and how upset it makes the big recording companies. But music mp3’s are a luxury. Access to a complete collection of the Sources Chretiennes, whenever you want, wherever you are? That’s essential, for many people.
At the moment, the only people buying these books are the major libraries. This is natural. But the question is, why bother to buy them, why bother to have libraries other than as museums, when in fact the books are being pirated to PDF? The only reason is so that those who don’t have the right contacts, who don’t know the right bootlegger, can still access the text. Well, I myself am such a person. But I don’t suppose for a moment — recalling my own student days, and illegal music swapping — that people at college are using them. Most of them must be accumulating huge collections of books, reference books, articles, lexica, in PDF form.
If this is how people want their information, is there any point in taking a PDF, sending it to a publisher, having it typeset and printed, sending out copies to libraries, borrowing the paper copies, scanning it back in again, and OCR’ing it, and storing it on your hard disk? Why do this? Why not just sell the PDF?
It’s over. The whole process of publishing an edition, translation, study — still more a handbook or patrology — is finished. The whole business of having a library is finished too — why bother? Just ask around, see if anyone has a PDF.
This must be how things are now. Every year, this will get more so. Why should it not? It’s easy convenient, and superior in almost every respect for the user. Why pay to produce things that are inconvenient?
There are a couple of teething problems with this model of book circulation. For instance, some books can’t be read onscreen. You really do need a printed copy of (e.g.) Fabricius, as I remarked earlier this week, to master it. The PDF’s that I have seen aren’t of good enough quality to send to a print-on-demand service. But I imagine this is the next step. People will make sure they scan b/w PDF’s at 400 dpi. Give it a couple of years.
The next step must be to start supplying books in electronic-only form. One problem is that the editorial process of producing a book markedly enhances the quality of the content. This is true for novels as well as textbooks — I have seen early drafts of books, prior to a professional editor working on them, and the difference is amazing. If this is cut out of the loop, something must replace it; and so far there is nothing. The mechanisms of modern publishing are not just an overhead; we all benefit from some of them.
Finally authors need to publish books in order to get jobs. A mechanism to replace this is needed, and dead-tree printing will continue until this is solved. But the printers will find sales dropping, as occasional sales to scholars pretty much cease. Probably this will make little difference, as they mainly sell to libraries. But their clock will be ticking. The financial viability of the old model is draining away. Stupid publishers will try to pass laws to stop all this. It won’t work, of course, because the incentive to pass around books in PDF is so enormous. At most it might retard scholarship in some areas and some countries.
So I think that this chicken must be dead. It just hasn’t realised it yet.