Academic books are doomed

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. 


2 thoughts on “Academic books are doomed

  1. I’ve been thinking this is the direction that things have been going for some time. The simple fact is that academic books have been prohibitively priced for years and, while grad students and profs do put aside some money for purchases, the bang of that money has been eroding over the last few decades that I’ve been doing it. These days, I’ve drastically cut back my book buying, concentrating on the quality of my personal library, not its quantity. What has been happening is that grad students and profs may buy the texts they NEED, but borrow (or pillage) the ones that aren’t as necessary. For the amateurs, like you and I, recourse to an academic library is necessary, but it is also quite limited in borrowing time in relation to the time we have from week to week to work. That and the amount of money that either of us can give to this ‘hobby’ is not that great. So, this is a long way of saying that I feel your pain here.

    I honestly think that one of the greatest obstacles to encouraging the development of patristic studies is that the books are so accessable. I’m lucky to be in a city with an excellent university and library system, but, even still, there are a lot of texts and studies which I simply can’t get access to. If universities are less and less willing to encourage patristic studies, we have to find ways to circulate the texts among interested amateurs.

    There are signs that publishes are getting this. At least, publishers are starting to put up previews in PDF form. That is a start. Sooner or later, though, the bottom of this academic book market is going to fall out, but the necessity of academics to turn out publishing will continue, so publishing will have to change.


  2. Hi Roger,

    Great blog post, isn’t it amazing how many industries never seem to learn from mistakes of sister industries? The music industry was blindsided by things like napster, but the movie industry did not learn and is now finding itself blindsided by the same kinds of programs. Currently the print industry may be undergoing the same (as is the video game industry).

    I think that technologies like Amazons “Kindle” will really open things up. Currently the electronic book is only really suitable for reading novels. There is a rumor that Amazon is going to come out with a large tablet Kindle that has a screen the size of a regular piece of printer paper. That would nicely display many PDFs of books that have not yet been OCRed properly.

    Furthermore once a company comes out with a larger screen E-book device that also displays color pictures and allows the user to record notes with a stylus on a touch screen, then the vast majority of even scholaraly books will be good to read in an electronic format.

    In terms of libraries, most library graduate programs are aware of the change that is going on and are emphasizing how a librarian needs to be a master of information in all forms, whether in print or other media. Because the gateways to accessing information are increasingly becoming more difficult to access, they claim that librarians will always be needed to help guide people towards proper information. Whether this last part is true or not, will remain to be seen.

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