Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to produce, publish and distribute a textbook these days

In 2008, I designed a production, publishing and distribution process for home grown text books at Otago Polytechnic. Ruth Lawson's Anatomy and Physiology of Animals was the first to test the model.

Anatomy and Physiology of Animals is a 269 A4 page paperback that is authored, edited and updated on Wikibooks, with a reformatted version periodically taken from the wiki and uploaded for distribution via the print-on-demand service

The Wikibook acts as a freely accessible digital version of the text, as well as offering opportunities for collaborative editing including potential student editing and expansion exercises.

The Lulu book takes a stable version from the wiki and offers it in a printed and perfect bound format for US$24 a copy. The printed version is always up to date and available on demand - that is, 1 order 1 print, with ordering and postage handled by the service. Otago Polyetchnic no longer have to commit to a print run of hundreds to achieve the production cost savings, and no longer rely on a crapy spiral bound photo copy going at the same price.

Despite the availability of the free digital version, and despite the openness of the wiki and the relatively unrestricted copyrights over the book, almost all the students in the Otago Polytechnic course choose to buy a printed Lulu book, returning a useful royalty cheque sent in by to the Vet Nursing Department each year, helping to sustain the process. I imagine this purchasing preference would continue if at the end of each year the Lulu book was updated to reflect the encouragsed and coordinated contributions of the students of that year - so long as the price remained below the cost of making a photocopied bootleg version (more on that later).

Following the success of the Anatomy and Physiology of Animals project, the NZ Ministry for the Environment funded Otago Polytechnic to do the same for a text on Sustainable Business, using the widely referenced book by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise as its original source. This project is due for completion March 2010. Another project I know has followed this model is the Open Educational Resources, Educator Handbook.

I think this model would work for standard production and publishing businesses, maintaining (possibly even increasing) financial returns to original authors and editors. If publishers can work out a way to undercut the Lulu service, they could tap into the opportunities that these free and open texts offer with their less restrictive copyrights. A smart publisher would do so with a view to rewarding authors, editors and designers.

Taking the model further>>

There is some interest in this model where I work now with Sport Studies at the University of Canberra. One of the units taught here prescribes the text, Sport Management in Australia but there is a growing feeling that this text does not meet the needs. The publishers have contacted us asking if we would like to renew our subscription to the text, and this has presented an opportunity to propose the above model.

It would require the copyright holder to release the text under a less restrictive license such as Creative Commons Attribution or Share Alike. We could then upload the text to Wikibooks and begin editing a new version. Once we were satisfied with the new version, we would reformat it for a print on demand service, ensuring royalties on the sale of the printed texts are returned to authors and original rights holders to satisfy their concerns, but not so much as it would increase the cost of the printed text to such a level so as to encourage alternative copies.

A risk in this process is if we are unable to complete the new version of the text, leaving the original version open in copyrights. There are two ways to manage this risk:
  1. Produce a print on demand version of the original as a fall back measure
  2. Develop to new edition offline, and follow through with the release when it is complete. (this measure could increase the cost of development by limiting contributions to a limited number of editors)
Sport Management in Australia is 336 pages, but smaller than A4. I am guessing that the fee claimed by Lulu would be around US$20 per copy. It would cost more than $62 to create a bootleg photocopy, meaning the most we could charge for a printed text would be $60 (assuming we coordinated bulk shipping) leaving $40 per copy to cover expenses such as design and reformatting (a 1 off expense of master style guide), author royalties and release fees. 150 students are prescribed the text each year at the University of Canberra alone, and assuming most of those students purchase the text we would have recovered most of the direct costs within 2-3 years. If we manage to incorporate student editing exercises, then the printed text would carry with it a sense of invested ownership in the student users, helping to increase relevance of the text and of course encouraging sales.

And so we have a business model that does not rely on copyright protectionism, provides access and reusability to teachers and students without legal implications, and offers an opportunity to increase engagement with the text by way of student editing and additions.

I hope to convince my colleagues to initiate negotiations with the publishers of the out-of-date text, and see if we can convince them to trail the model with us.


James Neill said...

Great stuff, Leigh. I wonder what it would cost the local printroom on campus to print up pdf-ed wikibooks and sell through the coop bookshop each semester? Would it be competitive?

Leigh Blackall said...

If they can do a better job than Lulu's full colour perfect bound for cheaper than we should go with that.. then again, would the uniprint give as an international online purchasing system hooked up to Amazon and other pretty powerful features that Lulu has? Would we need those features even?

Than there's PediaPress, lining up to offer print on demand services for Wikibooks. I haven't seen a bound pediapress job yet, but I have gone through the process of creating a book ready for their printing and binding service. I was a little disappointed with the limits they place on size and cover design.

Ros Byrne said...

Very interesting, Leigh. Keep us posted!

benrattray said...

The full text book is a lot of work (yes I know, just initially).

I think this has even more application for the laboratory manuals etc that we do.

Leigh Blackall said...

Cool! I hadn't thought of that! Lets do it asap and get some easy runs on the board.

Successfully negotiating copyright release from an existing text and using that as a basis can really take a chunk of the work away for textbooks.

Wayne Goldsmith said...

Great work mate.

Textbooks are an old concept in that everything they publish is about the past - we want students to learn so they can create the future.

The rate that ideas, information and innovations are accelerating in all fields, I believe your model is the one for this century.

How about we start up a site for the University called TEXTBOOKS LIVE - where textbooks are constantly changed, added to and made relevant with regular updates by lecturers, industry professionals and others - I love that idea of the WIKITEXTBOOK concept and the opportunity to then LULU it for hard copy.

Education is about the past - about what's known.
Management is about the present - about what's know today.
Leadership is about the future - about creating tomorrow.

This idea is about leadership in education - well done.


Delphine said...

Hey Leigh, my name is Delphine, I work for PediaPress, as well as have a strong interest in anything "Wikimedia", Wikibooks being one of the projects I see with the most potential in the near future, and probably one of the most underused projects of the Wikimedia universe.

It's always good for PediaPress to get some insight from people actually "using books", and I found particularly interesting the issues you point out about "keeping a textbook up to date", which I believe can be addressed by the wiki format, and the experience you talk about with Wikibooks and Lulu. On a more professional level, my attention has been caught by your comment about PediaPress above.

PediaPress is a young company, and we are in the constant process of working to offer better services and more options to people making their custom books from wikis. As such, I'd be interested to hear more about what exactly you found disappointing in the limits we place on our printed books.

What kind of cover would you have liked to see and what formats do you think would make sense, for textbooks especially?

Thanks for your patience and looking forward to your answer.

dindatx said...

Yes but how much does it actually cost to produce the book? The writing, the content gathering, the editing, technical and peer review process, formatting, graphics, etc. I've seen many textbook publishers quote in the neighborhood of $250,000k USD for one producing one book. They then have to recoup those costs and hopefully make a profit.

In your model, it's a one person job so overall costs are relatively low but to do a 'real' textbook with editorial and peer review, professional graphics. . .very expensive.

The is another project that offers a wiki-based writing system with output to It only works with CC-BY-SA materials and this makes sense but I'm not sure how any publisher can make something like that work.

Leigh Blackall said...

@dindatx by using existing peer reviewed free content like in Wikibooks. Many textbooks I know are actually authored by academics on the pay of the University. They even edit and peer review each other and when it is ready, the publisher steps in and does the distribution, taking a large chunk of profit and paying a relatively small royalty to the authors each year (if that). So, in some countries it is the tax payers who pay for the production, and pay again for the copy. Certainly, academic journals work this way the world over.

Where publishers actually do invest, such as textbooks for the american school system, it is because they stand to capture a massive market. An investment risk perhaps worth taking for them. Of course, if and when a philanthropic or public funding agency sees this alternative model, they might just throw money to people who are willing to follow the open production model, relieving the inflated profit margin pressures that publishers have driven, and returning better royalties to authors and editors.

Might be a pipe dream, although I see the US Gov is thinking to put big money towards open education over the next 5 years...