October 25, 2014

Writing an open textbook: tracking an author’s perspective

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Image © to thePC, 2014

Image © to thePC, 2014

One of the key developments in online learning is the open textbook. These are textbooks that are published and available for free. This is one of the most direct ways to bring down costs to students, saving in many cases at least $1,000 per student per year, often much more.

What’s involved in writing for open publishing?

A big challenge though is to get authors to write an open textbook. There is no direct financial reward, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a much higher level of risk than going through commercial publishers. Who will read it? Will it be accepted in the academic community? Will it have as much influence?  And a very practical question: if I do decide to do an open textbook, how do I do this? What do I need to know? Who can help me? How do I preserve the integrity of the book if people can just copy or alter what I’ve written?

These are questions that I have been struggling with. I am planning to write a textbook, a guide, for faculty and instructors, on teaching in a digital age. I have decided – for reasons that I will describe in another post – to not only make it an open textbook, but to try to ensure that it is designed to fully exploit the affordances of open publishing, and to practice in the design of the book what I am preaching in the text.

Tracking progress

In the spirit of open-ness, I plan to share this journey through a series of blog posts that tracks my progress, my questions, the answers I find, and I also hope to encourage others to help me as I do this. Here are some of the issues I expect to address in subsequent posts:

  • the pros and cons of open publishing, and why I decided to go ‘open’
  • my vision for an open textbook and how it differs from a traditional book. (I suspect this will not only be practical, but also raise questions about the concept of a book in the 21st century, and the boundaries between electronic books, blog posts and wikis, and online courses)
  • what format should I use for writing and/or publishing the book? What exists at the moment? What are the limitations of the current technologies for open textbook publishing?
  • what editorial or writing processes should I go through?Crowd-sourcing of content? Instructional and graphic design? An  independent online editor? Formal external review?
  • what unexpected problems or challenges do I run into along the way? What unanticipated opportunities or benefits do I discover?
  • what resources are there available to help those who want to author an open textbook?
  • how do I market the book? What works and what doesn’t?
  • how do I track the use of the book? How well is it received, as much in terms of format as content? How do I find this out?
  • what are the real costs of open publishing? Is there a sustainable business model?
  • would I do it again? What would I recommend to other authors who are thinking of open publishing?

Why me?

I have some advantages in doing this:

  • I’m an experienced writer, with more than a dozen commercially published books behind me. I can afford to take the risk. I don’t need the money and if it falls flat it will be disappointing but not a disaster for my career, nor, I hope, for my reputation, nor particularly, for open publishing, since there will be better ways to approach it than the way I did, as open publishing is still in the very early stages of development
  • I don’t anticipate the writing is going to be a problem. I pretty much know what I want to write, why I want to write the book, and the target audience. I can therefore spend more time on the format and the how of open publishing
  • I’m stopping all paid professional work from April, so I can concentrate on the book
  • I have a good background in instructional design, so I can push the boundaries in trying to match the format to good educational practice
  • if the open format doesn’t satisfy me or my readers, I can always go back to a commercial publisher; the text after all will still be there, and at least legally, I will still own the rights, as it will have been be protected by a Creative Commons license
  • I have a good network of friends and colleagues who can help me – and have offered to do so. I’m very fortunate to be located here on the west coast of Canada, close to the headquarters of the Creative Commons and the British Columbia open textbook project.

I am not alone

With regard to the latter, I’ve already had good advice from Paul Stacey, Creative Commons, and BCcampus, which is leading British Columbia’s open textbook project, is also providing advice and support. Contact North in Ontario is interested also, and may be able to provide support in areas such as marketing.

I plan to extend this network as the project proceeds, starting with the Open Textbook Summit on April 16th and 17th at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre in Vancouver.

I’m also hoping to draw on your knowledge and experience, the readers of this blog, if you are willing to share. So advice, constructive criticism and just good plain comments will always be welcome.

Next up

Why I decided to try ‘open’ publishing.

Comments

  1. Don Gorges says:

    __This is very exciting news, Tony. Certainly your expertise on this topic is of great interest to many of us and we can relate to the great questions you’re asking yourself. I’m sure you can count on your followers to weigh-in when it’s relevant – You likely know that CC licenses are not revocable so I wondered about this comment – “if the open format doesn’t satisfy me or my readers, I can always go back to a commercial publisher”. __ Wishing you all the best with your project.

    • Hi, Don
      As a result of your comment I did contact Creative Commons and here is what they said:
      When you put a Creative Commons license on a work it is irrevocable.
      Once you release your work with a Creative Commons license you can not retract the license and stop it from being used under the terms it was originally released. However, .. [as] the copyright holder you are always free to do whatever you want with your book including having it published by a commercial publisher.

      So you and I are both right. The issue is though whether a publisher will want to publish a book commercially if it is also available free through a Creative Commons license. In practice though it is unlikely that I would get as far as publishing it as an open textbook, then withdrawing it, although chunks of it may be already available under an Creative Commons license. But this is part of the reason for undertaking this project – to flush out these issues, so I really appreciate your comments and John Nixon’s on this.

  2. An interesting project that I hope to follow through your blog. Like the previous commentator I also raised my eyebrows over your optimism about being able to reclaim copyright over text you have once published under a CC licence. I did not know that was a possibility. I’m relatively new to distance teaching – and am co-writiing material (I don’t feel happy calling it a textbook) for adult learners of English in Sweden. But I’m employed to do this. I can’t see how a freelancer writing an open textbook could hope to put bread in his (or her) mouth. Though I’m interested to be enlightened. (And I’m glad you are making the experiment, not me!) Good luck.

  3. I have been struggling to write a second edition of my 2006 book ‘Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning’
    In the process of updating the book content I have been writing papers incorporating my updated deliberations, two published last December, in Educational Media International (EMI) and Journal of Visual Media (JVC),
    Two more pending, one maybe for BJET and one for EMI. However, the one for BJET is over 11,000 words so I doubt BJET will want it (or any other journal, although JVC did publish my 10,000 word paper).
    Anyway, to get to the point, when I complete the update of my book, will the original publisher object if I publish as an open textbook?
    Who knows how different it would need to be to avoid original publishers’ copyright infringement.

    • Good comments, Jack. Yes, authors need to be very careful when signing agreements with commercial publishers who sometimes insert clauses that attempt to bind you to all future work that you do.
      Fortunately for me, this book is quite different from any of my previous books, although it is almost impossible not to include some material published in previous books. Nothing is THAT new!

  4. raj dhanarajan says:

    Dear Tony,

    I am so delighted that you are doing this; there is nobody more thoughtful and insightful on the subject especially from the perspective of lower income environments, than you [at least amongst those of my vintage]. i look forward to reading your book as i do reading through your blogs periodically.

    Wish you well.

    raj

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