February 1, 2015

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of text and print

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There's nothing like a good book - or is there?

There’s nothing like a good book – or is there?

This is the first of several posts on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. I’m starting with text, because it is – or perhaps more accurately, has been – fundamental to the development of academic knowledge. However, writing about its unique pedagogical features is rather like asking a fish to describe water. We are so immersed in text in academia that it is hard to imagine studying without texts to read and learn from.

However, with the increasing availability of other media, what is so special about text? How does it differ from other media? I have found writing about this particularly difficult. I have lots of empirical evidence on the pedagogical influences of audio, video and computing, but almost nothing on text, because in a sense it is the default medium for academic learning, the base against which other media tend to be judged. Now much has been published on what makes for good writing, and even what makes for good academic writing, but that is different from asking what can text do for learning that is unique from other media.

As a result, the following section strikes me as being rather unacademic, more of an opinion piece than an empirically supported and theoretically based account of the strengths and weaknesses of text as a teaching medium. So please bear this in mind when reading it, and if you have suggestions for improving it, or other work of which I should be aware, please provide feedback.

The unique pedagogical features of text

Ever since the invention of the Gutenberg press, print has been a dominant teaching technology, arguably at least as influential as the spoken word of the teacher. Even today, textbooks, mainly in printed format, but increasingly also in digital format, still play a major role in formal education, training and distance education. Many fully online courses still make extensive use of text-based learning management systems and online asynchronous discussion forums.

Why is this? What makes text such a powerful teaching medium, and will it remain so, given the latest developments in information technology?

In essence, I am arguing that the unique pedagogical characteristics of text are as follows:

  • text is particularly good at handling abstraction and generalisation, mainly through written language
  • text enables the linear sequencing of information in a structured format
  • text can present and separate empirical evidence or data from the abstractions, conclusions or generalisations derived from the empirical evidence
  • text’s linear structure enables the development of coherent, sequential argument or discussion
  • at the same time text can relate evidence to argument and vice versa
  • text’s recorded and permanent nature enables independent analysis and critique of its content

There is some overlap of each of these features with other media, but no other medium combines all these characteristics, or is as powerful as text with respect to these characteristics.

Text can come in many formats, including printed textbooks, text messages, novels, magazines, newspapers, scribbled notes, journal articles, essays, novels, online asynchronous discussions and so on. I want to focus particularly on the role of the book, because of its centrality in academic learning.

The book and knowledge

Earlier (Chapter 2, Section 2.4,) I argued that academic knowledge is a specific form of knowledge that has characteristics that differentiate it from other kinds of knowledge, and particularly from knowledge or beliefs based solely on direct personal experience. Academic knowledge is a second-order form of knowledge that seeks abstractions and generalizations based on reasoning and evidence.

Fundamental components of academic knowledge are:

  • codification: knowledge can be consistently represented in some form (words, symbols, video)
  • transparency: the source of the knowledge can be traced and verified
  • reproduction: knowledge can be reproduced or have multiple copies
  • communicability: knowledge must be in a form such that it can be communicated and challenged by others.

The book has proved to be a remarkably powerful medium for the development and transmission of academic knowledge, since it meets all four criteria above, but to what extent can new media such as blogs, wikis, multimedia, and social media replace the book in academic knowledge? New media can in fact handle just as well some of these criteria, and provide indeed added value, such as speed of reproduction and ubiquity, but the book still has some unique qualities. A key advantage of a book is that it allows for the development of a sustained, coherent, and comprehensive argument with evidence to support the argument. Blogs can do this only to a limited extent (otherwise they cease to be blogs and become articles or a digital book).

Quantity is important sometimes and books allow for the collection of a great deal of evidence and supporting argument, and allow for a wider exploration of an issue or theme, within a relatively condensed and portable format. A consistent and well supported argument, with evidence, alternative explanations or even counter positions, requires the extra ‘space’ of a book. Above all, books can provide coherence or a sustained, particular position or approach to a problem or issue, a necessary balance to the chaos and confusion of the many new forms of digital media that constantly compete for our attention, but in much smaller ‘chunks’ that are overall more difficult to integrate and digest.

Another important academic feature of text is that it can be carefully scrutinised, analysed and constantly checked, partly because it is largely linear, and also permanent once published, enabling more rigorous challenge or testing in terms of evidence, rationality, and consistency. Multimedia in recorded format can come close to meeting these criteria, but text can also provide more convenience and in media terms, more simplicity. For instance I repeatedly find analysing video, which incorporates many variables and symbol systems, more complex than analysing a linear text, even if both contain equally rigorous (or equally sloppy) arguments.

Form and function

Does the form or technological representation of a book matter any more? Is a book still a book if downloaded and read on an iPad or Kindle, rather than as printed text?

For the purposes of knowledge acquisition, it probably isn’t any different. Indeed, for study purposes, a digital version is probably more convenient because carrying an iPad around with maybe hundreds of books downloaded on it is certainly preferable to carrying around the printed versions of the same books. There are still complaints by students about the difficulties of annotating e-books, but this will almost certainly become a standard feature available for e-books in the future.

If the whole book is downloaded, then the function of a book doesn’t change much just because it is available digitally. However, there are some subtle changes. Some would argue that scanning is still easier with a printed version. Have you ever had the difficulty of finding a particular quotation in a digital book compared with the printed version? Sure, you can use the search facility, but that means knowing exactly the correct words or the name of the person being quoted. With a printed book, I can often find a quotation just by flicking the pages, because I am using context and rapid eye scanning to locate the source, even when I don’t know exactly what I am looking for. On the other hand, searching when you do know what you are looking for (e.g. a reference by a particular author) is much easier digitally.

The other thing that happens when books are digitally available is that often, users can download only the selected chapters that are of interest to them. This is valuable if you know just what you want, but there are also dangers. For instance in my book on the strategic management of technology, the last chapter summarizes the rest of the book. If the book had been digital, the temptation then would be to just download the final chapter. You’d have all the important messages in the book, right? Well, no. What you would be missing is the evidence for the conclusions. Now the book on strategic management is based on case studies, so it would be really important to check back with how the case studies were interpreted to get to the conclusions, as this will affect the confidence you would have as a reader in the conclusions that were drawn. If just the digital version of only the last chapter is downloaded, you also lose the context of the whole book. Having the whole book gives readers more freedom to interpret and add their own conclusions than just having a summary chapter.

In conclusion, then, there are advantages and disadvantages of digitizing a book, but the essence of a book is not greatly changed when it becomes digital rather than printed.

A new niche for books in academia

We have seen historically that new media often do not entirely replace an older medium, but the old medium finds a new ‘niche’. Thus television did not lead to the complete demise of radio. Similarly, I suspect that there will be a continued role for the book in academic knowledge, enabling the book (whether digital or printed) to thrive alongside new media and formats in academia.

However, books that retain their value academically will likely need to be much more specific in their format and their purpose than has been the case to date. For instance, I see the end of books consisting mainly of a collection of loosely connected but semi-independent chapters from different authors, unless there is a strong cohesion and edited presence that provides an integrated argument or consistent set of data across all the chapters. Most of all, books may need to change some of their features, to allow for more interaction and input from readers, and more links to the outside world. It is much more unlikely though that books will survive in a printed format, because digital publication allows for many more features to be added, reduces the environmental footprint, and is much more portable and transferable.

Lastly, this is not an argument for ignoring the academic benefits of new media. The value of graphics, video and animation for representing knowledge, the ability to interact asynchronously with other learners, and the value of social networks, are all under-exploited in academia. But text and books are still important.

For another perspective on this, see Clive Shepherd’s blog: Weighing up the benefits of traditional book publishing

Text and other forms of knowledge

I have focused particularly on text and academic knowledge, because of the traditional importance of text and printed knowledge in academia. The unique pedagogical characteristics of text though may be less for other forms of knowledge. Indeed, multimedia may have many more advantages in vocational and technical education, as we shall see.

In the k-12 or school sector, text and print are likely to remain important, because reading and writing are likely to remain important – perhaps even more important – in a digital age, so the study of text (digital and printed) will remain important if only for developing literacy skills.

More evidence, please

Although there has been extensive research on the pedagogical features of other media such as audio, video and computing, text has generally been treated as the default mode, the base against which other media are compared. As a result print in particular is largely taken for granted in academia. We are now though at the stage where we need to pay much more attention to the unique characteristics of text in its various formats, in relation to other media. Until though we have more empirical studies on the unique characteristics of text and print, it would be unwise to reject the value of text for academic learning.

Feedback

I am so unsure about this section I am tempted to publish it as ‘Still under construction.’ Ideally, I’d like to link this section to a better source, as I feel it is so inadequate. So if you are in a position to offer any help or suggestions, I will be extremely grateful, as will readers of the book.

Up next

The unique pedagogical characteristics of audio.

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

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Open textbooks free 2

I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.

Background

I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.

Challenges

From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.

Conclusions

Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.

Opening up: chapter one of Teaching in a Digital Age

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The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

I’ve not been blogging much recently, because (a) I’ve been on holiday for a month in the Mediterranean and (b) I’ve been writing my book.

Teaching in a Digital World

As you are probably aware, I’m doing this as an open textbook, which means learning to adapt to a new publishing environment. As well as writing a darned good book for instructors on teaching in in a digital age, my aim is to push the boundaries a little with open publishing, to move it out of the traditional publishing mode into a a truly open textbook, with the help of the good folks at BCcampus who are running their open textbook project.

You will see that there’s still a long way to go before we can really exploit all the virtues of openness in publishing, and I’m hoping you can help me – and BCcampus- along the way with this.

What I’d like you to do

What I’m hoping you will do is find the time to browse the content list and preface (which is not yet finalized) and read more carefully Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Higher Education, then give me some feedback. To do this, just go to: http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

The first thing you will realise is that there is nowhere to comment on the published version. (Ideally I would like to have a comment section after every section of each chapter.) I will be publishing another post about some of the technical features I feel are still needed within PressBooks, but in the meantime, please use the comment page on this post (in which case your comment will be public), or use the e-mail facility  at the bottom of the chapter or preface (in which case your comment will be private). Send to tony.bates@ubc.ca .

What kind of feedback?

At this stage, I’m looking more for comments on the substance of the book, rather than the openness (my next post will deal with the technical issues). To help you with feedback, here are some of the questions I’m looking for answers to:

  1. Market: from what you’ve read so far, does there appear to be a need for this type of book? Are there other books that already do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Structure: does Chapter 1 have the right structure? Does it flow and is it logically organized?How could it be improved?
  3. Content: is there anything missing, dubious or just plain wrong? References that I have missed that support (or challenge) the content would also be useful.
  4. Do the activities work for you? Are there more interesting activities you can think of? How best to provide feedback? (e.g. does the use of ‘Parts’ work for this?)
  5. Presentation: are there other media/better images I could use? Is the balance between text and media right?

What’s in it for you?

First, I hope the content will be useful. Chapter 1 is probably the least useful of all the chapters to come for readers of this blog, because it’s aimed at instructors who are not comfortable with using technology, but if the material is useful to you, you are free to use it in whatever way you wish, within the constraints of a Creative Commons license.

Second, the whole point of open education is to share and collaborate. I’m opening up my book and the process; in return can I get some help and advice? In anticipation and with a degree of nervousness I look forward to your comments.

Survey finds ‘little use’ of open textbooks in Washington State’s colleges

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Deception Pass, Whidby eIsland, Washington State

Deception Pass, Whidbey Island, Washington State

OnCampus Research (2013) Open Course Library Survey Results OnCampus Research, December 2013

Biemiller, L. (2014) Open Course Library Sees Little Use in Washington’s Community Colleges Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31

The Washington Community and Technical College system has identified free or reduced-price materials for 83 of their highest enrolled courses, of which 42 were introduced in 2012. OnCampus Research, an independent market research company that focuses on community colleges in the USA, surveyed campus stores in 2013 and received responses from 25 of the 34 campus stores in the system.

Survey results

The report made the following conclusions:

  • The availability of free or lower-priced course materials for popular, highly enrolled courses did NOT equate into actual use of those materials– except for very small percentages of class sections and students. (Of the 98,130 students enrolled in these 42 courses on the 25 campuses, only 2,386 (2.4%) were in sections that used the recommended OCL materials.)
  • The savings from adopting OCL materials over traditional course materials are substantial, but those savings were realized mostly in theory, not in practice. Unless or until a majority of students are actually using the OCL materials, there are no significant savings for students in OCL courses.
  • Given the possibility of such substantial savings, the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials. Additional study would be needed to address this issue.

Comment

For me, this survey raises more questions than answers:

  • who commissioned the survey? If it was the college stores, would students necessarily go through college stores to download free online materials? If it was the college stores, is not there a conflict of interest here? Who benefits from the sale of high-priced textbooks?
  • is this survey too soon to draw any real conclusions? How long were the materials available for instructors to review them? These kinds of decisions are likely to be taken several months before courses open, and it may take another year at least before instructors start to accommodate to these materials
  • since the report concluded: ‘the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials’, why did the Chronicle of Education, when reporting this, NOT get a comment from the people running the project in Washington State?

Of course, there may be real problems with this project. In particular, instructors may not have had enough notice or involvement to make the necessary changes to their classes for the 2012 academic year, to make best use of the recommended materials. However, I think I’ll reserve my judgement until the Washington Community and Technical College system presents its own findings and conclusions. It’s a story though worth following.

Why I decided to try open publishing

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 Open publishing word tag

In an earlier post, I announced that I was going to write a textbook for open publishing and track my progress through a series of blog posts. In this one I examine my initial thinking.

Deciding to go for open rather than commercial publishing was not an easy decision, and I am still open to changing my mind if I run into too many problems. But here are the pros and cons that influenced my decision.

The pros of commercial publishing

I have experience of being published before by two major international publishers. Here are some of the benefits (in order of importance to me):

  • professional editorial support. In general the publishers provided me with excellent editors to work with. They managed the whole process from book proposal through text writing to feedback to copy editing to external review to actual publishing. One publisher in particular was particularly good at this. I did three books with them, different editors each time, and the whole process was very professionally managed. In one case the editor suggested that whole sections of a book contributed by a co-author should be replaced (reinforcing my own view), which helped me out of the very difficult position of criticizing a colleague’s work. In another case I needed professionally developed graphics and the publisher handled this, including the cost, in a very satisfactory way. The copy editing was sometimes a challenge, as one of my publishers is American, and there were often conflicts over spelling and the use of certain expressions that are common in English English but not American English. Generally though these were not serious and compromises were usually found. A major part of the market in terms of size is the USA, so the writing has to take account of that. Particularly for a new author, this editorial support is extremely helpful and important;
  • quality feedback. Normally, the text goes out for review before publication to three independent reviewers. I have found this feedback tremendously helpful in the past. The publisher doesn’t give much in the way of incentives to reviewers (a small honorarium or several other books that they publish) but I’ve always found the external reviewers thorough, constructively critical and very helpful;
  • money. Although, writing for a niche market, I don’t have big sales, the books provide a steady income through royalties. I was getting 12% on my later books, bringing me around $5 a sale, or between $2,500 – $10,000 a year over several books (more in the years immediately following publication, less in later years, but one book in particular started slowly but ten years later is still producing a steady income as it has been adopted as a required text book by a number of instructors.) I’m not getting rich, but it is a handy, taxable supplement to my main employment income;
  • recognition. This one is difficult to measure, but both are recognized quality publishers, they have a strong review process before accepting publication, so it probably does help in terms of status and promotion to be published by a quality publisher;
  • niche marketing. All my books have been published as part of a series with a common theme. This enables them to be directed at a specific market, and it allows the publishers to develop an extensive list of potential readers from the purchase of other books in the series. This also helps me as an author, to know who I am writing for.

Bates_cover_final

 

The cons of commercial publishing

This has changed over time. Whether it’s because I’m more experienced or whether it’s because the industry has changed, the cons have become stronger more recently:

  • marketing – or lack of it Both publishers, but one more so than another, have been dreadful at marketing my books, especially in recent years. Publishers ask you to provide long lists of journals, professional societies, media outlets, etc., that can be used to promote the book. Fair enough, but then they don’t follow up. Both my publishers failed to send out review copies to the 10 key journals I identified for my last two books. Publishers want me to take copies of books to conferences to market them. I have a whole loft full of books I’ve ordered to be delivered at conferences, then haven’t been able to sell – I had to pay for both the books and the shipping. Poor marketing is not what you would expect from international publishers. The main value of a publisher to authors is their know-how in marketing. But at least for books in a niche market, publishers basically expect authors to do their own marketing. Electronic publishing (more than half my sales are now e-copies) has just made publishers lazy (and greedy – the price is the same as a hard copy). The struggle over marketing through a commercial publisher, more than anything, has made me think about open publishing – I’m going to have to do the marketing myself in any case;
  • royalties. At least I get royalties. Some publishers, such as IGI, won’t pay anything. Others ask authors to pay to get published (and some authors are desperate enough to do this). But 8-12% is not a fair return any more on what is often many months, sometimes years, of hard work. If publishers did more to actively market books, then it might be more acceptable, but at this point in time, 8-12% is a really unfair distribution of revenue. Publishers have for far too long traded on the need of academics to get published;
  • failure to change the book format. Commercial books still have the format of the sixteenth century. They may be  typeset electronically, they may be available for downloading online, but the format is still the same as books from the Guthenberg Press. One example: knowing that most of my sales of my last book would be electronic, I peppered the text with embedded urls, so those downloading the text electronically could just click on the text to get the link. At copy editing stage, all the urls were stripped out. No matter how much I ranted and raged, it could not be changed because it was company ‘editorial style’. I had to build a separate web site (batesandsangra.ca) for the book at my own expense, to support the book. I am hoping, with open publishing, to be able to exploit the interactiveness and dynamism of web publishing.

Will open publishing be any better?

Well, we’ll see, but here are my main reasons

  • I have to walk the talk. The content of my book is about teaching in a digital age. Therefore the format needs to enable me to practice what I will be preaching. There is nothing as powerful as a good example, and the book itself needs to be an example of the benefits of digital teaching. So this means, yes, embedded urls, but much, much more (more on this in my vision for the book, which will be another post). I don’t think commercial publishers are anywhere near ready to support this kind of approach to book publishing (if so, please contact me with an offer in the 50% royalty range – just kidding);
  • proof of concept Open textbooks are in their infancy. Like many new media, most still reflect the format of the old medium, print publishing. Many open textbooks at the moment are just that: a (free) electronic version of a text designed for printing. What should an open textbook look like? What’s involved in radically redesigning an open textbook? This seems to me to be a very interesting and important research and development question to work on;
  • collaboration and crowdsourcing There are many people now teaching innovatively and in ways that exploit digital media. If I follow an open approach to writing and publishing, to what extent can I successfully draw on others to provide content, examples and feedback. Won’t it be a better book if I have many collaborators/contributors, rather than to try and do everything myself?
  • the world is changing I may be getting money now from commercial publishing – but for how much longer? My own view is that commercial academic print-based publishing will be dead within ten years. It’s an unsustainable business that has failed to adapt fast enough to changing technology. This is not to say there is a sustainable business model yet for open publishing either, but I will wager that one will be found more quickly than a rescue plan for commercial publishing;
  • knowledge should be free This is the most compelling reason for me. Can we find a sustainable way to produce original high quality content that can be made available free of charge? I have had great fortune not only to be educated in public schools and universities, but also to work in them. Just consider this project as a rather tiny attempt at giving back.