The e-book revolution

The way technology is changing the economics of publishing, both demand and supply sides, is fascinating. Here’s a round-up of some recent articles and posts – not systematic, just the ones I’ve come across.

David Gauntlett on the LSE Review of Books blog, about academic e-publishing. This was a reply to an earlier post by Patrick Dunleavy.

The Guardian on Amazon’s dominance in the e-book market – and what its downfall might be.

Marketwatch on the impact of e-books on publishing.

An anti-Amazon slideshow on The Nation.

A literary agent’s thoughts on the changes in the industry – Ed Victor in the Daily Telegraph.

The publishers’ reaction to the DoJ anti-trust suit.

Latest e-book market data from Publishers Weekly.

A handy guide (via CNET) to how to publish your own e-book.

And from NPR, libraries’ struggle with e-books.


6 thoughts on “The e-book revolution

  1. When I started my degree, at the ripe old age of 44, last September, with slightly failing eyesight, I was very disappointed to find that none of my “required reading” text books in economics, politics or international relations, were available in any e-book format. Almost every one is the best part of fifty quid, printed in sub-RNIB recommended font sizes and on shiny paper that makes them doubly hard to read unless the light is “just so”.

    Equally, in one of my first economics modules, the lecturer used the market for e-readers as an example, and out of a class of thirty it turned out I was the only one who had one or had used any e-book format even on computer based clients. So maybe there is not yet a market for the e-book version of text books. But it would be interesting to know just how much it would cost to convert them (my guess is given the way they format books for print, actually very little – maybe even just one purchase worth – once it’s been done for one, since the LaTeX or XML can be styled multiple ways pretty trivially).

    The upside is that I have probably read round the subjects more, via non-text book titles such as The Soulful Science, Paper Money Collapse, Debunking Economics, Poor Economics and The Undercover Economist together with online resources than via the text books. But I do think universities have to do more to encourage publishers to produce e-book versions of the texts they expect us to use as core texts since most of them are only ever recommended by universities and bought by students. I don’t think that every first year undergraduate will be able to discern what is good and what is not (I dare say I can’t either) without much guidance.

    Universities often seek to promote equal access and diversity in their other operations and e-books can be a big part of this with resizable text and different viewing media (and even younger students could probably ensure fewer back problems in later life if they only had a 250g Kindle to carry around and not several kilogram dead tree books. I would likely pay more or less the same 20 lattes for an e-book version to make my degree less painful. It would also help if lecturers learned to produce materials that made transfer to electronic devices easier.

    (For my maths based economics module I tended to rely on Khan Academy as much as books, again because I could watch his modules on a big screen rather than squint at text books).

    • The text book market is a scandal all round. Apart from the creation of monopoly rents, reflected in the unacceptable cover prices you mention, there’s another consequence of the way lecturers all gravitate to the few standard texts (fear? – no-one ever got sacked for buying…. Or laziness? – because of the supplementary materials). It is the increasing homogenization and narrowness of economics itself. I’m working with a group of people to try to bring about an update the curriculum in UK universities, and textbooks seem a serious barrier to change. A reformed curriculum will need its textbooks. Ideally, a wider range of them than is available now, at a competitive price.

      Shame on me, I’d never thought of the accessibility dimension of e-readers. I really hope textbook publishers will take on board this particular argument for providing e-versions of texts.

  2. Thanks Dan, that was really interesting. Sadly, when I was looking for a job in Oxford in 1994 I approached a certain well known academic bookseller with an idea for selling books via this new “world wide web” – at least in the first instance to academic and library buyers if not publicly – and they never replied. We might today be talking about Blackwell rather than Bezos if they had 🙂

    Diane, yes, accessibility was important for me. I had tried Kindle content and other eBooks on my PC and iPad but it made me tired (backlit screens are bad for your eyes in that respect) so ended up with a Kindle itself. I eventually ended up looking for alternatives to my text books that were available in Kindle format, but found precious few and, of course, when weekly lectures follow one book’s chapters you soon get out of synch using almost any other book arranged even slightly differently. I ended up giving up middle age vanity and getting specs just to be able to read the text books that I couldn’t get electronically. And of course, whilst not wishing to do university disability support departments out of their job, a Kindle will also read text out loud to you if you still can’t see it even with big text sizes (I’m sure people in that situation will soon get used to the idiosyncrasies of strange electronic voices).

    But since you can also send other documents to your Kindle, I found that converting lecture slides to PDFs and then flicking through them in the Kindle is a great way to keep all your revision materials in an inside jacket pocket and so on too!

    My intention with my degree is to go into economics teaching, hopefully here at Brookes where my loyalties lie. I hear frustrations with our curriculum voiced by both staff and to a lesser extent students and I for one lament having no history of economics or especially for me, heterodox (I’d describe myself as Austrian School) topics and views. I suspect here it’s because my degree (our first attempt at a deliberate “PPE” type of course) has latched onto the side of a school that teaches mainly economics for business and criticism is maybe less important than learning what to expect when in general commercial management roles – being the passive victims of economic policy rather than the policy maker/influencer.

    With so much self-reflection going on amongst economists themselves in the years since the crash, academia, especially undergraduate level seems slow to catch up and universities desperate to curb costs rather than create more and more modules to deliver is not helping us expand the core, let alone change what we already teach. So if your curriculum group wants input from a somewhat frustrated undergraduate feel free to use me if you like!

    If people (publishers and academics) are not careful the market will go away from them. I can, for instance, access virtually all the important corpus of Austrian School literature online and for free and study them in some depth for $150 or less for 8 or 10 weeks with Mises Academy and I am working on setting something similar up for a group of economic think tanks in the UK who would like to do more education out-reach activities online. Whilst these might never eradicate the need for university level economics they are likely to make life harder as people are more aware of alternatives and more critical of the content of mainstream economics courses.

    • I’ll take you up on that – we will aim to run a student conference to consult economics undergraduates – daft to think about curriculum reform without that input!

  3. I’m a course rep too, so whilst it has been often frustratingly difficult to get discussion going amongst fellow students (such as recently when the New York Times ran that debate about what we should teach in economics) I do have access to a cohort of “Economics, Politics and International Relations” course students to try and test ideas on if necessary.

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