Articles About Free Books

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Articles About Free Books

Ben Crowell


The Problem is Economics 3

Free Books, But No Open-Source Books 4

Do We Need Open Source? 4

Do Technical Problems Prevent Open-Source Books? 6

No Paper, No Problem? 6

What Next? 7

History of Revisions 7

References 7

Displacing Unfree Books 9

Dead Trees 10

The Cathedral, Not the Bazaar 10

Free Forever, or Just For Now? 11

R-E-S-P-E-C-T 12

References 12

You mean like Wikipedia? 13

Giving it away isn't free. 13

the new infrastructure 14

Has the time come for print-on-demand? 15

wikibooks 16

making contact 17

connecting the dots 18

References 18


Do Open-Source Books Work?1

by Ben Crowell

How will the internet change book publishing? This article examines a new crop of math and science textbooks that are available for free over the internet, and discusses what they have to tell us about whether the open-source software model can be translated into book publishing.

This article was discussed on the Slashdot forum 26 Sep 2000. Since then, I've started a web site called The Assayer for user-contributed book reviews, with an emphasis on free books. The number of free books and the number of open-source books has grown since then, and The Assayer is a good place to find them. If you're interested in old public-domain books that are free on the web, check out The Assayer's links page. I wrote followup articles in 2002 and 2005.

Ben Franklin[1] figured out that information wants to be free, so in 1731 he invented the lending library. It was no Napster: this eighteenth-century information superhighway was meant for such serious purposes as education and fomenting revolution. Franklin wrote, "These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges." Words mattered. In the golden age of ink and wood pulp, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Zola's J'Accuse letter[2] were data that packed a punch.

We take the information revolution seriously, but how serious are we about serious information? Can we really free our minds if we power on, dial up, and log in? You wouldn't think so based on any changes in the U.S. education system. A young relative of mine brought home his grade-school science textbook, and one of its main modules was a detailed discussion of dinosaurs, yet it never mentioned evolution. Bad textbooks are the rule, not the exception. A recent critical survey of American history textbooks[3] is dedicated "to all American history teachers who teach against their textbooks," but the author might have well included the rest of the curriculum. Poor textbooks were probably already inspiring complaints back when they were scratched on clay tablets with a pointed stick, but I'll argue below that books are actually getting worse, and that both the problem and the possible solution have to do with technology and economics.

The Problem is Economics

Many e-businesses have found out that technology can make you broke as easily as it can make you rich; in publishing, it seems that technology has driven the profit out of textbooks. Color printing has been getting cheaper, and full color, though still fantastically expensive to set up for production, is now considered mandatory for high school and introductory college textbooks. At the same time, desktop publishing software and the increasing digitization of printing have made it possible to prepare new editions more rapidly. The confluence of these technologies has created a vicious circle. Rising production costs drive up bookstore prices, which makes more students buy used books, which reduces sales. To kill off the used book market, publishers bring out a new edition every few years, with just enough changes to make it impractical to use it side by side in the same classroom with the previous edition. To compensate for the added cost of tooling up for so many new editions, publishers raise their prices, which starts the whole cycle over again. After decades of merely keeping pace with inflation, textbook prices have recently headed through the roof.[5]

In this climate of vanishingly thin margins, the most successful textbook is little more than a loss leader, and one with more modest sales is a disaster. Every book has to be a home run. For fear of losing sales in socially conservative school districts, K-12 biology books often soft-pedal evolution, misrepresent it, or omit it entirely.[6] History books avoid controversy by propagating the myth that John Brown was insane, or by failing to mention that the Vietnam war began as a war of independence in a French colony.[3] The home-run syndrome's most consistent effect is to inflate the list of topics, so that no book will be rejected by anyone for leaving out a specific item. In my field, physics, it is commonly observed that each edition is worse than the previous one, as the pressure for more topics squeezes out the room for honest explanations, resulting in a cookbook of formulas.

Free Books, But No Open-Source Books

If bad books result from higher prices, free books would seem to be the solution. Textbooks, besides their intrinsic importance as gateways to industrial-strength information, are a good test bed for evaluating innovations in how books are written and distributed. The authors of math and science textbooks in particular are unlikely to be intimidated by technology, but their goals and methods are more representative of the practical approach of authors in general than in the case of computer manuals and computer science textbooks, [4] whose authors may be willing to put up with a great deal of pain to be on the bleeding edge of information technology. When I set out to write my own free physics textbook, I found that it was quite hard to get any information on how a free book could be done in practice, and this article is the result of my attempt at a (completely unscientific) survey of how free textbooks have actually been done. Quite a few free math and science textbooks are on the web now, [7],[8],[9],[10],[11] but interestingly, none of them seem to have followed the successful, highly publicized, and legally solid open-source software approach.[12] In fact, the most highly publicized digital textbooks are based on a model that is to open source as antimatter is to matter: a dental school[13] has required its students to buy all their books on a single DVD, which expires and stops working if the students don't pay a hefty annual fee!

Does the neglect of the open-source book concept outside the computer arena mean that there is something intrinsically wrong with the idea of an open-source book? Or does the rest of the world just not "get it" yet? As we'll see, the reality is more complicated than either extreme point of view.

Among the free books I've studied, the one that comes closest to the collaborative spirit of the open source movement is the Biophysics Textbook On-Line (BTOL),[9] in which each chapter has been written by a different author. The most important reason why the open-source software movement emphasizes collaboration-building is that the projects they tackle are often simply too big for the lone-wolf approach. Likewise, the BTOL was written because it had become apparent that the field was getting so large that the previously standard text was never going to be updated. When I wrote one of the authors, Lou DeFelice, to ask how the BTOL folks had been so successful in their community-building, he repled, "The BTOL is tied to a Society that already has an established community, regular meetings, newsletters, etc. We tap into all of this structure. For example, when a new article is posted we announce it in the Biophysical Society Newsletter. I would think that other fields might benefit from endorsement by an established society that already serves the field."

The most surprising result of my survey, however, was that there were no books that were really open source in the sense in which the term is used in the open-source movement. The BTOL is collaborative but closed-source. Some authors have made their source code available, [8],[11] but none of the source-available books are collaborations, and they do not have licensing agreements of the type developed to make sure free software stays free.

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