A few weeks ago I started to think about revising my ten-year old book, Compression Algorithms for Real Programmers. Last year, I had a good deal of fun brushing some of the dust off of my book about steganography, Disappearing Cryptography and my book about privacy enhancing technology, Translucent Databases , so I started wondering if there were other books that were worth revitalizing.
The book about compression algorithms hasn't sold many copies lately, but I think the topic is still as useful for someone who needs a quick introduction. I tried to target the high-end programmers and the academics looking for an introduction to the topic and the result was a book that has been used as a textbook in simpler courses but also purchased by people in industry. While my heart has always been in the world of encryption, I've written a number of staples like this and the sales have always been good enough to make it almost worth my time.
When I started mousing around on the Internet, I found a few good reviews, a few negative ones, and what is best described politely as the ultimate complement: the book is a proud member of the pirated ISO "Great Science Textbooks DVD October 2008". Someone loved my book enough to scan it in and steal it.
I'm in good company. While I don't know my way around some of the areas of biology or chemistry, I saw the names of at least one Fields medalist in the list of authors. It's not everyday a man gets to share a list with a Fields medalist!
That's the good news. The bad news is that sales of the book are pretty much non-existant. Some people may have success giving their books away, but there was no boost since someone started "sharing" this file in 2007. Anyone who thinks that the stolen copies are good advertising is dreaming. Sales have dropped.
While others report reasonable results giving away free copies, I think the free copies aren't as responsible for any boost in sales as much as the publicity surrounding the free copies. It's the hype not the lack of cost that attract buyers. Getting this hype is much harder now that one person has done it.
The problem is going to become even more pronounced as the digital readers get better and better. I think most people buy legit copies of free books because it's cheaper than paying for the ink jet cartridges to print it out.
Alas, revitalizing a book like this isn't a simple process. Even though it's less work than writing a first draft, it's still very time consuming. I can't justify putting any time into creating another draft unless I'm going to earn something back. The heating bill needs to be paid. The idea of giving the book away and waiting for kind folks to buy a copy is such a long shot that I really can't justify it. Given that making the list of Great Science Textbooks didn't increase sales, I'm not going to take another chance until I find a better solution.
So I decided to ask my friends what I should do. Here are the options I can see:
- Do Nothing -- Consider it a gift to the world. Let someone else write an update. Forget about the topic. Do something else.
- Sue the People Seeding the Copies -- The Torrent trackers make it pretty easy to find someone seeding the copies. While there are some anonymizing techniques involved, it's usually possible to pin down someone. I know about IP addresses and how to work the databases at ARIN. It shouldn't be hard to track some people down.
So far the RIAA has been demonized for tracking down the people doing this so-called sharing. I'm wondering how people would feel if the original author visits their front door and asks them kindly to quit sharing the books. I plan on bringing them pictures of kids and copies of this winter's heating bills. Perhaps a human face will be more persuasive.
- Find some Deep Pockets -- Google may not be making money off of the book directly, but it sure is making it simple for people to find a copy. Indeed if you type in "Wayner 'Data Compression for Real Programmers'", Google will happily steer you to all of the great places where you can download it for free: mininova, torrentreactor, extratorrent and more. While they do point to my own website, they don't even point to the main page for the book where I redirect people to Amazon. They only bring up the errata page. Even in the extended results.
This is an accident caused by the fact that the pirates-- the future guardians of our culture-- didn't put the correct title in the list of great textbooks. Oh well. At least they spelled my name correctly. If you type in the correct title, Google steers you to Amazon, Barnes and Noble and some others. Pirate Bay does show up, but not until page 8.
If you type in something else, Google does something completely different. If you use the terms "wayner data compression textbook", you'll get pointers to buy other people's books from Amazon and a number of links on where to steal my book for free. But the front page doesn't say anything about actually paying my bok.
The law in some of these matters is still pretty untested. While I think Google may find plenty of safe harbors in the DMCA, I think that they are clearly making money off of their search arm. Even if they don't show ads directly on my search results-- something they didn't in my recent searches-- Google executives have bragged that even their free projects funnel people into ad generating pages. Google News supposedly produced $100m in revenue a year without any ads at all.
Given this, I'm wondering whether it makes sense to hook up with a smart, adventurous lawyer who's interested in pushing the envelope. Why are they even indexing sites like mininova and isohunt?
I'm curious to hear what others think I should do. My guess is that this is a pretty crucial moment for society. While I'm very impressed with the quality of the knowledge in the Wikipedia, it's clear that the pilings are being knocked out of the people who synthesize information. One book publisher told me that his book hit the bittorrent networks within hours of appearing in digital form.
It's also clear that the brutal competition is not just hitting people like me. One person tried to tell me that society could rely upon professors with tenure to write books, but I haven't seen this lately. All of the tenured professors I know are frantically typing out grant applications. Their books were published years before they actually got tenure.
Indeed when I poke around, it's easy to find that many of the university courses are using either updated versions of old books or just plain old books. ( 1996 , 2003 , 1979-2006 .) The updates are certainly better than nothing, but one webpage for a classic textbook from the 1970s promises only that the new version includes "more detail" and "extensive exercises at various levels of difficulty at the end of each chapter". My updated versions aren't complete rewrites and I doubt that many of the books out there.
New textbooks seem to be pretty few and far between. Many courses like to just assign the latest research papers ( e.g. ),a solution that's certainly very current but comes without any consistency. Students need to shift gears to adjust to the slightly different nomenclature of each author and then they often need to reread the same material again and again because each author needs to reintroduce the topic again and again.
Student complain that textbooks cost too much and I certainly agree. Books easily cost more than $100 and some cost more than $200. While this sounds outrageous compared to a best seller, it's hard to make much money in this business even at that price. Very few books sell even 1000 copies and very few textbooks sell 100,000 copies.
The irony is that $100 is also much cheaper than a university course. Tuition can easily run $3,000 to $5,000 and a good text book usually comes with more material. While a text book doesn't come with office hours and TAs, it doesn't require transcribing a professor's hen scratching on the board. That makes it a great deal at $200.
I worry about our world's ability to synthesize the knowledge we need to make it easy to pass along information. There are fewer and fewer rewards for anyone who bothers to try to create even a semi-coherent introduction to a topic. The wikis are great but they have dangerous weaknesses. The pirates and the search engines are knocking out the foundations that built viable businesses. My books have always been far from perfect, but still they were better than nothing. If anyone has an idea, I would like to hear it.