Sunday, April 21, 2013

Scribbles on

A few days ago our friend and colleague Daniel Cassany had an opinion piece published in the Spanish national daily newspaper, El Pais. His piece (translated) was called "Confessions of a Pirated Author" and observed that while the phenomenon of pirated work is by no means confined to the internet it is clear that with each passing day it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain payment for publishing. Daniel looks at the case of his own work that can be found and downloaded at He stares this down and takes a basically sanguine approach to the inevitable.

I recalled some controversy around the Scribd site some years ago, but it had subsequently slipped off my radar. So I ran a quick glance over how it is viewed 'encyclopedially' (i.e., in Wikipedia), and then used the search function to see how some of our work and the work of colleagues played out on the site.

There were some interesting results. Some colleagues whose books we'd have expected to see with large numbers of downloads did not appear at all, or only marginally. Others, like Henry Jenkins, were conspicuous by their presence. Maybe some folk's publishers check the site out and ask for material to be removed. My own suspicion is that pricing may play a factor.

Let's face it, academic books in fields like our own are not, to a large extent, the kinds of books the everyperson in the street would track down and read. And most certainly our own books are not remotely like that. The people who will read these books are almost entirely people who have them prescribed for courses. This means that print versions of such books will tend to cost more rather than less. Getting a decent trade price for a book is pretty hard.

The combination of 'required reading' and 'significant price' is a sure bet for making 'sharing on Scribd' an attractive option.

Interestingly, the two books of our own that have attracted the highest number of downloads off Scribd are both foreign language works, but present very different cases.

The two versions of Nuevos Alfabetismos (New Literacies) available on have had somewhat over 2000 downloads. The book is published in Spain, has been through 4 printings since the Spanish version came out in 2008, and is not cheap in print (although the Kindle version is very significantly cheaper than the print version). The book is quite widely used as a text in Spain, one of those countries where university graduates--and young people generally--face grim career prospects. By the time the original publishers send on foreign language royalties to us, we might get a few hundred dollars each per year for this book. Even if everyone who downloaded a Scribd copy would otherwise have had to buy one we are talking about maybe a couple thousand dollars in lost royalties for us. That's nothing compared to what taxpayers poured into our respective educations. The publishers may feel differently, but we are not going to lose any sleep over it.

On the contrary. When people in Argentina and Spain invite us to give talks and pay for travel and for the talks we more than recoup any lost royalties. And even if that never happened, what price can an academic put on the privilege of having their hard-won words read by thousands of learners in formal institutions abroad?

Then there is a very different case--one that we find absolutely delightful. Someone has uploaded to Scribd what looks like a Malay version of A Handbook for Teacher Education. Some soul somewhere will have painstakingly had every page machine-translated and then uploaded the file and created a Contents list and so on. This is beyond humbling. There is no way the book would ever be published in Malay. Our only concern here is that some people have conspicuously found the book a less-than-inspiring read in English (and likely also in Portuguese and Chinese, the officially published foreign language versions). So enduring a machine translation is unlikely to prove any more rewarding--although it could well encourage some imterestingly 'innovative' education research .... Where a book does not exist in a language there can surely be no issue whatsoever and at any level over informal translations being published and used. In the case of academic books on research and theory and the like, I guess the main consideration is one of risk: that even worse things might result from people trying to apply the 'fruits' of 'learning via an informal translation from what happens when learners read official published and translated versions.

In the final wash up, for authors like us it doesn't make much difference whether someone reads a purchased version of a book or a shared version on sites like Scribd. It is nice to be read. It is also nice to be able to buy a new gadget by cashing in a modest royalty cheque. But given a forced choice it is better to be read. No question. That is what educationists write for--or should, in our view, write for. Too much education has been captured by publishers as it is.

At the same time, it is obvious that the lower the purchase price of a book is the less incentive there is to download a 'shared' copy. In some cases, for example, Kindle versions of our book sell for practically the same (challenging) price as the print versions. This seems crazy. Once a book has been set for print it costs next to nothing to make it available in electronic form. Some people will always pay the price of a hard copy book. Others will prefer an electronic version. And if they greatly outweigh the numbers who buy hard copy, then so be it. We'd like it if publishers worked out the costs of print viability, kept the margins tight and the price of hard copy as low as can be risked, and also offered the work electronically as close to cost of production as possible.

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