Software Musings

Vanity Publishing?

Posted on: 02/12/2006

Many, many years ago I determined that there were many aspects of mathematics taught either at university or not at all that should be accessible to an interested high-school student. I further felt that many of these concepts were actually more interesting, and possibly more useful, than a lot of the maths that is taught in high-schools.

I have started writing a book describing these topics many times and failed to complete them until, about a year ago, I started again with the teenage son, Richard, of one of my colleagues as co-author. This time the book has been completed and I’ve started looking around for a publisher. The publisher of my previous book (Auerbach), to whom I sent the manuscript by accident (I was intending to send a different manuscript but, since all my books get called book.pdf because I’m too lazy to change the LaTeX Makefile, it’s easy to get them muddled), said that they were not interested because they didn’t publish children’s books. I was then starting to cast around for another publisher and asked my co-author who is more knowledgeable about such things to help when I came across Alexandre Borovik’s Mathematics Under the Microscope which he has published himself online.

The second thread was learning about Alexander Pope’s “relationship” with his publishers: certainly one of master (Pope) and slave (publisher). I have to date published three books, two technical and one popular, each through a different publisher and have been in each case disappointed by the associated marketing. This afternoon I gave a lecture at the Canada Aviation Museum and, as always, dropped into the shop to see whether my flying book was on display. As always, it wasn’t.

J. L. Carr is also one of my heroes (and, as most men are, I suppose, I’ve been in love with Emma Foxberrow since I read The Harpole Report). Carr’s relationship with publishers sounds much like Pope’s.

So, does publishing on the web count? I know that Richard would be disappointed in not having his name on the cover of a book he can shew his friends in the local bookshop. In making his decision, Borovik says in his blog that:

I had started this blog as a promotion vehicle for my forthcoming book Mathematics under the Microscope. I was planning to publish it with a big, world leading publishing house; the publishers offered me a contract (and even FedExed me papers for signing). However, three months of blogging convinced me that I prefer to keep a live, upgradeable version of the book on the Internet, with free access for everyone.

The financial reward of having a non-bestseller book published is, of course, negligible. I estimate that my latest book, which sells steadily, is bringing in something like 0.4% of the salary I get from my day job. Or, to put it another way, I’d only have to have 250 such books in circulation to be able to retire. So why do we write books? And would online publishing satisfy such compulsions as well as (or better than) print publication?

I suppose that, before I wrote my first one, there was a feeling that it would be nice to have my name on the cover of a book in the local bookshop. That pride retreated a long time ago. As I wander around the local bookshop and see the rubbish that is displayed there, I often wonder whether I want to contribute more printed words to the world.

Readership is presumably the most important factor. Could or would I attract more readers with a publication on the web? Presumably I wouldn’t pick up the passing Christmas trade of parents looking for books to drive their children into becoming over-achievers. And I would avoid feeling that I had contributed to, say, a first rate poet becoming a second rate mathematician because I’d given pushy parents a weapon.

I like Borovik’s idea of a continually updateable book. As new mathematical techniques emerge and my understanding evolves, topics could be added. But that’s a double-edged sword: every time I look at Borovik’s book, it has changed. Do I download again and reprint?

Can anyone read a book, particularly a maths book, online? Do people really download and print books? It takes a lot of paper and toner cartridges and the result isn’t as easily read in the bath as a “normally” bound book. Also, even by distributing a pdf, can I be sure of the result the reader is seeing: will it look exactly as I want it to? All three of my previous books have gone to the publisher as camera-ready copy: I have determined the precise page layout.

Feedback welcome.


2 Responses to "Vanity Publishing?"

How about self publishing?

You would be responsible for marketing, but customers would get a proper bound book.

A share your view. I have a colleague who published a book and is now unable to revise it for several years, even though it needs an update and is a bugger to find a copy anywhere.

If you do put it on the web, make sure it gets ‘archived’ ( in case your website ever disappears. Another example of a web-book is from Fred Vaio (…. seems to have gone down… see comment above).

Good luck on the decision you make!


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December 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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