Friday, June 28, 2013

June 2013 Observations - Book publishers – making it harder than it needs to be?

It’s interesting how often stories and themes seem to recur and/or become intertwined. And every once in awhile, I enjoy recording some of those cases here in Jim Lyons Observations. Recently, I had a series of experiences which related to the future of book publishing, hardcover, ebooks, and their competition – with even a little “Kindle Printing” thrown in.

Since beginning this column at the end of 2005, I’ve tried to balance past, present and future, in looking at printing and imaging. While my viewpoint is a cultivated attempt at objectivity, I really am a “homer” when it comes right down to it, with a rooting interest in both worthwhile traditions and technology-based changes, at least if they represent an improvement over the status quo. For example, I love hardbound books, but can see the tremendous value of ebooks, including benefits of superior note-taking and referencing, and have been a proponent of electronic documents (of most kinds) for many years. So a recent experience, where I found myself seeking a well-known, traditional publisher’s permission to share a chapter of one of their recent works with the students in my undergrad economics class, left me wondering about hardbound books and their future. Are those in charge anachronisms, resting on their laurels, making things harder on themselves than they need to be, and even hastening their demise?

I will keep this a bit anonymous, and simply describe the book in question as a major hit among the political prognostication crowd (see a recent Amazon screen shot of stats, below, for a view of its popularity and a hint to its identity). It is authored by an increasingly well-known individual who shares his surname with that of a precious metal. (The publisher shares its name with a monochrome flightless bird.) The book was published in Fall 2012 (I had it pre-ordered), and after reading most of it in hardcover, I also purchased it in ebook format, for the complementary benefits I mentioned above.

There is one chapter about economics forecasting that I thought would be fun to use in my economics classes, offering a bit more of a pop-culture approach to one of the mysteries of macroeconomics. As a rather new higher-ed faculty member I had never approached a publisher to gain permission to use their material in the classroom, so I figured it would be an interesting experience. I also thought that this exposure of their book in the classroom, via a sample chapter, would be a good thing for the publisher, marketing-wise.

I was pleased that the publisher offered a website for applying for such things, and I applied for the permission, supplying details like which pages (which can get a bit ill-defined in an ebook) and how many chapters I was interested in sharing with my class. I waited for an email reply, and was surprised when a letter (i.e., snail mail) arrived, almost two weeks after my request. In the envelope were two copies of a two-page contract, granting permission to share the material with 10 students for a fee of $40. Keeping in mind this didn’t include copying expense (which was executed by me, printing screen shots of my Kindle version), it seemed quite high, considering the students could acquire the entire hardbound book for just over $15, and the ebook for $12. One signed contract was due to the publisher in New York, with the other to be returned with a check to their Chicago office. (Wiring the money was offered as an option as well.) My university was ready to pay this for me with the use of a P-card, but no “plastic” (let alone PayPal!) option was included in the contract verbiage.

I proceeded with a call to the publisher (amazingly, a name and number for an individual in the Permissions department was provided), but I got an abrupt “what does that mean?”  when I asked about a more “user-friendly” way to pay (this after being informed that there was no way I would be remembered for my request, as they have so, so many of these). “Ah, a credit card … well I guess we can do that …”, and then I supplied the usual info (card number, expiration date) over the phone. After imposing (or feeling I had) on this abrupt, clearly “too busy” individual by making my payment, I had a further question, but barely dared to ask. It was along the lines of, “If a have another class …” (which I will have, many in fact), and I was informed that yes, indeed, each of these permission requests needed to be done separately, starting from scratch.

In the end, my students received their copied chapters, and we will be discussing the reading in an upcoming class session. And as far as future classes? I will find some similar material to share with my students, via TED talks, online articles, or in our university library, but with the cost, and especially hassle factor of working with this well-known publisher, I can’t imagine ever undertaking a publisher permission request again.

A check with a long-time publishing industry employee confirmed, as I suspected, that the practices and policies I encountered were not out of the ordinary. It was suggested that many publishers have outsourced all photocopy requests to the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), but an after-the-fact check showed that while my “monochrome flightless bird” publisher manages some permissions through the CCC,  those for academic requests are not among them.

This was all for an economics class, but in terms of (negative) examples of understanding and satisfying user needs, promoting your product, and coming off as a likable, with-the-times partner, this story will come back many more times — only in my marketing classes!

(NOTE from Jim Lyons - With this month's Observations, we are now being hosted by the Imaging Channel, with this month's post at, in addition to appearing here. I could not be more pleased and am grateful to my good friends and associates at 1105 Media!)

I am excited and honored to have Jim Lyons Observations at home with The Imaging Channel and 1105 Media


fortboise said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. It reminds me of the one time I attempted to obtain permission to make a choral arrangement of a popular song. Slow, paper-based contract, dictated from the assumption of an extremely unequal power relationship. The permission they offered was for me to go ahead and do it as a "work for hire" (although maybe they didn't use that term of art directly): pay them (of course) money, and then assign all rights to my work beyond the one performance I intended to direct to them.

They couldn't have demonstrated the foundations of consumer contempt for the "big record labels" any more perfectly if they had tried.

fortboise said...

btw, the "monochrome" bird part threw me off, as all the little gray birds I know are flighted. I figured the author... and "a little anonymous" with the ISBN shown is very little.

Jim Lyons said...

Hey Fortboise - thanks for reading and sharing experiences! I am exacting my revenge by taking all of the 60 days to return the contract. (Though the credit card charge came through almost immediately.) And love the use of the phrase "extremely unequal power relationship" - it's exactly the point. (At least they act like they have one!)

As far as "monochrome" that one did haunt me too, after composing but before publishing, as of course the birds in question are not one-, but two-colored. We so often use "monochrome" in printing and imaging to mean "black and white" I thought I'd stick with it. Then even with "flightless" - unlike with emus and ostriches, the birds in mind are sometimes said to "fly" under water! So thanks for noticing, and as far as the author's anonymity, he's going to be a lot more well known among a small group of undergrad econ students after this class (none of whom had ever heard of him before).

Anonymous said...

I am dumbfounded by the absurdity of the whole process. To be honest, I can't imagine that copyright law would require permission to use material from a published source in a teaching environment. Of course, said teacher must provide source documentation, but to get permission for use? Why did the guy bother to write the book, anyway? While I firmly support the importance of copyright protection, I wonder if in some aspects, the whole idea of fair use has become over thought and over wrought.