Welcome to AskALLi, the self-publishing advice broadcast from the Alliance of Independent Authors. This week it’s our monthly IndieVoices’ self-publishing salon with interviews conducted by ALLi Managing Editor Howard Lovy and updates from News Editor Dan Holloway.
This Month’s IndieVoices
You or your kids are going back to school now, but as we all know, the excitement comes with anxiety. Financial anxiety. Among the many costs of a college education, one thing that many parents fail to account for is the high cost of textbooks. My guest today is David Harris, editor in chief of OpenStax, based at Rice University, which has a solution to the problem.
David and I discuss how more colleges and universities are using free, open-license textbooks. At OpenStax, they all go through a peer-review process. Students enjoy them because they’re free and instructors like the way they can be tailored to individual lessons. Free, open-license textbooks are changing the way we think about educational publishing.
News editor Dan Holloway, who just retained his crown as the European speed reading champion, talks about the piracy problem in book publishing, and the different ways to crowdsource your podcast.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
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About the Hosts
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last five years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a “book doctor” to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance business and technology writer, and is launching a new Jewish-themed podcast on Patreon. Find Howard on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle
Read the IndieVoices Transcript
Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy, managing editor of the Alliance of Independent Authors, and you’re listening to IndieVoices. You or your kids are going back to school now, but as we all know, the excitement comes with anxiety, financial anxiety. Among the many costs of college education. one thing that many parents fail to account for is the high cost of textbooks. My guest today is David Harris, editor in chief of OpenStax based at Rice University, which has a solution to the problem. Hello and welcome to IndieVoices, David.
David Harris: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to discuss this.
Howard Lovy: Great. Well, one reason I had to talk to you was that indie authors know that the old ways of publishing are becoming outdated, so while OpenStax is not technically self-publishing, I count it as in the same indie spirit, as self-publishing—the idea of a more direct conversation between author and reader or in this case author, teacher, and student. Did I get that right?
David Harris: I might differ a little bit with you on it. There’s a very strong community aspect to it, but we do apply the rigors of a traditional publishing model, to meet the requirements, that very demanding requirements of the education marketplace. And so all the materials are professionally reviewed by peers, professionally edited, etc.
Howard Lovy: Tell me about your personal background and what brought you to OpenStax.
David Harris: Yeah. So, I used to work for one of those, traditional publishers. I was also a president of an ed tech company, called WebAssign. And actually, when I was at WebAssign. one of our partners was a traditional publisher and we started to see the prices escalating tremendously for students to access that content. And at WebAssign we had an issue with that because we were based out of a university. And so that’s when I first discovered open education resources and, principally connections, which was the precursor to OpenStax. And I found what they were doing was really interesting and very innovative in that they would openly license content and make it available to everyone free of charge. And that’s how I got interested in OpenStax and I joined them before it was OpenStax in 2012.
Howard Lovy: Oh, so you were in academic publishing before and you saw how expensive it was becoming.
David Harris: Yeah, absolutely. When I first started in academic publishing, many, many years ago, it was a much different industry. There are many, many different publishers and it really we’re focused on are the benefits of the student in education. Then in the mid two thousands, I, a lot of these companies got acquired and it changed the tenor of it. It was much more about financial operations and how can we maximize the quarterly results which resulted in higher prices bundling. And really I had no interest in that and that’s why I left that side of the business.
Howard Lovy: So what is the traditional textbook publishing industry so high priced?
David Harris: There’s a lot of traditional expenses that they have, you know, they have a, they have obviously a royalty arrangements, they have very large sales forces, very large marketing expenses. But one of the real cost drive is really in the last 10 or 15 years has been supporting platforms. These educational platforms and many publishes a, they like to give the appearance that they’re supporting one platform where they’re really having to support many different platforms and that becomes very, very expensive at scale. On top of that, you have all of the debt that they’ve acquired that they have to Service. So, it’s really this uncomfortable stew, that put a tremendous pressure on pricing. I will say in the last couple of years they have been making moves to lower prices to get more students engaged. But I think that’s largely a result of what open education resources have done to the market.
Howard Lovy: Right? You’re leading the way. We’re not just talking about textbooks, but the ability to adapt and personalize course material, right? How does that process work?
David Harris: Increasingly you’re seeing machine learning being used in these platforms, artificial intelligence that they will analyze what a student responses and then they will provide the student feedback or direction based on how that student responds.
Howard Lovy: There are so many innovations in publishing using digital media that we’re still only at the beginning of how content can be written, distributed and personalized. Do we have to rethink the meaning of what a textbook is?
David Harris: So yes. So the word textbook today it, it means so many different things to different people. I guess for students it means something that’s very expensive, expensive and a pain to lug around, but really you can think of a textbook as learning curricular or a learning system, and that really does change the way that that content is distributed and the way that students will interact with that content. But one of the fundamentals that doesn’t change Is that the scholarship needs to be high. The accuracy needs to be high and it needs to be very logically laid out for students so that difficult concepts are within that grasp.
Howard Lovy: Walk me through the process. Who are the authors? Do they approach you or do you approach them? How does the textbook begin to be written?
David Harris: So it’s interesting, even though a lot of people in the community were complaining about the prices of textbooks books, you very rarely complaints around the quality of the textbooks or the accuracy of them. So, the publishers are known for quality development work and we didn’t think we needed to really change that model. So, we peer review, we use professional editorial groups for copy editing, scientific accuracy, etc. So, in that regard, we’re very much like a Traditional publisher, also a will acquire rights, for previously published work and will pay the author to take that Content and then release it under an open license. we also develop resources from scratch and we pay the authors for their work. Where we’re different from traditional publishers is that we don’t pay royalties obviously because we’re giving away. And you can’t pay royalties on that. And we also don’t do single authored works and we do that to manage schedule risk so that we have a diversity of authors who can work together to get the projects done.
Howard Lovy: How do you avoid the Wikipedia problem? Many academics are wary of anything called open source because you run into accuracy problems at times.
David Harris: Right? That’s the, that’s the quality issue. And I think this is where OpenStax pivoted from, the early parts of the OER movement. our founder, Richard Baraniuk, original premise was if we provide the tool, the platform, people will go and contribute and then they will adapt to adopt it. But to his credit, about eight years later, we were looking at the issue of scale, getting to scale at the same time, the high prices. And he discovered and we discovered that really the approach is get them to adopt and then they will adapt. And if you look at it through that lens, then you have to apply a lot of rigor to the development of it. It’s got to meet scope and sequence requirements. It’s got to be scientifically accurate, etc. And when you apply that model, that actually does scale very quickly, but it requires a lot more upfront work and it means that you’re going to do fewer resources but does that you’re going to do, we’re going to be high quality, and then the proof is in the pudding and people look at the resource, they say, yeah, that meets my scope and sequence. It’s well explained and they adopt it.
Howard Lovy: Do students prefer eBooks or print?
David Harris: We were looking at this today and the market is in flux right now. There is a move towards digital. We publish everything in our native platform connections and we publish it as a pdf. We publish a web view, but we also provide print because a good many students, about 10 percent of the students still prefer print. and our mission, our philosophy is anywhere, anytime, any format, any device, we’re not going to judge you the way that you want it. We just want you to have access to it.
Howard Lovy: The old model of education just isn’t working for most of us poor slobs. Debt is huge, and something’s got to give. Is open access part of the solution? And how sustainable can it be if it relies on philanthropy?
David Harris: Well, yeah, that’s a. That’s a terrific question. So absolutely open resources play a pivotal role. If you. I live in California, if you live in California and you’re in a community college, your curriculum fees are more expensive now than your course. And that can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of individual finances and reducing those costs, reduced barriers. So that’s. That’s a very powerful argument for open education resources. is the. Is it all going down to free? Absolutely not because of these platforms. These learning platforms, but we can get the costs a lot lower maybe in the 30 to $50 range and then your question is a great one. Is it sustainable? And that’s another area that we innovated. You can’t give away high quality free items without philanthropy. There’s no question about that. There’s no model that works because it costs a lot of money to develop these, but what’s on OpenStax is to maintain the library and do revisions and to sustain it. And there we’ve built an ecosystem of partners. We have about 50 partners, some distribution partners, our platform partners that provide online homework and coursework, summer institutional partners, but when a partner sells a good or service around our resources, they provide a mission support fee back to OpenStax. And that actually made us in the last year sustainable. So, the library of OpenStax resources is now sustainable and we’re during revisions on a regular basis.
Howard Lovy: You recently reached a deal with Barnes and Noble Education to begin selling these books and universities across the country. How important is this?
David Harris: That was an arrangement we made this last week and that was, that was due to the increasing market share that we have and then the growing demand for the print distribution. so now the, anyone who’s using an OpenStax for resource at a, at a university that has a Barnes and noble bookstore, or independent bookstore will be able to more easily practice the OpenStax books. So that’s a good move. And we make these textbooks are very affordable. so for instance, our sociology book, hardcover fullback is only $28 to the student. So we. So that’s a real benefit.
Howard Lovy: What are the total number of textbooks who have published and how many universities are using them?
David Harris: Oh yeah. We have a 29 textbooks that are published. These are mostly for what we call general education courses that a freshman or a sophomore year, we’re in over 50 percent of the, degree granting institutions in the us and we have roughly 12,500 adoptions which is serving about two point 2 million students this fall.
Howard Lovy: You know, my oldest son is just starting high school now, so in four years he’ll be entering college and I’m hoping to use your services.
David Harris: I think students are going to be seeing declining costs. Certainly in curricular. Probably for the next five years. So you’re in luck!
Howard Lovy: Wonderful. Great. Well, is there anything else you’d like to add?
David Harris: No, I think that’s it. It was a pleasure speaking with you today. I really enjoyed it.
Howard Lovy: Great. Thank you very much. And now for the news with Dan Holloway. He’s a poet and author and entrepreneur and an all-around interesting person. Hi Dan. It’s good to talk to you again and I understand we should call you speedy now.
Dan Holloway: So yes. Yesterday. I’m still, I apologize if I’m not making much sense today. Yesterday were the European speed reading championships.
Howard Lovy: Great.
Dan Holloway: Which took place a long way away. It finished at half past 10 at night. I got home at half past two, so I’m still tired and my mind is on the fabulous book that we had to read. so yes. So I’m now I managed to retain. My title as European Speed Reading Campion.
Howard Lovy: So how long did it take you to read how many pages?
Dan Holloway: It was a 395 pages. I think about 113,000 words and it took me 64 minutes.
Howard Lovy: wow, that’s amazing. You’re able to comprehend the whole thing?
Dan Holloway: Yes it was. It was, but it was a really, really good book. It helps that they tend to do science fiction books with a really good plot.
Howard Lovy: Is there a trick to it?
Dan Holloway: Your eyes take things in when, when their stationary, so when they’re not moving. So there, there are two tricks. The one is to make your eyes move more smoothly between these fixations so that you’re not skipping around all over the place and the other is to train your peripheral vision so you’re taking more with each fixation. So essentially I just, I trace a line down the middle of the books over to each line. I only look at one, one position on the line and let my peripheral vision take in the rest of the line.
Howard Lovy: Well, that’s amazing. You’ve been doing great feats of speed lately. You ran a 24 hour race. You just need to slow it down a little bit. Okay. Well, speaking of reading, this is our back to school edition and we’re talking about rethinking the textbook and a, first of all they’re, they’re too expensive. Earlier I spoke to the editor in chief of OpenStax which has a free open source solution for students and, but I understand that, this issue of price is a problem in the UK too?
Dan Holloway: Yeah, it’s a real problem in the UK and textbooks Academic publishing in general. I worked for Oxford University as everyone probably knows, we are one of the worst culprits. We’ve produced books that are regularly sell for between or started around 80 pounds, which is $100 and that’s. And textbooks not quite as bad, but still 40, 50 pounds for textbook and that’s just one textbook. Which is just part of one course. So, in a term you will need, you will need maybe five textbooks per term that, that adds up very quickly to a lot of money, when people are already paying large amounts of fees. So it’s really increasing the amount of debt people get into. If you go to libraries then then the library only has three or four copies and you’ve got 20 people in the year taking a course. So you don’t, you don’t get to, you need the textbook with you all the time. So. So a library isn’t the answer and the traditional Ecopies aren’t the answer either because as with regular libraries that copies are limited one, an eBook that you buy gives you one eBook which is just the same as one book on the shelf. So that doesn’t help. Libraries don’t work for the numbers of students we have, so they have to buy their own textbooks or struggle. One of the things we do have an in the UK, we have an, I assume that’s the same in America and Canada. We have some educational exemptions when it comes to photocopying of material, but in general they, that only applies to 10 percent of the book. So, your lecturer can handout, can make a copy of the textbook, but only one chapter at a time and you can’t give them one chapter one week and one chapter the next week. So even that you have, you have licenses. Everywhere you must have been breached these licenses. Whether or not students do that on their own. I couldn’t possibly comment. There isn’t a legal work around. It’s not as though it’s not like when we talk about indie authors who are making next to no money, academic publishers are, their profits may make Google look like amateurs when it comes to the bottom line that they’re absolutely eye watering the prophets that academic publishers make and they make it on the back of exploiting students and practice.
Howard Lovy: The person I spoke to at OpenStax has one solution. Are there other solutions?
Dan Holloway: Subscription services are certainly being looked at and are being trialed and some publishers are signing up to them. and that, that is an interesting idea. what would be absolutely great is if that becomes institutional subscriptions. So the way we have for journals, we pay, you pay a subscription to an academic journal as an institution. Again, if it’s quite an eye watering amount, but when you average that out amongst all the students on a course, it becomes less eye watering. So, so yes, institutional textbooks subscription, so that rather than just having one eBook copy as it were, you’ve got the site license. So anyone who’s in your site can, can access an electronic copy of that book. That’s definitely a way forward.
Howard Lovy: There was recently some news about a crackdown or, or a complaint about a site that actually did pirate actual books or pdfs of books. Can you explain that?
Dan Holloway: Yes. The site was called Ocean of PDFs. It’s a site where readers could, could post and say and give the title of a book they couldn’t get hold of and ask someone to, upload a pdf of the book, and then that pdf will be available to anyone who was a member of the site. There was a very big campaign in the UK media. It’s a global site, but it seems to have hit a particular note with the UK authors. some very high-profile authors got a campaign together and got the site eventually taken offline, at the start of this month. So yes, there, there were a lot of authors, especially indie authors, literary authors, people who don’t get paid very much for their work and don’t really make much of a living out of it. I’m getting very upset with the site and another say, managing to get it taken offline.
Howard Lovy: This hasn’t been a big problem in the past? I’m surprised it’s taken so long for, for this to be a problem.
Dan Holloway: There were lots of sites that tend to pop up and then get taken offline and then new ones pop up and get taken offline. It’s acknowledged to be a big problem, but they haven’t really been sort of infamous hubs for doing it. this is the first time I think because, because well-known authors found their books on there that this site has come under particular scrutiny. and whereas the other sites tend to be. a lot of piracy sites that are, are basically malware sites so they’re not actually offering what they purport to be offering. They’re just, if you sign up in the hope of getting a free book or a free tune or whatever, you actually get your computer infected, or they’re run by they’re run by large groups of nefarious thoughts who can afford to put up one site. And then if it gets taken down, they put up another one. Whereas this was being, being run. The sites owner had intended to run it almost as a social enterprise or a social cause. for, for people in countries where they didn’t have access to these books, so it’s almost like two, two worlds were colliding.
Howard Lovy: It’s interesting. One solution that the music industry had to deal this problem was subscription services like Pandora and I think we’re finding piracy is less common now because it’s easier for me to pay $9.95 for a month for a subscription to Pandora. And then there’s all the music I want, but that hasn’t really worked for books yet. Nobody’s really found a good formula for that, for authors or for books.
Dan Holloway: There’s Kindle Unlimited is the big, the big one that does it and that obviously has had its own problems in, in recent months with, with, with a lot of scammers and the whole book stuffing issues where people have essentially been gaming the system by writing these 3000 page long books and sending, putting in slightly dodgy tables of contents or extending straight to the back of the book. And.
Howard Lovy: Right. And our fearless leader Orna Ross recently interviewed, the UK representative for Amazon KDP and settled all this. Once and for all, so everything’s smoothed out, right?
Dan Holloway: The gamers will always be one step ahead. They will always, as soon as you know what. As soon as you make the rules clear, you make clear what the goal posts are that you have at your having to play with as someone who came into the system. That’s the problem.
Howard Lovy: Well, speaking of artists making money or not making money, you’ve been looking at podcasts?
Dan Holloway: Yes. Basically this is audio books are taking off podcasts are taking off. It’s almost as though if people want to, if people want to take in interesting content on the headphones that podcasts are almost as popular as books and a lot of people listen to podcasts on the way to work. So, there’s increasingly a market for it and that has led to several new portals, platforms for people to essentially crowd fund for their podcast so that you don’t, you don’t have to go necessarily to somewhere like Patrion, which is a multi-art platform. You’ve got ones that, that our format specific for podcasts.
Howard Lovy: Well as you know I embarked on an adventure using Patreon. I launched a Jewish themed podcast last month and I’m working on episode two right now. It’s been getting great reviews, but so far, not too many patrons. Everybody wants stuff for free. I’ve been told I need to stick with it for at least six months, but it’s tough to do all this work for free, especially for a freelancer. What are some of the other crowdfunding options for podcasts?
Dan Holloway: Well, there’s a site called, there’s a site called Anchor, which it works for Apple, which is, it’s built on the payment app Stripe, which you’ve probably heard of. It’s the most, one of the most popular forms of online payment. There’s an Android one called Castbox, and what these do is they essentially allow you to tip. So, you don’t necessarily become a patron, but rather like sites like Medium are doing. I think you’ve tried Mediums, partner services.
Howard Lovy: Yeah. Yeah. I think I made something like twenty five cents off of one blog post.
Dan Holloway: It’s a similar principle that rather than becoming a subscriber or a patron of, of a person or a podcast, if there’s, if there’s content you like you can, you can press a button and, and tip it with a certain amount of money or for a certain amount of claps is what you do on medium and, and those add up, you get to send to clap or whatever it is. So, so it’s, it’s a way of instantly rewarding content that you like and obviously the ones that generate the most of this become higher profile and tell them for future releases. So, so it catches people in the moment while they’re still excited. Whereas something like Patrion on, I guess people think more carefully before they decided to make an ongoing commitment.
Howard Lovy: Now our podcast is doing Multiple platforms. I have mine on Patrion. It’s there and it’s using their whole system. I’ve uploaded to their servers and I have patrons who pre pay me through that system if I wanted to have it launched it in a different site. Is that, is that done?
David Harris: I think you’d have to be very clear what you’re doing so very clear to your patrons. What. Where your putting what, could you, you can do Patreon in various different ways and some of the ways are to give exclusive content to your patrons and obviously what you wouldn’t want to do is for them to think they’re getting exclusive content when it’s not, but if you’re doing it in a more general way of saying, this is something I’m doing, can you support me? You can either support me here on an ongoing basis or you can go over here and do it on a podcast by podcast basis. And then if you’re upfront about that then that seems fine.
Howard Lovy: Right. Yea I’ll have to rethink that. I’m going to try this exclusive Patreon only for another month or two. And then, then I’ll see about branching off a little bit. And another option is finding a sponsor, which is a little more difficult to do.
Dan Holloway: Yeah right. I listened to a lot of running podcasts and that’s very different than the really successful running podcasts. Get sponsors, but they get sponsors because there’s a clear link between running and a popular podcast and the kind of product, but would want to be sponsoring a running podcast. Whereas once you, once you get off the subjects of conversation where there’s that obvious link, I guess it comes harder to find a sponsor.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, I am happy to say that the AskALLi series of podcasts does have a sponsor and we have a whole sponsor said package and beginning in September you’re going to, you’re going to hear my voice, doing a little, a little ad at the beginning of each podcast. So very happy about that.
Dan Holloway: That’s very exciting!
Howard Lovy: I’m very excited about it. Okay, so we talked about piracy, we talked about podcasting and we talked about textbooks. Anything else going on?
Dan Holloway: I would just add on the piracy front. So, people who are worried, earlier in the month I reported on, on a review that had been done on the first actual proper academic review of the actual impact that piracy makes on income streams across different cultural media. Oh, what it found is that there is a measurable impact. its greatest in the film industry, which I guess isn’t surprising, but even there, the figure, I think the figure is something like 4.1 percent and when it comes to eBooks, it’s around one to 1 1/2 percent. So the, the impact on the average writer of piracy will be one to one and a half percent of their income. SO it’s however many downloads people are making. Obviously, it’s people talk about, and this is something that, that writers are very hot and picking up on is when, when people who download free eBooks say I’ve downloaded $10,000 worth of free books, that it’s very easy to make the leap to saying that means that that $10,000 worth of loss sales, which of course isn’t the case because if they have to pay for them, they wouldn’t be paying $10,000. They just wouldn’t [inaudible] the book store.
Howard Lovy: Right, right.
Dan Holloway: So the, the actual impact it’s having on all income, it seems to be one to one and a half percent.
Howard Lovy: It could be a case where they wanted to, you know, read an author and see if they liked them and then they’ll buy the rest of the books. But that’s, I guess an optimistic way of looking at it.
Dan Holloway: That, that, that that’s yes. And that, that that’s something that people like Cory Doctoro make that case, but that’s, that. That’s not necessarily a very popular view. I’m amongst writers. I think it’s probably right, but that’s it. You need to be careful where you say it. I certainly wouldn’t say it in a podcast.
Howard Lovy: Everybody listening, please pay for your books.
Dan Holloway: Pay for your books. Yes, absolutely.
Howard Lovy: Because writers have, you know, have to eat and support families and pay for textbooks for their kids. So. All right, well, thank you again Dan and I can’t wait to hear what you’re up to a next month.
Dan Holloway: Yeah. And thank you. Very best of luck with the podcast.
Howard Lovy: Thank you very much. I’ll talk to you soon.
Dan Holloway: Great. Thank you.
Howard Lovy: Bye.
Dan Holloway: Bye.