Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The future of textbook publishing is us

In my May column, I announced my intention to give a free online course (a MOOC) this coming fall, and asked for assistance from the mathematical community.

That course, a school-to-university transition course, titled Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, is going ahead, with the first lecture on September 17. There is a brief description of the course, together with a short promotional video, on the Coursera website.

I have started a blog,, to chronicle my experiences working with this new format and to provide a platform for feedback and discussion once the course gets going.

I also wrote a short textbook to accompany the course, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. Though the textbook is not required for the course, some of my Stanford colleagues who gave the first generation of “Ivy League MOOCs” – just a few months ago, so fast has this new movement taken off – told me that many students want an old-fashioned physical book. On the other hand, all the transition textbooks I am familiar with are fairly pricey, which would put them well beyond many of the students who are likely to enroll. Moreover, none of them are designed to accompany a MOOC. So I decided to write one.

My two main criteria were: it had to be short (no more than 100 pages) and cheap (less than $10 in the US). The only option was to self-publish in print-on-demand format with Amazon’s CreateSpace service. I did not quite hit my page-limit; when I include the front material, the tally comes out at 102 pages, but that’s close enough. But I figured I’d cover my costs if I set the retail price at $9.99, just below my target.

The procedure is so ridiculously straightforward, I can see no reason why anyone should ever publish another textbook a different way, given the huge expense of textbooks. We authors have been typesetting our own manuscripts ever since Don Knuth first released TeX in 1978, and all that is required to produce a book with CreateSpace is to generate a PDF file that fits the page-size you select.

CreateSpace does not provide TeX support (by way of a style file), but they do provide sample pages for authors submitting manuscripts in Word, and I just played around with the page parameters in LaTeX until the output matched their samples for both odd and even numbered pages, which I checked by printing out copies of both, putting my output on top of theirs, and holding the two up to the light. (Low tech, but effective.)

In my case, I decided to produce my book in the standard 6 in x 9 in format, and the key LaTeX parameters I came up with are (for the record)
\oddsidemargin 1 in \evensidemargin .55 in
\marginparwidth .75in \marginparsep 7pt
\topmargin -.5in \headheight 12pt
\headsep .25in \footheight 12pt \footskip .35in
\textheight 7.5in \textwidth 4.95 in

When I submitted my final PDF file, CreateSpace’s automated checking system flagged the manuscript as possibly not being correctly formatted, but I pressed forward, since the next stage is that one of their employees examines the manuscript, and indeed that individual accepted it, confirming my suspicion that I was probably off by a millimeter or two, something that could upset an automated checking system but is close enough to pass a human eyeball test.

The point is, the whole process is so well designed, there is no reason why anyone who can use LaTeX should do anything other than self-publish from now on. With a very small number of exceptions, no one who writes a university-level textbook does so to make money. Our goal is to get material in front of students as quickly and cheaply as possible. If there were a way to do so that can save the students money, I am sure we would all want to do so, the more so given the way textbook costs have skyrocketed in recent years. With modern print-on-demand technology, we now can do just that.

You don’t need to know anything about publishing to do this. CreateSpace does for book publishing what TurboTax did for filing your tax return, and it does it in much the same way, by taking you through the entire process in a simple, step-by-step fashion, including cover design, securing an ISBN code, and selecting marketing channels.

For sure, the finished product is not quite as good as would be achieved with the professional expertise of a good publishing house. But to my mind, for a textbook, it’s close enough, especially when the resulting book can be sold for as little as a tenth the price a publisher would charge.

The one thing I paid someone else to do was copy-editing. I have written enough books to value highly the services of an experienced copy editor. (You might also want to pay an indexer. I did my own, but I have done so for several of my previous books.)

Of course, even with good copy editing, occasional errors creep through. Not long after my book was on the market, I was looking through one of my author’s copies (you have to buy them, but at an even lower price than the retail mark), and spotted a couple of small typos. A few minutes editing the LaTeX file, followed by a quick upload of the replacement PDF, and the correction was made, ready for the next person to buy a copy.

Returning to the MOOC now, let me re-iterate the request I made in my May column. I am giving my MOOC in the early fall to coincide with the many transition courses offered at colleges and universities across the US, in the hope that instructors of such courses will incorporate my MOOC in their courses in some way. My reason for this is that I think the only way to make a transition course MOOC work is to have enough participants who either are already familiar with the material (such as instructors) or else have direct access to such expertise (e.g., their students in a transition course). I see no other way for students struggling to understand the material to get the help, advice, and feedback they will need to progress. Social media provides various platforms for students to interact, to ask questions of one another and to comment on others’ work. But there has to be a mechanism for mathematical truth to find its way into the discussions!

So the key to making something like this work is, I think, to build up a Wikipedia- like community of instructors who, for five weeks each year, will make available their expertise to the thousands of students around the world who are taking advantage of a MOOC to obtain an education they would otherwise not have access to.

The benefit to the students in the transition classes given by MOOC-participating instructors is that their learning will assuredly be enhanced by acting as tutors for the students who are not so privileged. Both because teaching others is a powerful way to learn – as most of us discover when we become TAs at graduate school – and because those students will surely feel much more incentivized to understand by playing such a feel-good role.

Stay tuned to my MOOCtalk blog for updates on the project. And if you are an instructor giving a transition course this fall, please consider getting involved.