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GIREP 2009 Proceedings cover
Available at Scribd & Lulu

I’ve been busy in August, and one of the things I’ve been working on has been out for a couple of weeks and I forgot to blog it. I’ve published a book.

I haven’t written a book, or edited it or anything requiring any academic input. I just worked on the publishing. The book is the first volume of the Proceedings from the GIREP-EPEC and PHEC 2009 conference. In English, it was a Physics Education conference. I had nothing to do with the conference, but my Head of Department mentioned to a colleague at McMaster University that he was going to publish a proceedings volume and she remembered I’d worked on the cover for the first Open Laboratory book, and so must be an expert in publishing.

I’m not, but as Shawn Graham has shown, the actual process of publishing a book via Lulu is easy and pain-free if you’re willing to make some compromises. The drawbacks are things like a lack of professional typesetting, but these days publishers often insist on camera-ready copy anyway. There’s also no marketing. For some conference volumes this will be a line in a catalogue and an email and, possibly a display at the next conference meeting of the previous proceedings. You do lose some help by bypassing a publisher, but you can potentially gain a lot more too.

Firstly we set the price. We went quite high. The print version of the book is £20. That’s about 6p a page so it’s a similar cost to photocopying the book. It’s not extravagantly high, but it’s higher than it strictly needs to be as we’ll also be making it available via Amazon. We decided to do that because people are familiar with buying a book from Amazon, they’re not so familiar with Lulu, even though it’s the same product. To release a book on Amazon we have to double the retail price, to allow their margin. Despite this a 365 page academic book could often be more than £50 so it’s a saving.

But we can do better.

The book is released with a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence and we’ve put the PDF up on Scribd. You can read and download it for free as a PDF. Print out the chapters you’re interested in and leave the rest.

After two weeks we have 900 views and a few sales. It’s likely that it’s not 900 unique views, but it’s still not a bad result for two weeks. In the Humanities print runs of 250 volumes are common. I don’t know about the Sciences, where the publication culture is different anyway, but we have something that I think will compete well in terms of readership in comparison to a similar volume released via a traditional publisher. It won’t be anything like as profitable as a book produced by a traditional publisher, but none of the academics would see that profit anyway so for us that’s not an issue.

It’s also a lot faster to get to publication. Cheryl Hurkett did all the LaTeX work on the file and when she was ready she called me in. I registered her with Lulu and we set up a new project. We tried uploading a PDF output Lulu, but that didn’t work. So we sent the output to a .ps file instead. That converted painlessly. The cover took a bit more mucking about as we went with a variation on the standard templates, but the whole thing went from LaTeX to book on one Thursday. The only gripe we had was that you have to choose to get the free ISBN number right at the start of the project, and once you have that number your title is set. The book on the Lulu page is listed with the working title, which is passable for a first attempt but not good enough for volume 2.

There will be a volume 2, as we could show how simple the publication process was.

It’s not a panacea for all academic publishing. There are plenty of publishers who do add value to a book. However, for conference proceedings the only reasons for choosing to publish via a specialist publisher rather than Lulu are social. The academic output is the same, it’s just that one is slower and more expensive and that’s the system we’re used to. The output can be traced directly back to Bora Zivkovic’s innovation with The Open Laboratory so his blogging is contributing to an observable difference in the scientific process.