How did you convince your publisher to let you put your book online for free

July 6th, 2009 by marti | 14 Comments »

Interestingly, no one so far has asked me why I am putting my book online for free. Rather, they’ve been asking how I got my publisher to agree to it. Assumptions have really changed!

The short answer to how is that I chose Cambridge University Press in part because I saw they had allowed Chris, Prabhakar, and Hinrich to put their book Introduction to Information Retrieval freely online before publishing it in dead tree form.

CUP hasn’t done this with all that many books, but so far it seems to lead to more sales. So let’s hope that happens with Search User Interfaces as well.

The second reason I chose CUP is they have published the bulk of the books related to human information seeking, including Gary Marchionini’s Information Seeking in Electronic Environments and Rik Belew’s Finding Out About. (BTW, I just noticed you can search these books and see hits in context at the CUP website!)

As for why, I’ve long been of the mindset that my writing has value so far as it has impact, and the best way to do that is to maximize how many people read it. Along with many others, I’ve long been an advocate of freeing the content of academic journals, since the knowledge produced by research should be dispersed as widely as possible, and in my field at least the academics to all the writing, reviewing, and editing. Not to mention that the government pays for a large chunk of the research being reported. People used to laugh at me when I started saying this, but thanks to the hard work of lots of other people, that ship in the slow process of turning.

But I suspect my primary reason for putting the book up free is laziness: now when I’m having a conversation about a search interfaces topic I can just say “if you want to know more, go to section S.X of my book.” It’s like a mental subroutine call.


  1. Greg Freed says:

    I’ve recently, within the last few weeks, totally revolutionized the way in which I view content online. I went from reading several online comics to creating a blog (years late, I know), subscribing to blogs through Google Reader (I previously avoided blogs as if they were bogs and found Google Reader through someone using it to visit MY young blog), and aggressively researching copyright law. There are several reasons for this evolution in my online experience.

    For the first part, I’m planning on opening a wiki, which has lit a fire under me. Second, I’ve always had an interest in copyright issues, ever since I gained independent sentience (I guess around the age of fourteen, 1997ish). Third, I have a desire to see my writing get seen, which prompted me to create a blog, and having my own blog inspired me to read others blogs.

    Why am I telling you all this about me? Well, I stumbled across your book looking for copyright-related blogs, and before I looked at a page in your book, I saw this blog post, specifically

    [CUP hasn’t done this with all that many books, but so far it seems to lead to more sales. So let’s hope that happens with Search User Interfaces as well.]

    I deeply hope that your premise is correct and look forward to following you closely.

    I have completed Emerson College’s Publishing certificate program and am currently an MFA in Creative Writing student at the same school. For the ideals stated above and the pure efficacy of my own potential sales, I hope you’re right. Of course, I also believe you are. :)

  2. Marti says:

    Dear Greg, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about open access publishing. Although I do hope we sell a lot of books, the most important thing to me is to share what I’ve written. I hope you are getting that satisfaction with your blog and your future wiki.

    That said, I do make a salary independent of my writing, and I understand that some people have to be sure they get paid directly for what they write.

  3. Greg Linden says:

    It’s interesting that putting a book freely available online leads to more sales. Why do you think that might be the case?

    Perhaps improved word of mouth marketing combined with reducing the risk of purchase (because people can try before buying)? Or do you think it might be something else?

    Just curious, really. Understanding why and when putting a book online would increase sales might convince more publishers to do this. And that would be a good thing.

    By the way, really enjoying the book, Marti. And, yes, I also bought a physical copy (to be delivered when it becomes available in September).

  4. Marti says:

    Greg, good question. This is just a guess, but I’ll take a stab at it.

    There are people who tend to go ahead and buy books. The more those people hear about a book, the more likely that book is to be bought. Some of these people order copies for their office or colleagues.

    Then there are people who are unlikely to buy a book but really need to read it (I’m thinking graduate students and people in less affluent countries). They will go without reading the book if they have to rather than spend the money.

    There are people in between who buy books when they really need (or really want) them. Putting the book online will probably stop some of these people from reading the book but will not effect those others who want the convenience of the hardcopy form.

    So there should be a net gain in purchasing that is a function of how well-known the book becomes.

    That said, I think my case might be a bit different because I tried to make the online version very readable and searchable. It may encourage people not to bother with the hardcopy. On the other hand, I didn’t make it that easy to download for reading when offline, so I’m not sure.

    What do you think?

  5. srikanth says:

    This is really awesome! Congrats on finishing it, and for making it available online.

  6. Greg Linden says:

    That sounds about right, Marti. When making the book freely available online, there is a minor loss in sales to a relatively small number of people who would have bought the book but now do not. That loss usually is overwhelmed by improved word-of-mouth sales due to a large number of people seeing the book who never would have otherwise.

    There is another effect where the physical copy with an online copy is more valuable than a physical copy alone, but I’d guess that’s a smaller influence.

    Great book, Marti. I’m most of the way through it now and very much enjoying it. Interesting look at search from a HCI perspective along with a great survey of recent work in the field.

  7. Marti says:

    So it looks like we’re in agreement — let’s hope it’s really true, because that way even more publishers would be willing to go this route.

    And I’m so glad you are really reading the book. That in itself is impressive! I expect to see a review on your blog at some point ;^>

  8. Katja says:

    Just a quick note of thanks! Finding your book was very timely as I am embarking on a full redesign of a massive news website. Search is so critical to success and is often overlooked in favour of getting the look and feel right or putting buttons in the right place!

    Great work!

  9. Marti says:

    Great! I hope the advice is useful. Search over news is a tough problem.

  10. I worked with Wiley to make my book World Wide Rave free on Kindle for a week back in March. I get the same questions — how did you get the publisher to do it?

    Interestingly, the same month we did the free Kindle book, my previous book The New Rules of Marketing & PR hit the BusinessWeek bestseller list. I am convinced that the huge buzz of the free book drove sales of the other.


  11. Marti says:

    David, thanks so much for this anecdote; fingers crossed that it also drives more sales of the book offered freely. My publisher says it will be out by the end of the month.

  12. James Lamb says:

    I notice in the HTML index to your book you have lost all the subheadings from the index as shown in the Amazon “view inside” version. I does mean that many topics are missing from the index – I presume this was accidental?
    Also, was your book done using CUP-XML? If so, couldn’t CUP create an html version effectively?

  13. Marti says:

    James, yes, you’re right, I didn’t spend much time converting the index from latex to html, and while doing it I lost subheading indentation. Because the online version doesn’t have page numbers is was generally hard to do the index accurately; I am hoping people rely on the search box for the book version and mainly use the index for the hardcopy version. But I may go back and fix this at some point.

    I was using a version of Cambridge’s style file for latex; I didn’t know of the existence of CUP-XML. Eventually I’ll make a more printable version of the online book available, maybe in a year.

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