Publisher adopts open source model for Linux titles

Book publisher Prentice Hall Professional Technical Reference is taking a page from its series of open source titles and publishing them for free.

The books — the first two of which were released last year — are available

for a price in printed form in Canadian book stores, but will shortly be published online in PDF format for free download. The online format is covered under the Open Publication License of 1999.

“”It’s part of community-building. The open source community expects all of the people who benefit from the open source community to give back to it,”” said PHPTR editor-in-chief Mark Taub. “”Part of it is, we think it is going to be good business. If we thought we were going to lose money on these books, we couldn’t do that.””

The idea is that the printed books will appear in stores followed by an online version 90 days later. It’s not the first time PHPTR has tried this approach, but the first time the company has committed to a series. PHPTR has hired on open source icon Bruce Perens to help promote it. Getting it off the ground, he said, has been a labour of love.

“”This is something I’ve been evangelizing for — oh gosh — it’s been about 10 years now,”” said Perens, who co-founded the Open Source Initiative and recently finished up a two-year engagement as a Linux advisor to Hewlett-Packard.

“”I felt that to be credible to the open source developers themselves, you really should walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk, so the books themselves should be open source. We don’t feel that this will lose us money.””

Taub said he isn’t sure whether the online experiment will be a boon to sales, but points out that the series, which will probably be four to six books, is really only a small percentage of the 300 books the publisher will release conventionally in paper-only format this year. He said that those that end up downloading the books will likely buy the printed copies anyway.

But according to technical book publisher O’Reilly, based in Sebastapol, Calif., sometimes publishing online can be a detriment to printed sales. “”Even some of these authors that have chosen these licences because they have ideological beliefs that the book should be free have complained, ‘Yeah, it looks like my (printed) sales aren’t as high as I thought,'”” said O’Reilly editor Andrew Oram.

O’Reilly has been publishing a select number of its titles online for free for about three years. Open source books are the most likely candidates for that model, because, like Prentice Hall, “”we want to do things that will earn us goodwill in the community,”” said Oram. O’Reilly also publishes books online on a subscription basis.

Where Prentice Hall aims to make its mark is by having its open source titles evolve and change over time. Open source professionals and enthusiasts may be able to add to the material which could be included in subsequent printed editions.

“”That could easily be the case,”” said Taub. “”One of our hopes is yes. The open source community is a remarkable development model as it’s applied to software. It’s thousands of eyes looking at sample program code. Theoretically the same thing could happen with these books.””

New authors that offer contributions that amount to a few paragraphs or pages may receive compensation in the form of free copies of the printed editions, said Taub. Lengthier contributions, such as an entire new chapter, would have to be assessed on a case by case basis, but “”clearly that person would be entitled to share in the royalties from the sale of the printed edition.””

These contributions would have be to be thoroughly researched by Prentice Hall staff to ensure accuracy, he added, and to make sure they don’t violate another publisher’s copyrighted material.

Payment for online material reached a head a few years ago when popular horror author Stephen King published chapters of his book “”The Plant”” on his Web site. Readers were encouraged to send in a nominal fee in exchange for downloading the chapters, but fewer than 50 per cent did. First hailed as a revolution in publishing, the project was suspended by King after six installments.

While supporting the theory that authors should be duly compensated for their work, Perens would like to keep the formula simple. “”If we take money out of the equation, the collaboration becomes a lot easier because there isn’t jealousy and a ton of book keeping.

“”Darwinism is very painful for the losers, which is where the Internet bubble came from. That’s an economic lesson that we’re taking here: Let’s not figure out how to pay everyone who writes a page $2; let’s just make it work.””

The waters of online publishing are still murky, according to Taub, but providing materials gratis simplifies the process. “”Stephen King was an experiment that was clearly ahead of its time. This is going to be a much simpler experiment,”” he said.

The first books published are Embedded Software Development with eCos and The Linux Development Platform. Another will appear in May.



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