Rupert learns a lesson

September 26th, 2012

Rupert Murdoch finally admits that he needs Google more than they need him.

I’m surprised it took so long!


Can the textbook industry reimagine itself?

September 26th, 2012

Atrist and writer Katherine Tyrrell weighs in on my summary of the textbook fracas.

In order to focus efforts towards the short-term goal of resolving the issues with this particular course material, I’ve so far somewhat skirted the issue of the changing nature of publishing and how it is affecting post-secondary educational textbooks, impacting both the cost and efficacy of the education of our future generations.

As Katherine points out, we have Pearson, who is

a publisher who is trying hard to work out how it can create new products out of its existing asset base – in much the same way as many other publishers – in order to create new profit streams within the context of the collapse of the traditional business model for publishing

Unfortunately, it’s woefully apparent that the new profit streams they are creating are almost universally abhorred – witness the waves of angst expressed when you simply search for the word “textbook” on Reddit. If that’s not an industry shunted onto the same siding as a speeding freight train, I don’t know what is.

And before you dump on Redditors for being overly tetchy, remember that this is the cohort of our near future, also representing who we all were not so many years ago.

I can recall myself being peeved at textbook prices back in the early 80s, but at that time there were no courses for which the text changed every single term or changed from a one-time product purchase to essentially an annuity for the publisher.

I entreat upon Pearson and every other player in the space to make it their business to take the initiative to come up with innovative solutions that work with the schools and students to provide affordable and workable course materials without making students feel they are being deceived or fleeced. So far it ain’t working.


To Summarize…

September 23rd, 2012

There has been quite a bit of discussion about this textbook affair. A lot of people are stuck on the copyright issue. Yesterday I summarized my thoughts about it in a comment on the recent TechDirt article. Today I received a similar summary from a commenter named Vlad posting from Russia. I’ll post them both here.

First, my comment at TechDirt.

It turns out it’s not as simple as it seems at first. For the benefit of all, here are some things that have become clear to me this week.

Copyright isn’t where the expense lies, it’s Licensing.

If you want photos of public domain art works that are of high enough quality for print publication, you have a few choices.

1) You can send a photographer out to take photos of each work. Many will be in museums and will require negotiating a photography session with the museum. One reason is that the light used in high power flashes for this quality of photo has a high UV content and over time will contribute to deterioration of the work, so they limit access.

This is very expensive and time-consuming, but you will get high quality photos.

2) You can find a photographer or organization who has done #1 themselves or has bought the rights to license images from other photographers.

This will get you the quality photos, and save you some money.

3) You can try to source photos that have open and free licenses. While there are some organizations who are collecting such images (e.g. googleartproject.com, art.sy, and others), there is not a deep well of these resources, so your experience will result in a lot of searching and varied quality.

As you can see, #2 is optimal among these (possibly not exhaustive) choices.

When you want to get photos for your book, you pay a license fee to the person who can provide you with the high-quality source material. They calculate it based on a number of factors, one of which is the quality of the final images – i.e. it’s cheaper to license a bunch of images to be presented in thumbnail or screen form than in full resolution.

If you print and sell 10,000 copies of your book, the cost component of the licensing is distributed much more thinly than if you have a limited run of 500 books. You have a choice of whether to present pictures in full, thumbnail, or online, or a combination. The choices made in this case resulted in a product that did not meet the needs of the audience (understated, I know, but that’s the bottom line).

What this all comes down to is that once the logistics of producing a book are considered, it’s apparent that there is no one entity in the chain demanding excessive profits. It’s just the economics of a high quality small print run in play here, and then the design decisions that came out of that.

So far the response of the school and the publisher has been very positive and I’m optimistic that a much better solution will come out of this episode. Open dialogue has been spawned and the wider issues of copyright, licensing and the spiralling cost of a university education have been subjected to very public review and criticism.

Thanks to the students who started the petition, and TechDirt who provided a platform for wide recognition, this story promises to have as happy an ending as one could hope for.

And Vlad’s comment:

Let me explain this story in plain words and by numbers.

1. All pre-1800 visual materials (paintings etc) are copyright free. Reproduce them all you want.

2. Quality digital images of these materials are not free and even not cheap, as producing them is really not cheap (you actually need to travel to dozens or hundreds of museums and pay them for using commercial photo equipment there, they charge for that).

3. A certain publisher has paid for gazillions of these images and printed three different textbooks. Their total retail price is 300 dollars. This value is the cost of printing, the price of images, the price of the text, the profit margin and so on — DIVIDED by the number of printed books.

4. A certain college professor realizes that his students need all three books to take the course. But 300 dollars is a lot, so he and the college look for a better solution.

5. They decide to publish a partial compilation of these three textbooks for a lower price and approach the original publisher. He does not mind and tells them the price of copyrights. It’s a resonable price, but when you DIVIDE it by the very small number of books the college needs, it’s 800 dollars per book. Not good.

6. They compromise: the compilation is printed without pictures, the pictures will be available for students online for free, all three original books with images will be available for students online for free — when they buy the compilation for 180 dollars. Instead of paying 300 dollars for the three books. Everybody is happy, everybody wins.

7. Except a small number of slacktivists. They are not happy, but luckily they don’t win either.

I’m sure you’ll note that I disagree with his assessment since the story continued somewhat beyond the reaction to a conclusion that suits many of the detractors, but that’s his opinion and I’m glad to have him express it.


iOS6 Safari Ajax issues

September 21st, 2012

Pete Forde pointed me to an interesting discussion of an iOS 6 Safari bug that affects Ajax calls.

I later came across a discussion of a different bug, also affecting Ajax calls.

I know it’s only day one for iOS6 and the odd bug is expected, however I find it jarring that with Apple’s strong advocacy of HTML5 and JavaScript to create interactive web apps, these issues could creep into Safari without someone considering the implications or finding the issue before release.


Watch this space

September 20th, 2012

Just got off the phone with Kathy Shailer, Dean of Liberal Studies at OCAD University. She has been catching all the flak over this textbook issue, and today hosted one meeting with the students and another with the publisher.

I’ll not try to cover the entire discussion since they have yet to formulate a statement about the day’s proceedings, however my precis is this:

  • OCAD takes this seriously. They want to work with the students and the publisher to resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction.
  • The publisher is responsive and there are positive actions being planned.
  • On the whole my personal impression is that this will be a prime example of a very good response to criticism.

For my part I will say that despite this misstep, I still consider OCAD to be a world-class school.


OCAD has posted their official statement after conferring with the students and publisher.

What do you think?


It’s a Design flaw

September 19th, 2012

OpenFile.ca has a good blog post covering the OCAD textbook issue. There’s actually some feedback from the school.

I spoke with OCAD’s Dean of Liberal Studies, Kathy Shailer, about this issue shortly after this post. Shailer says that comparisons between OCAD textbook and other standard texts are unfair, since the OCAD-made custom text is designed to be broader than any one book would be.

“What this text does is bring together a very good art history text, and a very good design text, and a lot of material so that we could bring in aboriginal and Canadian art as well,” says Shailer. According to Shailer, most standard art history texts focus heavily on western European art history while giving less space and attention to Canadian or First Nations perspectives.

As Shailer notes, OCAD also needs to address the “D” in its acronym: design. This is something Shailer says wouldn’t be adequately covered by a single art history text.

“Design has more of a focus on objects, material culture, architecture, interior and graphic design. It has really evolved over the 19th, 20th century and is paid really short shrift in an art text,” says Shailer.

True. Design failure is what this issue comes down to. Had this been designed as an online reference with a spiral-bound offline study guide with references, I would have still argued the price but it would not have provoked quite the same visceral reaction.

The problem is that it was designed as a hardback finely bound glossy paged book with complete layouts for the pictures, and then… Lunchbag Letdown. Lucy Van Pelt came along and pulled away the football just as we were about to kick it.

It looks like an Art History textbook. It feels like an Art History textbook. It smells like an Art History textbook. It tastes like an Art History textbook. Good thing we didn’t step in it though, because it’s not exactly what it purports to be. The textbook definition of a sham.

Please take note that I’m not calling it a scam. I’m absolutely certain that this was done with the best of intentions, just poorly executed.


Remember, that $180 is for a single term. It’s another $180 for next term’s pretend textbook

September 18th, 2012

The town hall meeting hosted by the Dean to discuss this issue will be on Thursday Sept 20, 2012 from 12:30 to 1:30 in room 284 at OCAD.

I seem to have shined (shone?) a light on a newsworthy issue in my last couple of blog posts about OCAD’s pictureless Art History Text, and how it is itself almost a self referential topical meta objet d’art.

I’m surprised at the varied articles written on the subject, and the often insightful discussions that have ensued.

A couple of notes and observations:

  1. I am working about 40 km away on Thursday so I won’t be able to attend the town hall meeting and my daughter has classes throughout the day. Would be nice if someone could log the proceedings for me.
  2. It’s been speculated that Pearson Education who publishes the book may be under the same ownership umbrella as the publishers of the original books. This could imply that contention about rights transfer may be overstated. Could someone pose that question at the meeting?
  3. I think it’s important to underline the fact that this book
    covers ONE SEMESTER, and that a SECOND edition is slated for the next one-semester course FOR ANOTHER $180.
    What the fuck? Can I even say fuck here? Is this mic on? Sibilance!!
  4. I’m told the book comes with a code or login of some sort to allow restricted access to the online material. When does that expire?

I’ve had it said to me that since the book/website provides access to all the material, what do I want out of all this?

What I want is value. With this plan, one gets a book that is useless on its own and restricted access to a website presumably for a limited time – certainly only three months of use and direct relevance. I’ll pay $30 for that if I have to and it will last about as long as the Doppio Espresso I get at the Starbucks at Chapters/Indigo when I go to buy the $50 nicely bound remaindered art book that will festoon my coffee table. See, I said “festoon” again. That word’s chance to shine has been long overdue.

Alternatively, I will be content with one or more hard-backed books, professionally bound, with illustrations consisting of full color plates. After my daughter has used them for school I can read them and learn from them when and wherever I like without electricity or network connection, lend them, use them to stop my table from wobbling, press flowers in them, and assign them to my descendants. Possibly 100 years or more of use and continued relevance. I’ll pay the going rate for such treasures, seems as though it would add to about $200 from what I hear.


It’s as bad as that and worse.

September 17th, 2012

Update: Worser and worser. It’s turtles all the way down.

In my recent post, I told the story of students reacting to an expensive and lacking new textbook and the school assuring them that the textbook is really quite reasonable. I was almost ready to chalk it up as a misunderstanding.

That is, until I saw the preview chapters. What an unmitigated sham of a travesty of a mockery of a hand-drawn-facsmile of a textbook. Scratch that, a hand-drawn-facsimile would be a step up.

For the purposes of review and criticism, here is a single example page from this ridiculous excuse for an Art History textbook costing $180 (+ tax = 203.40).

click to enlarge

Notice there are callouts from the bottom image-placeholder. When the student gets home from trying to study the book on the subway, they’ll have to type in the url and approximate in their mind where the callout is pointing to in the online picture.

Wow. I really thought it couldn’t be this bad.

I am really interested to see what sort of attempt OCAD University makes to clean up this toxic spill.

Can anyone send me a photo of one of the actual pages of the printed book?