The University of California Press, or Another Case of Why Academic Publishing is Doomed in the Digital Age

I’m currently reviewing Hollywood, 1938, written by Catherine Jurca and published by University of California Press, for adoption in the American Film Industry course that I sometimes get to teach.

Since I am low on space and constantly on the move, I requested an electronic book. UC Press used the Vitalsource platform for this particular electronic book. I see the logic in using this platform for review copies since it allows them to control the distribution of the book. For example, should an instructor not adopt the book, the publisher can revoke access—or more likely, set an expiration date—so that the instructor doesn’t get a free book. Notably, UC Press sent me a DRM-free review copy of Precarious Creativity, but that book was licensed by a Creative Commons license and did not have “all rights reserved.”

I’ve been an outspoken critic of how academc publishers misuse electronic books. More often than not they commit one of two crimes:

  1. They saddle to book with so many digital rights management restrictions that the book is unusable. One common scenario is when the ebook application requires an internet connection to access your library, but because you are—for example—flying in airplane or trapped in a subway train, you can’t read a book that you paid for.
  2. They merely reproduce the pages of the print edition and put those on your device. That usually works except on a mobile device, such as a smartphone. I could be wrong, but I think there’s a few college students that own smartphones. I wonder if they wouldn’t mind reading their textbooks on a device they own.

In this case, the University of California Press committed both.

First, they using Vitalsource, a platform that makes it difficult as possible to open a book because it imagines every possible scenario where “unauthorized access” might occur. They should obviously take the opposite approach: imagine every possible scenario where someone might want to use your product. Even a seasoned veteran encountered an issue where I had to deauthorize my old iPad Air so I could read this book on my new iPad Pro. It wasn’t a difficult task, but it was certainly inconvenient.

Second, the book is unreadable. To their credit, whoever adapted this book for electronic distribution seemed to consider that the most natural way to advance through text is through vertical scrolling, as one does when reading a webpage or when looking through a social media feed. Instead of flipping virtual pages, you can advance through the entire text of a chapter by scrolling vertically. However, the text of this book is so small it is unreadable.

An entire nine-line paragraph is a mere two-and-a-half centimeters tall. Thankfully, you can enlarge the text. There’s a hidden menu that allows you to resize the text.

Can you find how to enlarge text?

Increasing the size helped a little bit, but it didn’t add any room to the tightly spaced text, as one can do with the EPUB format. Yes, I wear glasses, but I feel I still have pretty good eyesight. However this ebook strained my vision to where I couldn’t read beyond the first paragraph.

There was one function however that did make “reading” the book much easier. Vitalsource will allow you to speak the text. Some reading apps, such as Instapaper, have the same feature. It works for short works, such as news articles or blog posts. However, having a computer voice read to you for extended period of time ruins my experience of imagining the author detailing the historical moment and constructing an argument about Hollywood in 1938. And when you’re being read to aloud by a computer, it also elicits some confused and puzzled looks on the faces of various passersby.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. Shopping through that link will kick back a referral fee to me, which I feel I deserve after having to endure reviewing this terrible ebook format.

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