Tagged: ebooks

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. If you buy something through that link, I will earn a commission fee, which I feel I deserve after having to endure reviewing this terrible ebook format.

Exam Copies Done Right

Despite being an unaccomplished and underachieving scholar, I still receive a fair-share of examination copies of academic trade books and textbooks. These are books that publishers provide for free for a “trial period.” Usually, the publisher doesn’t specify the length of the trial period so they are effectively free books, if not explicitly so. However, some publishers have explicitly requested that I ship the book back to them or else I will receive a bill for the book, albeit with an “industry” discount of 20% or so.

Publishers provide these books because they hope that I will adopt them for a course and require my students to purchase them. When I worked at UCSB’s college radio station in the mid-1990s, record companies would similarly provide free CDs for the music and programming directors in hopes that they would play the recordings on-the-air and, consequently, promote sales of the recording.

It seems like a great way to promote a book or a recording, but since everyone does it, the examination/promotional copies often become clutter. My music director used to give me a bunch of CDs that he knew I would like, and I have a pile of under-examined—or entirely unexamined—books on my desk.

Examination Copies that have gone unexamined

Examination Copies that have gone unexamined.

Done Wrong

In the academic world, the examination copies of books arrive in one of two ways:

  1. The publisher sends a print copy. They have done so for as long as I’ve been in the game. Although it’s not as many as it used to be, some occasionally arrive by expedited couriers, such as UPS and FedEx. I always thought that to be a huge waste of resources. Haven’t book publishers heard of media mail? The post office basically invented the service just for them. Also, this is a book, not a newspaper or a timely document. There’s no way that an extra day or two will “spoil” the content.
  2. The publisher provides an ebook.

The ebook makes a lot of sense for examination copies. It costs the publisher next to nothing to supply a bunch of interested readers the book. Moreover, it gets to the reader quicker than sending it by expedited courier. And, again, it costs a lot less.

However, most publishers are utterly terrified of unauthorized reproductions. They’re so frightened about it, in fact, that they burden the ebook with DRM that makes the book unreadable. The most common way they do this is by requiring you to use something like Adobe Digital Editions to read the book. That platform, and others like it, basically render the book and its words, into images of the book pages. In effect, you’re not reading, you’re looking at photographs of text. This makes it almost impossible for reading on small-screen devices, such a smartphone, because you can’t resize the text; you can only resize the page. No wonder phones are getting bigger and bigger.

Not only that, you can’t highlight text—only parts of the page. You can’t look up words by tapping or clicking on them because the computer doesn’t see text—it sees images. And, if you want to read somewhere without an Internet connect, such as a subway train or an airplane, you won’t because you can’t print pages or cache the entire book on your device. Bleh!

I don’t know how recording companies handle promotional copies, or whether they even provide them at all anymore. I would think that since the advent of the Internet, iTunes, and other streaming music services, they would provide radio stations with a digital file or some type. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they still shipped plastic disks via Pony Express. But let’s say for argument’s sake that, in the intervening twenty years since I worked at KCSB, the record companies started sending programming and music directors promotional MP3s. If these recording companies followed the footsteps of the book publishers, their digital offerings would be as follows:

The music director would be instructed to download a proprietary listening application specific for that recording company’s group. I suppose that’s one good thing about only three recording groups—Warner Music, Sony, and BMG—existing today. She would then download a version for each of her devices: i.e, personal computer, work computer, smartphone, and iPod-like music player (they *still* exist). The sound quality would be reduced through downsampling, resembling something like FM radio: serviceable, but certainly not optimal. The music could only be heard with a live Internet connection: go into an elevator, and you’re listening to the elevator music in the elevator. And lastly, as a final insult, the app would not allow you to change the volume.

Done Right

Earlier today, the University of California Press offered an examination copy of Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor, edited by two UCSB scholars: Michael Curtin and Kevin Samson. When I saw that I could download an ebook, I was expecting to see the book in Adobe Digital Editions or something similar crappy. Instead, I saw that I could download an EPUB, a PDF, or a MOBI file. Each of these work with different readers, such as Kindle, iBooks, and many other open source applications.

Download Precarious Creativity

I was further pleased to see the book was not crippled by cumbersome DRM and that it was the entire book for me to examine. Thanks!

epub of Precarious Creativity

This is definitely the way to go, and even if I don’t adopt it, the book will not be abandoned on my desk. And it didn’t cost the publisher anything to send it.

Not All Ebooks are Created Equal

ebrary book

I lost a book that I needed for research, and it’s checked out of my library. They do however offer access through as an electronic book, but it’s through the web based Ebrary service. It’s almost unreadable.

First, the interface requires you to be connected online so you can read it offline. Second, the text is way too small to read at 100%. You basically have to read it at 200% to be able to sustain reading for any particular amount of time. Third, if you try reading it on any screen that’s not at least 1200 pixels high, then you can’t fit the whole page. And if you’re reading a book on an iPad, something that ebrary touts, then you are out of luck because you can’t scroll. It’s just an example of poor HTML coding and failure to adhere to web standards.

I am going to continue the search for my lost paperback or recall it from someone.

Update: You can actually scroll on an iPad. You have to swipe on the contents section on the right of the text. It’s not the most intuitive gesture since you’re use to swiping on the actual content not the side of it.

What to Do with Page Numbers When Our Books No Longer Have Pages?

This was a first for me.

For my History of Cinema III class at Queens College, I assigned the textbook by Winston Wheeler Dixon and Gwendolyn Foster, A Short History of Film (Rutgers University Press, 2008). This is the first time I’ve taught this particular course and the first time I’ve used this book. I selected it for three reasons:

  1. It is used in the other History of Cinema courses in the Media Studies department.
  2. It’s very inexpensive, especially compared to other college textbooks.
  3. There was an ebook version available, and there’s an audiobook.

The ebook is actually for Kindle, which made me a little reluctant. For one thing, there’s the whole proprietary issue and the students will be locked into a single platform, although you can use Kindle on just about every platform save for your television set. But at the same time, the Kindle is not a bad way to read books, and I thought that the early-adopters in my class would find it a valuable use for their e-readers. Rock on!


What I had forgotten to consider is that when most instructors assign readings, myself included, we do so by listing page numbers. That has worked fine on the other electronic book I’ve used, Campbell, Martin, and Fabos’s Media and Culture (Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2010) because the ebook is only readable using a web browser. And the text shows up with virtual page numbers that correspond to the print edition.

Page numbers on true ebook titles are useless. Formerly, the only way a book would get repaginated would be when the publisher printed a new edition. Now, this happens at the whim of the reader. If you resize the type, the page numbers are instantly recalculated. Turn it sideways on an iPad or an iPhone, the page numbers are again completely revised. One student brought this to my attention, and I was caught unprepared for a solution, although I did come up with one.

Thankfully, chapters remain stable in this new reading experience so I devised a workaround using the chapters. The syllabus now contains a decoder that includes the chapter number and the particular headings.

Instead of assigning

Dixon and Foster, 239–264

I now have to assign:

Dixon and Foster, 239–264. Chapter 8: “French New Wave” to “Italian Cinema in the 1960s”

And the student has to hunt for it.


It’s not the biggest pain, I guess, but there has to be a better way. We could use in-text anchors or something similar to what certain research databases used when reproducing full-text articles in HTML rather than PDF. But we have to remember that there’s no fewer than three commercial ebook formats (the varying flavors of epub from Apple iBooks, Kindle, and Nook) and because one supports some new coordinate system, it doesn’t mean that the others will support it.

[Insert rant about proprietary media formats.]

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