How do I negotiate with my publisher?
November 26, 2012 5:42 PM   Subscribe

My stats notes are getting too long to distribute using the university printers. A publisher wants to turn them into a printed book, but I want to keep control of the electronic distribution of my work. How should I approach this situation?


For the last few years I've been teaching an "intro stats for social science" style class using R as the software, and going into a lot more detail on foundational topics (e.g., probability theory, Bayesian vs frequentist inference, etc) than is typical for such classes. It's a tricky teaching exercise to get right, since very few undergrad social science students come to the class with the right kind of training, and I've been using my own lecture notes to make sure that the class runs properly. Until now, I've been distributing the notes both as a pdf, and as a course reader that is produced by the University printers. However, my notes have reached about 500 pages in length, and are getting a little too big to be practical to distribute as a course reader.

One suggestions I've been encouraged to pursue is to publish the notes as a book. This is a little problematic, since the notes aren't good enough yet (in my opinion) to warrant a "proper" book. Nevetheless, I've been talking to a publisher, and what they've suggested is that I go through their "custom publication" department, which more or less means that they take the pdf I send them and publish that, with very little additional work done by them. Because they do so little work, they can justify very small print runs.


This sounds great, but the problem is that the publisher wants to obtain the copyright before printing the notes. The terms of their standard contract are a little worrying. If they own copyright, my understanding is that I only retain those rights that are expressly included in the contract. And there appear to be no terms in the contract that say anything about electronic distribution rights. For instance, I want to be able to post pdfs on my webpage for the students to download. After all, one of the big advantages to using R as the software is that it's free. I'd like to make an electronic version of the book freely available. Similarly, there doesn't seem to be anything in there that allows me to switch publishers if I want to do so later on, once the notes are actually good enough to warrant a "proper" book. As far as I can see, any future versions would count as derivative works, and I don't see that the contract currently gives me a lot of freedom in that area.


(1) What exactly should I be asking for before I sign any agreement? Broadly speaking, what I want is to (a) retain electronic distribution rights over the work (including, potentially, the right to sell the electronic version), and (b) not get locked into this publisher if I ever want a real book.

(2) Have you had any experiences along these lines? What did you wish you'd asked about?

(3) Should I obtain legal advice before I sign, and if so, from whom? I feel a bit annoyed that I should have to do this: the book isn't really intended to be sold for profit yet, but the very fact that I have to bring in a publisher seems to require me to obtain (possibly expensive) legal advice. And if do go looking for legal advice, how would I find someone appropriate? In theory I could talk to the University lawyers, but if I've learned anything from previous experience, it's that the University lawyers can't be trusted: *I'm* not their client, and I have no reason to believe they will give advice in my interests.

(4) Earlier distribution of the notes online was not on the open web: it was via the University intranet. Should I post my version of the notes to the open web before I sign anything? It's kind of tempting to do so, and it would make me feel better, but I worry that will just complicate any contract that I sign.

(5) Can you think of an alternative way to resolve this situation?

Additional information, in case it is relevant

- The publishing contract will be under Australian law.
- The author royalty in their contract is 15% of publisher net (previously I've not taken any money for the notes)
- The publisher would likely charge $70 or so for the book; the (poorer quality) notes I've been distributing are about $30.
- The notes have an R package associated with them, released under the GPL. The copyright statement that I wrote for the notes makes clear that the book and the package should be treated as distinct works, so that the GPL distribution rights for the package don't get entangled with the copyright issues associated with the book.
- I've been pretty draconian with copyright so far. The copyright notice on the earlier versions of the book was pretty explicit in forbidding any redistribution by my students or the creation of any derivative works. I may relax this later.
- The sales people I've spoken to seem pretty okay with me keeping control over electronic copies, which is encouraging, but that's not the same thing as getting the lawyers to agree.
posted by mixing to Education (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You don't need a lawyer, you need an agent. Or a lawyer, I guess. But this is what agents are for.
posted by Justinian at 5:53 PM on November 26, 2012

Best answer: Maybe I'm missing something, but is there a reason not to simply distribute them as 2 course readers, divided into half, if the only problem with that method is that they're too long/thick for the printing/binding process? I got two spiral bound books of readings for some of my gen-ed classes, and while two half size books is probably slightly more costly than one full size book, it shouldn't be more than twice the price, which is the price bump that this publisher would entail.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:54 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agents in the US and Canada almost never deal with textbooks. My understanding is that agents play a less central role in Australia than they do in the US, so what you need is a lawyer who's experienced in representing authors in creating publishing contracts.

This link may be helpful as a starting place.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:12 PM on November 26, 2012

I would also suggest clearing the whole deal with the university IP office first, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:13 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about approaching Springer Verlag about their Use R! series? They don't yet have an R for Social Scientists title, it seems. You may have overlap issues with the intro material, I guess. But I know a couple of the authors in that series and they've not spoken badly of the process.
posted by cromagnon at 6:24 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you and/or your university bookstore can probably handle the distribution, it seems like what you really want is a printer, not necessary a publisher. Here's an example, albeit not in Australia.
posted by parudox at 6:28 PM on November 26, 2012

Best answer: You could publish your notes in book form, but bypass the publisher and use a service like Createspace or Lulu.

This would allow you to use whatever copyrights you want, as well as setting whatever price you like (above the cost of publishing, of course). You can also ensure that the book is no longer available (new, at least) at whatever time you wish to end publication of a particular edition.

You would need to make sure that your university is fine with you publishing your own textbook (they might have rules on how much you would be able to profit from this arrangement, for instance), but since they are fine with what you have been doing so far, this is likely to be acceptable.

If you haven't created a book from Pdfs before, I suggest getting someone to work with you on the initial publication. Once you have gone through the process, it is fairly straightforward to do on your own in the future.
posted by 1367 at 6:33 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

For a variety of reasons, this is a bad deal one step up from vanity presses. Is there some reason you can't self-publish with print on demand and your own digital edition?
posted by DarlingBri at 7:00 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Agreeing with Sidhedevil. My employer - a major Aus university - expressly asserts ownership of "teaching material", which includes lecture notes. You may not actually be able to publish your notes without getting a release from the IP office.
posted by gingerest at 7:16 PM on November 26, 2012

Two mathematicians who have copies of books they've written available on their website are Allen Hatcher and Richard Stanley. It might be worth writing to them and asking what they did. There's also a Creative Commons licensed calculus book out there (I want to say it's called Whitman Calculus, or is at least written at Whitman College) where it's possible to obtain a printed copy. They might also be people to write to.
posted by hoyland at 7:22 PM on November 26, 2012

Or distribute through the Amazon Kindle store, set the price and whatever the split will be with the university.
posted by it must be bunnies at 7:37 PM on November 26, 2012

in my university town there was a copy shop that would print and bind exactly the type of thing you're talking about. you just gave them your file or ream of print outs and they'd make a bunch of photocopies. then you tell your students to go there and buy it for around $8. the university also had a similar service.
posted by cupcake1337 at 7:47 PM on November 26, 2012

Thirding that every set of lecture notes/PPT slides from courses I've taken (in the US) were always copyrighted by the university, fwiw. Our (grad) school had its own drupal site that allowed for large file downloads, although my stats profs generally distributed course notes by lesson (1-4 lectures), resulting in smaller PDF file sizes. All my stats profs distributed these rough PDF notes for free via the school website behind a user-authentication wall.

While $70 is on the cheap side for a technical text, the price point quoted by your publishers is on par with my last social science stats textbook, which is fully written & indexed. I think you're right to be reluctant.
posted by smirkette at 8:19 PM on November 26, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the great replies: I'm starting to think my reservations about this are well grounded. Every comment so far has been really helpful. Just to expand a little on some of the points people have made:

1. Yes, my university does claim IP over teaching material. I'm pretty sure there won't be any issue in getting clearance to publish. I spoke to them a while back about this, but I really ought to get something in writing from them. In any case, although I didn't mention it, I do have a handle on that end of things (kind of).

2. I like the idea of something like Lulu or Createspace (thanks 1367). Obviously there's no prestige associated with those publications, but I already have a strong track record and don't need any more academic brownie points at this point in my career. Something that minimises the price for students, and allows me to make a modest profit on sales while retaining copyright would actually be fantastic. If anyone has any more ideas along those lines, or experience using services like these, I'd love to hear about them.

3. Worst case scenario, yes, I could try to print two course readers (thanks jacquilynne: I'm embarrassed to admit that I had actually overlooked that possibility). I'm kind of getting sick of working with my university printer. They don't do a great and are awkward.

4. I love the Use R books (thanks cromagnon), but this is outside the scope of that series I think. It's too long and too basic. Those books assume the reader has mastered the Dalgaard book. My aim is to produce students able to handle a text pitched at the Dalgaard difficulty level.
posted by mixing at 9:10 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Publishing is a minefield. Over here in America, a guy put together a website with help from the community, then signed a contract to provide "camera-ready copy" for a book with no digital rights. The publisher (CRC, a curse be upon them) turned right around and claimed ownership of the site.
posted by wnissen at 7:14 AM on November 27, 2012

Does your university have a scholarly communications librarian? This is the person you want to talk to. They can help you become more educated about author rights and open access. You can also educate yourself at SPARC's website. In this case I would definitely suggest continuing to just print the document yourself. If the campus printing service can't handle it, look for a local printer that will.

And before you sign ANY publishing agreement, whether for a book or a journal article, know what rights you want to retain and insist that the contract be modified. SPARC also has a great template for this.
posted by MsMolly at 8:22 AM on November 27, 2012

I would encourage you to publish the pdf (or whatever else you use as source ... LaTeX?...) under a Creative Commons By Attribution Share-Alike Non-Commercial license. The potential impact of your work could possibly be a lot more significant.

Splitting it, as others have suggested, might also be a good idea.
posted by aroberge at 6:52 PM on November 27, 2012

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