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September 1999, Week 2


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Jeremy Butler <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 10 Sep 1999 10:02:57 -0500
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Could PRINT textbooks be distributed electronically--perhaps BYPASSING
conventional print publishers?

I'm interested in opening up a discussion about the potential for and the
problems with distributing textbooks via the Web or other alternative,
computer-based means.  I'd like to see if there's enough interest in the
topic to warrant a workshop at the next SCS conference.

And so, I'm posting the following to a few e-mail groups.  Please excuse
the cross-posting.

In the past few years, we've seen very interesting experiments with
computer-based, distributed-on-CD-ROM textbooks for film/TV studies.  For
my pedagogical purposes, however, a PRINT version of the textbook is
essential (see below for further comments).

My question, however, is:

Must we remain shackled to the current system of large publishing houses
producing/distributing/marketing books at great expense, and taking the
lion's share of the profits?

Could that print textbook be PRODUCED wholly by its author and
DISTRIBUTED/MARKETED through electronic, computer-based means?

The key issues in publishing always constellate around production,
distribution, and marketing.  Within the past year, intriguing new models
for electronic publishing have arisen.  We're at the stage now where
authors can electronically create material that will be printed
elsewhere--either by the reader him/her self, or a local photocopy shop, or
a campus bookstore, or some Web-based entity.

I have been exploring alternative methods for distributing a textbook of
declared out of print by its publisher.  I do plan to seek a new publisher
for a revised edition, but in the interim I'm concerned to see that the
book remains available.

The options I've discovered so far:

1.  Web-based distribution of printable files.

Web-based companies such as and, for instance,
will handle the sale of electronic files, which the author provides
(typically in Adobe's PDF format, though also in Microsoft Word).  The user
downloads files from these companies, which handle all the billing details,
and the author is paid a 50% royalty--which compares quite well to the
10-13% royalties that are typical in textbook publishing.

The reader then has the option of printing the textbook him/her self or
simply reading it on his/her computer screen.

One could, of course, put an HTML version of a textbook on Web site and
readers could print that.  I see two problems with this:  (1) the
pagination of HTML documents varies from one printer to another, making it
difficult to cite them in class; (2) a method of payment for access to Web
files does not exist (to my knowledge) and thus this method is limited to
materials for which one does not want to be compensated (1stBooks and
Fatbrain have found away around this for PDF/Word files).

2.  CD-ROM distribution of printable files.

One could put all of a textbook's PDF files on a single CD-ROM disk and
sell it directly--either through an online company or a traditional catalog.

The advantage to this is that one could also add material like motion video
and sound clips--linking to them from the PDF files.  (This assumes that
you could get around the copyright issues.)

Production of such CD-ROMs has gotten cheap enough that an author could do
it him/her self.  500 disks--with jewel cases and artwork--costs about
$1,500 or $3 per disk.  If one were to sell them for, say, $19.95 one would
only need to sell 75 copies to recoup that investment.

Distribution is more of a problem.'s "Advantage" program allows
authors and small publishers to sell material directly through them, but
currently it does not accept CD-ROMs.  I've contacted them about this and
they say they may accept them in the near future.

Does anyone know of other Web-based options for selling CD-ROMs?

Obviously, there are plenty of online stores that are willing to sell your
material, but all the ones that I've found charge for this service.  If an
author has just one or two books he/she is selling, then paying $100 per
month to an online store just doesn't make sense.

3.  Distribution via custom publishing or "course packet" companies.

Even though Kinko's got out of the course packet business after being
successfully sued, most college bookstores still offer packets of assigned
readings drawn from various sources--incorporating copyright clearances for
them.  Perhaps there is some way for an author to draw on this resource.

E.g., the author could provide PDF files to a campus bookstore or national
"custom publishing" company, which could print/bind/sell books directly to
students.  The author could charge a higher, one-time fee (say, $500) for
the files and permit unlimited duplication, or a percentage of the sales
could be remitted to the author as a royalty.

4.  Distribution through online textbook stores.

Web-based textbook stores such as and are
sprouting like mushrooms these days.  Selling author-produced textbooks
would seem like a natural thing for them.  I've contact them about the
possibility, but haven't heard back yet.

----A few comments on electronic-only textbooks----

Herb Zettl's CD-ROM on TV production was the first I saw that was produced
as an electronic-only textbook.  Since then there's been Robert Kolker's
film-studies project (bundled with FILM ART), and Ellen Seiter's work on
children's TV.  Perhaps there are others?

I've been excited by these efforts, but I must confess that none of them
have made their way into my syllabi.  This is partially a logistical
problem as our computer lab only caught up to multimedia technology last
spring, but it's more a pedagogical one.

I need a textbook that students can bring to a computer-less classroom with
them.  I want to be able to say, "Turn to page 237.  Who can explain what
Bordwell and Thompson mean by 'mise-en-scene'?  Can anyone apply that to
the film we just saw?"

Beyond the question of whether students can stand to read dozens of pages
of on-screen text in preparation for class, text on a monitor just does not
work for me in-class.  I've taught in computer labs for the past four years
and trying to lead a discussion while students stare at computer monitors
is a disaster.

To me, it appears that the best application for computer-based learning is
not in-class, but outside of class where students can use CD-ROMs for
SELF-PACED learning.  Computer-based learning also has terrific potential
for distance-ed applications.

Thus, for my pedagogical style for the foreseeable future, I'll need a
PRINT textbook; but the method by which I obtain that textbook may change.

Jeremy Butler
[log in to unmask]
Telecommunication & Film/University of Alabama/Tuscaloosa

Online resources for film/TV studies may be found at ScreenSite