Book musings (was: Re: [plt-scheme] EOPL pre-requisites?)

From: Shriram Krishnamurthi (sk at
Date: Wed Jun 20 11:48:56 EDT 2007

Thanks for the kind words, Matt.

> While some may say it is a dangerous/gutsy move for one reason or
> another, my suspicion is it will become more and more commonplace
> over the next 5-10 years.

It is considered a slightly dangerous move for now.  Many academics,
who ought to know better, are still stuck in a mindset of trusting
status markers (such as a publishing house imprint) rather than their
own judgment.  So there is a way in which it currently hurts me.

But I do believe that publications of this form will be considered
acceptable in, say, 5 years, at which point publishers will suddenly
"get it" ("it" being the points I try to make in "Books as Software").
Then it would seem we won't need to be making the distinction we're
making today -- though my guess is there will be some other new
technology the won't get, and we'll be back to where we are now.

I can't tell whether it is paradoxical or appropriate that the most
distinguished presses seem least hooked up with innovations.
Paradoxical because they ought to have the smartest people;
appropriate because they have the least to gain from what may come to
be seen as a gimmick.

Anyway, none of this change is going to come about unless real authors
aren't willing to dive into the deep end with real books.  Wouldn't it
be cool to have a crisp, bound copy of Felleisen and Flatt's
monograph?  Or of the Scheme workshop proceedings?  (Publication
proceses should be designed not by pilling feature on top of feature,
but by removing but by removing the weaknesses and restrictions that
 make additional features appear necessary.)

> (Actually, I suppose HtDP helped pave the way in some respects. Either
> way, kudos all around.)

Books like HtDP also scared some publishers, who felt that on-line
versions were killing in-paper sales.

In the early days of looking into publishing PLAI I tried to argue
that these comparisons were hard to make.  On the one hand, sure, it
*did* hurt to have it free on-line.  On the other hand, some of the
people using the free version (such as some poor US schools, or
educators and other people in poor countries) were unlikely to ever
buy an expensive hard-bound copy.  So many of those hits would never
have translated into sales anyway.  In addition, I'm sure at least
some sales were generated by people being able to *really* preview
what they were getting before making a non-trivial purchase.

Ultimately, I decided that this was an argument not worth pursuing.
The simple reason is we don't have real data; it's just opinion
against opinion, bias against bias.  But the deeper reason is that
authors and publishers sometimes have different goals.  Publishers
primarily want to sell books; their metrics are, for the most part,
based on sales.  In contrast, I'm only interested in sales if it's
going to let me quit my day job.  Since all I get is the proverbial
nice dinner, that's the wrong optimization criterion; rather, I want
uptake (different from, and sometimes hurt by the attempt to have,
sales) and influence.  Eg, it's kinda cool to have prose from PLAI
cited on various blog sites; providing the book in a copy-and-paste
format helped that, and the lack of it hurts the competition.


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