The eternal textbook and the Episcopal Church

Books / Religion / Web/Tech

I remember the first time I picked up a copy of an anthology of St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings. I was honestly astonished at the intelligence and the insight. It wasn’t so much the discovery that Thomas was an intellect for the ages, it was that his ideas still made me think and reconsider what I thought I had settled even though they were written nearly 800 years ago.

The idea that it would be worth reading an author that old was not something I instinctively understood. I was, at the time, a grad student in physics. Physics is a field that is advancing so quickly that books older than a decade or so are already out of date (unless they’re written at the basic introductory level, and even then…). When I returned to teaching in the first part of this decade, I had to spend the summer getting up to speed on what was now the common wisdom in the field of Astronomy. Not having kept current for 20 years or so meant that much of what I remembered was the consensus understanding wasn’t anymore. The most striking idea was the model for the formation of Luna. Instead of being formed near the orbit of Mercury and then later being captured by the Earth, now the idea was that the Earth had been hit by a Mars sized planetoid and the Earth-Luna system was the result. (That’s now being questioned, but hey, it’s 10 years later.)

Because of that most of the expensive textbooks that we all bought in college and in graduation school are no longer worth nearly what they used to be. Knowledge and research have changed the scholarly thinking. Those $150 books, and tens of thousands of dollars invested in a library have to an extent been wasted. (Not completely of course – some books retain their utility. My Greek grammars for instance. And books that I keep for historical reasons. But even biblical translations seem to have a sell-by date of late.)

So, what if the new e-book revolution, in which we typically buy a license to a book and not the actual data, did something about this.

A piece on Ars-Technica reports on a conversation between Yun Xie and Vikram Savkar and sets up the context thusly:

“The main problem is that textbooks are not research-oriented, nor are they up-to-date. Most are already behind the times by the time you buy them. Of course, the relevance of having an updated textbook is field-dependent. Topics in biochemistry and molecular biology change much more quickly than those in general chemistry. Nevertheless, for many fields, an up-to-date textbook could be a useful tool, both for the professors who have to teach from it and for any students that continue in the field.

Textbooks are also falling behind when it comes to technology, as any interactive content has to be provided via separate media. Thus, it was exciting to see the implementation of what’s being claimed as the “first interactive textbook” called Principles of Biology. Introductory biology courses in the California State University (CSU) system will use Principles of Biology as the primary text for the 2011/2012 academic year. We got in touch with Vikram Savkar, senior vice president and publishing director at Nature Publishing Group (NPG), to get the details on how students can benefit from interactive, digital textbooks.”

From here.

The basic idea is that if you buy a text, you actually buy a lifetime license to that includes all the updates and new editions. It means that your text books will always be current and will always reflect the latest scholarly consensus in the field.

I’ve seen a bit of this already in the religious books categories. I own a large library of text that are accessed either via the Accordance engine or the Logos engine. Both have their advantages, but most importantly, both generally offer free updates. And some publishers are beginning to see the advantage. I recently bought a license to the Hermenia series of commentaries published Augsburg/Fortress. There are print editions, but mostly they are a companion to the e-book editions. The commentaries start with the idea of not having to be bound to a certain number of pages or volumes. It allows the authors and editors to go into great detail, albeit occasionally excruciating detail on a verse or a particular phrase. But it’s all there. And a 30 Mb file weighs as much as a 4 Mb file. Which means I can carry all this detail around much more easily than would be practical in a physical edition.

There’s a new series being published by Logos itself that is specifically viewed as an e-book only. Which means that updates, etc. will all be included in the purchase. And new information, photos, papers, etc. will all be included too. That work is just getting underway but it reflects the sort of thinking found in the conversation linked above.

And then there’s the Open-Source textbook series. (Check out this source for instance.) Between this and the free courses that schools like M.I.T. and Yale are posting online, pretty soon any interested person will be able to freely access any course they’re interested in studying tuition free.

Anyone know of any religious bodies following suit?

Is anyone thinking about how the Episcopal Church might get going along these lines? The BCP is DRM free right? That’s true for pretty much everything except the Hymnal I think. What about books being published by Church Publishing? No one is making much money on them as far as I hear, and Church Publishing has been losing money. What if we thought through embracing the free-open-text model and changed the business model by which we do our denominational publishing? Eternal texts, freely updated.

Sort of a “give the music away and sell the t-shirt” model that people expect is coming in the Music industry. It will look different for us of course, but the underlying idea is the same; rethinking a business model for publishing in an era when the act of publishing is nearly free.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Marina McIsaac says

    Great idea, Nicholas. I’m sure it would increase readership. Easy access, portable and affordable!

  2. Jonathan says

    Alternatively, they could look to partner with parishes to raise the money for new e-books. The big question is cost, though. Any idea how much it costs to do the layout, typesetting, and publishing work to produce a new e-book or revise an old one? And what does it cost to print and bind liturgical books in bulk?

  3. Paul Martin says

    Editorial costs of producing the book won’t change, whether it is electronic or paper. The editorial costs are also fixed, and they will serve both media with minimal adaptation. The only cost you loose is printing, binding and shipping. I don’t know what the cost structure is in this case, but it seems to me you would have to save some money. The real financial obstacle is the cost of the reader. That is falling, but it’s going to be a while before you can take ownership of the device for granted. I suspect the transition will be gradual.

    When I read your post, it reminded me of a couple of mission churches I have visited which didn’t have a building yet. They were forced to either lug piles of books in from their cars or project the service with an overhead projector. One thing a building does is enable our addiction to piles of books. Or perhaps the books enable our addiction to buildings that house them. Put it all on a Kindle (or equivalent) and it begins to enable other kinds of services. You can wrap up an EFM session with Compline on a whim (even if you are away from the church building) because the (electronic) text is on the same device as the (electronic) BCP. This may open up some more flexible uses for our worship resources.

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