O’Reilly to Sell Books by the Chapter

A very interesting event on the microcontent front, technology publisher O’Reilly will start selling their books by the chapter in PDF format. From the press release:

Sebastopol, CA–In today’s Web 2.0 driven publishing marketplace, it takes new and creative strategies to get authors and their work noticed by web savvy readers. But even when it is noticed, today’s readers increasingly want content in new and convenient ways that suit their digital lifestyles. Along with traditional print formats, they want content they can read on computers, PDAs, and cell phones. For this reason O’Reilly Media–the pioneering publishing company that coined the term Web 2.0–has recently launched several innovative publishing programs aimed at delivering content in formats the tech generation craves.

Starting this month, O’Reilly Media customers have the option to purchase book content by the chapter in PDF format for $3.99.

Depending on the topic and work in question, this could be seen in both positive and negative light. On one hand, there are some technology books – especially reference works – that I use the same chapters over and over again. To have those chapters in PDF format, and create a personal searchable library would be very productive. On the other side, I can see how Slawyers with ties to learning and education might see microcontent as removing context to longer discourse materials.

The segmentation of digital content into smaller chunks is a definite trend. Anyone care to add some thoughts with a legal publications spin?


  1. Disaggregation of legal texts is a neat thought. Law books probably lend themselves better to this approach than other disciplines precisely because of the law’s extreme specialization. I can see a defence lawyer downloading only those entries in Martin’s Annotated Criminal Code that deal with DUIs, entirely bypassing the sections dealing with murder, aggravated assault and other crimes that her client base hardly ever brings in.

    The larger question this portends is the future of the professional textbook itself. Just as the pop-music album eventually will be replaced by individual track download sales — relieving both artist and listener of the tedium of all those “filler tracks” — I can see massive legal texts being replaced by specialized PDFed chapters that are, in effect, mini-books on very specific subjects. Carswell’s current business model doesn’t support commissioning, editing, selling and printing a 60-page book on, say, defending a securities class action launched by investors outside North America. But a 60-page mini-book that costs almost nothing to produce yet can find a very small and specialized niche market with huge demand? The profit margins on that model look real good. It’ll be “Legal Publishing Meets the Long Tail,” and the results could be both dramatic and a boon for lawyer consumers.

  2. It is interesting, Jordan, I agree. I wonder how Canadian publishers will respond. What say you, people?

    The 99-cent tune has certainly proven profitable. I buy rather too much software that costs $19.99 (as opposed to the $125 application I just decided to forgo).

    I know we all think that cost is nothing to a big law firm but it isn’t the case. Just think about all of the energy spent getting that needed chapter of a book photocopied and sent by a friend or a library in order to avoid buying (and the delay in getting, to be sure) the whole book. And there are a whole lot more small and medium-sized firms whose expenditures are watched much more closely.

  3. But don’t we already have this with the CED (Canadian Encyclopedic Digest) on WestlaweCarswell?

  4. I think the difference, Connie, is that with the O’Reilly books you can purchase one chapter of a book which is then downloaded to your computer/ebook reader/ipod/cellphone/toothbrush. No subscription required.

    Some of the purveyors of electronic content for libraries (ebrary, MyiLibrary, etc.) already offer individual chapters for sale. I suppose this option might be attractive to academic libraries where an instructor assigns a chapter from a book as required reading and the library then puts the ‘e-chapter’ on electronic reserve so that students can access it from wherever they happen to be.

    I don’t think this is particularly a financial issue for publishers beyond the question of pricing. The O’Reilly model basically assumes that all chapters (like all itunes) are created equal (i.e. are worth $3.99). Anyone who has ever been involved in the production of books knows that this is nonsense. But even here a solution could probably be found. Different chapter prices could be set within individual books and across publishers’ lists.

    I think the bigger issue is one alluded to above and that is context. Those who create books– authors, editors, designers– take great care to organize their material in specific ways. Early chapters provide context for later chapters. There are cross references across chapters. I could go on but the point is that books, perhaps unlike record albums, do not have ‘filler tracks’. They are meant to be cohesive wholes which are more than the sum of their parts.

    Finally, the electronic disaggregation of books, I would argue, imposes further limits on the serendipitous nature of research in favour of efficiency. While one might be have access specific information on a particular subject, there may be a gem of an idea lying unseen in another chapter. As many others have observed, browsing through a book, like browsing the library stacks or bookstore shelves often produces invaluable, if unintended, results.

  5. Okay, yes, I see the differences. Thank you for explaining the differences, Jeff. Now, wouldn’t that *be* a fantastic sales model for the CED, since the chapters in many ways stand alone?

  6. Jeff’s point is a good one. Writers’ moral rights might even stop publishers from peddling broken bits.I was thinking more of the market for short monographs that would be consciously self-sufficient. It might help writers, too: “a book” is a plunge into a large venture that might not always be the best way to manage research.

  7. I think you’re on to something Simon. Authors sometimes send us ‘book’ proposals that might have, 25 years ago, been considered as very long journal articles or, 100 years ago, as ‘pamphlets’. Often these are very techincal and would be of interest only to a small highly specialized market. These could be offered either in some sort of ebook format or in print form (properly bound and with an ISBN, etc.) via print on demand. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get the costs of print on demand in line with conventional offset printing.

  8. Sell them online, Jeff, and pass the cost of printing on to the buyer who wants paper. Your added value would be the marketing, of course, but also the production of a good-looking (hperlinked) electronic document.

  9. The contracts that publishers impose on their authors could deal with the authors’ moral rights if a book were published in bits. Jeff makes the far more important point that books cannot be written—or I certainly could not write a book—in “disaggretable” chunks. Chapters are parts of what I think of as whole and it would give people a very odd impression of the completeness of my work if they could only see one chapter, regardless of how complete that chapter may be from one point of view. There is, as Jeff says, a huge value in the serendipitous exploration of a wider range of stuff and this value would be lost if the range were restricted. The general belief of students, many lawyers and even some judges that they can go immediately to the computer to find what they want is responsible for many of the inadequate research, arguments and reasons for judgment we encounter.

  10. I don’t imagine that there’s much dissent here: a written book is intended by its author to be read as a whole and not cannibalized or otherwise cut up. That said (and meant), let me make some points for the devil’s party which I think are valid.

    At the broadest level a book may be used however the owner pro tem wishes: as a doorstop, disaggregated into signatures for easy reading on the privy, or, more to the point, dipped into but once on an abstruse point… And the author’s fond hope that the owner will read the book at all, let alone read it entire, is understandable, proper — and fond. Once the book is launched the author has no control. Thank goodness.

    The fact of the matter is that lawyers use books as research tools much of the time. They read a chapter or even a pair of pages that the TOC or index points them to, and glean what is needed in the moment. I don’t say this is admirable, simply that it is done, and, I suspect, very very commonly done. (It would be interesting, I think, to do a proper survey of lawyers to find out whether and what legal books they actually read cover to cover.)

    These points don’t rebut John’s, of course. He’s right that this sort of raiding party approach to (good) books is poor reading practice. And, too, he’s right that books written as conjoined chunks are unappealing. But the fact that it’s wise of a reader to read it all, or that it makes a good heuristic for book writing to imagine such a wise reader, shouldn’t be confused with how readers really behave, especially legal readers in a hurry. Nor should it put the kibosh on the writing and selling of monographs that are shorter than book-length, or, I’d say, the editing of some chapters of some books into such monographs.

  11. Simon F wrote:

    >> “… a written book is intended by its author to be read as a whole and not cannibalized or otherwise cut up.”

    Well, yes, but if one assumes the core of one’s readers at least know something about the subject, then chapters and sub-chapters may well be sufficiently stand-alone.

    >> “It would be interesting, I think, to do a proper survey of lawyers to find out whether and what legal books they actually read cover to cover.”

    I think you’d have to divide the survey into at least 4 classes of respondent.

    1. Academics
    2. Practitioners (lawyers and judges)
    3. Book reviewers
    4. Friends who you have co-opted as target guinea pigs.

    Here’s one reason why.

    Those of us who have written texts (as opposed to extended monographs), put your hand up if you ever read your text as published, from front to back? I won’t be raising my hand. I, of course, read everything any number of times, but never starting at the beginning and reading through to the end in continuous, even if broken, fashion.

    Even now, even on my shorter pieces (I have written one or two), my last read-through on the proofs is a check for (ahem) literary quality, not content.